Middle East

  • BAHRAIN: ‘Had there been civic freedoms, the authorities would have known of the deep suffering at Jau Prison’

    JawadFairoozCIVICUS speaks about the situation of political prisoners on hunger strike in Bahrain withJawad Fairooz, founder and director of Salam for Democracy and Human Rights (Salam DHR).

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

    Maryam al-Khawaja, daughter of imprisoned human rights defender Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, intends to return to Bahrain imminently to ensure her father gets medical treatment and press for his immediate and unconditional release. Yet she, too, faces possible arrest. What’s your assessment of the situation?

    Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, 62, a dual Danish-Bahraini citizen, is the co-founder of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and has a long history of activism. He was arrested by the government of Bahrain in 2004, 2007 and again amid mass unrest in April 2011. After this he faced a grossly unfair trial before a military court, including on charges of ‘seeking to overthrow the government’. He was tortured in pretrial custody and since his arbitrary imprisonment he has been repeatedly denied access to adequate healthcare.

    On 9 August he joined some 800 other hunger strikers. They called for an end to lockdown policies that require them to spend up to 23 hours of the day in their cells, the suspension of solitary confinement, the opportunity for collective or congregational prayer in Jau Prison’s mosque, face-to-face meeting rights with family members without a glass screen and access to healthcare commensurate with that available to the public, among other improvements in prison conditions.

    On 13 September the mass hunger strike ended with the authorities reportedly meeting many of these demands. This came as Bahrain’s Crown Prince visited Washington, DC, where he met with senior members of the Biden administration: the problem had to go away.

    Maryam nevertheless intends to travel and she has our full support. We continue to call for Abdulhadi’s immediate and unconditional release. The Danish and European Union (EU) authorities must do more.

    What is at the core of this problem is the absence of civic space in Bahrain. If there was space for independent civil society, then CSOs would have effectively alerted the authorities to prison conditions and they could have addressed the situation. An independent civic space makes it possible to find a balance in government conduct.

    What does this mean for Maryam al-Khawaja and our courageous colleagues travelling with her? It means they should be allowed to enter Bahrain and make their demands. The government should engage with them in a spirit of transparency. The absolute worst that could happen is for dissent to be tolerated just a little bit more. While this seems unlikely to happen, it is what the government should do. We wish them all Godspeed.

    How is it possible to conduct human rights activism in such a closed environment? How does Salam DHR do it?

    Bahrain has closed civic space. Government officials decide which CSOs can be registered and who can stand for their boards. They prevent people from engaging in public life who have no criminal records or public complaints but rather perhaps a past association with a political movement or party that was unfairly banned years ago.

    The Bahraini constitution provides for freedoms and safeguards similar to many other states, but the reality is that the government continues to carry out arbitrary arrests and stage unfair trials for acts that are not internationally recognised as crimes. The authorities torture detainees and use the death penalty, despite domestic opposition and international condemnation. They have stripped hundreds, including myself, of citizenship, depriving us of even the right to have rights in our homeland. They use the digital space to monitor and punish dissent and to foment religious and sectarian strife.

    Activists linked with Salam DHR cannot, in effect, exercise their right to peaceful assembly, let alone openly campaign for freedoms of association and expression, the release of prisoners unfairly tried and imprisoned or a moratorium on the death penalty. They would risk arrest if they did that.

    Yet engaging in civic activism is not totally impossible, only very challenging. Alongside CIVICUS and other partners, Salam DHR engages with allies and like-minded activists as well as the few CSOs that openly but cautiously raise human rights concerns so that the wider Bahraini society hears our message. We echo and amplify their appeals.

    We are a catalyst: we help Bahraini activists access platforms to reach domestic and international audiences and provide training and development opportunities such as internships. Alone and in partnership with others, we research, document and publicise developments, grounding our message in article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which states that every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity to take part in the conduct of public affairs.

    How useful for advocacy purposes was theglobal event held by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) in Bahrain’s capital, Manama, in March 2023?

    It was mixed: Danish parliamentarians and those from other countries addressed human rights issues and the absence of an independent civic space. The IPU’s human rights team raised concerns about freedom of expression and violations against Bahraini parliamentarians. But despite the IPU’s affiliated status with the United Nations (UN), the government still denied access to independent observers and human rights organisations, denying them either visas or access and turning at least one around at the airport. This was the authorities once again restricting civic space.

    A few days before the IPU meeting officially began, Bahraini lawyer and activist Ebrahim Al-Mannai called for parliamentary reforms on social media. He and three others who shared his post were arrested for publishing material that could ‘disturb public order’.

    At the event itself, the government appeared uninterested in seriously engaging with visiting parliamentarians on human rights issues, despite attempts from the Danish delegation and representatives from Finland, Iceland and Ireland. Our message is clear: open up civic space, free up CSOs and political parties and liberate discourse, otherwise the cycle of political unrest will continue.

    Reports indicate that the mass hunger strike in Jau Prison has ended. What’s your assessment of this episode?

    The painful August 2023 mass hunger strike was wholly avoidable. It happened mainly due to the government’s stubborn and short-sighted refusal to allow civic space to exist even to a minimum degree. Had there been freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly, they would have known of the deep suffering at Jau Prison. If you don’t let people say what they think, then public life can only lurch from crisis to crisis.

    The hunger strike was the expression of the accumulation of a number of factors that have been present in Bahraini prisons for years and it was based on grievances that have been repeatedly expressed: prison conditions and ill treatment of prisoners amounting to torture. The abuses worsened and conditions deteriorated during the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2021, medical neglect resulted in the deaths of two prisoners, Hussein Barakat and Abbas Mallalah.

    We appeal once more to the authorities to allow for the opening of civic space and provide a social vent to end the cycle of human rights crises we face.

    Is the international community doing all it can to support the struggle for democracy and human rights in Bahrain?

    International human rights organisations, UN treaty bodies and Special Procedures and partner states, for instance in the context of the UN Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review process of Bahrain, have all joined us in calling on the government of Bahrain to abide by its international human rights obligations, starting with the basic step of letting people have a voice in public life.

    Today, 15 September, is International Day of Democracy, and we are joining the UN in calling on the government of Bahrain to empower the next generation by ensuring that their voices are included in the decisions that will have a profound impact on their world. In his address, UN Secretary-General António Guterres has warned that ‘walls are closing in on civic spaces’. Those walls are also the walls of Jau Prison, where it took 800 detainees’ unjust suffering for the government to even take notice.

    But the UN has also let neighbouring United Arab Emirates, which is as closed as Bahrain, host the forthcoming COP28 climate change summit. Lack of civic space means there can be no activism for climate justice in Bahrain – for instance, no public demands for accountability can be expressed over costly and environmentally damaging land reclamation in Bahrain’s northeast, which has already eroded the livelihood of fishing communities. We need to be able to address these challenges openly, with a rights-based approach, to avoid a future calamity.

    And powerful states that could be putting some pressure for change are avoiding the issue. Right now, Bahrain’s Crown Prince is wrapping up meetings with senior Biden administration officials, none of whom appear to have raised civic space concerns or addressed the needless suffering of 800 Bahraini prisoners. The UK has removed Bahrain from its list of ‘countries of concern’ at the same time as it trumpeted a billion-dollar Bahraini investment in the UK. In October the EU will recommence its cycle of so-called human rights dialogues.

    The international community’s inexplicable complacency over the festering human rights quagmire in Bahrain will further embolden the government in crushing civic space. Many leaders miss the point when it comes to Bahrain and its Gulf neighbours: they appear to accept the facade of what is presented as pragmatic autocracy and appear to accept regional rulers’ colonial-mindset contention that democracy will destabilise the region.

    Democracies have in fact produced the most stable, enduring and dynamic systems in the world. Human rights and democracy are essential for Bahrain and its neighbours because their deficits continue to be the primary cause of resentment and unrest. A security-based approach does not remedy these problems. Bahrain’s history has shown these methods to be a failure, as it has endured continuous waves of mass unrest followed by violent crackdowns.

    Authoritarianism and the forms of violence it fosters are the real destabilising forces, a cycle that can only be broken through the recognition and enactment of democratic rights. The first step towards this goal is simply letting civic space exist.


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

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

  • BAHRAIN: ‘The government uses public relations to mask human rights violations’

    DreweryDykeCIVICUS speaks withDrewery Dyke of Salam for Democracy and Human Rights (Salam DHR) about closed civic and democratic space in Bahrain as the state prepares to host the Assembly of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU). The IPU Assembly takes place in the capital, Manama,from 11 to 15 March 2023.

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

    We last spoke on the eve of the parliamentary election held in November 2022. How has civic space in Bahrain evolved since?

    The government of Bahrain held the November 2022 parliamentary election under the same, highly restrictive, 2018 Political Rights Law used in the 2018 elections. It banned scores of people from being able to vote or stand for election on spurious grounds such as affiliation to a banned political party or having a criminal record.

    Bahrain’s international partners, United Nations (UN) human rights bodies and civil society all decried the banning of political parties, as it flew in the face of international standards and simply deprived many people of having a voice. The court cases, too, dating from the 2011 unrest, were grossly unfair. In November 2018, the UN Human Rights Committee denounced both the Political Isolation Law and the Law on Associations

    And yet there seems to be a small opening for civil society and greater freedoms. The regional mood music appears to be changing, with the governments of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates normalising relations with Qatar, and the Bahraini government having set out a 2022-2026 National Human Rights Plan.

    Bahrain’s government appears to have signalled that it is minded to undertake some reform but civil society remains highly sceptical. Many of us are concerned that the government is once again using public relations initiatives to project an image of the country that masks longstanding, unresolved human rights violations for which there has been no accountability.

    Is change possible? Yes, to some degree, it appears so. But civil society needs to remain vigilant and sceptical. Action will speak louder than words. An amendment of existing laws on political and civil society organisations is now a must.

    How does Salam DHR manage to work in such a restrictive environment?

    Current legislation makes it impossible for our organisation to register and openly carry out any research or advocacy in Bahrain. That has been the case since 2013. And yet at least one woman human rights defender who is linked to Salam DHR and other human rights CSOs has remained active inside Bahrain. She walks a tightrope on a daily basis, taking action to support individuals, notably prisoners of conscience. Lawyers, political and civil society activists and others from all walks of life continue to contact us but we cannot discuss their identities to protect their safety. It is a challenge.

    In November 2022, however, the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights obtained accreditation to the UN’s Economic and Social Council, which means it can now formally participate in UN meetings and events. This important step could help prise open the space for civil society just that little bit more. We will see.

    Why do you think the Bahraini government offered to host the IPU Assembly?

    The Bahraini government invited the IPU to hold its 146th Assembly in order to project an image of a democratic country and boost its international standing. The IPU’s catchphrase on its website is ‘For democracy. For everyone’. The government seeks to own this message in a situation where democracy does not exist.

    The theme of the 146th Assembly is ‘Promoting peaceful coexistence and inclusive societies: Fighting intolerance’. Yet by limiting freedoms of association and assembly and the right to peaceful religious expression, Bahrain’s government promotes exclusion and intolerance.

    Possibly to foster its mission, the IPU accepted the Bahraini government’s offer to hold its meeting in Manama. Is that problematic? In some ways, yes. But it is upon us to promote – peacefully – democratic change that advances adherence to international human rights standards. And parliamentarians from around the world attending the IPU Assembly could help chip away at deeply rooted discrimination and the fact that so many in civil society are deprived of having a voice or are afraid to use it.

    Links between Bahraini parliamentarians and civil society are uneven. Some have few if any links while others have better connections and communication with their electorate, including civil society. Some seek to hold government action to account, albeit timidly.

    The IPU Assembly may be an opportunity for Bahraini members of parliament to learn how their counterparts in other parts of the world engage with their electors and effectively represent their concerns. Parliamentarians are a building block of a free civil society. We need them to step up during the Assembly to make that a reality in Bahrain.

    How could this whitewashing attempt become an advocacy opportunity?

    The IPU Assembly will be a pivotal opportunity for advocacy. Visiting parliamentarians must make it so. They must reject baseless hype and propaganda depicting Bahrain as a land of freedom and democracy.

    In a recently published brief, Salam DHR is urging attending parliamentarians to join with other parliamentarians from across the globe to call on the government of Bahrain to rescind all provisions that restrict parliamentary life and freedom of expression and association of Bahraini members of parliament. We want them to call for the government to resolve two outstanding cases the IPU’s Committee on the Human Rights of Parliamentarianshas lodged with the government of Bahrain, and examine the cases of 15 former parliamentarians targeted with arbitrary arrest and detention, unfair trial and imprisonment and arbitrary stripping of citizenship. We’re also asking parliamentarians to urge the government to implement all recommendations arising from human rights treaty obligations and as many as possible of those made by UN Special Procedures and arising from Bahrain’s 2022 UN Universal Periodic Review.

    We urge visiting parliamentarians to inform themselves of other widely shared human rights concerns in relation to Bahrain, including the denial of political rights and women’s rights, the use of the death penalty and the tactic of revoking citizenship as punishment, and to meet with human rights activists and others in civil society while in Bahrain.

    How can the international community better support Bahraini civil society and activism for democracy?

    Civil society in and engaged with Bahrain needs the international community to listen and speak with us, to hear our experiences and work with us. There is a narrative and experience that differs from the public relations whitewashing by the government.

    We are saying that there are longstanding problems that need to be addressed, in terms of law, practice and accountability. But we are also saying that we believe that Bahrain’s international partners – from varying states, including European Union member states, the UK and USA, and the UN and its human rights bodies – and now parliamentarians can all work together, in unison, to erode the climate of repression that denies respect for human dignity, in order to empower Bahraini civil society and gradually build a more open and rights-respecting country.

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

    Get in touch with Salam DHR through itswebsite and follow @SALAM_DHR and@drewerydyke on Twitter.

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

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

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

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

    What is the significance of today’s election?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    What are the conditions for civil society like in Bahrain?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    What would it take to build democratic institutions in Bahrain?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

  • Call on UNHRC to adopt a resolution on human rights situation in Occupied Palestine

    HRC 30th Special Session: Call on the United Nations Human Rights Council to adopt a resolution on the grave human rights situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem and in IsraelOn 27 May 2021, the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) will hold aSpecial Session in relation to the escalating human rights violations against the Palestinian people on both sides of the Green Line.

    A draft resolution from the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) calling for the establishment of a commission of inquiry on the issue was circulated to UN member states. There is still time to call on our respective governments to support the resolution ahead of the vote in the UN Human Rights Council on 27 May 2021. Let’s act now!

    Israel’s repression against Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line intensified in May 2021 in response to widespread Palestinian demonstrations against Israel’s imminent threat of eviction and displacement of eight Palestinian families from their homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in Jerusalem. This is only the latest in a series of measures, which form part of Israel’s decades-long institutionalized regime of racial domination and oppression over the Palestinian people as a whole. While the international community has ensured Israel’s impunity since 1948, enabling Israel to continue to commit widespread and systematic human rights violations. Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line, and refugees and exiles abroad, are denied their right of return and continue to steadfastly resist 73 years of Israeli settler colonialism and apartheid.

    What can you do?

    This resolution needs all the support it can garner. Encourage your friends and colleagues throughout the world to mobilize their networks. In particular, we seek support from human rights and anti-racism movements in in all parts of the world to place pressure on their governments to support a commission of inquiry.

    1. Sign the petition through this link
    2. Write to your foreign ministry calling on it to support the OIC resolution and the establishment of an ongoing commission of inquiry on violations committed on both sides of the Green Line and to reject any proposed amendment that would undermine or seek to restrict or undermine the commission of inquiry. A list of contact information for foreign ministries can be found here.
    3. Send a copy of the correspondence to your country’s ambassador in Geneva. Contact information can be found here.
    4. Follow the Special Session, which will be livestreamed and use social media to tweet at your representatives and @UN_HRC with #SupportPalestineCOI to raise awareness about the debate and the call for an independent commission of inquiry.

    What is the Special Session about?

    The special session was convened based on a request by Pakistan, on behalf of the state members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and other UN members and observers indicated below. 

    In addition to the debate, the OIC has presented a resolution requesting that the HRC appoint an ongoing independent commission of inquiry to investigate, in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, and in Israel, all violations and abuses of international humanitarian law and international human rights law since 1 April 2021, which will also be mandated to study all underlying root causes, including Israel’s systemic discrimination and repression, thereby encompassing the crimes of apartheid and persecution.

    This comes following years of work by civil society, including Palestinian, regional and international human rights organisations, urging states to address the root causes of Israel’s settler colonialism and apartheid imposed over the Palestinian people as a whole. 

    Palestinian civil society, supported by a broad coalition of 120 regional and international organisations, urgedmember states to ensure the creation of a commission of inquiry to monitor, document and report on all violations of international human rights and humanitarian law, including the latest Israeli attacks against Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line and address the root causes of Israel’s institutionalized regime of racial domination and oppression. In addition, the organisations called for the mechanism to address the root causes of Israel’s institutionalized regime of racial domination and oppression.

    What is a commission of inquiry?

    UN commissions of inquiry are international independent investigative bodies designed to examine serious situations of violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law, as applicable. Based on their mandates, they collect information on violations, establish the facts, and identify perpetrators. As such, these investigatory bodies can play an important role in promoting accountability for violations and preventing future violations.

    Why is this important?

    This is an important resolution as it is the first time the Human Rights Council:

    • Addresses the root causes of Israel’s systemic discrimination, including Israel’s settler colonialism and apartheid, by establishing a commission of inquiry, which would address Israeli violations against the Palestinian people;
    • Includes a geographic scope encompassing, for the first time, Israeli violations targeting the Palestinian people on both sides of the Green Line, in recognition that Israel’s institutionalized regime of racial domination and oppression targets the Palestinian people as a whole.

    What is at stake?

    1. Some delegations may attempt to change the language and weaken the resolution given that the proposed commission of inquiry has a real potential to begin to address the root causes of human rights violations in Palestine, to seek meaningful accountability, and to preserve evidence that can be used in international criminal proceedings to hold perpetrators accountable.
    2. We need UN member states to take the opportunity to establish an ongoing commission of inquiry that addresses the current systematic violations but also future violations in the context of Israel’s institutionalized regime of racial domination and oppression over the Palestinian people, with the aim to bring an end to decades of impunity and international inaction in the face of mass atrocities against Palestinians.
  • Civil society calls on UN member states to address Israeli attacks against Palestinians

    Regional and international civil society organisations from around the world call on United Nations Member States to address the escalating and institutionalised Israeli attacks against Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line during the 30th HRC Special Session

    Your Excellency, 

    Israel’s repression against Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line escalated in May 2021 in response to widespread Palestinian demonstrations against Israel’s imminent threat of eviction and displacement of eight Palestinian families from their homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in Jerusalem. Notably, this is only the latest example of Israel’s institutionalized regime of racial domination and oppression, which the Palestinian people have endured for decades. While the international community has ensured Israel’s impunity since 1948, enabling Israel to continue to commit widespread and systematic human rights violations, Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line and refugees and exiles abroad continue to oppose and stand steadfast against 73 years of Israeli settler colonialism and apartheid. 

    As Israel intensifies its crackdown on Jerusalem and other parts of the West Bank, conducts military strikes against civilians in the Gaza Strip, which have been living under a comprehensive land, air, and sea closure for 14 years, and targets Palestinians inside the Green Line, the undersigned civil society organizations, from around the world, urge your delegation to  engage in the 30th Special Session by the UN Human Rights Council and  address all violations of human rights law and international humanitarian law, including the root causes of Israeli violations against Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line.

    Since 13 April 2021, the beginning of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the Israeli occupying forces (IOF) have systematically targeted and attacked Palestinians in Jerusalem. The attacks escalated when the occupation police targeted worshippers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, with tear gas, sound bombs, and rubber-coated metal bullets, resulting in hundreds of injured Palestinians. The occupation police prevented paramedics from accessing the compound to treat the injured and even directly targeted emergency responders by firing tear gas and wastewater containers on volunteers, paramedics, and ambulances. In other parts of the West Bank, Israel has violently suppressed demonstrations calling for an end to Israeli oppression, including by shooting live ammunition at demonstrators, killing 14 Palestinians between 14 and 18 May 2021. According to the Palestinian Ministry of Health, between 7 and 19 May, 5164 Palestinians were injured, 578 with live ammunition. 

    These attacks come in the context of increasing Palestinian mobilization against Israel’s policies and practices of racial domination and oppression, in response to the imminent eviction of eight Palestinian families, totaling 19 households of around 87 individuals, from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in Jerusalem. The forcible transfer of Palestinians from Jerusalem is a war crime and likely amounts to a crime against humanity as it is being perpetrated in a widespread and systematic manner. Principle 6 of the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, prohibits arbitrary displacement, including “when it is based on policies of apartheid, ‘ethnic cleansing’ or similar practices aimed at/or resulting in altering the ethnic, religious or racial composition of the affected population.” All of these criteria are applicable to Israeli practices, policies and laws implemented with the intention of maintaining Jewish Israeli domination over the Palestinian people. 

    The Israeli police have also violently repressed Palestinian demonstrations inside the Green Line. Since 10 May 2021, thousands of Palestinian citizens of Israel came out to protest the evictions of Palestinian refugee families in Sheikh Jarrah, the use of extreme violence and attacks on worshippers and protestors by the police in Al-Aqsa Mosque and elsewhere, and the Israeli military attacks in Gaza. The Palestinian protestors were subjected to police violence and human rights violations, including denial of emergency medical care. High Commissioner Bachelet highlighted “reports of excessive and discriminatory use of force by police against Palestinian citizens of Israel”. Since 10 May, the  police have arrested 1097 Palestinians. 

    Moreover, Israeli settlers have intensified attacks against Palestinians living in the West Bank, including Jerusalem, with the support of the IOF. Inside the Green Line, far-right Jewish Israelis organized and coordinated the arrival of armed Israelis to attack Palestinians in al-Lydd, Ramle, Akka, Haifa, and Yafa, among other cities and areas. Moreover, the IOF has allowed Israeli settlers coming from the West Bank entry into Israel to target Palestinian neighborhoods and villages and provided support and protection as they attacked Palestinian residents and destroyed Palestinian property. In response, the Israeli police has not taken any action against and in some cases cooperated and supported the mob violence. High Commission Bachelet raised concern at “reports that Israeli police failed to intervene where Palestinian citizens of Israel were being violently attacked, and that social media is being used by ultraright-wing groups to rally people to bring ‘weapons, knives, clubs, knuckledusters to use against Palestinian citizens of Israel.” 

    In the Gaza Strip, the IOF continues to target civilian structures, in particular homes, wiping out whole families, and inflicting widespread destruction and collective punishment on the entire, trapped population. Since 10 May 2021, human rights organizations documented Israel’s use of disproportionate, indiscriminate, and unnecessary military force in violation of international law. Residential blocks are “being targeted pursuant to an apparent policy agreed by Israel's military and political leadership”. The number of residential buildings targeted now stands at 94, including six towers—three of which were completely destroyed—ultimately destroying 371 residential units. In addition, hundreds of private properties, as well as tens of governmental sites, schools, banks, and mosques have sustained significant damages. Israel’s airstrikes have also led to the large-scale destruction of power and water networks, as well as thousands of square meters of vital paved roads. 

    Israel’s extensive and systematic attacks on buildings, and the shelling of residential areas, especially those near the separation fence, force civilians—men, women, and children—to flee their homes in search of safety. Around 41,900 people have moved to 53 UNRWA schools, and the numbers are still increasing. Displaced people are experiencing appalling humanitarian conditions, especially when UNRWA schools have not officially been opened as shelters. 

    As of 2 pm on 17 May, 231 Palestinians, including 65 children and 39 women were killed; 1212 others have been injured in the attacks, including 277children and 204women. According to Israeli media, ten Israelis have been killed following rocket fire from Gaza. 

    It is again clear that civilians are paying the price of Israel’s pervasive impunity. Any firing of rockets or attacks must meet assessments of proportionality and the requirement for a concrete and direct military advantage. Indiscriminate attacks or targeting of civilians not taking a direct part in hostilities constitute a grave violation of international law. In order to protect all civilians, the Human Rights Council should address the root causes of Israel’s settler colonialism and apartheid to achieve lasting justice. 

    We call on your missions to:

     

    • Engage in the 30th UN Human Rights Council Special Session and address the escalating Israeli attacks against the Palestinian people, including the root causes of Israeli violations against Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line.
    • Establish a commission of inquiry to:
    • Monitor, document and report on all violations of human rights and humanitarian law, including the escalating attacks against Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line since April 2021;
    • Include and address the root causes of Israel’s institutionalized regime of racial domination and oppression over the Palestinian people in line with the 2019 Concluding Observations on Israel by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) which highlighted Israeli policies and practices against Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line are in violation of Article 3 of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) pertaining to racial segregation and apartheid;
    • Identify individuals responsible for serious crimes; 
    • Collect and preserve evidence related to violations to be used for accountability in relevant judicial bodies and transfer evidence to the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court.

    Endorsing organisations 

    1. Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies 
    2. International Service for Human Rights 
    3. Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) 
    4. International Women's Rights Action Watch Asia Pacific (IWRAW AP)
    5. DefendDefenders (East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project)
    6. Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales (CELS) 
    7. Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights 
    8. CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation
    9. Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (SAHRDN)
    10. Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) 
    11. Women League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF)
    12. Sexual Rights Initiative
    13. International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH)
    14. 11.11.11 
    15. The Center for Reproductive Rights 
    16. Baytna 
    17. Bytes For All, Pakistan 
    18. Ireland-Palestine Solidarity Campaign 
    19. Human Rights solidarity 
    20. Association des Universitaires pour le Respect du Droit International en Palestine (AURDIP) 
    21. European Legal Support Center 
    22. Just Peace Advocates/Mouvement Pour Une Paix Juste
    23. Collectif Judéo Arabe et Citoyen pour la Palestine
    24. The Niagara Movement for Justice in Palestine-Israel (NMJPI) 
    25. ICAHD Finland
    26. Association belgo-Palestinienne WB
    27. Viva Salud
    28.  Intal
    29. CNCD-11.11.11
    30. EuroMed Rights
    31. The Palestinian Human Rights Organization (PHRO) - Lebanon 
    32. Scottish Palestinian Forum
    33. Trócaire
    34. European Trade Union Network for Justice in Palestine (ETUN)
    35. Istituto Internazionale Maria Ausiliatrice (IIMA)
    36. UPJB (Union des Progressistes Juifs de Belgique)
    37. Akahatá
    38. Association France Palestine Solidarité (AFPS)
    39. Habitat International Coalition – Housing and Land Rights Network
    40. Canadian BDS Coalition
    41. ASGI - Association for juridical studies on immigration
    42. Network for Immigration, Development and Democracy (IDD)
    43. Aegis for Human Rights
    44. Geneva Bridge Association
    45. Association of Maghreb Workers in France
    46. Association for the Promotion of the Right to Difference
    47. El Na aura Association, Belgium
    48. Coordination for Maghreb Human rights Organizations (CMODH)
    49. SAM organization for Rights and Liberties
    50. Yemeni Observatory for Human Rights
    51. Dameer Foundation for Rights and Freedom
    52. INSAF Center for Defending Freedoms and Minorities
    53. Abductees’ Mothers Association
    54. Together We Raise (Social Association) 
    55. Watch for Human Rights 
    56. Mwatana for Human Rights 
    57. Hadramout Foundation For Legal Support and Training
    58. Yemeni Observatory of Mines
    59. Mwatana for Human Rights
    60. Social Peace Promotion and Legal Protection
    61. Al-Haq Foundation for Human Rights 
    62. Al-Rakeezeh Foundation for Relief and Development 
    63. Growth foundation for development & improvement
    64. Namaa Foundation for Development and Improvement 
    65. Lebanese Center for Human Rights
    66. Freedom of Thought and Expression
    67. Committee for Justice
    68. Belady Center for Rights and Freedoms
    69. Egyptian Front for Human Rights
    70. Egyptian Human Rights Forum
    71. The Freedom Initiative
    72. Arabic Network for Human Rights Information
    73. Centre for Egyptian Women Legal Assistance
    74. Libyan Center for Freedom of the Press
    75. February 17 Organization for Environment and Human Rights
    76. Shiraa Association to fight AIDS and drugs
    77. Thought Pioneers Organization Mattress
    78. Mattress Youth Organization
    79. Al-Tebyan Association for Human Rights Dirj
    80. Al-Massar Organization for Youth and Culture Dirj Branch
    81. Mediterranean Organization for Development and Humanitarian Relief
    82. International Arabic Organization for Women’s Rights
    83. Nass for Nass organization to support youth Misurata
    84. Defender Center for Human Rights
    85. Libyan Crimes Watch
    86. Libyan Organization for Legal Aid
    87. Human rights solidarity
    88. The Tunisian General Labor Union 
    89. The Committee for the Respect of Liberties and Human Rights in Tunisia
    90. The Tunisian Organization Against Torture
    91. The Tunisian Association for the Defense of Individual Liberties
    92. The Tunisian Association 23-10 for the Support of the Democratic Transition Process
    93. The National Observatory for the Defense of the Civic Character of the State
    94. The Tunisian Association for the Defense of Minorities
    95. Hassan Saadaoui Association for Democracy and Equality
    96. The National Union for Tunisian Journalists
    97. Vigilance for Democracy and Civic State       
    98. The Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights
    99. Democratic Association of Tunisians in France
    100. Association Aswat Nissa
    101. Tunisian Federation for Citizenship on both shores
    102. Tunisian Union for Citizenship Action
    103. Tunisian Center for Press Freedom
    104. EuroMaghreb Network: citizenship and culture
    105. Vigilance for Democracy in Tunisia (Belgium)
    106. Ga3 Kifkif Network
    107. Algerian Feminist Journal Foundation
    108. Tharwa N'Fadhma N'Soumeur organisation
    109. Action for Change and Democracy in Algeria (ACDA)
    110. Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights (LADDH)
    111. Autonomous Union of Public Administration Personnel (SNAPAP)
    112. General Autonomous Confederation of Workers in Algeria (CGATA)
    113. Riposte Internationale
    114. Collective of the Families of the Disappeared in Algeria (CFDA)
    115. National Committee for the Release of Detainees (CNLD)
    116. SHOAA for Human Rights
    117. Association for the Defense of Human Rights in Morocco (ASDHOM)
    118. Organization for freedoms of Media and Expression
    119. Libyan Organization for Independent Media 
    120. Youth for Tawergha 
  • EGYPT: ‘The president is desperate for international attention ahead of 2024 election’

    Ahmed SamihCIVICUS speaks with Ahmed Samih about the repression of civic space in Egypt ahead of the COP27 climate summit, which will be held in Egypt in November. 

    Ahmed is an Egyptian civil society activist living in exile and co-founder of the Andalus Institute for Tolerance and Anti-Violence Studies, an Egyptian civil society organisation (CSO) established in 2004 to advocate for tolerance and the elimination of all forms of discrimination in Egypt and the Middle East and North Africa.

    What is the current state of civic freedoms in Egypt?

    Civic freedoms are almost non-existent under the regime led by President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi due to the ideology of the ruling military class, which dates back to the 1952 military coup. Its ideology is based on a view of society as immature and irresponsible, and therefore not capable of sharing social, economic and political responsibilities with the state. In that, the Egyptian state has mimicked the Soviet model since 1953.

    The regime relies on laws as a tool to control society, instead of just regulating it. Other institutions, such as parliament, have a duty to assist the executive in dominating society. This legal doctrine contrasts with the one embraced by countries that believe in the rule of law, where legislation is aimed at developing society rather than dominating it. Legal domination being such a central idea, the state can’t accept the existence of civil society, although many civil society structures predate the existence of the Egyptian state. The military regime that emerged in 1952 took over the assets of charities that were dedicated to serving society, on the basis of the belief that it is the state’s responsibility to provide for poor people, which leaves no room for others. This has also opened the doors to corruption.

    Historically, civic space in Egypt has shrunk or expanded depending on the ability of the political regime to understand the reality of social change. President Hosni Mubarak, in power from 1981 until he was ousted in 2011, clearly understood these dynamics. He grasped the international human rights paradigm and allowed some freedoms at the local level. He didn’t shut down CSOs but instead permitted them to work on his own terms, under surveillance. Quite pragmatically, he understood that their work contributed to the stability he needed to remain in power. In other words, he utilised civil society to stay in power for three decades.

    How do you interpret President El-Sisi’s recent call for a national political dialogue?

    Thecall for anational political dialogue is likely the consequence of the president’s acknowledgement of two key challenges ahead.First, he has realised that the ongoing economic crisis is likely to be followed, possibly soon, by social unrest, eventually leading to political unrest if not contained. Observers have already forecasted social unrest breaking out ahead of the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27), which will be held in Sharm El Sheikh in Egypt in November.

    The other key challenge is the 2024 presidential election, where he, as a presidential candidate, will be asked for a real electoral programme with a timeline. He can’t repeat the experience of the2018 presidential election, in which he ran in the absence of any actual competitor. For the upcoming election, a more open political atmosphere will be necessary. However, political competition remains blocked as most political activists are imprisoned or exiled.

    In this context, the aim of the national dialogue is likely to oxygenate the political atmosphere. Towards the world, President El-Sisi has even shifted the official discourse, from denying human rights issues to admitting their applicability in Egypt. But it is important to note that the outcomes of the dialogue will be by no means binding, and El-Sisi will not be accountable to any of the parties involved. The dialogue, and the discursive shift, are just what he views as an optimal solutions to two major problems he will likely face.

    How does the upcoming COP27 summit fit into the regime’s strategy?

    El-Sisi is desperate for international attention and respect ahead of the presidential election but hasn’t so far gained any. Under his presidency, Egypt hasn’t hosted an international event since the 2015 Egypt Economic Development Conference.

    Hosting COP27 is an excellent opportunity for his regime to whitewash its international reputation without opening up its closed civic space. El-Sisi was eager to host COP27 because the climate summit’s outcomes are not binding, so being the host won’t put his government under pressure to adopt the resulting recommendations, and Egypt even stands to benefit from international investment in its renewable energies sector.

    The only potential issue is posed by international environmental activists who will likely protest, which is why the Egyptian government chose Sharm Al Sheik, a geographic locationwhere protests can easily be contained by security forces.

    To what extent is campaigning for the liberation of imprisoned activists such as Alaa Abdel Fattah affecting Egypt’s public relations machine?

    Some high-profile cases, such as that of imprisoned Egyptian-British blogger and activist Alaa Abdel Fattah, can in the short term be damaging to the government’s whitewashing attempts. Alaa has been on hunger strike since April and his family has been quite active in sharing updates on his condition with international media and advocating for his liberation, to the point that he has become a sort of symbol of the plight of persecuted and imprisoned Egyptian human rights defenders.

    But having Alaa as a symbol for the campaign has a downside. While the campaign may lead to his release or an improvement in the conditions of his detention, if he gets released before November the campaign will lose momentum and the Egyptian government will position itself as moderate and reasonable. So in the long run, the campaign won’t make a big dent on Egypt’s public relations machine.

    For it to profit the most off COP27, the Egyptian government needs to bring as many global leaders as possible to Sharm El Sheikh. To prevent this happening, there is a need for a broad connected campaign led by Arab and international advocates to raise awareness about the human rights situation in Egypt. Sadly, I am not aware of any significant coordination efforts between human rights and environmental activists, Egyptian or otherwise, inside Egypt or abroad, in the run-up to COP27.

    Civic space in Egypt is rated ‘closed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor. 
    Follow@AhmedSamih on Twitter.

  • EGYPT: ‘We are dealing with an extremely elaborate, very creative repressive machinery’

    alaaCIVICUS speaks with Egyptian activist Mona Seif about the international campaign for the release of  her brother, British-Egyptian political prisoner Alaa Abdel Fattah, ahead of the COP27 climate summit  taking place in Egypt in November. Alaa played a leading role in the protests that led to the downfall of  former dictator Hosni Mubarak in 2011, but since President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi came to power in  2014,  he has spent most of the time in prison or police detention. He has been jailed since December  2021 on a five-year sentence for sharing a Facebook post denouncing abuses against imprisoned  activists. Following the 2011 uprisings Mona has been part of the No Military Trials for Civilians Group. Alaa and Mona’s father, Ahmed Seif El-Islam, is also a prominent human rights lawyer.

    What is Alaa’s situation in prison?

    He’s been denied both a British consular visit and his lawyer’s visits. So on 2 April he went on a hunger strike in protest.

    It has been nearly 200 days now. To sustain his strike this long, he has been ingesting around 100 to 150 calories per day. Last time I saw him, before I travelled outside Egypt in June, he had already lost a lot of weight and looked quite frail. When I visited him again more recently it shocked me. I had never seen him so weak, so emaciated. He has become a skeleton with a lucid mind.

     As his demands are still not being addressed, he is considering going back to a full hunger strike, when he relied only on water and salts. That means his health may deteriorate much faster.

    What are his demands?

    Alaa’s demands have evolved since he first went on his hunger strike. In the early days, he requested an independent judge to investigate all the human rights violations he had endured since September 2019, which our family reported.

    Alaa has been systematically deprived of his basic rights as a prisoner, and while in the Tora maximum-security prison he witnessed horrific crimes. He saw officers preventing detainees accessing any kind of medical care and saw inmates dying after calling for help for hours.

    As a British citizen, he demanded access to the British consulate and his lawyers in the UK. He waited for this to happen for four months before he started a hunger strike.

    In a recent family visit, Alaa handed my mother and sister a new list of demands concerning the situation of all prisoners and political prisoners, arguing that there is no room for ‘individual salvation’. He now demands the release of all those detained or imprisoned in national state security detention facilities and headquarters after exceeding the two-year maximum pretrial detention period, as well as all people imprisoned for expressing their ideas, convicted for political reasons, or tried by emergency courts.

    What tactics are the Egyptian regime using to silence dissent?

    We are dealing with an extremely elaborate repressive machinery, which is very creative in coming up with new tactics of repression and shifting them when necessary.

    For instance, between 2013 and 2015 the government mostly dug up old assembly laws and used them to crush protests. Since 2015 there has been a steep rise in enforced disappearances: people are simply kidnapped and disappeared, possibly kept in a military-run detention facility. We continue to lack sufficient information about these sites. Then there was a wave of prosecution of protesters on terrorism charges.

    Since 2019 people have been increasingly detained on state security accusations, with detention being renewed over and over without detainees being referred to the courts for as long as the government sees fit. They are doing what we now call ‘recycling’ detainees: people are kept in detention for some time, then released but soon slapped again with the exact same charges – but as there is now a new case against them, they press the reset button and keep them for yet another period of preventive or pretrial detention.

    How have international allies helped raise human rights issues?

    International civil society is our main lifeline. Most of the media platforms are blocked in Egypt. Many lawyers have been harassed and targeted, and some are in prison. A lot of human rights defenders have been pushed into exile, or are continuously threatened and harassed, or have been thrown in prison. So it is increasingly hard to find someone who will speak up on our behalf.

    The few civil society organisations that are still operating domestically, and definitely international organisations based abroad, are the main channels through which the families of prisoners and other people in Egypt can voice their concerns, call for help, try to gather some attention and put on some pressure to at least try to alleviate some of the abuses.

    Over the past two years, we have increasingly relied not just on international organisations abroad, but also on the Egyptian diaspora. Within their capacity, those who have had to leave Egypt try to bring attention to what is happening in the country.

    But we must bear in mind the regime also harasses Egyptians living abroad, often through retaliation against family members who remain in the country. Egyptian embassies in some countries, such as Germany, are complicit with state security services. They send people to harass activists and report on them, so many are afraid of participating publicly in peaceful protests.

    We have relied on allied civil society organisations for reporting purposes. The number of rights violations and crimes committed on a weekly basis is enormous, and tactics of repression shift so much that it is sometimes hard to keep up.

    I experienced all these changes in tactics first-hand, as a sister of a detainee. But keeping up and documenting everything is overwhelming. Most people doing human rights work in Egypt are burnt out and exhausted. This has been going on for years and everyone has dealt with trauma in one form or another.

    How do you view the Egyptian government’s initiative to release some political prisoners ahead of COP27?

    The Egyptian regime has released only 500 detainees over the past few months. But there are tens of thousands of political prisoners in Egypt.

    The recent releases are part of the regime’s international public relations strategy in response to concerns expressed by the international community about the deteriorating human rights situation. The authorities claim they are opening a new chapter in its relationship with domestic civil society, the opposition and the international community.

    But this is far from the truth. They are not willing to do the bare minimum. Alaa’s case makes clear that the regime is not serious about resolving the situation of political prisoners. Alaa continues to be denied his basic rights both as an Egyptian and a British citizen. I’m worried this may continue up until a point the damage will be irreversible.

    If such a high-profile prisoner is subjected to these kinds of human rights violations, including torture, one can only imagine what is happening to other prisoners without Alaa’s support and visibility. I think the release of a few people is the best we can hope for.

    Needless to say, no one is being held accountable for the torture or ill-treatment of prisoners. Since 2019 the General Prosecutor has not addressed any complaints concerning the situation in prisons. Whenever a particularly serious human rights violation gets some attention, the PR machinery sets in motion to smear the detainees and their families. And for most families, the focus is on stopping ongoing violations that endanger the lives of their loved ones rather than holding perpetrators accountable. In the long run, it will be a problem that we are all so focused on trying to save as many people from this prison system as possible that nobody is paying enough attention to seeking proper justice and accountability.

    Do you think COP27 will provide an opportunity for international solidarity with Egyptian civil society?

    The reality is that most governments don’t care what the ruling regime is doing in Egypt. They are willing to turn a blind eye to El-Sisi’s atrocities because he fits into regional arrangements and is easily brought into mega business deals and arms deals that involve a lot of money. Who cares how big a debt he is accumulating on the shoulders of Egyptian people.

    This makes it much harder for people working on documenting and exposing the regime’s crimes to try to stop them. At the end of the day, business deals sustain the facade of mutual respect between western governments and the Egyptian government.

    The Egyptian government is increasingly aware and taking advantage of the fact that it can get away with so many crimes as long as it keeps satisfying the economic interests of France, Germany, the UK and the USA.

    This is all working very well in the run-up to COP27, which the Egyptian regime is clearly using as a whitewashing PR stunt. In doing this, they are being assisted not just by the Gulf countries, which was to be expected, but by many western governments. Despite the recent talk of the USA withholding some of its military aid, if you look at it, the reality is that El-Sisi is getting all the support he needs.

    All we can do about this is what we are already doing, which is try as much as possible to make enough noise to bring attention to the crimes and rights violations the Egyptian regime does not want the world to know about. This may come at an extremely high price, but it is what it is. This is the reality of living in Egypt in 2022, under El-Sisi’s rule.


    Civic space in Egypt is rated ‘closed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

    Follow @Monasosh and @FreedomForAlaaon Twitter and sign this petition for Alaa’s release.

  • EGYPT: ‘Women’s rights are not a priority in the government’s agenda’

    Content warning: this interview contains references to sexual assault, rape and femicide.

    Azza SolimanCIVICUS speaks with Azza Soliman about the widespread anger triggered by recent femicides in Egypt, and more generally in the Middle East and North Africa, and civil society’s role in eliminating gender-based violence (GBV).

    Azza is a lawyer, women’s rights advocate and co-founder of the Centre for Egyptian Women Legal Assistance (CEWLA), an Egyptian civil society organisation (CSO) established in 1995 to advocate for gender equality, and specifically for the legal equality of women and amendment of discriminatory laws.

    Why has the recent femicide case had so much impact?

    The news about the murder of Naira Ashraf, a student at Mansoura University, by a man whose marriage proposal she rejected, went viral on social media, bringing massive media coverage in the news – as if it were an unprecedented incident.

    The truth is that our society has a very short memory: it easily forgets the killing of women and girls, so it treats every femicide as if it were the first, rather than as part of a systemic problem. Egyptian media does not even bother to refer to existing data on GBV collected by CSOs.

    Civil society has been researching these issues, so we are not surprised at cases such as Naira’s. In our society, women’s bodies are subject to all kinds of violence due to custom and tradition, and this is reinforced by the lack of legislation on GBV that could act as a deterrent. A United Nations (UN) survey conducted in 2015 concluded that almost eight million Egyptian women were victims of violence committed by their partners or relatives, or by strangers in public spaces.

    Religious discourse degrades women instead of strengthening our role in society. Public discourse not only normalises violence against women but also justifies it by blaming the victim. This was clear in the comments the news of Naira’s murder received on social media, which questioned the very idea of women’s rights and women’s freedom to reject a potential partner.

    In short, femicide is part of growing social phenomenon of GBV that has many faces. In the extreme, it takes the form of murder, but it has many other expressions, including collective sexual harassment, which has also recently become more widespread.

    In the light of this, CSOs have raised their voice against the outdated legal definition of rape in Egyptian legislation, which leaves out many forms of the phenomenon that used to be relatively unfamiliar in our society. The law defines rape as the forced penetration by the male sexual organ and excludes penetration with any other objects, as well as forms of rape that don’t involve penetration.

    Additional forms of GBV, including domestic violence, have been exposed thanks to social media, where women and girls have become more outspoken and have started telling their stories. Now the law needs to catch up.

    How similar is the context in Egypt to that of other Arab countries?

    I think femicides in Arab countries have commonalities that are the result of a shared inherited patriarchal culture. This generates sympathy for the murderer over the victim, whose so-called ‘honour’ is called into question.

    Very recently, a case similar to Naira’s happened in Jordan: Iman Arsheed, a 21-year-old student, was shot on her university campus in Amman. Her family said she had rejected multiple marriage proposals from her suspected murderer. Both killings, in Egypt and Jordan, were followed by a smear campaign against the victims and in defence of the murderers. Both countries lack laws that protect women from violence.

    The latest murders have sparked widespread outrage about femicides and calls for change across the region. For example, young feminist groups proposed a call for a regional strike on 6 July, and our organisation joined forces with other feminist groups in the region. Some held protests, while others issued statements in support of the strike.

    What roles have you and other Egyptian CSOs played in advocating against GBV?

    One of the main reasons behind rising levels of femicide in Egypt is the absence of legislation to protect women from GBV. Of course, the law alone cannot prevent GBV, but it is a crucial tool for social change. That is why our organisation, CEWLA, has collaborated with other feminist organisations to prepare a draft law on GBV. Two female members of parliament have proposed the draft bill on two separate occasions, but the legislation committee of parliament has so far failed to include it on its agenda.

    Civil society has also shed light on the outdated legal definition of rape in Egypt’s Penal Code and continues to call for legal change. As part of the Feminist Arab Alliance, CEWLA also contributed to drafting model GBV legislation for the Arab world. 

    Back in 1999, CEWLA was a pioneer in conducting research on the issue of ‘honour crimes’ in Egypt, which is still a somewhat taboo subject. Our research found that judges usually use Article 17 of Egypt’s Penal Code to commute punishment for the perpetrator of honour crimes, on the basis of the accusation that the victim has violated ‘customs and traditions’. We have long advocated for ending the use of this article, as it is only used this way in GBV cases, and not in others such as drug-trafficking cases.

    This brings us to the vital role of judicial authority in combating the male-dominated culture that threatens the safety of women. In this regard, as recommended by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), we conduct gender-sensitive training of judicial and law enforcement officers and other public officials. We also work to raise social awareness because of its potential to confront regressive thoughts in society. Recently, we have launched a social media campaign, ‘Violence is Culture,’ that aims to generate social discourse condemning GBV. 

    On the ground, we facilitate dialogue between local women and officials in a police station located in Imbaba, one of Giza’s working-class neighbourhoods. Our programme builds trust between the two parties, so women and girls can report any form of GBV, including domestic violence, and the police commits to taking them seriously.

    What should the Egyptian government do to curb femicide?

    Women’s rights are not a priority in the government’s agenda. This is the first obstacle against passing a GBV law. We insist on such law being passed since we live in a modern state where victims and survivors should be able to seek justice through the law.

    Once such a law is passed, we will need to focus on its enforcement, which should be supported by the joint work of the media, the Ministry of Education and the religious institution for Muslims, Al-Azhar. These institutions should adopt a progressive discourse about women’s rights and against GBV. These efforts should be part of the overall concept of the rule of law, where impunity for violence against women is not tolerable.

    The Egyptian government should expand the GBV unit of the Ministry of Interior in Cairo to police stations across the country, especially in rural areas, where local people don’t let CSOs ‘interfere’ in GBV cases. Our lawyers have been attacked in these villages. The state’s support is essential for us to continue our work.

    The Egyptian government is responsible for implementing international recommendations and standards. The latest CEDAW report included a series of recommendations, including to combat GBV, that the government has agreed to pursue.

    What obstacles do Arab feminists face, and what kind of international support do they need?

    Undoubtedly, civic space has shrunk enormously in the Arab region over the past eight years as Arab governments have copied and pasted repressive legislation to restrict the freedom of association. Moreover, Arab feminist groups operate in very hostile cultural environments. On top of that, the pandemic put enormous pressure on us for almost three years.

    More recently, funding for CSOs has also diminished as international donors have reallocated funds towards Ukraine. All this has combined negatively to reduce cooperation among Arab CSOs, in contrast to the proliferation of civil society initiatives across the region following the 2011 uprisings.

    International CSOs must put pressure on their governments so they include articles requiring respect for human rights in their agreements with Arab regimes. They must make sure their governments fulfil their commitment to these articles to support the human rights defenders in Arab countries who are subjected to travel bans, among other violations.

    International organisations should also prioritise mental health support for Arab women human rights defenders who experience burnout. We have gone through a lot. Well-being support is not a luxury: it is essential for us to continue our work.

    Civic space in Egypt is rated ‘closed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with CEWLA through itsFacebook page. 

  • GAZA: ‘The attacks and disinformation campaign against UNRWA are aimed at dismantling it’

    JonathanFowlerCIVICUS speaks with Jonathan Fowler of the United Nations Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), about the agency’s role in Gaza and the challenges it faces.

    Established after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, UNRWA is the UN agency tasked with supporting the welfare and human development of Palestine refugees. It’s funded almost entirely by voluntary contributions from UN member states.

    What’s UNRWA’s role?

    UNRWA was established by the UN General Assembly in 1949 to deal with the effects of the refugee crisis caused by the Arab-Israeli war. Its initial mandate was to meet immediate humanitarian needs, but over the years it evolved and expanded to include a wide range of services.

    We are a unique agency in the UN system. We are not an advisory agency – we are direct providers of education, healthcare, relief and social services, camp infrastructure and improvement, microfinance and emergency relief.

    UNRWA employs some 30,000 staff, most of whom are Palestine refugees. We are the agency with the largest presence in Gaza, where 13,000 staff were engaged in pre-war operations, notably in education. Recently, the agency has suffered an unprecedented number of casualties among its staff, with 189 members losing their lives. There are still 3,500 to 4,000 people working heroically on the ground, while the rest have been forced to flee.

    UNRWA’s work extends beyond Gaza. We also work in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, as well as Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. Each place has its own challenges.

    In the context of a dire humanitarian crisis such as the war in Gaza, we have shifted to a more traditional humanitarian role. Because of our size, we’re the backbone of humanitarian operations in Gaza. We are indispensable to other parts of the UN system that rely on our logistics on the ground.

    How has UNRWA responded to accusations of collaboration with Hamas?

    Over the years UNRWA has faced a number of allegations of breaches of neutrality by its staff. We work in a highly politicised environment, but we’re not here to reconcile different narratives about the conflict or the history of the region – we’re here to help Palestinian refugees. We believe in the need for a just and lasting solution to the refugee crisis, but our goal and mission are primarily humanitarian, not political.

    While staff are allowed to have their opinions, neutrality is essential for any UN official. But in a large organisation like ours, there will inevitably be occasional breaches of neutrality. When they occur, we conduct internal – and sometimes external – investigations.

    We strongly condemned the Hamas attacks on civilians on 7 October. They were abhorrent and unacceptable, and completely contrary to international humanitarian law.

    But at the end of January, we were faced with allegations that 12 of our staff were involved in the 7 October attacks. We acted swiftly in what we call ‘reverse due process’, which is something the executive authority of any UN agency can do in situations where it’s deemed essential to protect ongoing operations. Our Commissioner-General, Philippe Lazzarini, terminated the staff members’ contracts and referred the investigation to the UN’s top investigative body, the Office of Internal Oversight Services.

    These allegations were later expanded to involve 19 people. We are talking about a tiny percentage of the 30,000 people working for UNRWA. So, the real story here is that in an extremely high-pressure and politicised environment, the vast majority of our staff have remained neutral.

    However, these incidents were misconstrued by Israeli officials and media, leading to unfounded claims that Hamas has infiltrated UNRWA. Allegations against individual staff were turned into accusations against the whole agency. Supporters and social media amplified the claim. It was an attempt to smear our agency. Our detractors want to portray us as part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

    How have these allegations affected your work?

    Unfortunately, the allegations gained enough traction to cause several UN member states, including major donors, to suspend funding to our organisation at a time when we’re dealing with the biggest humanitarian crisis in the region in decades.

    This became a huge problem for us. Underfunding constrains our operations and puts our staff at risk. Our facilities have been affected by the war and repeatedly targeted. More than 160 of our facilities have been hit in over 300 separate incidents. Hundreds of people seeking safety in shelters under the UN flag have been injured or killed.

    We have also been refused permission by the Israeli authorities to deliver aid to northern Gaza, exacerbating the ongoing humanitarian crisis. In the West Bank, our staff are routinely intimidated and denied access to our offices in East Jerusalem. In East Jerusalem, our office has been the target of regular protests, vandalism and, most recently, arson attacks.

    We believe in freedom of expression, but not in violence. Some people, including a deputy mayor of Jerusalem, have incited crowds. Their highly inflammatory language soon became real flames. We expected the deputy mayor to apologise, or at least acknowledge these weren’t the right means. But instead, he ramped up his aggressive rhetoric and singled out the next compounds to be attacked. We’re worried about what might come next and whether this campaign of intimidation and active violence might turn into something more serious.

    All in all, the attacks and the disinformation campaign are aimed at dismantling the agency. But we are committed to fulfilling our mandate. We believe passionately in what we do and why we do it. And we count on the invaluable support of UN member states that have publicly affirmed that UN entities have diplomatic privileges and immunities that protect us and our mission.

    What are you doing to rebuild trust among donors?

    In January, the Commissioner-General decided that because of the constant attacks on UNRWA’s reputation, we needed an independent review of our neutrality framework. A few days later, the allegations surfaced. As a result, many people portrayed the independent review as a response to the allegations, but that wasn’t the case.

    Nevertheless, some member states decided to suspend their funding and presented it as a response to the allegations. However, countries such as Australia, Canada and Sweden resumed their support shortly afterwards, either because we were able to reassure them or because they realised that such a decision couldn’t be taken without evidence.

    Last month the independent review was published. It was led by Catherine Colonna, the former French Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, and conducted by some Nordic think tanks. This report confirmed that UNRWA has one of the most robust systems of neutrality among both UN and non-governmental organisations. Nevertheless, it made some 50 recommendations to improve our neutrality mechanisms and implementation, which we are implementing. As a result, other member states, such as Germany, decided to restore their funding.

    Different countries need different kinds of reassurance – not just from us, but also internally. We are currently working to bring back two major donors: the UK and the USA, our largest donor. Over the years, the USA has often been a strong supporter of UNRWA, although the level of funding has fluctuated from administration to administration. Unfortunately, the US Congress has blocked all funding for UNRWA until March 2025. To put this in perspective, US contributions make up almost 90 per cent of our US$260 million shortfall.

    We are dealing with a huge humanitarian crisis, and we need enormous amounts of money to alleviate its terrible effects. At the moment, we have enough funds to continue operations until the end of June.

    However, we have also seen a renewed outpouring of support as the suspensions have taken place. Some existing donors, such as Ireland, Norway, Portugal and Spain, have increased their donations. These are very important symbolic gestures, but also very significant contributions to our finances. We have also had new, non-traditional donors, such as Iraq with US$25 million and Algeria with US$15 million.

    Individual and private sector donors came to our aid, contributing more than US$115 million to date. A foundation in Singapore has raised US$5 million through individual and corporate donations, but the support has not only come from Islamic communities. We’ve seen all kind of examples, including an artwork auction organised by artists in Ireland that raised thousands of euros for us. This shows how strong grassroots solidarity for Palestinian refugees currently is.

    How do you see the future of UNRWA?

    Although UNRWA has a long history of financial challenges, we have never faced anything like this. To maintain the quality and level of our services to the Palestinian refugee community across the region, we must find ways to sustain our finances, or we’ll be forced to reduce or even cut our operations after June. This could mean reducing school days or clinic hours, which would be catastrophic.

    We shouldn’t be asked to do something and then not have the funds to do it. But unfortunately, this is quite common in the UN system.

    But there’s a silver lining. Because of this crisis, there is a greater awareness of what UNRWA does and why it’s important. Nobody else can do what we do on the scale that’s needed. If we were to disappear, there would still be a Palestinian refugee question that would need to be addressed. Someone would have to provide the services. The issue is who would replace us.

    Legally, Israel, as the occupying state, must provide for the welfare of the population under occupation. So even if it doesn’t like us, it needs us. We’re just not replaceable. So we need sustainable funding to continue to do the work we’re mandated to do. It’s up to the international community to ensure this budgetary consistency. We hope all donors will return soon.

    What else needs to be done to avert a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza?

    First, we need an immediate ceasefire. We’ve been campaigning for one since the beginning of this war, but it has to happen immediately. There is no other way to ensure people’s wellbeing. We also need a steady, sustained and predictable flow of humanitarian aid to keep people alive. Many people are on the brink of famine. They need food and water, as well as healthcare and shelter.

    The next phase is recovery. People need to be able to return to their homes, which means clearing the huge amount of unexploded ordnance and rebuilding housing.

    After that, we need to restore economic activity, which is the only way to get a society back on its feet. And we need to help people heal psychologically from the horrors and traumatic stress they have experienced. We need to rebuild the health sector and get children back to school.

    All of this must be done, and quickly. But the first step is to secure a ceasefire now, and then we’ll be able to take the next steps.


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

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

    Get in touch with UNRWA through itswebsite or itsFacebook andInstagram pages, and follow@UNRWA and@UN_JWFOWLER on Twitter.

  • Hard Battle Ahead for Independent Arab Media

    By Mouna Ben Garga, Innovation Officer CIVICUS

    This article is part of a series on the current state of civil society organisations (CSOs), the focus of International Civil Society Week (ICSW)

    Sometimes a peak into the future reminds us just how stuck we are in the past and present.

    It was the talk of the Middle East’s largest annual media industry gathering: a robot journalist – the region’s first – that wowed some 3,000 industry leaders and practitioners at the Arab Media Forum (AMF) in Dubai recently.

    In an address titled “Future News Anchors”, the robot, known as A20-50, waxed lyrical about robots that would report ‘tirelessly’ all day, every day and be programmed to do any task.

    Read on: Inter Press Service

     

  • HUMAN RIGHTS: ‘People have a great desire for positive stories’

    Saleem VaillancourtCIVICUS speaks with Saleem Vaillancourt, a journalist and media producer who works to promote the rights of Iran’s Bahá’í community and to encourage positive action to realise human rights. Saleem works with the street art for social justice project,Paint the Change.

    Can you tell us how your work began?

    I work closely with the Iranian-Canadian journalist and filmmaker, Maziar Bahari. Maziar’s story is well known. He was jailed in Iran and held in solitary confinement in 2009 after covering the Iran election crisis. He was released after an international campaign and the book he wrote about his ordeal, ‘Then They Came for Me’, was made into a film, ‘Rosewater’, by Jon Stewart. Maziar was no longer simply a journalist; he was also a human rights advocate. Once released, he could talk about all the things going on in Iran that he couldn’t when he was working in Iran.

    Chief among these is the situation of the Bahá’í community, which is the largest religious minority in Iran. They are persecuted by the Iranian government because their beliefs come up against the fundamentalist interpretation of Islam practised by the government. Bahá’ís are routinely arbitrarily detained, held either without charge or under false charges and jailed. They are denied the right to go to university. There is a lot of misinformation and propaganda against them from the state media.

    I’m a Bahá’í and I worked with the Bahá’í community, and also as a journalist and in public communications, and that’s how my path crossed with Maziar. In 2014 he made a documentary, ‘To Light a Candle’, about the story of the Bahá’ís and particularly about the denial of their right to education, and their response, which was to create an informal educational project – an underground university – in which they created opportunities to educate themselves. This is a programme that for 30 years has given thousands of people an education, many of whom have gone on to pursue graduate studies in western universities. It’s a huge success and a major example of constructive resilience, or what Maziar calls peaceful resistance: meeting injustice not with conflict but by building a positive alternative to overcome the situation.

    I joined him for what was meant to be a short time to help promote his film and things grew from there. We created a campaign, ‘Education is not a Crime’, which is a street art and human rights campaign in which we use murals to talk about the story of the Bahá’í in Iran and more broadly to try to address education inequity and uneven access to education in other contexts as well.

    What are the key methods by which you work?

    We create murals, and then the murals have a social media dimension, because we share them online as videos and create local conversations, explaining why we are doing these, and especially relating what we are doing to local stories. For example we painted 20 murals in Harlem in New York, and people in this neighbourhood really saw a parallel in our work between Bahá’ís in Iran and the African-American experience of discrimination and the attempt to overcome discrimination, including in the area of education. We made a documentary about that in 2017, ‘Changing the World One Wall at a Time,’ which has been screened around the world.

    This led to an initiative in Detroit, where we’ve partnered with the City of Detroit and local schools. The city government was already working to encourage school attendance, which is something we care about in terms of access to education. They created a bus route called the ‘GOAL Line’ – GOAL stands for ‘get on and learn’ – but we observed that the bus route had no shelters, so we offered to build some shelters and put artwork on them. The artwork was created in art workshops through a partnership with local students and local artists. The works represent the community in a direct way and create a visual cue in the community around the issue of education. In this activity, we moved from the area of pure awareness-raising to a kind of indirect social action.

    We’re also starting to do a locally orientated street art project in London, producing work with local communities that celebrates local heroes, people who contribute to their community, whether they are known by their community or not. We put them on the side of buildings so they become positive stories that can encourage local young people.

    Another thing we have been doing is producing an oral history video series in the USA, about the Bahá’í community, not only about Iran but also about the work of the community to promote race unity over the past several generations. Again, this is about telling a positive story and something that perhaps helps others in US society to look again at the issue of race – something that is obviously very charged and challenging – and find other ways of addressing it.

    So that’s what I do. It’s a chance for both Maziar and I to talk about issues we think are important, but that are not limited to a focus on the Bahá’í community. Our work is at the intersection of human rights, social action and media. Sometimes it is about raising awareness or fighting instances of violations of human rights, as with the rights of the Bahá’í in Iran, but more and more now it is about finding positive stories and celebrating them through street art or a film or through other media. We want to do this in a way that can help a community see a positive version of themselves and put that at the centre of their own narrative.

    What would you say you do that is different from the conventional work of a human rights organisation?

    Because we are principally a media-driven group, we try to apply our media work to human rights issues and social issues, and we are looking to go beyond human rights awareness-raising to try to contribute to social processes in local communities. The Detroit project is an example of that. So that’s a kind of social action that’s distinct from awareness-raising as a conventional discipline.

    We are trying to do human rights work and social action work together. We see them as different sides of basically the same work. We want to reach audiences that perhaps haven’t been engaged in human rights discussions or social action before, through media and through education workshops. So our focus is not so much on informing policy-makers, but on trying to reach local communities through accessible media and artforms.

    What are the challenges faced when defending the rights of Bahá’í people in Iran?

    I am also involved in IranWire, an independent news website. I know through this that Iranian journalists are targeted. Our site was recently down for a few hours over the course of several days because of a sustained denial of service attack originating from Iran.

    Maziar is continually attacked on Twitter and by Iranian state media, as are other people we work with. Many people who have worked in the public space on the issue of the Bahá’ís are vilified by the Iranian media. When Maziar and others talk to United Nations institutions, they get criticised and there is a lot of disinformation spread about them. It’s clear that the Iranian authorities seek to discredit people through disinformation to try to limit their legitimacy in the international space when they talk about human rights issues happening inside Iran. The Iranian government attempts to control the narrative.

    Turning to your work outside Iran, what would you say the major successes and challenges have been?

    I think the big success we’ve had so far is the initiative to create the murals, especially in Harlem but also around the world: to create a story out of them, and for that story to be something that people respond to, and for us to find a way to relate that story to other situations around the world.

    In the early stage of developing these murals in New York, after we had produced one or two in Harlem, the questions of these parallels between the Bahá’ís and the African-American community started to sit up. It’s not a parallel in terms of scale or severity or even of type, but it’s a parallel in terms of individual experiences and the ideology that has created a situation. African-American people who learned about the project brought that parallel to the fore in our discussions. Here was one community that is struggling identifying with the struggle of another community, that was undergoing the kind of suffering that makes the community more empathetic and more aware of the struggles of another.

    We decided to tell that story as much as we could and in our work in Harlem to work with local artists and local community leaders as much as possible, and to hold educational workshops for young people around the creation of the murals. I think the fact that those murals became possible and were welcomed into the community, that there was the opportunity to see these parallels and to tell that story around the world, and that the story was broadcast inside Iran in Persian on satellite TV and seen by millions of people there, was probably the biggest success.

    I think there’s not so much one major challenge we have been unable to overcome, although there are things that are harder to do than others, but it’s more that nobody is particularly out there asking for anybody to do something positive. I think a lot of people have a great desire, appetite and thirst for encountering positive stories even if they address challenging issues, but it’s not something you see being asked for in market terms, and in terms of what audience there is, and what funding you can get to do projects.

    So it is a challenge to create the audience and explain our reasons for approaching our work as we do, and maintain these projects, because it’s not something that is being asked for in a commercial sense. I don’t necessarily mean commercial in terms of being driven by profit, but even non-profitable works need grants, and while there are grants that are tailored around work that tries to introduce positive narratives, it takes a lot of effort to identify them and to massage an idea into a format that would meet the requirements of a particular grant.

    What more needs to change, and what further support is needed, to enable your work to achieve even more?

    I think there are two levels. At the level of human attitudes, in general the world is in a very difficult place and much of what’s happening is turning people towards conflict. I think what needs to change – in order for the kind of stories we want to produce and tell to be more easily relatable and for people to be able to understand what we are getting at – is that people need to be orientated towards positive stories, towards sharing and finding them, and to seeing the world through the lens of positivity. This is not to deny there are negative things or pretend that everything is fine, but to say that we address a challenge or a difficulty not by more contention but by means of conciliation and friendliness. I think if people’s minds are orientated more that way they would be likelier to seek out or ask for the positive stories we try to tell. I’m not saying we’ve nailed that formula, but that’s our motivation and we’re trying to work in that direction.

    At the structural level I think the kinds of grants, and often the kinds of initiatives that organisations want to support or are asking for, need to change. Again, it is possible to do that in terms of some grants that exist, but there is a lack of a structure and approach that says: this organisation really wants to find positive stories because positive stories change the nature of a society’s view of how to deal with challenging issues.

    So much of what civil society does is about countering things that are negative. This is important work, but I also think that civil society should be going towards what it wants to see in the future. If there could be a harmonious sense across civil society about what the future ought to be, how human rights ought to be respected and what the nature of society should be in order to realise those ideals, then I think we could move towards shared civil society agendas that make it possible to work for these goals more easily.

    In the civil society space, the media space and the human rights space – and partly because we are all too busy but also because there is no clearing house or central organising system – I don’t know who in civil society would want to work in the same way. But I’d love to know more about who’s out there and what they’re doing, in order to more easily find the appropriate partners.

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

    Get in touch with Paint the Change through itswebsite.

  • IRAN: ‘Mahsa Amini’s case was a spark in a flammable situation’

    sohbraCIVICUS speaks with Sohrab Razaghi, executive director of Volunteer Activists (VA), about the currentwomen-led protests, the state of civil society and the prospects for change in Iran.

    VA is an 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 peacebuilding 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.

    What is the situation of Iranian civil society today?

    Civil society in Iran has become weaker over the past few years. Civic activism has grown but organised civil society has become weaker and has been marginalised. Following President Ebrahim Raisi’s ascent to power in 2021, civic space has shrunk dramatically. The establishment and operation of CSOs has been legally obstructed and any CSO not following the policies of Iranian authorities has been eliminated.

    Following significantteachers’ protests in May 2022 there was a major crackdown against the Iranian Teachers’ Trade Association and many of its leaders and activists were arrested. This was just one example of many.

    The ongoing crackdown follows a predictable sequence: first, the authorities exploit toxic narratives and disseminate false accusations to malign civil society and create internal conflict within civic movements. Then they repress the smaller remaining groups, arresting and detaining their leaders and activists.

    The authorities have attacked all institutions and organisations that are the expression of social power, eliminating the possibility of further organising. To fill up the space, they set up fake CSOs organised and led by government officials, often affiliated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. These are often local, community-oriented organisations that involve local communities by approaching the mosques and charities that support them.

    What made the death of Mahsa Amini a turning point?

    Mahsa Amini’s case was a spark in a flammable situation. She was a young member of an ethnic minority who was visiting Tehran, was violently arrested by the morality police and died under custody. All these elements together made her case relatable for many Iranians. She was only 22 years old, a woman, a member of an ethnic minority and a Sunni Muslim, which is a religious minority in Iran. Many Iranians identify with at least one and possibly many of these elements of Mahsa’s identity and resent the policies aimed at suppressing them. As a result, large groups that feel discriminated against and suppressed mobilised.

    This happened in a context of high poverty and repression, with a government that acts with impunity because it knows it won’t be held accountable. For years, instead of trying to meet the needs of their citizens, the authorities have cracked down on all sorts of protests. With Raisi coming to power, any hope for change was gone.

    In what ways have these protests been different from previous ones?

    The current protests are very different from previous ones, including recent protests that took place in2017 and2019. First, protesters are mostly between 15 and 25 years old. This is possibly their first engagement in a civic movement. They have grown up in the digital world and are using in the real world what they learned playing video games – only that in the real world, there is no respawning! So many are getting killed.

    Second, protesters are primarily women and students. And some of their acts of protest, such as female protesters burning headscarves and cutting their hair, are unprecedented. Their demands are also different from those of previous civic movements. Whereas in 2017 and 2019 demands were mostly economic, now they are cultural: their main demand is for freedom to lead a different lifestyle than the authorities allow them to have. The shout ‘Women, Life, Liberty’ has become a protest cry and a slogan of solidarity both inside Iran and internationally.

    Third, support from Iranians in the diaspora and media coverage have both drastically increased. This time the events have received major media coverage since the outset, with the protests on front pages all over the world. For the first time, on 23 October, 80,000 Iranians from the diaspora gathered in Berlin to support protesters and demonstrate against the Iranian regime. This support is unprecedented. 

    Finally, public discourse about the protests has shifted. In the past, dominant discourse highlighted the non-violent character of the protests, but this time there have been calls for retaliation and to use violence to defend the protests. Violence is no longer taboo: some elites and influencers inside and outside Iran are advocating for it. This is extremely concerning, considering that it may legitimise violence by the Iranian authorities, which could resort to even more violence in response.

    How has the government cracked down on the protests, and why have protests continued regardless?

    The government has used multiple tactics. First, it deploys riot police and security forces that use violence to physically prevent and dissolve protests. As a result, over 7,000 protesters have been arrested, many have been beaten and over 200 have been killed. Second, it has restricted internet access for over four weeks now, limiting the free exchange of information while increasing the circulation of disinformation and official propaganda. Third, it has used the same narrative tactics it normally uses against civil society, linking the protests to foreign intelligence forces.

    The government’s reaction has been as repressive as towards previous movements. However, these protesters are more resilient, so the crackdown has not been as effective as previous ones. Two sources of this resilience are decentralisation and spontaneity: protests are held locally rather than in a central place, and they are not centrally organised – they are organised by small groups and happen rather spontaneously during the day or night at random hours, with protesters quickly dispersing afterwards.

    Additionally, the fact that there are so many children and young students among protesters has somewhat limited the violence. Many children and adolescents have been killed, but the death toll would likely have been much higher had they not been among protesters. And many of these young people are students, therefore part of the middle class – which means there is a cultural middle class that continues to support the protests.

    What is the likelihood of these protests leading to change?

    We can identify five possible scenarios – and only one of them leads to regime change.

    In the first scenario, the crackdown succeeds and protests end. This would result in widespread hopelessness and disappointment.

    In the second, the authorities make concessions and the mandatory hijab rules are repealed. This would lead to the recognition of some limited freedoms, but not to regime change.

    In the third, neither the authorities nor the protesters prevail, leading to continuing violence and bloody conflict. Protesters go into an armed offensive and the situation escalates into a civil war-like situation.

    In the fourth, military groups seize power and suppress both protesters and established authorities to pursue their own goals.

    In the fifth scenario, mass mobilisation leads to regime change.

    What happens will depend on the capacity of protesters – the resources they can gather, the groups they can bring together, the leadership they build and the collective narrative they produce out of compelling personal stories – and international influences and pressures.

    In the current situation, scenarios one to three are the most likely. The movement has not entered a revolutionary stage. There are not massive gaps in the regime – neither in its repressive machinery nor in its will to crack down on protests. And the protests have not been massive nor widely representative of the make-up of society. We have not seen hundreds of thousands or even tens of thousands on the streets, and we have not seen protests by various ethnic or religious minorities, and by different social classes. Strikes are typically the heart of social movement action in Iran, and we have not yet seen strikes by major branches and sectors of the economy.

    What can women’s rights supporters and democracy activists from around the world do to support civil society in Iran?

    International civil society as a collective should be more vocal. We need a unified collective of civil society echoing the voices of Iranian activists and advocates for democracy and human rights in Iran. In addition, actions of solidarity are needed as well as networks to exchange knowledge, experience and skills so Iranian activists can learn from civic movements internationally and be more effective.

    Regarding the immediate response, there are various needs, such as juvenile justice support, including legal support, wellbeing and mental health support, as well as training and awareness raising on civic activism in Iran.

    The main goal should be to support Iranian protesters and activists so their voice is heard and the crackdown does not succeed, while supporting the victims of the crackdown. International pressure is instrumental, not only from governments but also from civil society as a change leader. A close connection between international civil society, Iranian activists in diaspora, Iranian civil society and the media is also essential.


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

    Get in touch with Volunteer Activists through itswebsite.

  • IRAN: ‘Mahsa’s death highlights the struggle women must face just to go about their daily lives’

    KylieMoore GilbertCIVICUS speaks with Kylie Moore-Gilbert about thecurrent women-led protests in Iran, sparked by Mahsa Amini’s death in the custody of the so-called ‘morality police’.

    Kylie is a British-Australian women’s rights advocate and academic specialising in Islamic studies. She has extensively researched political issues in the Middle East, including the ‘Arab Spring’. In 2018 she was falsely charged with espionage and remained in prison in Iran for more than two years before being released in a prisoner exchange deal negotiated by the Australian government. She speaks about this experience in a recently published book,The Uncaged Sky: My 804 days in an Iranian prison.

    What are the demands of the protesters currently mobilised in Iran?

    In contrast to previous outbreaks of protest and civil unrest in Iran, from the very first day the current protesters adopted slogans calling for the fall of the Islamic Republic regime. Their slogans include ‘Death to Khamenei’, the Supreme Leader, ‘Down with the dictator’ and ‘No to the Islamic Republic’.

    While the trigger for the unrest was the senseless death of Mahsa Amini at the hands of the morality police, the issue of forced hijab and the harassment of women by regime officials due to their clothing and behaviour has become a symbol of the protesters’ desire to remove this regime altogether. Protesters are demanding freedom, equality between women and men and an end to the tyranny imposed on them by Iran’s regime of ageing clerics.

    The protests are happening countrywide and have involved Persian and ethnic-minority communities, irrespective of language, religion or class. To further their demands, protesters are using overwhelmingly peaceful tactics, such as rallies and marches, organised hijab-burnings and hair-cuttings, and general strikes.

    How have the authorities responded to the protests so far?

    The protests have faced a rolling crackdown since their inception. Many protesters, including several young teenagers, have been shot dead in the streets by security forces. Thousands have been rounded up and arrested. Sharif University of Technology was besieged for several days, with its students rounded up, beaten and imprisoned.

    The regime has cut off internet access to most of the country in a bid to contain protests. This is why it is so important for the international community to keep up the pressure on Iran and continue to shine a light on its human rights abuses. It must help prevent a massacre of innocent protesters and hold the regime to account for its crimes.

    Has Amini’s case helped reveal underlying women’s rights issues?

    Yes, most definitely. One reason why Amini’s arrest and murder touched such a nerve in Iran is that nearly all Iranian women, and many men too, have had similar encounters with the morality police at some point in their lives. What happened to Mahsa could have happened to any one of them.

    Mahsa’s death highlights the struggle women in Iran must face just to go about their daily lives. Women are routinely harassed in public by regime officials and pro-regime sympathisers for ‘bad hijab’ and are even banned from singing and dancing, hugging or touching men who are not their relatives, among too many other things. Many Iranian women are tired of the constant policing of their appearance and behaviour. They want to be free to get on with their lives as they see fit.

    What needs to change for women’s rights to gain recognition in Iran?

    For women’s rights to be recognised, the regime would have to change. I do not believe the Iranian government is capable of reforming itself. Forced hijab and discriminatory laws against women are a core pillar of the regime’s ideology. If it granted women equal rights, it would cease to exist.

    My hope is that the protests will make a difference well beyond women’s rights. As the protests are now entering their third week, my hope is that they will eventually lead to the downfall of the regime altogether. Iranians deserve a democratic government that respects gender equality and freedom of speech and is truly representative of the will of the people.

    What kind of assistance does Iranian civil society need from the international community?

    Iranian civil society desperately needs its voices to be amplified internationally and for attention to continue to be focused on what is happening inside Iran. The full glare of international media and foreign governments will act as something of a brake on the worst excesses of the regime’s crackdown.

    The international community could also assist in trying to keep Iran’s internet functioning, so protesters can communicate with one another and get news, photos and videos out of Iran so the world knows what is happening there.

    Foreign governments could also impose sanctions on Iranian officials responsible for the crackdown and other human rights abuses, and should cease all negotiations with Iran over sanctions relief and unfreezing Iranian assets abroad.


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

    Follow @KMooreGilbert on Twitter.

  • IRAN: ‘The regime is executing protesters to create fear and suppress any attempt at new mobilisation’

    Asal AbasianCIVICUS speaks aboutthe ongoing wave of executions in Iranwith Asal Abasian, an Iranian journalist and queer feminist activist. After receiving serious threats, Asal fled Iran for Turkey in 2021. They’re currently based in Paris, France.

    How has repression escalated since the 2022 protests?

    Repression by the regime of the Islamic Republic has escalated with executions of protesters, aimed at creating fear to suppress any attempt at new mobilisations such as the Woman, Life, Freedom nationwide protests triggered by Mahsa Amini’s death.

    Recently, four young Kurds from the western provinces of Iran were hanged on unproven charges of cooperation with the Komala Party of Iranian Kurdistan. Their families demanded a pardon until the last moment, but their requests went unheard.

    The Islamic Republic has always been at odds with ethnic minorities. Forty-five years since the Islamic Revolution, this conflict is as alive as on the first day. If anything, it has become worse.

    Of course, the death threat that comes with ramping up executions is not directed only at ethnic minorities. Every excluded group in Iran is under threat. The regime founded after the 1979 Islamic revolution was grounded on the aim of protecting the interests of Shia Muslim men. This means that everyone except Shia Muslim men is oppressed by design. This includes all women and LGBTQI+ people and sexual minorities, children and religious and ethnic minorities.

    Throughout 45 years there have been several spikes in executions of people from minority groups as well as political activists opposing the Islamic Republic. This trend has been ongoing from the onset, and it was even worse at the beginning. In the first decade of the Islamic Republic thousands of young dissidents were secretly executed or shot.

    On top of this, ethnic and religious minorities such as Bahais, Balochs, Kurds and Sunni Arabs experience daily discrimination and marginalisation, which sometimes cost people their lives.

    Additionally, the regime of the Islamic Republic supports Hamas and other terrorist Islamic groups and has no qualms about it. It laments the killing of children in Gaza while it has killed so many during the protests that erupted in Iran in September 2022. But ideologies shouldn’t matter: the massacre of children by any regime or group is a despicable act.

    Is there any space for civil society to operate in Iran?

    Young people in Iran continue resisting, despite the severe economic pressure and the suppression of activism. Even if this involves making sacrifices in their careers, education or social lives, young women continue defying the mandatory hijab. Nationwide protests may have decreased, but young people continue resisting the arbitrary and inhumane laws of the Islamic Republic.

    The struggle continues under the surface. Although the Islamic Republic and its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps severely suppress any attempt at a protest, people have not stopped fighting. The fact that they continue embracing civil resistance despite the potentially serious costs is very encouraging.

    Many of our fighters, whom I would like to mention, are in Tehran’s Evin prison with long sentences. Sarvenaz Ahmadi, Anisha Asadollahi, Keyvan Mohtadi, Sepideh Rashnu, Nasim Soltanbeygi and many others are in the frontlines of this struggle, spending the years of their youth in prison. And what cost would be higher than paying with years of your life?

    I try to support their struggle by raising awareness on international platforms and amplifying their voices. But the main struggle is being carried on by young Iranians in Iran. From afar, we can only admire their struggles and broadcast them to the world.

    How has the international community reacted to the escalation of repression in Iran?

    Unfortunately, the international community has maintained a shameful silence and indifference. As people were being executed, the 2023 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Narges Mohammadi, and several other civil activists wrote to the United Nations (UN) on the human rights crisis that Iranians face. And still, UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Nada Al-Nashif recently travelled to Iran despite activists warning that this could be used as propaganda by the government.

    The Iranian people will not forget the indifference and self-interest of the international community. This is as much of a historical disgrace as the silence in the face of the crimes that are being committed in Gaza.

    Many members of the international community are perhaps more involved in domestic and regional interests, and it seems that, contrary to their proclaimed slogans, they are not really concerned about genocide, the killing of children and people’s oppression. This is very unfortunate.

    We neither forgive nor forget.


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

    Follow Asal onInstagram orTwitter.

  • IRAN: ‘The regime uses executions to maintain its grip on power through fear and intimidation’

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    CIVICUS speaks with Jasmin Ramsey, Deputy Director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI), about the ongoing wave of executions as part of the Iranian regime’s effort to suppress dissent and discourage further protests.

    Founded in 2008, CHRI is an independent civil society organisation that works to protect and promote human rights in Iran. Headquartered in New York, it researches and documents human rights violations throughout Iran, and provides governments, the United Nations, think tanks, global media and research centres around the world with detailed information, analysis and policy recommendations. CHRI’s approach is strictly nonpartisan, operating within the framework of international human rights law.

    What has led to the current wave of executions in Iran?

    Executions in Iran are not just a pillar of the founding of the Islamic Republic, but a ruthless tool wielded by the regime to maintain its grip on power through fear and intimidation. Although the vast majority of the more than 834 people who were hanged in Iran in 2023 were accused of drug offences or other non-political activities, the increase in executions after the protests, and the growing number of political prisoners among those executed in recent years, underscore the regime’s desperation to crush dissent. It is determined to prevent the emergence of another grassroots movement such as the Woman, Life, Freedom protests triggered by the September 2022 killing of Mahsa Amini at the hands of the morality police.

    This wave of state-sanctioned killings has galvanised civil society to unite in condemnation. Women prisoners of conscience, in particular, have shown remarkable resilience, leading calls against the death penalty among Iranian civil society through joint statements and hunger strikes.

    Iranian civil society is uniting to demand not just a cessation of executions, but the abolition of the death penalty. No matter how much the regime uses force and violence, it has failed to quell the desire for fundamental and systemic change in Iran. At every turn, society is pushing back against state policies that are repressive and discordant with the desires and beliefs of much of the population.

    Alongside increasing executions, how else has the regime reacted to the protests?

    Repression in various forms has escalated significantly since the emergence of the Woman, Life, Freedom movement in 2022, manifesting in various forms such as increased arrests and detentions of peaceful activists and family members seeking justice for victims of state violence.

    The government is also pushing for a law to impose harsher penalties on women appearing in public without the mandated hijab. This proposed law burdens citizens, encourages vigilante violence and increases women’s vulnerability to abuse through increased surveillance and state security forces deployed on the streets.

    Is there any space for civil society in Iran?

    While technically there might some room for civil society to operate in Iran, as established in legislation, the reality is starkly different. Article 27 of Iran’s constitution allows for public gatherings and marches under some conditions, but protests critical of the state are swiftly suppressed, often with violence. Fundamental rights such as freedoms of speech, expression and the press are severely curtailed, and peaceful activism is often treated as a threat to national security.

    Despite these challenges, activists and citizens persist in reclaiming their rights, using a variety of methods such as social media posts, prison letters and acts of civil disobedience, like women defying the state’s forced hijab law by walking the streets unveiled. Despite facing repression and economic hardships exacerbated by governmental corruption and sanctions, their determination remains strong.

    I am grateful to be doing this work in a place of safety, where, at least for now, I am shielded from the dangers faced by activists in Iran. I consider myself fortunate to learn from the courageous Iranians, especially women, who persist and resist despite immense risks. CHRI’s mission is to amplify their voices and advocate for civil society’s demands internationally, a task that comes with its own set of challenges. However, these challenges pale in comparison to the dangers faced by those on the frontlines in Iran.

    What should international allies do to support the struggle for freedoms in Iran?

    During the initial surge of the Woman, Life, Freedom movement, there was a heightened international focus on the events unfolding in Iran. This sparked hope for more substantial action from governments with influence over the Islamic Republic. At that time, we outlined steps for the international community to pressure Iran to cease its violent crackdown on protests.

    Among our recommendations, we emphasised the need for governments that have diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic to recall their ambassadors in protest against the killing of protesters and hanging of prisoners. We asked them to summon Iran’s diplomats to communicate directly their outrage and warn that further costs and isolation would ensue unless the Iranian authorities halted executions, annulled death sentences, ceased torture under custody, released prisoners and respected due process for those accused.

    We urged the international community to designate the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organisation and impose or expand human rights sanctions against Iranian officials and entities associated with rights violations and freeze the assets of officials who violated human rights, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and many more.

    We also asked parliamentarians around the world to sponsor individual political prisoners, particularly those facing execution, to publicise their cases and the unjust nature of their prosecution or sentences and publicly demand their safety and release, both on the international stage and directly with Iranian ambassadors and other Islamic Republic officials.

    Additionally, we urged states to suspend negotiations over Iran’s nuclear deal, which could provide increased revenue to the Iranian state and therefore increase its repressive capacity. We demanded it be expelled for multilateral bodies and various international platforms and associations, particularly those whose principles it blatantly violates. We also asked governments to support the United Nations (UN) Fact-Finding Mission on Iran and assist those fleeing Islamic Republic persecution, and asked tech companies to support safe digital communications for the Iranian people.

    This roadmap remains relevant today. It is crucial for international allies to rally behind the UN’s independent international Fact-Finding Mission, tasked with investigating atrocities committed by the regime since the onset of the violent repression of the protests in September 2022. As the Fact-Finding Mission presents its first report to the UN Human Rights Council in mid-March, a united, multilateral approach to supporting its mandate is essential for holding the Iranian government accountable and advancing the struggle for justice and human rights in Iran.


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

    Get in touch with CHRI through itswebsite orFacebook page, and follow@ICHRI onTwitter and@centerforhumanrights onInstagram.

  • IRAN: ‘The severity of the crackdown only shows how scared the regime is of the protest movement’

    SohrabRazaghiCIVICUS speaks with Sohrab Razaghi, executive director of Volunteer Activists (VA), about the situation in Iran on the anniversary of the anti-regime protests sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini at the hands of morality police.

    VA is an 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 peacebuilding 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.

    What is the situation in Iran one year on from the start of the protest wave?

    The situation in Iran is complex. While last year’s massive protests made people hope for change, the crackdown on the protests caused hopelessness. The authorities were mostly able to suppress the protests and regain control of the streets, forcing people back into their homes.

    Moreover, while the ‘Women, Life, Freedom’ protest movement had an appealing chant and vision, it lacked a long-term plan that could lead to change. Over the past year, it has been unable to translate its slogan into a political programme and was therefore unable to mobilise other social and political forces around its goals.

    But despite the authorities’ success in regaining control, we have continued to see acts of civil disobedience across Iran. Activists, artists and academics express themselves through social media and make public displays of protest not wearing hijab. The fact that the voices of protesters have not been silenced sustains hope for change.

    A concerning development, however, is the increasing gap between established civil society and the protest movement. CSOs were hesitant to participate in the protests when they began, and this gap has only increased since. There is even a lack of a common vocabulary in calling for mobilisation and articulating demands. Established CSOs disagree with what they view as radical moves by the protest movement, as they have a more conservative view of society and the future. A possible explanation for this divergence may be the generation gap, as the protest movement is formed by much younger activists.

    To reassert control, the authorities have imposed stricter control over media, universities, unions and other associations. In essence, civic space has shrunk dramatically over the past year, with the authorities purging most sectors of everyone who disagrees with them.

    Internationally there was a huge wave of support for the protest movement from governments, civil society and media, particularly early on. This was extremely helpful for echoing the voices of Iranian protesters and pressuring the authorities to meet their demands. But as the authorities regained control of the streets, we have seen a change in the approach of western governments. They are returning to diplomacy and negotiations with Iran, slowly normalising their relations. This has boosted the Iranian regime’s confidence, re-legitimising it and giving it space to spread its propaganda.

    What tactics has the government used to limit further mobilisation?

    The number one tactic of the regime to crack down on protests has been to arrest protesters. Over the past year, thousands have been arrested, including over 20,000 who were arrested during the protests. Some have been given long jail sentences.

    The second tactic has been the prevention of organising and networking. Even small communities have been actively prevented from getting together. Online networking has been limited by censorship, filtering and hacking. Leaders and activists trying to establish any form of group are arrested and their work is disrupted. They threaten activists with jail and even death. They also target their personal life by demanding that they be fired or suspended from work or university. Many teachers and professors who supported the protest movement have been fired and students expelled.

    To reach those who may not have joined the protest yet, the authorities spread propaganda, fake news and conspiracy theories that delegitimise the protest movement. Some communities fear the protest movement as a result.

    To prevent the development of a political alternative to the regime, the authorities have targeted the opposition within and outside Iran. Their main aim seems to be to sow division among opposition groups and force them to deal with issues internal to the opposition movement instead of focusing on developing an alternative coalition. Iranian cyber forces have supported these efforts through hacking and social media manipulation.

    What forms has resistance taken in response?

    Iranian activists have pursued two strategies in response. First, the protest movement sought to widen its scope to increase its resilience. By mobilising excluded ethnic groups such as Baloch and Kurdish people, the protest movement expanded to more cities and communities, making the crackdown more difficult. Second, the protest movement tried to stay on the streets for as long as possible, hoping to create division among crackdown forces.

    Internationally, the movement’s main strategy was to try to isolate the regime by forcing the severance of as many diplomatic connections as possible. For example, it successfully advocated for Iran to be removed from the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women and it also sought to force the closure of Iranian embassies in western states.

    How have Iranian organisations from the diaspora or in exile supported the protest movement in Iran?

    We have observed two phases in the involvement of the diaspora and exiled Iranian organisations in the protest movement. In the first phase, they organised large-scale solidarity mobilisations and projects in support of the ‘Women, Life, Freedom’ protests in Iran. Over 80,000 Iranians from the diaspora participated in the solidarity protest in Berlin in Germany, for example.

    After this initial phase, however, each political group in exile tried to present itself as the leader of the protest movement. This broke the solidarity and unity of the movement. Instead of fighting against the regime, some diaspora groups mostly fought each other. Independent activists and organisations in the diaspora that didn’t want to be caught in this fight decreased their involvement. For the protest movement to succeed, opposition groups and political movements need to get better at resolving their conflicts, reaching compromises and building a unified anti-regime coalition.

    Has the crackdown intensified as the first anniversary approaches?

    Civil society activists have continued to be arrested and organisations put under pressure and shut down. But as the first anniversary approaches, we are seeing repression increase, particularly in universities and among journalists. Universities have recently fired more lecturers and professors and expelled more students who participated in last year’s protests. Student associations have been shut down long ago and any form of student organising is banned.

    Journalists are also being heavily repressed. The authorities are disrupting reporting and coverage of protest actions and calls for protests around 16 September. They are threatening and arresting journalists, prosecuting them and handing them heavy sentences.

    Independent lawyers, who have been instrumental in supporting arrested and imprisoned activists, are also being threatened. Lawyers have played key roles in defending activists in court and spreading information about their trials, informing the public on the authorities’ repression. As a result, they are being threatened with losing their licences or being arrested.

    Is Iran closer to change now than a year ago?

    I think we are multiple steps closer to change than before. Iranians are less scared of the consequences of their activism. They dare to take action against the regime. The voice of protest is louder and the severity of the crackdown only shows how scared the regime is of the protest movement. The regime understands it won’t be easy to shut down this protest movement, which threatens the legitimacy and therefore the existence of the regime.

    We also see a major lifestyle change. People on the streets are now dressed differently and are less afraid of showing their lifestyle in public. Although political change is minimal, cultural change following last year’s protests is clearly visible. This change shouldn’t be underestimated.

    What needs to happen for political change to take place?

    Iranians need to realise the power of being together. Change comes from power, and power comes from organising and acting together. To bring about change, we need social power and to create social power, organising is essential. By forming associations, organisations and networks, Iranians can demand and achieve change.

    For this to happen, three types of changes are required. First is a change in attitude. Iranian activists need to think positively and constructively instead of negatively and destructively. Second is a change in behaviour. We will only achieve democracy if we also act democratically and use democratic tools. This means avoiding any form of violence and understanding that democracy does not rise from bloodshed and fire. Third is a change in context. It is key to empower society to say no and resist the regime.

    The international community could support change by helping to increase the resilience of the social movement and its activists, both online and offline. The pursuit of meaningful and sustainable change is a marathon and it’s instrumental to echo the voices of activists and provide sustainable support. A coalition of international civil society organisations could help by providing strategic support to Iranian activists.


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

    Get in touch with Volunteer Activists through itswebsite.

  • IRAN: Political humour as a tool against authoritarian regimes

    Ahead of the publication of the 2018 State of Civil Society Report on the theme of ‘Reimagining Democracy’, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their work to promote democratic practices and principles, the challenges they encounter and the victories they score in doing so. CIVICUS speaks to the Iranian-born political cartoonist Nik Kowsar, who was jailed for his humorous criticism before eventually emigrating to Canada, where he became a citizen. A former recipient of the international Award for Courage for Editorial Cartooning, he currently resides in the United States.

    1. Would you tell us the story of that crocodile you drew, and how it changed your life?

    Iran CartoonI was born in Iran, and I had always lived in Iran until I had to get out of the country in 2003. I was a geologist by training and a cartoonist by trade. In 2000 I drew a cartoon and went to prison for it. My drawing apparently caused a national security issue: thousands of clergy students gathered and shouted for my death and they sat there for four nights, until I was arrested.

    All I had done was draw a crocodile that was shedding crocodile tears and strangling a journalist, while claiming that the journalist was killing him. The name that I gave the crocodile rhymed with the name of an ayatollah. Of course, I denied any resemblance between the two, but still, you know, there was a political message there. From that day on, I became a sponsor for Lacoste – they didn’t sponsor me, but I started buying the shirts with the crocodile logo for myself, and I always wear them as a symbol and a reminder.

    Long story short, I went to prison and underwent interrogation, and eventually I walked free. But I didn’t quit my job as a cartoonist and I started receiving death threats that eventually got serious, and in 2003 I had to escape. I had to leave my wife and daughter behind – they were only able to join me in Canada four years later, in 2007.

    2. Did you see cartoons as a safer means of expression, a way of saying some things without saying them, when speech is heavily censored?

    In Iran we used to say: ‘We have freedom of speech, what we don’t have is freedom afterspeech’. When you produce content that powerful people or organisations dislike, no matter how that content is packaged, they will try to shut you down by all means, including allegations and criminal charges like undermining national security, working with the enemy, indecency or attacking Islam. Anything can be used against you in Iran – and in other Islamic countries as well. I’ve been working with Tunisian and Palestinian cartoonists, and they all have problems with their governments.

    What is said with a cartoon is more difficult to erase than anything else: a good cartoon is even more valuable than a thousand words, because it stays in your mind for ages. A ‘joke’ is a serious matter: it goes directly to the point, it exposes the absurd. In a way, cartoonists can be the conscience, the moral compass of a society – it is not a matter of right and left, but a matter of right or wrong. So, cartoonists are very important, and it is not wonder that many governments – from Iran to Equatorial Guinea to Turkey – are trying to pressure them into silence.

    3. What have you done since leaving Iran?

    While in Canada, I studied journalism and worked with a news agency for three years. I joined IFEX in 2008, and starting in 2009 I ran a news website specifically for and about Iran. This became one of the top news websites on Iranian issues, although it was filtered and firewalled in Iran. At some point, however, we stopped getting funding; we understood that the Obama administration’s policies towards Iran, their efforts to connect with the regime, were a major reason why other organisations stopped funding us. We had to let it go.

    As a cartoonist with fibromyalgia, who has had to stop drawing as a professional, I now work with Cartoonist Rights Network International. I was once a client, now I am a board member. We are a human rights organisation, focused on the freedom of expression, and we support cartoonists in distress: cartoonists who are oppressed by the regimes in their countries, threatened, arrested or sent to prison.

    Cartoonists are vulnerable, and even more so after the Charlie Hebdo massacre. There is increasing solidarity among them, and they are better connected now, through our organisation and others – but still, they are in danger. What needs to be done is provide a means of sustenance for cartoonists who are in trouble. That’s very difficult, because non-profits are not rich, and also because a cartoonist cannot live off assistance funds forever – they need to be paid to do what they do best.

    Finally, as a geologist and an expert on Iran’s water problems, I am back to working on water issues. Iran has a big water problem, which is possibly going to create big chaos in the near future. There was an uprising in December 2017 and January 2018, and only in cities hit by water crisis and drought, where people were too desperate and felt they had nothing left to lose, were the protests not easily contained and people were killed. We will see more and more clashes in areas that are hit by drought.

    4. Do you think environmental issues, including water, should be treated as political issues?

    Most definitely. That is exactly what I am working on. Water may easily become a major political issue, in Iran and in the whole Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, an already unstable one. Iran has always been a dry country, with rainfall about a third of the median around the world. But for 3,500 years Iranians were able to manage their water resources through various technologies. Over the past 50 years, however, mega-dams and deep wells have ruined our environment and most aquifers have been depleted; as a result, 85 percent of our groundwater is now gone. Climate change has only made it worse: last year, we had 78 percent less snow storage in our mountains compared to the previous year.

    Now, Iranians may be oppressed because of their beliefs and ideas, but when there’s not enough water to drink and produce food, they have reached a tipping point. In Syria the drought worsened from 2006 to 2009, as a result of which a million people from the north-eastern provinces had to leave their lands and migrate to the margins of bigger cities. When the Arab Spring started, it sparked protests in Syria as well – but in this case, they led to civil war. We are talking about farmers and herdsmen, people who had lost their livelihoods, many of whom had joined militant groups. Factor in an intolerant, authoritarian government that could not manage the protests, and there you go. Something similar could happen in Iran.

    5. Are you saying civil war is a likely outcome for Iran? Isn’t there any way pro-democracy forces could turn the discontent in their favour?

    That’s what some of us are worrying about. Pressure for water could, maybe, lead to a democratic opening as well. We are educating the public about the water situation. Unfortunately, many political groups have no clue about environmental issues – they have never cared about them, don’t understand them and don’t see how they could connect to their political struggles. In trying to change this, I am currently working on a documentary about water, connecting the struggles with water shortages that we are seeing in places as diverse as Cape Town in South Africa, Seville in Spain and even the Vatican City and some parts of the US. Our contacts in Iran are collecting material for us and documenting the situation as well, and we are doing a collaborative bilingual project, in English and Persian, to educate the public, including academics and politicians. Because if we don’t do anything about it, rather than democracy what we will get is more uprisings, repression, and hundreds or thousands of people killed in places hit by drought.

    Civic space in Iran is rated as ‘closed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor,indicating overwhelming restrictions in the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression.

    Get in touch with Nik Kowsar through hisFacebook page, or follow@nikahang on Twitter.

  • IRAQ: ‘We've submitted many bills, but parliament refuses to adopt a law against GBV’

    CIVICUS speaks about International Women’s Day and civil society’s role in combatting gender inequalities and the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on Iraqi women and girls with Alyaa Al Ansari, executive director of Bent Al-Rafedain Organisation (BROB).

    Founded in Iraq’s southern Babylon province in 2005, BROB is a feminist civil society organisation (CSO) that works to ensure the protection of women and children and promotes women’s integration in all spheres of society. Since its foundation, BROB has extended its activities to eight provinces across Iraq. 

    Alyaa Al Ansari

    How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted on women and girls in Iraq?

    The pandemic has affected many different groups of Iraqi society, but women and girls have been the most affected of all. Since before the pandemic, Iraqi women were socially compelled to have the biggest share of care responsibilities within their families: they are the main caregivers for children and older people. When a full lockdown was imposed in Iraq for four months, these responsibilities grew even more.

    Additionally, many women were financially affected as the pandemic swept away countless businesses, including hotels, restaurants and shops, because they lost their jobs in the private sector. Without a stable income, their families suffered, particularly when they were the family’s main breadwinner.

    The situation was even worse for female healthcare professionals. Some of them made the tough decision to remain separate from their families for a prolonged period to avoid spreading the virus to their family members. Further, the government did not issue any additional regulations on the working conditions of pregnant medical staff during the pandemic. They too were forced to continue working and risk their lives and those of their unborn children; several of them miscarried.

    Another dramatic effect of the full lockdown was the spike in domestic violence. For four long months, abused women had no way out. They had to continue to live under the same roof with their abusers. There were more femicides and more attempted suicides were reported as some women could not bear the pressure and the violence they were subjected to.

    How has civil society, and BROB in particular, responded to the devastating impacts of the pandemic on women?

    During the pandemic, civil society efforts focused on providing humanitarian aid to affected women and their families. For instance, charity organisations covered essential needs of poor families and helped women who lost their jobs due to the pandemic.

    As for feminist CSOs, some set up online programmes to provide psychological support. Other organisations shifted their face-to-face activities online and took to social media platforms such as Facebook to reach women who had to stay at home for unusually long periods. BROB’s phone number was posted across social media platforms, so women and families who needed urgent help were able to reach us.

    Fortunately, BROB staff were able to continue to work at full capacity during the pandemic. We had freedom of movement once the Iraqi authorities issued permits allowing us to circulate during curfew in the eight provinces where we work. They gave us permission because we were providing essential services to families under lockdown. For instance, our team was distributing food supplies twice a month. 

    We maintained our social and psychological support programme for women but we moved it fully online via mobile and communications apps such as WhatsApp. Remote work is one of the new tactics we adopted during the pandemic. Our staff was creative and developed several new tactics we had never thought of before the pandemic, which allowed us to meet the urgent needs of women and their families.

    Financially, BROB sustained its activities through donations from members as well as from the local community. Moreover, as public health institutions were struggling and the Ministry of Health was overwhelmed, we crowdfunded and sought donations to acquire additional medical equipment for the public health sector. This was a successful campaign that could have the positive side effect of strengthening the relationship between civil society and government institutions in the public health sector.

    What are the main women’s rights issues in Iraq and how is civil society working to make change happen?

    There are many relevant issues, but the one that if adequately tackled would make the most meaningful change in the lives of Iraqi women is that of gender-based violence (GBV). There is an urgent need for a law criminalising domestic violence in Iraq. CSOs have advocated for this for more than a decade. They have submitted several bills, but parliament has so far refused to discuss and adopt a law to protect women, girls and families from violence.

    Given the importance of such legislation in promoting and protecting women’s rights at the national level, we will continue to put pressure on decision-makers through advocacy and campaigns combined with media support.

    It is also key to change current laws that are unequal and unfair to provide women much-needed legal protection. Personal status laws in particular contain articles that discriminate against women in terms of the rights they recognise or don’t recognise, and the obligations and penalties they impose.

    At the very least, Iraq should have laws to guarantee equal access to education, healthcare and public services overall. Such laws will contribute to gender equality as they become an integral part of the Iraqi legislative system. A law criminalising incitement of violence against women in the media and by religious leaders is also very much needed.

    To make change happen, CSOs will continue raising awareness on gender equality, advocating with decision-makers, orchestrating public opinion campaigns, fighting legal battles and fostering leadership capabilities among women and girls. It is mostly up to us, because when it comes to official response, decision-makers do nothing besides issuing positive press releases to capitalise on CSO campaigns. 

    The International Women’s Day (IWD) theme for 2022 is #BreakTheBias. How did you organise around it?

    Most of our projects have always focused on breaking the bias to combat gender inequalities. Every year we plan events on IWD to shed light on an issue that is critical to local communities. In 2019, for instance, we celebrated disabled sportswomen in Babylon province and supported their training programmes.

    As usual, there are plenty of urgent issues this year, but we decided to focus on discrimination in the workplace, in both the private and the public sector. Women deserve safe and fair working conditions everywhere.

    Civic space in Iraq is rated ‘closed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with Bent Al-Rafedain Organisation through its website orFacebook page. 

  • JORDAN: ‘Commercial spyware that enables digital repression and abuse must be completely banned’

    CIVICUS speaks with Access Now about their forensic investigation that exposed the use of Pegasus spyware to target activists and journalists in Jordan. Access Now is an international civil society organisation that works to defend and extend the digital rights of people and communities at risk.

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    What restrictions do Jordanian journalists and activists face?

    Over the past four years, the Jordanian government has dialled up its crackdown on the rights to freedom of association, expression and peaceful assembly. Journalists, human rights defenders, labour unions and activists are routinely harassed, detained and prosecuted under vague and draconian laws. In late 2022 and throughout 2023, several lawyers, journalists and activists were arrested in connection with protests or for their social media posts.

    Repression has deepened as a result of the new cybercrime law adopted in August 2023. This law threatens online freedom of expression on the basis of ambiguous and overly broad provisions about ‘spreading fake news’, ‘promoting, instigating, aiding or inciting immorality’, ‘online assassination of personality’, ‘provoking strife’ and ‘undermining national unity’. The law is now being weaponised to quash pro-Palestinian protests and activism in Jordan. Since 7 October 2023, hundreds of protesters expressing solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza have been detained and many others prosecuted under this draconian law.

    Our recent forensic investigation into the use of NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware in Jordan has revealed an additional layer of repression, with at least 35 people being targeted for no reason other than their peaceful political dissent and human rights advocacy.

    How’s spyware used, and who’s using it?

    In January 2022, Access Now and Front Line Defenders revealed that Pegasus spyware had been used to hack prominent Jordanian human rights lawyer Hala Ahed. Hala was hacked in March 2021, and it was an isolating and traumatic experience for her. Access Now then joined Citizen Lab to further investigate the use of Pegasus spyware in Jordan.

    Our joint forensic investigation uncovered a terrifyingly widespread use of Pegasus to target Jordanian media and civil society. We found traces of Pegasus spyware on the mobile devices of 30 activists, journalists, lawyers and civil society members. Further forensic analysis by our partners Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International’s Security Lab and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project identified five more Pegasus victims, bringing the total to 35.

    This is the largest pool of Pegasus victims uncovered in Jordan so far, but we believe actual numbers are much higher. We don’t know exactly who is behind these attacks because spyware manufacturers such as NSO Group make the identification of perpetrators of cyberattacks very hard.

    The NSO Group blatantly claims its surveillance technologies are crucial for governments to fight crime and terrorism. Conveniently, this is the same pretext used by dictators and repressive regimes to criminalise the work of journalists and activists and prosecute them under draconian counterterrorism and cybercrime laws. It’s a match made in hell, as a result of which activists and journalists are hacked, prosecuted, jailed, tortured and killed merely for exercising their rights or doing their job.

    What can activists and journalists do to protect themselves?

    Unfortunately, given their stealthy nature, there’s no bulletproof protection against spyware attacks. Zero click spyware doesn’t require any interaction between the software and the user of the hacked device. It basically exploits a vulnerability in the device’s software to infect it without the user’s knowledge.

    Still, there are some basic protection measures everyone should implement. For example, every time a vulnerability is discovered, Apple patches it, which means it’s important for users to ensure their device’s operating system is always up to date, otherwise the patch won’t apply. Activists can also enable the Lockdown Mode feature on their Apple devices, which seems to be helping protect at-risk users.

    How does Access Now hold governments and companies accountable?

    For years, Access Now and broader civil society have been campaigning for a global moratorium on the export, sale, transfer, servicing and use of targeted digital surveillance technologies until rigorous human rights safeguards are put in place. Commercial spyware that enables digital repression and abuse worldwide, such as Pegasus, must be completely banned. We are not there yet, but this is our baseline to rein in the surveillance tech industry.

    There have been some positive steps toward holding spyware companies accountable. For instance, a number of Israeli spyware outfits including NSO Group, Candiru and four Intellexa entities were added to a list of the US Department of Commerce that includes entities engaging in activities contrary to the USA’s national security or foreign policy interests. The latest addition to the list was the Canada-based firm Sandvine, blacklisted for enabling digital repression in Egypt. In February 2024, the US State Department also announced a new visa sanctions policy that will deny visas to anyone involved in, facilitating or deriving financial benefit from the misuse of commercial spyware around the world.

    Civil society plays a vital role in exposing how these shady companies profit from facilitating human rights abuses around the world and demanding accountability for violations and reparation to spyware victims. Its continued work is key to holding governments and spyware companies accountable.


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

    Get in touch with Access Now through itswebsite orFacebook andInstagram pages, and follow@accessnow on Twitter.

  • JORDAN: ‘Transnational feminist solidarity is vital in the struggle against gender-based violence’

     Content warning: this interview contains references to femicide and violence.

    BananCIVICUS speaks with Banan Abu Zain Eddin about the widespread anger triggered by recent femicides in Jordan, and more broadly in the Middle East and North Africa, and civil society’s role in the struggle against gender-based violence (GBV).

    Banan is a feminist activist and co-founder and executive director of Takatoat, an independent feminist collective based in Jordan whose work focuses on establishing safe spaces for women and girls and building solidarity to push back against the prevalent patriarchal culture.

    What do recent femicide cases reveal about the scale of the problem of GBV in Jordan and the region?

    We have recently seen a frightening rise in femicides in the region, shockingly carried out in public spaces. In Egypt, Naira Ashraf, a student at Mansoura University, was murdered in broad daylight and in the presence of several bystanders outside the university gates. Shortly after, a Jordanian student, Iman Arsheed, was shot on her university campus in Amman. A few weeks later, another Egyptian university student, Salma Bahgat, was knifed to death by a fellow student. In what seems to be a pattern, the murderer was a man whose marriage proposal she had rejected. The string of tragedies continued in Lebanon, where a young pregnant woman was beaten and burned to death by her husband.

    We are seeing a wave of femicides in the region. We have reached a point at which people are witnessing femicides happen in public and not bothering to interfere. This is leading to femicide being normalised and even turned into a spectacle. A terrible case in this regard took place in 2020, when a woman was murdered by her father who then sat beside her body drinking a cup of tea while people made videos and took photos of the murder scene. The victim had recently been returned to her family after spending time in a women’s detention facility for complaining of her husband’s domestic abuse.

    Women and girls are constantly at risk of being killed just for being female. Women are targeted when they are viewed as challenging those exercising power over women’s bodies and choices. Men get easily offended when women violate the unwritten rule that a man cannot be rejected by a woman. A rejection of a marriage proposal represents a denial of male authority over women.

    This is very scary. Following Iman Arsheed’s murder, many women and girls received death threats. Many were afraid of going to class, and some stopped attending, effectively losing their right to access education. Such crimes reinforce the exclusion of women, taking us backward in a struggle that an older generation of feminists has carried on for decades.

    What roles are Jordanian women’s rights organisations playing in the struggle against GBV?

    We are putting forward demands for national mechanisms for monitoring GBV, reporting cases, protecting victims and holding perpetrators accountable. We emphasise that encouraging women and girls to report abuse should only come after the enactment of protection mechanisms, and that immediate accountability is the main deterrent.

    We also work to counter the normalisation of GBV by focusing on the ethics of media coverage. As much as the murderer should bear full responsibility for his crime, the media should be held accountable for its coverage. Naira Ashraf’s murder provided a blunt example of the terrible normalising effects of media coverage that is sympathetic towards perpetrators rather than victims of GBV. Her murderer’s defence lawyer was given a lot of air space that he used to justify the murder, creating a wave of public sympathy for his client. 

     

    What should the Jordanian government do to curb GBV?

    Women’s rights and safety should be a priority on the government’s agenda. Sadly, this is not the case. State inaction has normalised GBV. The recent femicides didn’t happen out of the blue: a series of events led to them that the state did nothing to stop. The state has so far failed to establish effective protection and reporting mechanisms and encourage women to report violence before it escalates.

    When a woman in Jordan reports a situation of violence, including domestic violence, she is typically blamed. Reporting mechanisms have a major flaw when it comes to abusive family members: victims are sent back home to their abusers once perpetrators sign a pledge to stop the abuse. On top of that, the concept of swift justice for GBV victims simply doesn’t exist.

    Additionally, the limited protection mechanisms that currently exist scare most GBV victims away. Women hosted in safe houses are subjected to a number of rules and regulations that result in them losing their freedom of movement, being under surveillance and losing access to communication devices.

    In short, the current wave of femicides is a direct result of collusion between the government, the media and the judiciary.

    What was the idea behind the call for a regional strike against GBV?

    The regional strike that we held on 6 July was just the start of our cross-border fight against GBV. Transnational feminist solidarity is vital in this struggle. The driving force of our call was sheer anger at the current situation: we will not accept more piecemeal, ineffective solutions for a problem that is systematic and systemic.

    Violence against women is the result of a system that places women in a subordinate position. That’s why the whole range of feminist demands for rights are inseparable. Intersectional feminism believes that protecting women from violence implies not only protecting them from femicide but also closing the gender pay gap and recognising women’s unpaid work, among many other things.

    The strike was quite successful because it proved that if the rise in femicides is a regional phenomenon, feminist organising against it is regional as well.

    Civic space in Jordan is rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with Takatoatthrough itswebsite or itsFacebook page, and follow@takatoat on Twitter. 

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