civil society

 

  • Indian Government should withdraw criminal charges against NGO ‘Lawyers Collective’ and its representatives

    Signatories India Letter

    26 June 2019,

    Bangkok/Colombo/Dublin/Geneva/Johannesburg/London/New Delhi/New York/Paris

    We, the undersigned, strongly condemn the filing of criminal charges against Indian NGO ‘Lawyers Collective’, its Senior Advocate Anand Grover, and other representatives. Criminal charges were filed by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) on June 13, 2019, relying on an investigation report of January 2016 of the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA). The MHA report has been challenged by Lawyers Collective in January 2017 and the case is under consideration by the High Court of Bombay.

    Lawyers Collective is a human rights organisation based in New Delhi with its registered office in Mumbai and was founded by noted Indian human rights defenders and lawyers Ms Indira Jaising and Mr Anand Grover. Ms Jaising and Mr Grover are senior advocates with an exceptional profile of public service, probity and personal and professional integrity as lawyers and as human rights defenders. Ms Jaising was an Additional Solicitor General of India between 2009 and 2014, and was also a member of the UN Committee on Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) between 2009 and 2012. Mr Grover held the mandate of UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health between 2008 and 2014. Ms Jaising and Mr Grover, through Lawyers Collective, have advocated for advancing the rights of the most vulnerable and marginalised sections of Indian society, thereby upholding constitutional values as enshrined in the Indian Constitution.

    Lawyers Collective’s registration under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act, 2010 (FCRA) was first suspended on May 31, 2016, and its bank accounts frozen. The FCRA license was not renewed on October 28, 2016, and was cancelled on November 27, 2016. Lawyers Collective petitioned the High Court of Bombay to challenge the FCRA cancellation and non-renewal in January 2017 and March 2017, respectively. In January 2017, its domestic accounts were unfrozen. Lawyers Collective’s challenge to the FCRA cancellation and non-renewal are currently pending before the High Court.

    Filing of criminal charges while the matter is under consideration by the High Court is a blatant misuse of its agencies by the Indian Government to target critical human rights work undertaken by Lawyers Collective and its representatives, often involving sensitive cases against Indian ministers and senior officials of the ruling political party.

    On May 15, 2019, the MHA wrote to CBI for ‘further investigation as per law’ into the matter relating to Lawyers Collective. On June 13, 2019, the CBI solely relying on the impugned MHA report registered a First Information Report under the Indian Penal Code (IPC) relating to charges of criminal conspiracy, criminal breach of trust, cheating, false statement made in declaration and various sections under the FCRA and Prevention of Corruption (PC) Act 1988. Given that there has been no change in circumstances since 2016 and also no material or evidential basis to support the provisions invoked under the IPC and PC Act, the filing of criminal charges is a blatant act of reprisal against Lawyers Collective and its representatives.

    Such actions by the Indian Government are contrary to its pledge at the UN Human Rights Council and its obligations and commitments under several international human rights treaties and declarations. The FCRA has been time and again criticised by human rights defenders and NGOs within and outside India for its regressive and unfair interference in the functioning of organisations. Indian human rights defenders have condemned the use of FCRA and the accusations of “foreign funding” to quash dissent and smear individuals and groups.

    In his analysis of the FCRA in 2016, former UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Assembly and Association Maina Kiai concluded that certain provisions of FCRA were not in conformity with international human rights law and noted that “access to resources, including foreign funding, is a fundamental part of the right to freedom of association under international law, standards, and principles, and more particularly part of forming an association”.In June 2016 Kiai joined the UN Special Rapporteurs on Freedom of Expression and on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders calling on the Government of India to repeal the regressive FCRA, which was being used to “silence organisations involved in advocating civil, political, economic, social, environmental or cultural priorities, which may differ from those backed by the Government.[1],”

    We strongly call upon the Indian Government to cease misusing the country’s laws, including the FCRA, against human rights defenders. In the specific case of Lawyers Collective, we urge the criminal charges be immediately withdrawn pending the decision of the High Court of Bombay. We appeal to the National Human Rights Commission of India to take cognizance of this matter and take immediate actions under the Protection of Human Rights Act 1993 (PHRA) and to undertake a legal review of the FCRA under Section 12 (d) of the PHRA.

    We further call upon the Indian Government to put an end to all acts of harassment, including at the judicial level, against Lawyers Collective and Mr Anand Grover, as well as against all human rights defenders in India and ensure that they are able to carry out their activities without hindrance.

    Signatory organizations:

    Amnesty International

    CIVICUS

    Forum Asia

    Front Line Defenders

    Human Rights Defenders Alert

    Human Rights Watch

    International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), in the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders

    International Service for Human Rights (ISHR)

    South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR)

    World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), in the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders

     

    [1]https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=20112&LangID=E

     

  • IRAN: A new generation of civic-minded, courageous activists is rising

    Sohrab Razzaghi IranFollowing a year that was characterised by a continued crackdown on fundamental freedoms in Iran, CIVICUS speaks to Sohrab Razzaghi, Executive Director of the Volunteer Activists Institute (VA) a not-for-profit, non-partisan, independent civil society organisation (CSO) based in The Netherlands, whose primary aims are building capacity among activists and CSOs, facilitating information exchange among civil society activists, community peace-building and advocating for the expansion of democracy and human rights in Iran and more generally in the Middle East. VA is the successor of a pioneer Iranian CSO, the Iranian Civil Society, Training and Research Centre, founded in 2001 and based in Tehran until 2007. After fleeing Iran, Sohrab now lives in exile.

    Volunteer Activists recently published a comprehensive new study on civil society in Iran. What were its main findings?

    Our latest report, ‘Civil society in Iran and its future prospects’, which came out in September 2018, analyses the major developments that have taken place since the last previous comprehensive study of Iranian civil society was published in 2010.

    Not only does civil society in Iran currently face problems and challenges different from those of the past, but a whole new generation of Iranian activists has also become engaged, and they have fundamental differences with previous generations. As a result of a lack of understanding of such new phenomena, experts, policy-makers, donors and other stakeholders have not been able to understand and assess the situation accurately. The Volunteers Activist Institute (VA) took it upon itself fill this gap by undertaking a study that seeks to describe and explain major trends, challenges, opportunities and prospects of Iranian civil society, including the current situation of Iranian CSOs, their position within Iranian society and the challenges and restrictions they face.

    Among our main findings is the acknowledgment that Iranian civil society has various facets and faces, and is far from coherent and homogeneous. It comprises both traditionally structured and modern associations, including charities and CSOs focusing on health and hygiene. This branch of civil society has a long history and an extensive social base. CSOs working in these areas usually adapt to government policies and programmes. The government also favours them and encourages their expansion and development. In addition, the Iranian government uses some CSOs that focus on service delivery to advance its policies while it marginalises independent and advocacy CSOs.

    A significant recent development in Iranian civil society has been the emergence of a new generation of civil society activists in fields such as women’s and young people’s rights, community solidarity and the environment. Although their numbers are not large, this new generation has taken upon itself to expand civil society and challenge government policies on the matters they care about. They have launched a number of creative civic initiatives, both online and offline, such as I am Lake Urmia, which mobilised huge efforts to raise awareness of environmental degradation and push for action to prevent northwest Iran’s Lake Urmia from completely drying out. Another initiative, Wall of Kindness, created wall spaces across neighbourhoods where citizens could hang unneeded clothes to be taken by those in need. The Campaign to Change the Masculine Face of Parliament called attention to the scarcity of women legislators and urged for more women to be elected to parliament.

    And then there are the Girls of Enghelab Street, a series of more spontaneous women’s protests against the compulsory use of hijab. These protests were inspired by a woman who in late December 2017 stood on a box in Enghelab (‘revolution’) Street, tied her hijab to a stick and waved it at the crowd as a flag. She was arrested and remained in custody for about a month, but other women later re-enacted her gesture of defiance and started posting their photos on social media, so the protest movement grew from the ground up.

    Civic courage and audacity are two significant characteristics of this new generation of activists who have successfully torn into the power myths of the past. Social protest, including union and labour rights protests, has steadily increased in recent years, and particularly since the inauguration of President Hassan Rouhani in 2013. Their cumulative effect is changing the landscape of Iranian civil society.

     What major changes is civil society currently experiencing in Iran?

    After President Rouhani’s inauguration, Iranian socio-political dynamics gradually started to change. Some marginalised social groups have experienced a limited and controlled comeback, and an atmosphere of societal hope started to take shape. Small openings have appeared through which a discourse on democracy, civil society and civic rights is beginning to make itself heard, although in areas that are deemed sensitive, such as women’s, labour and minority rights, the situation is still very tense and closed.

    These very minor changes have nonetheless created an atmosphere of hope, and civil society is cautiously coming back onto the social stage. But as in the 1990s, the civil society development model is still top-down, as the driving forces behind civil society are governmental agencies that view civil society as a useful tool rather than a force for social change.

    Independent civic action has increased around some issues, including the environment, youth issues and social inequalities. Organised civic action is also in the process of replacing the small, closed-group and underground activism of the period when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was President from 2005 to 2013, and recent years have seen the rise of CSOs and networks throughout the country. Some associations and networks, notably environmental ones, that had been blocked during the previous period are now regenerating and regaining force. On the other hand, the social movements that were suppressed following the controversial 2009 election, including women’s rights, student and labour movements, are still being obstructed.

    What is the current state of the freedom of expression?

    While the Constitution of Iran recognises the freedom of speech, several laws list a number of restrictions. The most important laws restricting the freedom of speech are the Islamic Penal Code and the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Press Law. Articles 498, 499 and 500 of the Islamic Penal Code, among others, subordinate the freedoms of speech and association to security considerations. Article 500 of the Penal Code considers any activity that is deemed detrimental to the Islamic Republic or benefits any other group or organisation as a national security offence. Articles 498 and 499 establish that any gathering of more than two people inside the country or overseas, under any name, with the aim of disrupting Iran’s national security, or attendance at such a gathering, constitute national security offences.

    The Islamic Republic of Iran’s Press Law also introduces many restrictions on the freedom of speech. In order to be able to publish newspapers, magazines or any other publication in either print or digital form, individuals and organisations first need to acquire a licence, which is issued by a supervisory board led by the Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance. According to Article 9 of the Press Law, anyone who wishes to apply for such a licence must pledge allegiance to the Constitution of Iran. Chapter 4, article 6 of the Press Law introduces restrictions on the freedom of speech in the press, specifying areas that are disruptive to the foundation of Islam as well as to general and private rights. According to this article, the press cannot spread news of depravity, corruption, or contents contrary to public virtues. The restrictions far exceed these, however, as they include insult and defamation, falsehoods and rumours. Nevertheless, the law does not define any of these categories. The most problematic category is that of rumours, which applies to any lead that journalists normally follow to get to the core of the truth. Article 6, paragraph 6 also bans the publication of news on confidential issues, which go well beyond military documents to include unlicensed coverage of closed-door sessions of parliament or the courts and judicial investigations. Paragraph 1 of this article also clearly states that the publication and dissemination of so-called pagan news 0 that is, news that goes against Islamic criteria - or news that harms the foundation of the Islamic Republic is not allowed.

    All these bans restrict civil society activists in their quest for transparency and accountability in society and politics, because they are unable to voice the concerns of their stakeholders.

    What is the relationship between Iranian and regional and international civil society and human rights actors?

    Iranian activists and CSOs have been banned from joining regional and international civil society networks for decades, and therefore they have been unable to form strong coalitions and participate fully in exchanges of knowledge, experience and support. There are currently only 25 Iranian CSOs with consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), and most of them are quasi-governmental entities pursuing government policies rather than advancing citizens’ concerns.

    Legal restrictions and the dominant security environment prevent Iranian activists and CSOs from joining regional and international civil society networks. The Iranian government and its security apparatus are extremely sensitive towards any attempts by activists to connect with global networks and punish them with charges that go as far as espionage.

    Frail regional and international connections have also resulted from, and in turn intensified, activists’ lack of familiarity with regional and international frameworks and limited language and networking skills.

    As a result, representatives of independent civil society from inside Iran rarely attend regional and international conferences or voice civic opinions. The only CSOs that are allowed to attend gatherings such as the sessions of the United Nations Human Rights Council, the conferences of the International Labour Organization and the annual summit of the Commission on the Status of Women are quasi-governmental or government-sponsored non-governmental organisations (GONGOs) and those that are connected to the Iranian government’s security apparatus, which operate to promote government policies.

    In contrast, civil society activists, including teachers and factory workers who have tried to connect with regional and international networks, have faced severe penalties for doing so, including long-term imprisonment. Over recent months, eight environmental activists have been arrested and charged with espionage and security offences.

    It is worth noting that it is not just reaching out internationally that is penalised - the security apparatus also criminalises networking among Iranian CSOs inside the country and uses its power to either prohibit such networks from forming or weaken and neutralise existing ones.

    What needs to change for civic space to improve in Iran, and what should global civil society do to help?

    Global civil society should urge the government to establish a simple and transparent procedure for the establishment and operation of CSOs in Iran, and not to interfere in the lawful operation of CSOs.

    We need to find ways to include and engage independent Iranian civil society, as opposed to quasi-governmental civil society, with existing global networks. The initiative on this should be taken by the international civil society community. Two very helpful measures in this regard would be the provision of updated information and knowledge to Iranian activists, and the design and implementation of capacity-building and accelerator projects addressing the specific needs and shortcomings of Iranian civil society.

    Civic space in Iran is rated as ‘closed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor

    Get in touch with Volunteer Activists Institute through its website or Facebook page, or follow @sva_nl on Twitter

     

  • Irom Sharmila

    Irom Sharmila

    Name: Irom Sharmila  

    Location: India

    Reason Behind Bars:

    Irom has been on a hunger strike since 2000 to highlight persistent human rights abuses committed by Indian security forces under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act of 1958 (AFSPA). Under Section 4 (A) of the law, security forces involved in counter-insurgency operations in “disturbed areas” are given the authority to arrest, detain and even use lethal force against persons suspected of being a threat to “public order.”  Of critical concern is section 6(A) of the law which prohibits courts from holding security officials accountable for their human rights abuses without prior government approval. The law is regularly invoked to forcefully suppress public demonstrations, particularly in insurgency affected areas, including the states of Jammu and Kashmir and Manipur. Justice Jeevan Reddy Committee, a committee founded in 2004 by the government of India to review AFSPA, recommended that the law should be amended as it institutionalizes abuse, repression and discrimination.

    On 2 November 2000, members of the Assam Rifles, one of India’s oldest paramilitary forces, allegedly shot and killed 10 people at a bus stop in Imphal Valley, Manipur. However, despite accusations that the shooting constituted extrajudicial executions the Indian authorities refused to investigate the incident, concluding that it was within the mandate of AFSPA.   In protest of the government’s failure to investigate the incident, Irom decided to indefinitely prolong her traditional Thursday fasts, which she has been carrying out since childhood, to demand the repeal of AFSPA. 

    On 5 November 2000, Irom was arrested by the Indian police under  Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code which criminalizes attempts to commit suicide. Section 309 prescribes 1 year in prison to “whoever attempts to commit suicide and does any act towards the commission of such offence”. Every year since 2000, Irom has been re- arrested  and charged under the law  and forced fed in detention.

    On 20 August 2014, the District and Sessions Judge of Imphal East released Irom stating that refusing food and water doesn’t constitute attempted suicide. However, despite the court ruling, on 22 August 2014, Irom was forcefully re-arrested by the Superintendent of Police (SP) of Imphal East and taken to  Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Medical Sciences (JNIMS) to be force fed through her nose.  Directly preceding her arrest, Irom was staging a peaceful hunger strike a kilometre away from a government hospital where she has been  imprisoned for the past year.  The government’s relentless judicial persecution of Irom is based solely on her independent activism and represents a severe breach of her basic civil rights. Irom must be immediately and unconditionally released.

    For more information:
    Frontline Defenders: Human rights defender Ms Irom Chanu Sharmila re-arrested
    Save Sharmila Solidarity Campaign
    Three days after her release, anti-AFSPA activist Irom Sharmila re-arrested from protest site

    Take action:
    Send a letter to President Pranab Mukherjee and the Prime Minister Narendra Modi
    Write to Indian authorities and Indian diplomatic missions around the world demanding Irom’s release

     

  • ISRAEL: There is a lack of political will to end the occupation

     

    Twitter: Amit Gilutz

    After a tough year for dissent in the occupied Palestinian territories, CIVICUS speaks to Amit Gilutz, spokesperson of B’Tselem – The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories. Founded in 1989, B’Tselem (which means ‘in the image of’, pointing to the universal moral edict to respect and uphold the human rights of all people) strives to end Israel’s occupation, which it sees as the only way to achieve a future in which human rights, democracy, liberty and equality are ensured to all people, Palestinian and Israeli alike, who inhabit the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. It does so by documenting and publicising acts of injustice, violence and human rights violations in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza Strip, and by challenging the legitimacy of the occupation regime both in Israel and internationally.

    How would you describe the environment for civil society in Israel over the past year? Has it worsened or improved?

    The recent Israeli governments - each more extremely right-wing than its predecessor - have for years engaged in a campaign aimed at silencing criticism of their policies in general and specifically stifling any debate about the occupation. Not only are human rights organisations such as B’Tselem targeted: anyone critical of the government, whether they be journalists, academics, or artists, easily becomes the target for incitement through smear campaigns and legislation designed to narrow the space available for political or even cultural action. At the same time the government is engaged in intensive international lobbying aimed at cutting funding for civil society organisations (CSOs). This process, widely referred to as ‘shrinking democratic space’, is the predictable consequence of the prolonged occupation itself, now in its 51st year. It is paralleled with another push to erase the occupation, namely the formal annexation of the territories, which the current government seems to be keener on than previous ones.

    What effects have the turn towards right-wing populism abroad, and particularly in the USA, Israel’s most powerful ally, had in Israel?

    Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has been joining forces with other reactionary and populist governments around the world, aiming to create new alliances that would diminish the ability of the international community to act effectively against the occupation. These alliances, together with the green light Israel sees coming from Washington, including through a series of unilateral measures the US administration has taken against Palestinians, has emboldened the pro-settlement camp in Israel, as well as the government to step up its efforts in the dynamic process of gradually taking over more and more Palestinian land and resources, while pushing Palestinians onto enclaves that are detached from one another and from resources needed for a sustainable future.

    A case in point is the plan to forcibly remove the Palestinian community of Khan al-Ahmar, which is a war crime under international law. For decades Israel has created a coercive environment for dozens of Palestinian communities in the West Bank, hoping they will give up and leave, as if by their own volition, while stopping short of directly loading them onto trucks and dumping them elsewhere. These are the kinds of images that would damage the PR efforts of a state that purports to be a democracy, while at the same time controlling millions of subjects with no political rights. In the current political climate, Israel seems to be nearing a point in which this consideration will no longer stop it, although the planned forcible transfer of Khan al-Ahmar’s residents is for now on hold, thanks to international pressure.

    How significant was the Knesset’s decision to pass the contentious nation-state bill into law, declaring Israel as “the national home of the Jewish people”?

    Although significant, none of the laws passed recently should be seen in isolation because it is their totality that matters. Their combined purpose is to mark any opposition to the occupation as illegitimate, as lying beyond the border of acceptable politics, and to further marginalise the Palestinian citizens of Israel. That said, the opposition to the nation-state bill has been quite exceptional, and one can only hope that this opposition can be sustained.

    How do you work in the occupied territories, and what challenges do you face in doing so?

    B’Tselem field researchers are Palestinians who work in the communities in which they live, all across the Occupied Territories. The reality of the occupation is something that they experience on both the personal, as well as the professional, level. Take for example the B’Tselem field researchers based in blockaded Gaza: together with two million Palestinians they live under this reality. On a personal level, it’s part of their lives. On a professional level, the fact that they never get a permit from Israeli authorities to leave the Gaza Strip means that it’s almost impossible for them to meet with colleagues from the B’Tselem team. A permit to exit the strip would also mean some relief from the inhumane conditions that the blockade Israel imposes on Gaza has created. In the occupied West Bank, our field researchers and volunteers have been arrested, strip-searched and harassed, have had their equipment confiscated and otherwise prevented from doing their work.

    On the other side, in Israel proper, life of course is much more ‘normal’ – as exposed as our team is to the ongoing hate speech and government incitement. Specifically, Hagai El-Ad, B’Tselem’s Executive Director, has once again recently been a target of incitement. In October 2018, when he appeared for the second time in front of the United Nations (UN) Security Council, Israel’s Envoy to the UN, Danny Dannon, boasted in English about Israeli democracy, while addressing Hagai in Hebrew and accusing him of being a traitor.

    What extra help, including from international civil society, does progressive civil society in Israel need to help create a future in which Israelis and Palestinians can coexist and enjoy equal human rights?

    We need civilians around the world to demand that their representatives do nothing short of decisive action in order to bring an end to the occupation. What we lack is not political solutions but political will, and meanwhile an unbearable toll is taken on Palestinians.

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

    Get in touch with B’Tselem through theirwebsite orFacebook page, or follow@btselem and@amit_gilutz on Twitter

     

  • ITALY: ‘The Sardines movement is all about building self-confidence in the progressive side of politics’

    CIVICUS speaks to Andrea Garreffa, one of the founders of the Sardines movement (Movimento delle Sardine), a grassroots political movement that began in November 2019 in Bologna, Italy, in protest against the hateful rhetoric of right-wing populist leader Matteo Salvini.

    Andrea Garreffa

    What inspired you to begin this movement?

    Regional elections were scheduled for 26 January 2020 in Emilia-Romagna, our home region – and when I say our, I refer to me and the other co-founders of the movement, Mattia Santori, Roberto Morotti and Giulia Trappoloni. On that moment there was a big wave towards the far right, represented by the League party and its leader, Matteo Salvini. There were very scary signs about the general political situation in Italy, one of which was the lack of respect shown to Holocaust survivor Liliana Segre, who was deported to Auschwitz and was the only survivor in her family. From the 1990s she started to speak to the public about her experience and in 2018 she was named senator for life. Segre received so many insults and threats on social media that in November 2019 she was assigned police protection. The situation was very scary; I am not ashamed to admit that I would often cry when I read the newspaper reporting such episodes.

    How was the first Sardines demonstration organised?

    As the election approached, my friends and I started thinking of a way to speak up and warn the League that the game was not over yet. We wanted to make this extremely clear, both to the far-right parties and to all citizens looking for a stimulus to empowerment. The League party had just won in Umbria and was announcing itself as the winner in Emilia-Romagna as well; they counted on this victory to destabilise the coalition government and return to power. We wanted to do something to stop that narrative. We started to think about this on 6 or 7 November 2019, just a week before Matteo Salvini, along with Lucia Borgonzoni, the League’s candidate to lead the regional government, kicked off their campaign with a rally at Bologna’s sports arena. We had in mind that the last time Salvini had come to Bologna he said that Piazza Maggiore, the main town square, could host up to 100,000 people, in an attempt to claim that was the number of people who attended his rally – something that is physically impossible, as only up to 30,000 very tightly packed people could actually fit into the square. In a way, we also wanted to draw attention to the information on the news and make sure he wouldn’t be able to cheat.

    In short, our idea was to organise a flash mob-style demonstration on Bologna’s Piazza Maggiore, on the same day as Salvini’s rally, and we named it ‘6,000 sardines against Salvini’ because our aim was to gather around 6,000 people and our tactic was to show we were many – so we used the image of crowds of people squeezed together like sardines in a shoal. In the few days we had to organise it, we set the main narrative and prepared some templates that could be customised so each person was free to express themselves and be creative. Ours was a message that anybody could understand, and the actions required were something that anybody could do. We wanted to get rid of all the negative feelings linked to existing political parties, so the initiative was inclusive from the very beginning. It wasn’t linked to any party but rather open to anybody who shared its core values of anti-fascism and anti-racism.

    We sent out an invitation, not just through Facebook, which of course we did, but more importantly, we went out to the streets to distribute flyers and talk to people, so people could understand that the event was real and it was actually going to happen. It was surprising that just two days after we had launched the Facebook campaign, we were handing out flyers and people would say that they already knew about the event. Word of mouth worked incredibly well; in my opinion, this reflected a very strong need among people to do something to ensure Matteo Salvini did not win in Bologna and in Emilia-Romagna. People understood and felt the importance of this election. During the summer Salvini had destabilised the national government by ‘showing off’ in Milano Marittima, claiming pieni poteri – ‘full powers’, an expression used by Mussolini back in the day. Citizens could not stand the risk of such a poor show taking place again and really felt the call to action when the far-right propaganda started spreading messages such as ‘Liberiamo l’Emilia-Romagna’ (Let’s free Emilia-Romagna), as if people had forgotten their history lessons: the region had no need to be freed because that had already happened, at the end of the Second World War. People felt disrespected in their intelligence, and we stood up to make that visible and tangible. People are less stupid than what people in power tend to think.

    How did you know people would come?

    We had no clue. On the night of 14 November we found ourselves surrounded by this incredible crowd – the media reported there were 15,000 people – and we couldn’t quite believe it.

    We had expected a number of people to attend; we started to believe in the success of the initiative when we saw that from day one we were achieving every goal we set for ourselves. For example, we set up the Facebook page with the initial goal of reaching a thousand people, and the next day we were already more than three or four thousand. That was mostly for two reasons: firstly timing, as people were ready for an initiative like this, and secondly, the fact that we live in Bologna, so we know a lot of people and could easily spread the message.

    But on 14 November nobody knew what was going to happen. We told people there would be a surprise and managed to keep it secret until everybody had gathered, and at 8:30 pm we played a song by Lucio Dalla, Com'è profondo il mare, which translates as ‘how deep is the sea’. In one part of the song, the lyrics say that we are many, and we all descend from fish, and you cannot stop fish because you cannot block the ocean, you cannot fence it. This built up a lot of emotion, and people even cried because it was very powerful and could not believe it was happening for real. Older people felt young again, living emotions they thought lost forever in the 1970s. Young kids had the opportunity to participate in a massive and joyful party, which made them question the fact that politics is all boring and unemotional. I think the whole wave that came afterwards was born that first night. It built up from that initial emotion. We were not 6,000 but many more, and we sent out the message that the game was far from over and Salvini could not yet claim victory. This was key: whatever sport you play, if you enter the field thinking you are going to lose, you’ll lose. This was the general mood among left-wing parties and progressive citizens. We did what we could to make ‘our team’ believe in itself and its chances of victory. We may say that the Sardines movement is all about building self-confidence in the progressive side of politics.

    Who organised all the demonstrations that followed?

    The emotion of the first demonstration spread thanks to an impressive picture taken from the municipality building, which shows a red minivan surrounded by thousands of people. The picture spread all over the internet and social media. It helped focus a lot of attention on the regional election. All the international media was there so we offered them the image and that was the start of everything. The picture reflected the fact that something big was going on, so when people from other cities and even from other countries started trying to contact us, we set up an email address so anybody could reach out to us.

    We shared our experience and explained to anyone who contacted us how we set everything up in just six days: how we requested the permits for the gathering and for playing the music, how we took care of people, those things. We then organised all the information to share with whoever wanted to do something similar somewhere else. We also registered the name of the initiative, not because we wanted to own it, but to prevent its misuse and protect its underlying values. We spent hours and days on the phone with people from all around Emilia-Romagna, and then from other regions, until the movement was so big that we were able to announce a massive demonstration to be held in Rome in December.

    For the Rome event we didn’t even have to do much, because there were people in Rome organising the demonstration by themselves, and we were invited to attend as guest speakers. That was actually a strength, because this wasn’t people from Bologna organising an event for Rome, but people from Rome organising themselves, mobilising their friends and neighbours and inviting people to join.

    Right before the elections, on 19 January, we organised a big concert in Bologna, aimed at encouraging electoral participation. We didn’t want to pressure people to vote for this or that party, but rather encourage participation. Indifference had prevailed in the previous regional elections, and only 37 per cent of potential voters made use of their right. The higher turnout we achieved this time around, when 69 per cent of people voted, was by itself a victory of democracy.

    You mentioned that the movement spread both nationally and internationally. Did it also establish connections with other justice movements around the world?

    The movement reached an international scale in the very beginning, thanks to Italians living abroad who were reading the news, understood what was going on and got in touch with us. We reached out to people in dozens of major cities in countries around the world, including Australia, The Netherlands and the USA.

    That was the first step towards reaching international scale, and also the reason why the four of us were then invited to participate in the Forum on European Culture, held in Amsterdam in September 2020. We attended the festival and had the opportunity to meet representatives from Extinction Rebellion in the UK, the French Yellow Vests, Million Moments for Democracy, a protest organisation in the Czech Republic, Hong Kong’s Demosisto and Black Queer & Trans Resistance, an LGBTQI+ organisation in The Netherlands. We connected with other realities and learned about other movements. We started talking and dreaming about an event to bring together a wide variety of protest movements in the coming months or years, after the COVID-19 pandemic is over. We are now open and curious to find out what others are doing, but we remain independent. We do our thing, they do their own, and we collaborate when we get the chance.

    The 6000 Sardine Facebook page displays various expressions of solidarity with movements such as the pro-democracy movement in Belarus, #EndSARS in Nigeria and Black Lives Matter in the USA. Do you organise in solidarity with them?

    What we have done is get in touch with those movements, if possible, and let them know that we are going to send out a communication of solidarity, but that’s about it. We are busy enough trying to set up an organisation of our own to invest energy in trying to follow and understand what others are doing to build their own.

    We also have a common agreement that the movement is not the Facebook page, but a lot more. To us, Facebook is a communication channel and a useful way to spread messages, but it’s not the core of the movement. Sometimes it functions rather as a billboard where people share and exchange things, and not everything there is the result of a joint, organisation-level decision. To be honest, sometimes I open our Facebook page and I do not necessarily agree with everything that I see there. And this happens because of delegation of tasks and openness to participation.

    What are the goals of the movement now, and how have they evolved?

    We have given this a lot of thought because it all started as a spontaneous thing that was specifically related to the elections but then continued to grow. So we felt responsible for handling all this energy. We did our best to spread the right messages while not feeding illusion. We are still the same people we were last year, regardless of the experiences we went through, but we were not prepared for all of this. Day after day we learned how to deal with the attention, the media and everything that came with it. We focused on the need to set goals and a vision.

    We were at it when then the COVID-19 pandemic struck. On one hand it was very negative for us, as we couldn’t keep mobilising, but on the other hand it turned out to be a strange kind of positive, because it forced us to slow down. We took advantage of the lockdown to do the only thing that we could do: sit down and think. We managed to put together our manifesto, which was the result of multiple debates within our inner circle.

    The manifesto was a milestone, and our next steps were to try and make each of its articles visible and tangible in real life, which is what we are focusing on now. Following the metaphor of the sea, after the high tide came the low tide, which is more manageable, and we are trying to nurture the movement so it grows from the roots, more slowly but less chaotic and unstable. We try to be a point of reference to anyone who is looking for progressive ideas, without being a party but pointing out the direction.

    I would like to stress the fact that we started this movement with the idea that we should not point fingers at politicians or parties but ask ourselves what we are doing to bring into the world the change that we want. This means we don’t exclude approaches focused on little things such as taking care of your own neighbourhood. We include this kind of approach as well as more ambitious ones such us setting up the direction for progressive left-wing parties. We consider both approaches to be valid.

    We don’t exclude any discourse that converges with ours and upholds our core values. For instance, right now there is a lot of talk about how progressive the Pope is, so we are inviting people to talk about that, not because we are a religious movement but to spread the kind of positive messaging that is currently quite difficult to find in the political arena.

    A few months ago, we organised our first School of Politics, Justice and Peace. We held it in a small town, Supino, because it better fitted the model of local self-organisation that we want to promote. We invited people who are involved in the political arena to interact with activists in their 20s. The idea was to merge those worlds to create the kind of communication that social media platforms lack. We want to create opportunities for progressive people to meet with others and talk, not necessarily to find the solution to a specific problem but to make sure that there is a connection between people with decision-making power and people who are interested in participating and changing things, but don’t really know how.

    How did you keep the movement alive while in COVID-19 lockdown?

    We invited people all over Italy to focus on the local level because it was the only thing they could do. And we set the example to be credible to others. Many people in Bologna put their energy at the service of others, for instance by going grocery shopping for those who couldn’t leave their homes and getting involved in countless local initiatives, movements and associations. We encouraged this, because it was never our goal to replace existing organisations, but rather to revitalise activism and involvement in public affairs.

    But we did ask people to stay in touch, so we would have calls and organise specific events. For example, for 25 April, Liberation Day, we launched an initiative in which we shared clips from movies showing resistance to fascism and Nazism during the Second World War and invited people to project them out of their windows and onto neighbouring buildings, and film the event. We collected the recordings and put them together into a video that we disseminated on social media. Our core message was that we could all be present even if we could not physically get out. 

    In early May we also organised a symbolic flash mob in Bologna’s Piazza Maggiore: instead of people we lined up around 6,000 plants, which we went on to sell online. Our volunteers delivered them by bike, and all the funds we collected went to the local municipality, which had committed to invest the full amount, matched one to one with their own funds, to support cultural events over the summer. Before delivering the plants, we staged an artistic performance on the square; then we moved the plants around to draw the shape of a bicycle on the floor. As a result of this initiative, we not only marked our presence in a public space but also channelled about €60,000 (approx. US$69,800) towards cultural events. Later on, people from all over Italy either replicated the initiative or told us they were interested in doing so; however, some couldn’t because it involved some complex logistics.

    And then one day the municipality told us that they had some unused plots of land that could potentially be turned into garden blocks and offered them to us. We organised volunteers who wanted to work on them so now these have become garden blocks in which vegetables are grown. People who invest their time and effort to work in these gardens keep half the produce for themselves and give the other half to communal kitchens that help people who cannot afford to buy food.

    Even under lockdown, we thought of Bologna as a lab where we could implement and test our ideas and encourage other people to do the same, by either replicating our initiatives or trying something different to see what happens. If you try things that are potentially replicable and easy for others to implement, and many people follow through, then you can achieve change on a considerable scale.

    Civic space in Italy is rated as ‘narrowed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with the Sardines movement through itswebsite orFacebook page.

     

     

  • Joint statement calling on Saudi Arabia to improve its human rights record

    ARABIC

    42nd Session of the UN Human Rights Council

    The Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) and the Free Saudi WHRDs Coalition* praise the significant joint statement which was delivered  by Australia on behalf of a cross-regional group States expressing their concern over the persecution and intimidation of activists, including women human rights defenders, as well as in relation to reports of torture, extrajudicial killing, enforced disappearances, unfair trials, arbitrary detention and impunity. It calls on the Saudi government to end impunity, including for the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, accept visits by UN experts, end the death penalty and ratify international human rights treaties.  

    During the same debate, the sister of woman human rights defender Loujain Al-Hathloul, Lina Al-Hathloul called on the UN Human Rights Council to help her hold those who tortured her sister accountable, and secure her immediate and unconditional release.  

    Since March 2019, the Council has increased its scrutiny of Saudi Arabia, when Iceland delivered the first ever joint statement on the country. In June 2019, the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial and summary executions Dr. Agnes Callamard presented to the Council her investigation which found the State of Saudi Arabia responsible for the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Turkey in October 2018. The UN expert urged States to act immediately to ensure accountability for Khashoggi’s murder and guarantee non-repetition. 

    “In less than a year this is the second joint statement delivered during the HRC, regarding Saudi Arabia human rights violations. Beyond its content, the statement sends a strong message to the authorities that torturing and intimidating Women Human Rights Defednders is unacceptable and can’t be whitewashed with the progressive enhancements in the country; and that impunity is no longer an option. Saudi Arabia should be reminded that the gravity of the state’s systematic actions has irreversible consequences on the victims and their families, and that accountability, justice and reparations are among its international obligations” Said Weaam Youssef, GCHR Women Human Rights Defenders Programme Manager.

    GCHR as part of the Coalition of Free Saudi Women Human Rights Defenders has been advocating for the immediate and unconditional release of Saudi women’s rights activists who have been detained since mid-May 2018. Some of them have been tortured and sexually harassed; but no one was held accountable.

    “Saudi Arabia, as a member of the Council, should listen to its peers and immediately and unconditionally release all the women’s rights activists, drop all charges against them and guarantee that they can continue their activism without any fear or threat of reprisals”, demanded the Coalition.

    The statement has set out a list of measures that Saudi Arabia should take to demonstrate its political will to engage in good faith with the Council and improve its human rights record. They include:

    • Ending the persecution and intimidation of activists, journalists, dissents and their family members;
    • An end to impunity for torture and extrajudicial killings, including establish the truth and accountability for the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi;
    • End its use of the death penalty;
    • Accept visits by relevant UN Special Procedures;
    • Ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

    Read the joint statement here and watch Lina Al-Hathloul's statement here

    The States who signed on the joint statement are: Belgium, Canada, Croatia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Monaco, Montenegro, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Peru, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sweden, The United Kingdom.

    *The Free Saudi WHRDs Coalition is: Women’s March Global, the Gulf Centre for Human Rights, CIVICUS, Equality Now, MENA Women Human Rights Defenders Coalition and Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain and ISHR

     

  • Joint Statement: Grave concern over recent raids on Ugandan civil society groups

    We, the undersigned civil society organisations (CSOs), strongly condemn the Ugandan authorities’ flagrant and repeated attempts to suppress the peaceful and legitimate activities of civil society organisations in Uganda through the recent unwarranted raids on the offices of four independent CSOs. We urge the Government of Uganda to end its campaign to silence independent civil society groups and publicly recognise the indispensable role that civil society plays in promoting and protecting fundamental human rights.

    In the last two weeks, the Ugandan Police and Security Services have raided and searched the offices and documentation of four prominent organisations, including ActionAid Uganda, Great Lakes Institute for Strategic Studies, Solidarity Uganda and the UHURU Institute.

    Initially on 20 September 2017, nearly two dozen police and state security officials cordoned off and entered the ActionAid Uganda offices in Kansanga, Kampala. Police served a warrant alleging that ActionAid is involved in unnamed illicit activities. Upwards of 25 staff members were held in the office for several hours, while police interrogated staff, searched the premises and confiscated organisational laptops, phones and documents. On the same day, the offices of the Great Lakes Institute for Strategic Studies were raided and police prevented staff from leaving the premises.  On 21 September, the police raided the offices of Solidarity Uganda in Lira and detained a member of staff. 

    Most recently, on 2 October 2017, police raided the offices of the UHURU Institute. During the raid, they cordoned off the premises and confiscated computers and phones belonging to staff of the Institute. 

    The explicit reason for the raids has not been disclosed, and we remain deeply concerned that they are part of a wider crackdown to silence a civil society campaign which opposed a parliamentary proposal to remove presidential age limits. The organisations targeted in recent raids supported civil society in expressing concerns over the removal of age limits for the presidency and have called for the constitution to be respected. 

    The authorities’ attempts to suppress the work of Ugandan civil society through harassment and intimidation represent a clear violation of fundamental civic rights and casts severe doubt over the Government’s commitment to supporting civil society. As allies and supporters of Uganda human rights we urge the authorities to immediately end its campaign to persecute CSOs in the country and their staff. 

    • ARTICLE 19 – Eastern Africa
    • Afro Leadership – Cameroon
    • Brainforest Gabon
    • Campaign for Good Governance – Sierra Leone
    • CIVICUS
    • Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation, Malawi
    • DefendDefenders (East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project)
    • Dynamique OSCAF Gabon
    • Frontline Defenders
    • Greenpeace Africa
    • Human Rights Institute of South Africa (HURISA)
    • The International Civil Society Centre
    • JOINT - League of NGOs in Mozambique
    • KEPA – Finland
    • Mauritius Council for Social Services
    • Nigerian Network of NGOs
    • Orhionmwon Youth Forum Nigeria
    • Réseau Ouest Africain des Défenseurs des Droits Humain
    • Solidarity Center
    • Zambian Council for Social Development

    David Kode

    Advocacy and Campaigns Lead, CIVICUS,

    Tel: + 27 (0)11 833 5959.

     

    Grant Clark

    CIVICUS Media Advisor

     

  • Kenya: Civil Society Condemns Attempted Raid and Deregistration of Human Rights Organisations

    NAIROBI – Leading global and regional civil society groups have strongly condemned the targeting of two Kenyan national human rights organisations by the authorities.

    The National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders – Kenya (NCHRD-K), DefendDefenders (the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project), global civil society alliance, CIVICUS and Civil Rights Defenders condemn the de-registration of the NGOs and an attempted raid on the offices of one of them.

    On 16 August, in the wake of general elections, the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA), accompanied by Kenyan police officers, attempted to gain entry to the offices of the African Centre for Global Governance (AfriCOG) without notice and with a defective search warrant. The attempted raid came two days after AfriCOG, together with the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC), was served with a notice of deregistration by the NGO Coordination Board.

    The Board has accused the organisations of operating “illegal bank accounts”, employing expatriates without the necessary permits and tax evasion, among other offences. KHRC denies the allegations.

    The attempted raid was eventually prevented by instructions from Acting Interior Cabinet Secretary, Fred Matiangi, who called for the formulation of an inclusive and representative committee to work with the NGO Coordination Board to ascertain the compliance of the two organisations with NGO regulations. Secretary Mitiangi’s instructions suspended any actions against AfriCOG and KHRC for a period of 90 days to enable the committee carry out its functions.

    The accusations in question had already been adjudicated before the high Court of Kenya in 2015 (KHRC vs. NGO Coordination Board 495 of 2015) when the KHRC was first deregistered by the Board. On April 2016, Justice Louise Onguto entered that the adverse actions taken to deregister KHRC and freeze its bank accounts is unconstitutional, null, and void.

    Said Kamau Ngugi, Executive Director of the National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders – Kenya: “The persistent harassment of civil society organisations at the hands of Fazul Mahamed, the Executive Director of the NGO Coordination Board, is unacceptable. CSOs should be able to take part in public affairs and hold government to account without fear of reprisal.”

    Further, in a letter dated 15 August 2017, the NGO Coordination Board wrote to the Directorate of Criminal Investigations to order it to close down the operations of AfriCOG and arrest its members and directors for contravening section 22 (1) of the NGO Coordination Act, which requires any person operating an NGO to be registered under the same Act. It further called on the Central Bank to freeze the accounts of the organisation.

    Civil society is free to select under which regime to register an association and AfriCOG is registered under the Companies Act as a company limited by guarantee. Therefore, the NGO Coordination Board has no mandate over the operations of the institution. Furthermore, such direction is in contravention of Article 47 of the Constitution of Kenya that provides for fair administrative action and contravenes the fundamental right to freedom of association protected by Article 36 of the Constitution of Kenya as well as under international treaties to which Kenya is a State Party.

    The move against the two organisations comes a week after the 8 August national elections, which were contested by the opposition. Throughout the electoral process, KHRC and AfriCOG have been vocal in their demand for transparency and have acted as monitors of the elections. KHRC Executive Director George Kegoro told Capital FM news in an interview that moves to deregister his organisation aimed to prevent it from issuing a legal petition challenging the recent election results in the Supreme Court.

    The undersigned organisations hereby call on the NGO Coordination Board to:

    1. Desist from harassing civil society organisations and immediately lift any restrictions on the activities of KHRC and AfriCOG until they are given the right to due process;
    2. Respect Article 47 of the Constitution of Kenya, which provides for the right to “administrative action that is expeditious, efficient, lawful, reasonable and procedurally fair.”
    3. Publicly acknowledge the important role played by civil society in promoting rule of law and accountability; and ensure an enabling environment in which human rights defenders and civil society can operate free from hindrance and insecurity.

    CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation

    Civil Rights Defenders

    DefendDefenders (the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project)

    National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders – Kenya

     

    For more information contact:

    Kamau Ngugi

    Executive Director, National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders-Kenya

    Telephone: +254 712 632 390

     

     

     

  • LEBANON: ‘Increased popular awareness is irreversible, it will remain despite any setbacks’

    CIVICUS speaks with Ziad Abdel Samad, Executive Director of the Arab NGO Network for Development (ANND), and Zahra Bazzi, ANND ProgrammesManager, about the protests that began in Lebanon in October 2019, the changes achieved and the challenges encountered.ANND is a regional network that brings together nine national networks (encompassing 250 organisations) and 23 civil society organisations (CSOs) in 12 countries. It was established in 1997 and since 2000 has had its headquarters in Beirut, Lebanon. It promotes the role of civil society and the values of democracy, human rights and sustainable development in the region, and advocates for socio-economic reforms aimed at sustainable development and gender justice, with a rights-based approach.

    Ziad Abdel Samad Zahra Bazzi

    What triggered the protests that began in October 2019?

    The protests were motivated by the direct repercussions of the economic and monetary crisis on the Lebanese population, but had deep roots in a structurally flawed economic system and wicked political practices and corruption embraced by successive governments for decades. The few months before the eruption of the revolution saw a looming economic crisis with an increase in government debt and questionable monetary and financial engineering coupled with a decrease in GDP growth, as well as a rise in unemployment, reaching approximately 16 per cent among the general population, and more than 45 per cent among young people, along with growing poverty and increases in the prices of essential commodities. One week before the protests, direct signs of a financial crisis had started to show, including strikes at petrol stations and the inability of the government to access new credit to import wheat and other basic goods, in addition to the eruption of roughly 100 nationwide wildfires and forest fires that destroyed massive green areas and some houses.

    Following the late adoption of the 2019 budget in July, the negotiations over the 2020 budget were being finalised in October with a clear aim of increasing state revenue at any cost and reducing the enormous deficit of 11 per cent to escape the crisis. The cabinet meeting held on 17 October suggested a new set of austerity measures, including additional indirect taxation, without envisioning the anger of the Lebanese people and the massive protests that would spread through the country that same day.

    Protesters have shared a clear vision with clear demands of the political and economic systems they want to achieve: the resignation of the government – which happened on 29 October 2019; the formation of a new government comprising people independent from the ruling parties – indeed a new government was formed on 22 January 2020, although it does it not conform to the key demands of the revolution; and the holding of democratic parliamentary elections based on a new democratic electoral law. In addition, there were demands to pass laws on the independence of the judiciary, take action to recover assets and other socio-economic demands.

    How did the government react to the protests?

    Since the first days of the uprisings, political parties and various elements of the regime felt threatened by the imminent change protesters were calling for, which would jeopardise the power they have held for decades. They reacted to this by using excessive force, teargas, rubber bullets, arbitrary detention and arrests, especially after December 2019.

    Since the beginning of the protests, several human rights violations were committed against protesters. On 23 November, five young people – including two minors – were arrested and detained by the security forces for taking down a banner belonging to a political party. On the same day, supporters of the Amal and Hezbollah movements violently clashed with peaceful protesters in Beirut and other regions to denounce the closure of roads. Violence increased, a fact that was firmly condemned by United Nations’ experts and special rapporteurs, who called on the Lebanese government to respect the right to the freedom of expression and protect protesters.

    The postponement of parliamentary consultations from 9 to 16 December, and then again to 19 December, was accompanied by increasing violence and clashes among protesters, supporters of political leaders and the security forces and army. The most violent clashes were recorded between 10 and 16 December: on 10 December, protesters toured in their cars outside the houses of the previous ministers of public works and transportation, denouncing the poor infrastructure that had caused enormous floods on main roads and highways, locking citizens for hours in their cars. Protesters were attacked ferociously by men in uniforms of the Internal Security Forces, but who were affiliated with some political parties. Cars were vandalised, and protesters and journalists were dragged out and beaten indiscriminately.

    On the nights of 14 and 15 December, security forces clashed with supporters of political parties who provoked and attacked them in different ways. Security forces also arbitrarily attacked protesters gathered in Beirut, and fired teargas and rubber bullets at them, in retaliation against the acts of some. These two days of violence ended with the arrest of 23 people, some of whom showed signs of torture after their release. More than 76 protesters reported experiencing some form of attack, either by security officials or as a result of the rubber bullets fired against them. More severely, a few reported being dragged inside the parliament building and beaten by the security forces inside. A few reported the theft of money, legal documentation, or phones.

    Violence continued until the night of 16 December, with supporters of political parties attacking the people gathered in squares in Beirut and in the south, and burning down tents and cars. This came in response to a video, probably intentionally spread on social media, of a young man from Tripoli cursing the Shia faith.

    Clashes between protesters and security forces and riot police were especially intense during the attacks protesters made against banks, and during protests and attempts to remove the massive walls and blocks unlawfully put in front of parliament, and more recently in front of the Government Palace.

    Following the arbitrary arrest of protesters, on 15 January 2020 hundreds gathered outside the detention facility to call for their release, and were subjected to excessive force by the riot police, including the indiscriminate firing of teargas. Journalists and TV reporters were directly attacked by riot police. Footage was leaked showing the security forces beating detainees while transporting them to a detention facility. Some released detainees shared stories of torture and abuse inside detention facilities.

    Recent statistics released by the Lawyers’ Committee to Defend Protesters in Lebanon show that between 17 October 2019 and 31 January 2020, around 906 protesters were arrested and detained, including 49 minors and 17 women. Roughly 546 protesters were subjected to violence at the protests or in detention facilities.

    When and how did the protests become a ‘revolution’?

    The protests are widespread across the country. They are decentralised and remain non-sectarian. As Lebanese people overcame their religious and political divergences and joined forces in an attempt to achieve real change, they made the biggest post-war civil movement in Lebanon. This change had been long-awaited, particularly by civil society, which has tried to promote partnerships and engage in policy-making at various levels for years, despite the lack of serious and effective channels for doing so. Although the term ‘revolution’ has been contested by many, protesters and activists, among others, have insisted on calling the process a revolution, particularly after the increased violence and the death of two martyrs, Hussein Al-Attar and Alaa Abou Fakher.

    Although key demands have not changed since the beginning of the protests, more demands were added as the process evolved, especially relating to the socio-economic and financial situation. More importantly, demands started off and remained socio-economic, but were always directly linked to political change.

    What role have CSOs played during the process?

    CSOs have played an important role in the revolution, which has benefited from their accumulated knowledge, communication skills and organisational capacities. Most of those organisations participated in the protests since day one, but their role went beyond protesting. CSOs are leading in coordinating the protests and organising daily discussions at various squares in Beirut and other regions. These meetings address politics, law, socio-economic policies and human rights. They address people’s concerns and ensure the availability of solutions and alternatives. Participation in discussions has steadily increased and has involved a variety of sectors of society, including young people, women, the private sector, academics, and students. However, protest camps have faced challenges following the destruction and burning of their tents in Beirut and across other areas.

    It seems that women and young people are playing increasingly prominent roles in protest movements worldwide. Has this been the case in Lebanon?

    While women in Lebanon have been at the forefront of every important political moment in our country, they have been particularly active during the revolution. Slogans and demands related to women’s rights have been very clear and evident, including the right to pass their citizenship to their families, a civil personal status law and protection from violence, Women have organised in groups, or participated individually, to form human shields at the forefront of protests to prevent violence, lead the marches and host discussions on women’s issues.

    Feminist and women’s marches were held outside Beirut, in north and south Lebanon particularly. These were bold actions that were not very common prior to the revolution. Feminists were also able to engage critically with the slogans of the revolution and to place their discourse on the table. They were able to draw attention to many patriarchal connotations in slogans, even in the national anthem. In addition to being active alongside men, and sometimes alone, closing roads and occupying squares and public facilities, women cooked meals and offered them to protesters and sitters to support them, and initiated cleaning and recycling campaigns on a regular basis. More importantly, on many occasions, they formed a shield on the front rows between protesters and security forces to minimise the clashes.

    The revolution also witnessed very active participation by young people and youth groups. These formed the backbone of the protests, as for years young people have been eager to take part in decision-making and political life. In Lebanon, people below the age of 21 are not eligible to vote in parliamentary and municipal elections, and yet they found a space in this revolution to participate and make their voices heard. As such, young voices and concerns were loud during the protests. Young people were particularly concerned with unemployment, immigration, and the brain drain and suggested bold demands, including calling for the downfall of the regime and all its political leaders without exception and the establishment of a secular system promoting social justice and gender equality.

    The revolution has been an opportunity to revive the student movement in Lebanon. Despite all the efforts made prior to the revolution to form a nationwide student movement, in the absence of a national student union the student movement was fragmented and weak. However, after 17 October, student clubs in private universities such as the American University of Beirut, Notre-Dame University and Université Saint-Joseph participated heavily in the protests in and off-campus, forming marches from universities to the main protest squares, and even setting up their own tents in downtown Beirut. Other private universities such as the Lebanese American University and the Lebanese International University held protests on and around campus. The Lebanese University (LU), Lebanon’s national university, saw the biggest student protests. The LU Student Coalition was particularly active in the revolution, from setting up a tent for protesters in Riad Al-Solh square, in downtown Beirut, to hosting various discussions, joining efforts with other student clubs and leftist groups.

    Younger school students also had a role in the revolution. Along with university student groups, they took a big part in civil disobedience actions and general strikes. Students closed their schools and universities and protested in front of the Ministry of Education and other public administration offices for many days. As 6 November marked Students’ Day, students all across Lebanon were revolting for a better future. A banner raised by one of the students says it all: “On this day I won’t be learning history, I will be writing it.”

    What have protests achieved so far, and what remains to be done?

    Within 100 days, the revolution has had an impact on the authorities and also at a popular level.

    First, it overthrew the so-called presidential settlement – an agreement among regional and internal forces and other actors – that led Michel Aoun to become president and produced a parliament based on an unconstitutional electoral law. This led to the rise of a new political majority and the formation of a coalition government including seven major political parties. This came at a high price, including the conciliation of regional and local powers, frequent disruption of the work of parliament and government, and very intense pressures especially on the political and security levels.

    Second, it overthrew the government, that is, the executive power. This was the settlement’s weakest component, as the prime minister was the weakest among power holders such as Hezbollah, the Amal Movement, and the Free Patriotic Movement.

    Third, the revolution interrupted two parliamentary sessions and blocked the adoption of equivocal draft laws listed on the agenda. Mobilised citizens had never been able to cancel a parliamentary session before.

    Fourth, it caused disruption within the ruling coalition and among the authorities, as seen in the resignation of the government and the confusion that prevailed in the process of forming a new government, especially when two candidates for the role of prime minister had to be let go for failing to meet the minimum requirements demanded by the revolution, along with other reasons. During this lengthy process, acute differences and contradictions were revealed between allied parties, despite the fact that they belonged to the same block.

    Above all, the revolution has increased popular awareness, which has been reflected in thousands of initiatives and discussions. Decentralised protests have taken place across all cities and villages from the far south to the far north and east, and have included all social and age groups. This diverse and inclusive revolution has contributed to breaking the rigid sectarian and regional political discourse, disrupting traditional loyalties and breaking down barriers between social groups and regions. Some people think that this positive shift cannot be considered complete, but there is indeed a consensus that it is a very important and irreversible change, which will remain despite any setbacks. We must be confident that significant progress has been made regarding popular awareness and the ability of social movements to carry out direct political action in the streets.

    The revolution has achieved certain gains during the first round and is preparing for the next round, in which new laws and policies need to be adopted as soon as possible to overcome the ongoing financial and economic crises and set a base for a new and fairer economic paradigm.

    How connected is Lebanese civil society with its counterparts around the world, and what support does it need from international civil society in order to continue its struggle?

    Lebanese civil society is very rich and diverse, and it is connected to its counterparts around the world through different channels. It is indeed very active on the advocacy front and takes part in numerous international advocacy platforms.

    In these critical times, the country is going through, civil society is avoiding seeking any support from foreign counterparts, in order to refute all conspiracy theories and accusations that politicians and their affiliates have made against protesters and the revolution. In order to lessen all the claims fabricated against our genuine and national revolution, Lebanese civil society is very reluctant to receive any support that could amount to or be interpreted as intervention by any foreign actor. However, it would welcome solidarity actions and statements, especially those that denounce human rights violations committed against protesters.

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

    Get in touch with the Arab NGO Network for Development through itswebsite andFacebook page, or follow@ArabNGONetwork on Twitter.

     

  • Liberia: Time to Act is Now

    "As we discuss, we should not forget that we still have two very important years left to consolidate the gains and accelerate our efforts to achieve the MDGs; in discussing about the future, we cannot forget that the time to act is now and that civil society has a critical role to play", Liberia's Gender and Development Minister has said.


    Madam Julia Duncan Cassell told participants of the third High Level Penal (HLP) post 2015 Development agenda civil society preparatory meeting not to concentrate on the post 2015 development agenda, but should renew energy for greater action in the next two years of the climax of the MDGs.


    According to her, the credibility of the post 2015 agenda depends largely on goals that are still achievable within the present MDGs.

    Read more at allAfrica

     

  • Lu Maw Naing

    Lu Maw Naing

    Name: Lu Maw Naing

    Location: Myanmar 

    Reason Behind Bars:

    On 25 January 2014, Burmese journalist Lu Maw Naing and several of his colleagues at Unity newspaper published the article, “A secret chemical weapons factory of the former generals, Chinese technicians and the commander-in-chief at Pauk Township”. The article exposed a clandestine chemical weapons facility in the Magwe Division and further revealed that former head of the ruling junta, Than Shwe, and current commander-in-chief of the Myanmar Armed Forces, Min Aung Hlaing, visited the facility with a number of Chinese technicians. These claims were substantiated by statements from local residents and factory workers. 

    On January 31st, Lau Maw Naing was arrested without a warrant in Pauk Township, Magway Division. On February 1st, Naing was transferred to the Special Branch Police in Pauk Township where he was held without bail on charges of exposing state secrets.

    From 31 January – 1 February, three other Unity reporters, including Yarzar Oo, Sithu Soe, and Paing Thet Kyaw, and Unity’s CEO, Tint San, were arrested in connection with the article.

    Days later, in an apparent attempt to intimidate members of Unity’s staff and suppress further reporting on the chemical weapons plant, security forces raided Unity’s offices and confiscated copies of the issue.

    On March 17th, Lu Maw Naing and his colleagues were charged at Pakokku District Court with “disclosing State secrets, trespassing on the restricted area of the factory, taking photographs and the act of abetting”.

    On July 10th, all five journalists were sentenced to 10 years in prison and hard labor for violating Article 3 of the 1923 Burma State Secrecy Act. 

    Lu Maw Naing is reportedly in ill-health and has been denied adequate medical treatment. 

    Background information

    On 15 July 2013, on an official visit to the UK, Burmese President Thein Sein Committed to releasing all political prisoners by the end of 2013.  

    However, on a nationally broadcasted speech on 7 July 2014, Thein Sein defended the arrests, stating that, “If media freedoms are used to endanger state security rather than give benefits to the country, I want to announce that effective action will be taken under existing laws.” 

    According to national watchdog group, Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, at least 46 political prisoners, including peaceful protestors, journalists and civil society activists, remain in prison in Myanmar. 

    For More Information 

    Committee to Protect Journalists- Burma takes another step toward repressing its media

    Take Action 

    Amnesty International Urgent Action on Media Workers Imprisoned in Myanmar

    Write to President Thein Sein demanding the release of Imprisoned Journalists 

     

  • Lysa John: “Attacks on civil society mask the failure of governments”

    *Interview with CIVICUS SG, Lysa John. 

    Our ambition is not to stand up (only) for established organisations, "Lysa John emphasizes. “We stand up for everyone's right to speak out and be heard, and for the right to organise with others to stand up for your own ideas or interests.” Gie Goris spoke to Lysa John, secretary -general of CIVICUS, possibly the largest alliance of civil society organisations.

    *Interview is in Dutch

    Read more: MO* Magazine

     

  • Mahienour El-Masry

    Mahienour El-Masry

    Name: Mahienour El-Masry

    Location: Egypt

    Update:

    CIVICUS was informed by a partner in Egypt that on December 27 2015, Mahienour El-Masry second demurrer was rejected by the court.

    Reason Behind Bars: 

    On 21 September 2014, Mahienour El- Masry was provisionally released after the Al Mansheya Misdemeanor Appeals Court suspended her six months prison sentence following an appeal filed by her to the Court of Cassation. On 20 July 2014, the Sidi Gaber Appeal Misdemeanor Court in Alexandria had sentenced Mahienour to six months of prison and a fine of EGP 50,000 (approximately USD 7,200) under Law No 107: Law on the Right to Public Meetings, Processions and Peaceful Demonstrations. Mahienour was found guilty of “participating in an unauthorized protest” and “assaulting police officers”.

    Mahienour’s sentencing is due to a peaceful demonstration she attended to on 2 December 2013 in front of the Alexandria Criminal Court during the fourth hearing of  Khaled Saeed’s murder trial. On 6 June 2010  Khaled Saeed,  the emblematic figure of the 25 January Revolution, was tortured to death by two police officers in Sidi Gaber. The police arrested Mahienour on 12 April 2014 while she was in a clothing store in Mohram Bey District in Alexandria. During her imprisonment, Mahienour was kept in the Damanhour Women prison.

    Mahienour’s arrest is believed to be related to her legitimate human rights work of providing legal assistance to political prisoners and monitoring human rights violations in Egypt.  A member of the Revolutionary Socialist movement and a human rights defender, Mahienour also worked extensively with women’s rights and youth organizations to document atrocities committed by security officers in Egypt.  Mahienour was awarded the prestigious Ludovic Trarieux Human Rights Annual Prize in 2014, an award given to lawyers for their contributions to defending human rights. 

    Background Information:

    Law No 107: Law on the Right to Public Meetings, Processions and Peaceful Demonstrations was adopted on 24 November 2013 and drew widespread criticism from UN experts and civil society organizations for being in breach of international standards. The law gives excessive powers to security forces to arbitrarily ban and disperse peaceful protests while imposing heavy penalties on demonstrators. Since its adoption, Law No 107 has been routinely used to clampdown on peaceful demonstrators and human rights defenders protesting the Egyptian government’s growing intolerance of dissent.

    For more information:

    Egypt:Provisional release of Ms. Mahienour El-Massry

    Amnesty International: Human rights lawyer latest victim of Egypt’s repressive protest law

    Frontline Defenders: Mahienour El-Masry

    Nazra for Feminist Studies: Mahienour El-Massry

    Read Mahienour’s close friend Rasha’s account of her

    Read Mahienour’s letter from jail

    September 2015 Update on Mahienour El-Massry from Fidh

    Take action:

    Send a letter to the Public Prosecutor, and the Egyptian Embassy in your country For a list of Egyptian diplomatic missions abroad please click here
    Solidarity with Mahienour el-Masry and jailed activists
    Resist the Anti- Protest Laws in Egypt

     

  • Malawi makes good reforms on civic space but new NGO Policy sidelines human rights CSOs

    CIVICUS interviews, the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitations’ Fletcher Simwaka about the state of civic space in Malawi and the new NGO policy.  

    1.    What is the state of human rights in Malawi at the moment? 
    There is a great sense of ambivalence on the human rights situation in the country. In some instances, one notices commendable steps government is taking in facilitating citizens’ progressive enjoyment of the various civil and political rights in the country. Remarkably, for instance, the President Professor Peter Mutharika signed the long-awaited Access to Information (ATI) Bill into law. This is a milestone as the law will enable citizens to access key and vital information held by the government. The ATI is an effective tool to entrench a culture of transparency and openness in government operations. In addition to the ATI, a major improvement on civic space is that the government is now relaxing its former restrictive stance on freedom of assembly. Concerned citizens and human rights activists are now able to conduct peaceful protests government without any undue legal hindrances. 

    On the other hand, however, the government has demonstrated vestiges of intolerance towards key human rights and freedoms, especially against critical human rights defenders and  civil society. The current administration is resorting to a divide-and-rule tactic so as to weaken and isolate civil society in the country. The government does so by appointing some of the vocal human rights defenders into government positions. Moreover, government has taken a leading role in influencing elections of civil society leaders in civil society networks and platforms by supporting their stooges. Most unfortunately, government is resorting to the selective application of justice aimed at shielding ruling party loyalists. Only cases involving government critics are dealt with expeditiously. Civil society in Malawi has also expressed concerns over the very restrictive provisions in the NGO Act which are largely reflected in the draft NGO Policy.

    2.    What are the main civil society concerns over the NGO Policy? 
    The most fundamental civil society concern over the NGO Policy is that the draft policy formulation did not undergo meaningful consultations with the wider civil society community. The policy formulators only embarked on selective consultations with pro-government CSOs.  Secondly, the draft Policy is almost silent on governance and human rights CSOs in its definition of civil society. It assumes all CSOs are community charitable organisations which are simply there to complement the service delivery work of the government. This is a deliberate and dangerous omission as it might systematically emasculate the equally important role of governance and human rights CSOs and activists in the country. 

    The Policy provides the relevant development planning structures with increased and unwarranted powers to approve projects developed by NGOs. The policy notes that “a project shall not be implemented unless it is approved by these structures.”  While it is important that projects planned by NGOs are in line with development objectives, such broad powers prescribed by the policy and given to the planning structures, will infringe on the independence and privacy of NGOs. 

    In addition, the draft policy doesn’t mention the protection of NGOs and human rights defenders. These is supposed to be reflected in any NGO policy as it is one of the crucial areas that shape their day to day work. In fact, the policy should have also acknowledged the relevant role of NGOs as a watchdog in the exercise of political and legal authority by those in public office. In view of the above, the policy priority areas need to be expanded.

    While the policy notes that this is aimed at ensuring that NGO are transparent and accountable, it will increase the administrative burden on NGOs and allow for bureaucratic discretion to reject requests for renewal of the registration of NGOs and to target NGOs that question the government.  For example, this was the case in 2014 when the NGO Board threatened to close NGOs that were not registered with the Board, despite the fact that the NGO Act (2000) does not provide the Board with powers to close on NGO.
    Again, the question of mandatory registration of NGOs with the Council for Non-Governmental Organisations in Malawi (CONGOMA) and NGO board as indicated in the NGO Act of 2001 as a requirement to qualify or be recognised in the categorisation of the draft’s policy three categories of NGOs may be challenged at law considering the fact that it may be perceived as an infringement on freedom of association, and also considering that other NGOs register under Trustees Incorporation Act of 1966 and Companies Act. 

    3.    Have there been any concerns over the years over the NGO Act? 
    CSOs in Malawi have always had misgivings concerning the NGO Act. Both in its originality and practice, the NGO Act is seen as tool to police and silence critical voices in civil society. For instance, section 23 of the NGO Act gives power to the NGO Board, the body appointed by the President, to deregister any NGO that does not operate within NGO guidelines. Some of the NGOs targeted for de-registration are those involved in and comment on political issues. Several voices within civil society have noted that this is aimed at targeting civil NGOs working on human rights and governance who are critical of the government. The provision has always been a source of the fractious relationship between civil society organisations focusing on human rights and the government.

    4.    How can international civil society support civil society in Malawi to improve civic space?
    Support from international civil society is needed to build the capacity of local civil society to empower them to demand and promote and protect civic space in the country.  There are also opportunities for international civil society groups to partner with local civil society to effect change. 

    5.  What are three things that need to change to further improve the environment in which NGOs operate in Malawi? 
    i.    The NGO Act needs to be reviewed and amended to reflect the spirit of constitutionalism.
    ii.    There is need for a robust, responsive and inclusive NGO Policy that will address the challenges faced by CSOs.
    iii.    Government must come up with a law that protects human rights defenders.

    Civic space in Malawi is rated as Narrowed by the CIVICUS Monitor

     

  • MALAWI: ‘Civil society expects new gov. to place rights at the top of its agenda’

    CIVICUS speaks with Michael Kaiyatsa, acting Executive Director of the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR),about the recent presidential election in Malawi, which were held in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and led to a change of government. The CHRR is civil society organisation (CSO) aimed at supporting and promoting democracy and human rights in Malawi. Its mission is to contribute towards the protection, promotion and consolidation of good governance by empowering rural and urban communities to exercise their rights. Founded in 1995 by former student exiles who returned home to the promise of a new democracy, it operates through two core programmes: Community Mobilisation and Empowerment and Human Rights Monitoring and Training.

    MichaelKaiyatsa 

    Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic and a political crisis, the presidential election was held in Malawi in June 2020. What was the role of civil society and the judiciary in ensuring that the election took place?

    I think it is fair to say that judges and civil society-led protests paved the way for the fresh presidential election to be held. The election that was held on 23 June 2020 was a rerun ordered by Malawi’s Constitutional Court, which ruled on 3 February 2020 to overturn the 21 May 2019 presidential election, citing massive irregularities.

    In the May 2019 presidential contest, the incumbent, Peter Mutharika, was declared winner, in the first-past-the-post system, with 38.57 per cent of the vote. However, the opposition claimed the poll had been fraudulent. They cited, among other things, the alleged use of Tippex correction fluid to change vote tallies. Dr Lazarus Chakwera of the Malawi Congress Party and Dr Saulos Chilima of the United Transformation Movement petitioned the Constitutional Court, seeking to overturn the presidential election results. The two cited widespread irregularities, including the use of Tippex and missing signatures on some result sheets.

    The Constitutional Court’s historic ruling, later validated by the country’s Supreme Court, represents a noteworthy illustration of the independence of the judiciary in Malawi’s maturing democracy. However, key to the ruling was not only the independence of Malawi’s judiciary but also months of civil society-led mass demonstrations. The protests were so sustained and vigorous that they could not be ignored by key democratic institutions like the judiciary. The Human Rights Defenders Coalition, an influential civil society grouping, courageously brought thousands of people to the streets on a regular basis to campaign against the botched outcome of the May 2019 election. This was particularly important because it significantly increased the pressure on the judiciary and other key democratic institutions to do the right thing.

    This is not to underrate the role played by the judiciary. The judges really stood up to defend democracy. Prior to the Constitutional Court ruling there had been several attempts to bribe the judges to ensure that the ruling went in former President Mutharika’s favour: one prominent banker was arrested in connection with the bribery case. There were also numerous threats to the independence of the judiciary prior to the rerun, including a government attempt to force out senior Supreme Court judges through early retirement just days before the rerun. The judges could have easily succumbed to such intimidation and ruled in favour of Mutharika, but they did not. Instead, they stood firm and delivered a radical judgement that has changed the way Malawi is governed.

    Civil society successfully challenged a decision by the former government to impose a lockdown. Why did civil society object to it when other countries around the world were implementing similar measures?

    Civil society wanted the lockdown to be put on hold until the government could come up with some way to protect the country’s poorest and most vulnerable people. Civil society groups were unhappy that the government did not outline a social safety net for vulnerable people during the lockdown, which prompted the Human Rights Defenders Coalition and other CSOs to seek a stop order from the court. It is a fact that many people in Malawi operate on a hand-to-mouth basis.

    It is also important to note that the civil society challenge came after thousands of informal traders in the cities of Blantyre and Mzuzu and in districts like Thyolo had taken to the streets to protest against the lockdown with placards that read, ‘We’d rather die of corona than die of hunger’. Many of these vendors are daily wage earners and a lockdown could have badly affected them. There was also growing suspicion among civil society and the citizenry that the government was trying to use the lockdown to justify the cancellation or postponement of the elections.

    How was the election turnout? Were there worries that Malawians would not come out to vote for fear of contagion?

    There were worries that Malawians would not come out in their numbers to vote because of health concerns caused by the pandemic. It was feared, for example, that with the need for limited exposure to large groups and social distancing, citizens might be less likely to leave their homes to vote because of concerns for their own health and that of their family members. There was also a major risk that those deterred from voting would be disproportionately from older age groups or people with underlying health conditions. The legitimacy of the contest might therefore be undermined by unfair restrictions placed on certain segments of society and thus by their uneven participation. 

    These fears were partly realised. The voter turnout was lower than in the previous election. Of the 6,859,570 Malawians registered to vote in 2020, 64.8 per cent voted. This was down from May 2019, when 74.4 per cent of registered voters participated. But the low turnout could also be attributed to inadequate voter and civic education campaigns. Unlike in previous elections, most CSOs were unable to conduct civic and voter education due to resource challenges. The uncertainty of polling dates made it difficult for CSOs to mobilise resources. The previous Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) did not give people confidence that the elections would take place within the stipulated 150 days. The official date for the polls was fixed only around two weeks before the elections, so mobilising resources to conduct civic and voter education at such short notice was not easy.

    However, it is also true that some Malawians may have avoided the polls because of the growing COVID-19 pandemic. By election day, there were 803 documented cases and 11 recorded COVID-19 deaths in Malawi so some people – possibly older people and those with pre-existing health conditions – may have stayed away.

    What were the challenges of organising elections during a pandemic?

    The experience in Malawi has shown that organising elections during a pandemic can be very challenging. The prevention measures outlined by the government do not allow gatherings of more than 100 people. However, most political parties ignored this restriction and held campaign meetings exceeding this number.

    A key challenge faced by the MEC during this fresh election was the need to put the health and safety of voters first while ensuring the integrity of elections. The MEC usually has a voter education budget that is utilised ahead of each election. However, given that this fresh election was not budgeted for earlier, the MEC faced financial challenges, which deepened as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, which required the procurement of personal protective equipment, adding further budgetary constraints.

    The MEC also experienced significant challenges with the production and distribution of voting materials. Malawi imports many election materials from other countries. As Malawi was gearing up for the fresh election, many countries were on full or partial lockdown in the wake of the pandemic. This impacted on election preparations, as some suppliers found it difficult to transport goods internationally. Because of all this, there were significant delays in the printing of ballot papers, which was done in Dubai.

    Another challenge was that political parties were not able to monitor the ballot printing process, as has always been the case, due to COVID-19 related travel restrictions. A further important consequence of the pandemic was the absence of international election observers. With international travel restrictions imposed worldwide, the ability of international observers to observe the election was dramatically restricted. And as already mentioned, the pandemic affected voter turnout.

    Now that the rerun election has led to the ousting of the incumbent and a new president, what does civil society expect from the new government?

    Civil society has many expectations of the new government. One of the key expectations is that the new government will place the promotion and protection of human rights at the top of its agenda and strengthen the fundamental freedoms of all Malawians in line with international human rights standards. It is also hoped that the government will move to protect the space for civil society. The fresh presidential election took place amidst concerted government attacks on civil society and the judiciary. It is our expectation that the new government will fulfil its election promise to protect civic space and allow CSOs to operate freely.

    In its 2019 election manifesto, the Malawi Congress Party, which leads the Tonse Alliance (‘Tonse’ meaning ‘all of us’), a grouping of nine political parties formed weeks before the fresh poll to unseat Mutharika, promised to support the operations of local and international human rights CSOs through a permissive and enabling policy and institutional and legislative framework and to facilitate the progressive development of a civil society that is fully capable of holding the government accountable and defending citizens’ rights. It is our hope that the new administration will walk the talk on this promise and withdraw the oppressive NGO Act (Amendment Bill) of 2018, which contains a number of provisions that could pose a threat to CSOs’ ability to operate. The proposed legislation would raise the penalty fee imposed on a CSO in breach of the law from the current US$70 to US$20,000. It would also impose a seven-year jail term on CSO leaders found in breach of the law. So, for example, if you delay submitting a report to the NGO Authority, you could be fined US$20,000 and the directors of the organisation could be sent to prison for seven years. This is a ridiculous provision. It is a provision that can only be found in authoritarian states. We also hope the new administration will scrap the new fee regime, which is repressive and quite high for CSOs, and revert to the old fees. The new fees that CSOs have to pay to the NGO Board were increased in January 2018 from US$70 to US$1,400.

    What support will civil society in Malawi need from international civil society to help sustain Malawi’s democracy?

    One thing that is urgent now that elections are out of the way is for civil society to sit down and develop an action plan and roadmap, which can include a robust mechanism to check on the government's actions. In this regard, CSOs need the support of international CSOs, particularly to develop their capacities to hold the new government to account on its commitments. CSOs also need financial support to reinforce their role in local governance and accountability. Financial sustainability is crucial for local CSOs if they are to become resilient, effective organisations. International CSOs and donors have a key role to play in helping local CSOs become more sustainable. Finally, CSOs need moral support from international CSOs to be more effective. During the campaign for electoral integrity, local CSOs received overwhelming support from international CSOs through media statements and letters to authorities. It is our hope that this support will continue as we embark on the arduous task of checking the new government’s actions, especially in addressing corruption and the longstanding culture of impunity for human rights violations.

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

    Get in touch with the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation through itswebsite orFacebook page, and follow@CHRRMalawi on Twitter.


     

     

  • Malaysia: Positive step but further revisions needed of protest law

    Komas civicus logo

    Pusat KOMAS and global civil society alliance, CIVICUS, welcome the Malaysian government’s efforts to make amendments to the Peaceful Assembly Act, which regulates public assemblies and protests. While some of the proposed changes to the law appear positive, our organisations are concerned that the legislation still falls short of international human rights law and standards, related to the right to peaceful assembly.

     

  • Movement builds to stop Congo’s president from postponing election

    By David Kode 

    The Democratic Republic of Congo, or DRC, is grappling with a political crisis, following a move by the Constitutional Court affirming the electoral commission’s decision to postpone the date for the next presidential elections by 16 months. This decision effectively extends the current — and supposedly last — mandate of President Joseph Kabila to April 2018, but it has been challenged and described as a “constitutional coup” by civil society organizations and two main political opposition parties.

    Read on: Waging Non Violence

     

     

  • Narendra Modi Has Five Years to Change His Track Record on Democratic Values

    By Mandeep Tiwana, Chief Programmes Officer at CIVICUS

    Recent raids by the Central Bureau of Investigation on the homes and offices of human rights lawyers Anand Grover and Indira Jaising are deeply worrying. Together with their organisation, Lawyer’s Collective formed in 1981, Grover and Jaising have frequently used India’s courts to seek justice for victims of major rights violations such as the Union Carbide Bhopal gas leak, 1984 Delhi riots and 2002 Gujarat riots. Lawyer’s Collective has also played a key role in the passing of legislation to address violence against women and sexual harassment at the workplace.

    This is not the first time that outspoken rights advocates and their organisations have been targeted in India. Nonetheless, for the country’s premier investigation agency to go after Lawyer’s Collective for alleged violations of the discretion riddled Foreign Contributions  Regulation Act (FCRA) which has been discredited by UN experts, might be a step too far in a country that claims to be the world’s largest democracy.

    Read on: The Wire 

     

  • Nepal government must halt efforts to curtail civil society organisations

    A new proposed policy by the government of Nepal would further curtail the work of international and national non-governmental organisations (NGOs) operating in the country by tightening the state’s control over them.

     

  • New Law will cripple Ethiopian civil society

    28 January 2009- Despite severe criticism from donors, civil society and foreign governments, on 6 January 2009, the Ethiopian Parliament passed a controversial law restricting the activities and funding for civil society organisations (CSOs).

    "The Law will have a crippling effect on civil society inEthiopia. We are deeply disappointed that Parliament has passed this regressive law which undermines democratic values and the people ofEthiopia",said Ingrid Srinath, Secretary General of CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation.

    The law, "Proclamation for the Registration and Regulation of Charities and Societies", will prevent CSOs from taking part in democracy building initiatives and acting as a check and balance against human rights abuses. Key provisions of the law infringe upon freedom of association guarantees in the Constitution of Ethiopia, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the African Charter on Human and People's Rights by:

     

    • Limiting CSOs that receive essential funds from abroad to a mere service delivery role through prohibitionsfrom working on key areas including advancement of human and democratic rights, gender equality, conflict resolution and accountability of law enforcement agencies;
    • Allowing wide executive discretion to refuse registration to CSOs and  curb their activities.
    • Clamping down on the independence of CSOs through provisions that permit institution of inquiries on unspecified grounds, allow removal of CSO officers and require advance notification of meetings;
    • Subjecting CSOs to strict official control through exhaustive reporting requirements, mandatory license renewals every three years and an arbitrary cap of 30% on administrative expenses; and
    • Discouraging CSO activities through harsh fines and strict punishments for administrative lapses.


    CIVICUS has closely followed and critiqued drafts of the law before its final passage in Parliament. Sadly, the concerns outlined by CIVICUS and other CSOs have been ignored by the Ethiopian government. CIVICUS submissions on successive drafts have emphasised that any regulatory mechanism for civil society must be underpinned by legislation that is equitable, just and fair. The current law substantially fails this test.

    Note to the Editor
    For more information, please contact Mandeep Tiwana, Civil Society Watch Officer at

    This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

    or Julie Middleton, Civil Society Watch Acting Manager at

    This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

    .