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  • MYANMAR: ‘The government needs to open the doors’

    CIVICUS speaks with Nay Lin Tun, a doctor and civil society humanitarian worker in Myanmar, about conflict in Rakhine State, the difficulties faced by minorities in the region, and civil society’s work to provide help.

    nay lin tun

    Can you tell us about your background and the work you’re doing in Rakhine State?

    I’m a doctor working in public health, particularly focusing on primary healthcare, reproductive and women’s health, HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis. I was part of a group who founded a civil society organisation, the Center for Social Integrity, which supports communities in conflict-affected areas, including Rakhine State. We’re trying to support people based on their needs, including their needs to food, shelter and livelihoods. Right now in Rakhine State we are providing basic humanitarian support, education, healthcare, livelihoods and water and sanitation services for people in the conflict areas. Because of my experience I focus on providing healthcare and humanitarian support.

    At the moment there is fighting in the north and east of Rakhine State between the Myanmar Army and the insurgent Arakan Army. According to the United Nations there are around 35,000 newly displaced people because of the fighting in 2019, living in camps in Rakhine State. We are supporting these communities and other conflict-affected communities in the area.

    What are some of the challenges minority groups face in Rakhine State?

    In my country there are 135 recognised ethnic groups. The majority ethnic group are the Bamar, who are the main group across most of Myanmar. At the other end of the spectrum are lots of small groups, often in the regions close to borders, who are becoming less and less recognised by the government. Different groups face different challenges. In Rakhine State there are religious, ethnic and social minorities, and they all face human rights challenges.

    The Rohingya community, who are Muslims, have been subjected to a lot of abuses. They are denied citizenship and treated as stateless persons. They are not recognised as an ethnic group by the 1982 Citizenship Law. They are called Bengalis by many in the dominant population groups, because they see them as belonging to Bangladesh. They have their movement restricted and struggle to access education and healthcare.

    Local hospitals are inadequate, so if there is a medical emergency people have to travel to a major city. Before 2017 they could go to the Bangladesh side of the border on a short-term pass and get hospital treatment, but now the border area is closed and they cannot do this. But because they don’t have citizenship and their movement is restricted, it is also hard to go to the big hospitals in Sitwe, the main city in Rakhine State. People can pay for this with their lives. If there is an emergency, the only way people can negotiate to get treatment is to pay a bribe. This happened to someone I was trying to treat for a tumour.

    In another case, a pregnant woman had severe labour pains in the middle of the night. They tried to take her to hospital, but there is a curfew, introduced in 2017 and in force ever since. No one can go out between 11pm and 5am. There are many police checkpoints in the area, and while other villages were okay, in this case they would not allow this pregnant woman to pass. She had to go home. By the time she could go to hospital the next day, the child was already dead. Luckily, the mother survived.

    Rohingya people are also denied education. The highest education most people can get is at high school. They cannot join a university as a full-time student. They can only do distance learning for a few subjects. They also struggle to find work. Most Rohingya people work in farming, fishing and cutting timber, but right now they are not allowed to fish or go into forests to chop wood. Most of the farming lands are occupied by the military. Most people are now involved in daily casual work. So everyday life is very challenging.

    The Rohingya are not the only minority in the region who face difficulties. Local ethnic groups such as the Chakma, Dynat and Mu, who live on the mountains, face challenges, even though their religion is Buddhist. Because they live in remote locations, they cannot access healthcare and education. They have no life opportunities.

    What was your experience of the violence that occurred in 2017?

    What I saw was people living in fear. I saw communities that were afraid of each other: Rohingya people and Rakhine people, the majority group within the state, were afraid of each other. I worked on medical clinics in northern Rakhine State and hired a taxi to transport medicines. My driver, who was from the Rakhine group, did not want to take me to the area. You had people unable to go to the other communities because they did not think they would come back.

    What role do you think hate speech and extremist views played in stoking conflict?

    Most of the hate speech and extremist protest and provocations came from extreme groups in the big cities, and was spread by social media, whereas in rural communities it was more that you had villages of different ethnic groups that were afraid of each other. There was a lot of misinformation spread through social media, and this was viral. No one could know what was true or not. Positive stories and true information were far less viral than hate speech and misinformation.

    In the major cities, hate speech and misinformation turned a social conflict into a religious conflict between Buddhism and Islam. Extremist Buddhist monks turned this into a bigger conflict. Extremist groups spread disinformation and encouraged extremism, with the unofficial support of the military and political parties, in their own interests. People played political games in the big cities, but they had no connection to the villages in the conflict area. Those people were the most affected and they were living in fear, and live in fear now. There is a big challenge in controlling hate speech and misinformation on social media.

    It is much harder for civil society voices promoting social cohesion and religious harmony to be heard compared to hate speech, but civil society is trying to do this. These are messages my organisation is trying to promote very strongly in the conflict areas. But there is a need for more impact, and more efforts, not just from civil society but from the government. There is a need for much more activity that strengthens communities.

    What support is needed, including from the international community, to improve the lives of minorities and people affected by conflict?

    There is a lot of willingness from the international community to support people in Rakhine State, and not only Rohingya people but also other minorities. But the most challenging thing at the moment is that national government and local authorities are limiting them from doing so, and have been doing since 2017. So there is a lack of ability to really go into the villages and directly help people.

    The international community needs to engage with the national government and local authorities so that they are willing to work with them and listen to the voices of local communities and support them in the areas affected by conflict. They need to build relationships with the government, and the government needs to work with the international community. The government needs to open the doors.

    It is all about access – access to healthcare, access to education, access to livelihoods. Right now access is blocked. Even access to the internet was blocked by the government, between June and September. People don’t have access to the means to share their voices. People are also scared of speaking out because of restrictive media laws. They fear they will get into trouble. This is why I try to share their stories. So, access is the big challenge. We need more access by the community for the community. This is why the government needs to open the doors for international and local civil society.

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

    Get in touch withCenter for Social Integrity through its website andFacebook pages, and on Twitter@cfor_integrity.

     

  • ‘La sociedad civil progresista debe reclamar para sí la defensa de la vida’

    Maria Angelica Penas DefagoEn el marco de nuestroinforme temático 2019, estamos entrevistando a activistas, líderes y expertos de la sociedad civil acerca de sus experiencias y acciones ante el avance de los grupos anti-derechos y sus estrategias para fortalecer las narrativas progresistas y la capacidad de respuesta de la sociedad civil. En esta oportunidad, CIVICUS conversa con María Angélica Peñas Defago, especialista en temas de género, profesora e investigadora del Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones (CONICET) de Argentina, basada en la Universidad Nacional de Córdoba, y coautora del recienteinforme del Global Philanthropy Project, ‘Conservadurismos religiosos en el escenario global: Amenazas y desafíos para los derechos LGBTI’.

    ¿Piensas que los grupos anti-derechos han aumentado su actividad en los últimos tiempos?

    En primer lugar, habría que definir qué son los últimos tiempos, cuánto para atrás nos remontamos, y en qué contexto nos situamos, porque en América Latina la situación varía de país en país. En el caso de Argentina hemos visto a lo largo del tiempo - y no solamente en el último año, durante el cual se discutió en el Congreso un proyecto de ley de interrupción voluntaria del embarazo –reacciones contra los progresos de la agenda de los derechos de las mujeres y las personas LGBTQI. Si bien es cierto que en los últimos años los grupos anti-derechos se han visibilizado y unido más entre ellos, en gran parte en respuesta a los avances en temas de derechos sexuales y reproductivos conseguidos, hace décadas que están presentes, coaccionando nuestras agendas. En Argentina hace más de 20 años promueven activamente acciones de litigio contra todo intento de política pública de salud sexual y reproductiva o vinculada con esos derechos. En la provincia de Córdoba, donde vivo, estos esfuerzos han sido muy exitosos en las primeras instancias judiciales, pero los fallos favorables a estos grupos acabaron siendo revertidos en instancias superiores de la administración de justicia.

    En lo que se refiere a acciones callejeras, ya ha habido en el pasado reacciones fuertes de estos grupos, incluyendo marchas en todo el país, por ejemplo contra el matrimonio igualitario, que se aprobó en 2010 en Argentina. Los mismos grupos volvieron a manifestarse en contra de la legalización del aborto en 2018. Al mismo tiempo ha habido una nueva embestida contra la educación sexual en las escuelas, una batalla de larga data. La educación sexual fue implementada mediante una ley de 2006 que aún sigue siendo resistida. Durante el debate sobre el aborto los grupos anti-derechos fingieron promover la educación sexual como alternativa al aborto, pero luego de que el proyecto de ley de interrupción voluntaria del embarazo fue rechazado en el Senado volvieron a la carga contra la educación sexual.

    Lo que hay en curso es una rearticulación conservadora y desde esa rearticulación creo que se han vuelto más visibles en el último tiempo. Si bien también han emergido nuevos actores dentro de la sociedad civil, el fenómeno central en el actual contexto sociopolítico es la rearticulación que se está produciendo en los campos político y económico. Esto se observa, por ejemplo, en las alianzas articuladas en Colombia en torno del referéndum de 2016 por el proceso de paz, así como en Brasil, con la elección de Jair Bolsonaro como presidente en 2018.

    En Colombia, durante la campaña conducente al plebiscito, las fuerzas contrarias a los acuerdos aseguraban que si ganaba el ‘sí’ se impondría la llamada ‘ideología de género’; en Brasil se multiplicaron durante la campaña electoral las noticias falsas que decían que el PT promovía la pedofilia e intentaba ‘convertir’ a los niños en homosexuales o transexuales.

    De diferentes maneras, el fenómeno se observa también en Argentina, donde se ha producido una convergencia entre los principales actores de oposición a la agenda progresista, y en particular a la agenda de los derechos sexuales y reproductivos.

    ¿Crees que se trata de grupos puramente reactivos, cuya razón de ser es frenar los avances de la agenda progresista?

    En mi experiencia, efectivamente así es. En mi trabajo he monitoreado algunos congresos de grupos autodenominados ‘pro-vida’ y analizado sus acciones en los espacios regionales y globales, y sobre todo en la Organización de Estados Americanos y las Naciones Unidas, y es evidente que están perdiendo la hegemonía en lo que se refiere a formatos familiares y roles sexuales, y ellos lo saben. Estos grupos están reaccionando frente a lo que perciben como un retroceso. Su reacción está siendo coordinada no solo a través de la agenda temática de los derechos sexuales y reproductivos, sino también a través de una agenda política y económica nacionalista, neoliberal y en algunos casos fascista.

    El fenómeno Bolsonaro es un buen ejemplo de reacción ante una agenda pluralista en materia de moral sexual y derechos sexuales y reproductivos. El avance de esta agenda pluralista funcionó de agente aglutinante para una agenda política conservadora más amplia. En el marco de la reacción contra los progresos en materia de derechos sexuales y reproductivos, otros actores están aprovechando para imponer sus propias agendas conservadoras, por ejemplo en torno del tema migratorio. Hay algunos actores nuevos, sobre todo los que se suman desde otros campos - político, económico, religioso -, pero muchos de los que están adquiriendo mayor visibilidad son los mismos de siempre, que ahora están unificando agendas que solían discurrir en paralelo y de maneras menos coordinadas.

    ¿Cuáles son las tácticas que estos grupos han utilizado para hacer avanzar su agenda?

    El litigio contra los derechos sexuales y reproductivos ha sido una herramienta importante a lo largo de más de tres décadas. En Argentina, estos grupos han litigado, entre otras cosas, contra la administración de contracepción de emergencia y para frenar la aplicación de los protocolos para abortos no punibles. En Argentina el aborto es legal desde 1921 en los casos de violación, inviabilidad del feto, o peligro para la vida o la salud de la mujer; sin embargo, estos sectores han intentado impedir el acceso oportuno y seguro a este derecho.

    Para la parte de la sociedad civil que trabaja en el área de los derechos de las mujeres, estos grupos siempre han estado allí. Pero el litigio, en ocasiones, es bastante silencioso, y posiblemente escapara al conocimiento de la sociedad civil más amplia. Muchas veces todo quedaba en el terreno de la justicia y los servicios de salud. Lo cual no obstaba para que tuviera efectos muy fuertes, porque las decisiones judiciales en materia de salud sexual y reproductiva producen miedos, dudas y parálisis en los prestadores de salud, que son sujetos clave para el acceso a esos derechos.

    La presencia actual de grupos anti-derechos no es novedosa para los grupos feministas y LGBTQI, pero puede que sí lo sea para otros sectores de la sociedad civil, incluidas las organizaciones de derechos humanos, que en el último tiempo los ven actuando más intensamente a través de la ocupación del espacio callejero y la creación de alianzas políticas partidarias, arenas claves de disputa en las democracias contemporáneas. Estos grupos están tratando de resignificar lo público, intentando mostrarse como mayoría, y de este modo están ganando visibilidad pública. En este terreno, una de sus estrategias más exitosas pasa por el uso de mensajes y simbologías coordinados. La campaña ‘Con mis hijos no te metas’, por ejemplo, usa las mismas frases y eslóganes, e incluso los mismos símbolos y colores, no solamente en toda América Latina, sino incluso más allá. Lo hemos visto en Europa del Este, en Italia, en España. Hacen un intenso uso de redes sociales para que estas estrategias y simbologías viajen, sean compartidas y nos lleguen repetidamente desde distintas latitudes.

    Si las posiciones anti-derechos tienen mayor visibilidad es porque los actores que las impulsan, en su mayoría actores religiosos, han un adquirido un protagonismo en el espacio público que hace 20 años no tenían. Las iglesias evangélicas, al igual que las católicas, son plurales y heterogéneas en su conformación. Pero en gran parte de América Latina, diversas iglesias evangélicas de las ramas más conservadoras están liderando los procesos políticos de resistencia a los derechos sexuales y reproductivos, en algunos casos en alianza con las jerarquías católicas y en otros con discrepancias e incluso con rupturas.

    A diferencia del litigio, la estrategia de ocupar la calle requiere de apoyo en grandes números. ¿Piensas que estos grupos están ganando popularidad?

    El fenómeno sociopolítico que han generado estos grupos no es menor. No se trata simplemente de campañas y eslóganes, sino que tienen una inserción profunda en el territorio. Para entender lo que está pasando en el terreno religioso y de la resistencia contra los avances en materia de derechos sexuales y reproductivos es necesario tomar en cuenta el contexto socioeconómico y el modo en que operan estas iglesias a nivel territorial, en conexión con las poblaciones a las que movilizan.

    En Argentina, una sociedad muy movilizada políticamente, la movilización callejera ha sido largamente utilizada por estos grupos, no es una novedad. Lo novedoso es la masividad de la convocatoria. Hace 30 años, o más, estos grupos ya se movilizaban, pero no existían las redes sociales. Los modos de comunicación y convocatoria han cambiado al mismo tiempo que lo ha hecho el campo religioso frente a los avances de los derechos sexuales y reproductivos. Las iglesias evangélicas han crecido en toda la región, y dentro de ellas los que más han crecido han sido los sectores conservadores.

    Por otro lado, creo que entender cómo opera el contexto neoliberal de precarización general de la vida es clave para entender este fenómeno. En el contexto sociopolítico del Estado neoliberal, con la retirada del Estado de sus funciones básicas, muchos actores religiosos han pasado a realizar tareas y a proveer servicios que corresponden al Estado. En algunos sitios, como en los Estados Unidos, la Iglesia Católica lleva décadas prestando servicios a ciertos grupos, por ejemplo a los migrantes, que el Estado no ofrece. En América Latina, es impresionante el rol de las iglesias evangélicas en el terreno de la asistencia y la contención relacionada, por ejemplo, con las adicciones. Los sectores evangélicos están creciendo exponencialmente porque están asistiendo a comunidades que están siendo relegadas por el Estado. Los pastores evangélicos desempeñan roles centrales en las comunidades, están activos en las políticas de asistencia, de adicciones, de salud, de educación, y son centrales a la hora de convocar a la movilización - en parte, además, porque muchos de ellos son miembros de esas comunidades. Viven en los mismos barrios y mantienen vínculos estrechos con las personas que integran sus iglesias.

    De modo que no estamos ante una mera batalla de narrativas. Los discursos que debemos enfrentar están enraizados en las prácticas de las comunidades de base, y muchas de las convocatorias se realizan desde las iglesias. El llamado desde el púlpito es importante, porque para muchas personas que están excluidas la iglesia es indispensable. En países con altísimas tasas de pobreza, para mucha gente la iglesia es el único lugar de pertenencia y amparo que queda cuando tanto el Estado como el mercado la han excluido, y no tienen acceso a trabajo, educación o salud. Más allá del hecho de que la religiosidad sigue siendo un aspecto central de la identidad de muchas personas, la pertenencia y la idea de comunidad no son una cuestión menor en el contexto de la precarización y la individualización extremas que suponen los modelos económicos, políticos, sociales y culturales del neoliberalismo.

    ¿Qué puede ofrecer frente a esto la sociedad civil progresista?

    La sociedad civil progresista tiene mucho para ofrecer, porque se centra en la disputa y la generación de modos de vida vivibles, ricos, plurales, basados en la solidaridad y el apoyo mutuo. No creo que haya una receta única, porque se trata de movimientos muy diversos. Hay movimientos feministas y LGBTQI que trabajan desde el pluralismo religioso, disputando la idea del monopolio de la fe, y son espacios muy ricos de lucha y de pertenencia. Las religiones, todas ellas, tienen espacios plurales, democráticos y horizontales, que muchas organizaciones aprovechan para dar una batalla por los sentidos. Otras organizaciones tienen experticia en la creación de mensajes, y desde allí contribuyen. Pero esta batalla no tiene lugar solamente, ni principalmente, en las redes sociales, ya que no todo el mundo tiene siquiera acceso a internet. La disputa por el sentido es fundamental tanto en las redes sociales como fuera de ellas, como se observa en torno del rótulo ‘pro-vida’ que se auto-imputan muchos grupos anti-derechos. Los grupos de mujeres y LGBTQI que trabajan a nivel de base lo referencian continuamente, con el interrogante: ¿cuánto vale mi vida si no tengo acceso a un trabajo, al reconocimiento de mi identidad, a la protección de mi salud, si la vida que se me ofrece no es una vida digna? La sociedad civil progresista debe reclamar para sí la defensa de la vida, entendida como vida digna, plenamente humana.

    Para ofrecer esta respuesta, la sociedad civil progresista necesita aliarse con otros actores que comparten los valores del pluralismo, la libertad y la igualdad. La agenda feminista plural, inclusiva, no esencialista y decolonial es una buena base sobre la cual articular alianzas con múltiples actores que antes no eran convocados por el feminismo, para poder disputar sentidos no solo en el terreno retórico, sino también en la realidad concreta. El feminismo popular representa un regreso a lo real, a lo que los principios implican para el día a día de la gente. Si hablamos del aborto, por ejemplo, debemos centrarnos en las consecuencias de la legalidad o la ilegalidad de esta práctica sobre la realidad cotidiana de las personas gestantes, de las familias y las comunidades. La religiosidad y la fe son una parte importante de la vida de las personas, y el movimiento feminista, o al menos una buena parte de él, está trabajando desde esa realidad.

    Contáctese con María Angélica través de su perfil deFacebook y encuentre sus trabajos enResearchGate.

     

  • ‘People cannot stay on the sidelines when their rights are being taken away’

    Uma Mishra Newbery1As part of our 2019 thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their experiences of backlash from anti-rights groups and their strategies to strengthen progressive narratives and civil society responses. CIVICUS speaks toUma Mishra-Newbery, Interim Executive Director of Women’s March Global, a network of chapters and members mobilising to advance women’s rights around the world. Women’s March Global was formed to give continuity to the momentum of theJanuary 2017 mobilisations, when millions of women and allies in the USA and around the world poured out on to the streets to make themselves seen and heard. Its vision is one of a global community in which all women — including black women, indigenous women, poor women, immigrant women, women with disabilities, lesbian, queer and trans women, and women of every religious, non-religious and atheist background — are free and able to exercise their rights and realise their full potential.

    You recently witnessed anti-rights groups in action at the United Nations’ Commission on the Status of Women. Are we seeing a new generation of more aggressive anti-rights groups active at the global level?

    I don’t think this is new. These groups have always been around, always in the background. But there is a massive resurgence of anti-rights groups underway. Following changes in political leadership in some countries, including the USA, they have become more vocal and more deeply involved. And they have become much more strategic and better coordinated. If we look at the funding of these groups, it is coming from very well-established family foundations that are deliberately working to undermine women’s rights. But they are doing it under the disguise of gender equality.

    During the 63rd session of the United Nations (UN) Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), held in March 2019, the Holy See organised a side event under the title ‘Gender Equality and Gender Ideology: Protecting Women and Girls’. On the surface, this could appear as super progressive – they are trying to give the impression that they are promoting women’s rights. But you walk into the event and it’s extremely transphobic, as they outrightly reject the concept of gender identity and insist on biological sex, therefore refusing to consider trans women as women. They claim to know better what it means to be a woman and what all women feel and need, and this brings them to condone violence against trans people and reject sexual and reproductive rights.

    The way these groups have morphed and shifted, I think they have become more deliberate in the ways they show themselves in public. They have also become more sophisticated and are using information and communication technologies, as resistance movements always have, in order to organise and disseminate their views.

    Why do you think they are trying to appear to be progressive and who are they trying to fool?

    One would hope that they were trying to fool the UN, which should filter out hate groups, but truth be told, the UN still lets the National Rifle Association (NRA) keep its ECOSOC (UN Economic and Social Council) status, and the NRA actively lobbies against any trade treaty regulating weapons – weapons that are killing people in the USA at an astonishing rate. The UN should understand that these groups exist to undermine democracy and human rights – but more than ever, the UN has become biased on this issue. At the same time there are grassroots organisations that are being denied accreditation in unprecedented numbers – and these are all organisations working on issues that powerful states don’t want to see brought to the forefront.

    So I don’t think they are trying to fool anybody – at this point, they don’t really need to.

    You mentioned the foundations that support these anti-rights groups. Why are all these foundations providing funding?What is there in it for them?

    We have to look at the web of interests that keep these groups active within these spaces, because there are a lot of political and monetary interests keeping them at the UN and within the CSW space.

    If we look at, say, the Heritage Foundation in a space such as CSW, speaking out against what they call gender ideology, what is their point there? Digging deeper, we find that the Heritage Foundation was funded by the Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation. And Betsy DeVos is currently the Trump administration’s Secretary of Education. She and her family are very deeply embedded within the US government, and they have their own political interests back in Michigan, where they are from. What Betsy DeVos has done in Michigan, essentially destroying the public education framework, is deeply troubling. We need to go through all these layers to understand why these groups exist, how sophisticated they are and why they are so difficult to remove.

    How are these groups affecting progressive civil society, in general, and specifically at forums such as CSW? How do they create disruption?

    We are currently seeing the phenomenon of governments working together to deny women’s rights, as opposed to the situation a few decades back, when collaboration among various development players, including states and their aid agencies, civil society organisations (CSOs) and grassroots groups, led to a widening of these rights.

    These new regressive partnerships are very clear at the UN. While some states continue to challenge sexual violence in conflicts, for instance, you have other member states – including the US government – that have shifted and now threaten to reject anti-rape measures because the language in the documents includes terms and considerations related to sexual and reproductive health. These states are working together to strip women – and not only women – of their rights.

    In this context, progressive CSOs are singled out as the ones speaking up against regressive governments and depicted as if they were the ones trying to undermine democracy. These delegitimising attacks against CSOs open up the space for further attacks. They are a signal for anti-rights groups, which are increasingly emboldened as a result of what their governments are doing. When your government is literally saying ‘we don´t care about women´s sexual and reproductive rights, we don´t care about what women experience as a result of conflicts – conflicts that we finance’, anti-rights groups hearing this know they are being given free rein to exist and act openly in these spaces. It’s exactly the same with white supremacists, in the USA and in other countries around the world. These groups are emboldened by a public discourse that gives a green light for fascists, racists and white supremacists to step forward. And this is exactly what they are doing by entering civil society space.

    As well as being emboldened by governments that promote their ideas, do you think anti-rights groups are also emboldened because they are becoming more popular among the public? If so, why do you think their narratives are resonating with citizens?

    They are possibly becoming more popular too – what once seemed like fringe ideas, or too politically incorrect positions to state aloud, are now becoming mainstream.

    As for why this is happening, at the risk of sounding like a ridiculous cliché, I think it is because it is easier for people to hate than to love. When we talk about human rights what we are saying is that, at a very basic level, every single person on this planet should have the same human rights. This is a message that everyone should be able to step behind. But of course, many of those who have held power for hundreds of years and benefited from patriarchy and white supremacy are going to try to defend what they see as their right to continue exercising that power. This includes governments as well as anti-rights non-state groups.

    This was apparent at that panel organised by the Holy See at CSW. The Holy See is an active, very vocal state at the UN. We reported live on their event on Twitter, and you cannot imagine the way we were trolled online. Anti-rights groups accused us of promoting trans rights over women’s rights. But we are an intersectional organisation: we understand that forms of oppression are interconnected, and so by fighting for trans women’s rights we are fighting for all women’s rights, in the same way as by fighting for women’s rights we are fighting for the rights of all people. Because the fight for the most marginalised is a fight for us all. But how can you explain this to people who have had their rights so protected, who have lived in such privilege for so long?

    Is there something that progressive civil society could learn from the ways anti-right groups are pushing their narratives?

    We definitely need to be able to work together towards a common purpose the way they do, and use social media for progressive purposes as cleverly as they are using them to undermine human rights. In many countries, Facebook is undermining democracy. In Myanmar, the genocide of the Rohingya people was incited on Facebook, and how long did it take Facebook to ban Myanmar’s military? In New Zealand, the Christchurch shooter tried to spread footage of the shooting live on Facebook, and how long did it take for Facebook to take it down?

    As civil society, we know that if we don’t actively use the tools that are being used by other groups and governments to undermine human rights, then we are failing. We have to work in a coordinated way, in coalitions. In the past, CSOs have tended to compete for funding – we need to really get better at sharing resources, being collaborative and bringing our strengths to the table.

    We are trying to move in that direction. Recently, we worked in Cameroon with one of our strategic partners, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, on social media training for peace. In this case, we focused on enabling social media campaigns to promote voting for politicians who support women’s rights and human rights.

    For our Free Saudi Women Coalition we have partnerships with six other CSOs, CIVICUS included, and we work actively as a coalition. The wins that we have had have been the result of working together. For instance, in mid-2018 the government of Iceland obtained, for the first time ever, a seat on the UN Human Rights Council, and went on to lead a joint initiative that publicly called on Saudi Arabia to improve its human rights situation. The joint statement that Iceland delivered on behalf of 36 states was a direct result of behind-the-scenes advocacy by a civil society coalition.

    What do you think progressive civil society needs to keep up the fight?

    I think that people need to understand that CSOs have always been on the ground, that they have always worked at the very grassroots level to hold governments accountable and to push forward human rights agendas. People need to know that 90 per cent of the time there is a high level of coordination that goes on behind the scenes and that CSOs are furiously working to push forward. But many people don’t see all the behind-the-scenes work. And in a lot of places, we cannot be very explicit and provide too many details about our advocacy work, because for security reasons we cannot reveal the names of activists or journalists.

    People need to understand that, in the fight for human rights, grassroots activists and organisations, as well as bigger CSOs, are doing really important and necessary work and more than ever need real support from them. We need people to get invested at the grassroots level. People cannot stay on the sidelines when their rights are being taken away. If your government is taking away your rights, you need to get involved before it’s too late. If you live in a free and stable democracy you have a duty to use your voice and speak up on the human rights abuses happening around the world. This work needs all of us at the table.

    Get in touch with Women’s March Global through itswebsite and Facebook page, or follow@WM_Global and@umajmishra on Twitter.

     

  • ‘The government is in fact listening to civil society, just not to the progressive side of it’

    CIVICUS speaks to Horace Levy, the director of Jamaicans for Justice, a non-profit, non-partisan, non-violent citizens’ rights action organisation that advocates for good governance and improvements in state accountability and transparency.

    1. What led to the formation of Jamaicans for Justice, and what does the organisation do?

    In April 1999, the government announced new taxes, including a special fuel tax and a 30% hike in the cost of licensing vehicles. This prompted widespread protests, both peaceful and violent, including roadblocks and barricades, which lasted for several days. There was one group, in the St. Andrew’s section of Kingston, that included some lower class people, but was mostly middle class, and had gathered to block a road in protest. The poorer people were on one side of the road and the middle class people were on the other, but after a couple of days they came together. Some people from that middle-class group met afterwards to discuss the causes of the protests – the general state of injustice, the oppression of poor people. Out of a series of meetings, held along with a Roman Catholic priest, Monsignor Richard Albert, who offered his church as a venue, was born Jamaicans for Justice (JFJ). By July the group had formed, in August it registered as a limited liability company, and on 15 October 1999, six months after the riots, it officially became a registered NGO.

    The very first case JFJ took on involved the ill treatment of inner city poor youth by the police. The police had detained 52 poor youths, put them behind bars — then they released some but they kept others. From the beginning, then, ill treatment by police became a major issue for JFJ. As a result of several presentations we made before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), the government eventually set up a Special Coroners’ Court, because the Coroner’s Court was totally inadequate to deal with this. The Special Coroners’ Court deals specifically with police abuse, and killings in particular.

    Another broad area of our work involves children in the care of the state. JFJ monitors the situation of wards of the state in children’s homes, places of safety, police lock-ups, remand and correctional facilities. We gather data, provide reports and lobby for the protection of this particularly vulnerable group.

    We are also involved in a wide range of other things: we deliver human rights education in schools, we provide human rights training to police recruits, we bring legal advice to inner-city communities through legal advice sessions and workshops, we give testimony in front of parliamentary committees, we promote citizen awareness of the right to access public information, and we develop media campaigns, among other things. Right now some of us are working very hard on an identification process the government is putting in place, which involves elements of respect for privacy and other rights. But we keep focusing on one of our core issues: the conditions of detention.

    One achievement we contributed to was the establishment by the government of an independent Commission of Enquiry to clarify the events that took place during the State of Emergency declared in May 2010, which left almost 70 civilians dead. A lot of progress was done in prosecuting the police for extra-judicial killings, which helped reduce the number of killings. In order to prevent this from happening again, we keep pushing for radical change in the way the security forces operate.

    2. Organisations defending basic civil rights against actions by the security forces are often accused of “protecting criminals”. How do you get public opinion to take your side on divisive issues such as police brutality?

    I don’t think we have entirely escaped that accusation. But we try in various ways: for instance, when a police officer is killed in the line of duty we issue a press release offering our sympathy to his family and condemning the act. Most of the times the papers don’t print that, but we issue it anyway. Secondly, we work on other issues as well, such as the welfare of children, which shows we are not fixated on police abuses. There was a period when we also did a lot of work on socio-economic rights: education, housing, employment and the development of rural communities. And of course, we also try to explain that the reason why we are concerned with police brutality is that the police are supposed to be protecting human rights. So a criminal killing somebody and a police officer killing somebody are two completely different things. But people seem to overlook that. Criminals are what they are, and they are not going to be moved by our condemning them. But by addressing actions by the state that should not happen, we have a chance to change them.

    3. How would you describe the environment for civil society in Jamaica? Are civic freedoms enjoyed by all Jamaicans equally, or are there restrictions that affect specific groups disproportionately?

    Civic space is quite good in Jamaica. The freedom of the press is perhaps the most unrestricted in the hemisphere. The freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly are respected and protected. The state does not attack these freedoms; to the contrary, for instance, the state has facilitated the freedom of expression by passing laws governing the establishment of fresh media outlets.

    About four years ago, we were stigmatised in public comments by the previous government’s Minister of Youth, who accused us of grooming children in state-run homes to be homosexuals, while we were in fact delivering a sexual education programme in about seven children’s homes. But this was an exception rather than a rule, and it was just an individual reaction from a public official that we had criticised. We had only had another situation like that in the past, when we had just started as an organisation and were perceived as hostile to the party that was in power at the time. But as time passed, and both parties spent some time in power, it became apparent that we criticised them both, that we were not partisan in any way, and that we were constructive rather than over-critical, so our position became accepted.

    Along with a quite healthy civic space, we have had free elections since 1945, and elections have been overall free and fair ever since. We never had a party in power that was not legally and legitimately elected. At the same time, slightly more than half the population is currently not voting, which means that each party has the support of about 23% or 24% of the electorate. Although democracy is firmly rooted not just in the political sphere but also among business, civil society and religious groups, recent polls have witnessed an increase in the number of citizens that would favour a military takeover (which is highly unlikely to happen) in reaction to the perceived corruption of politics.

    There are also lot of structural but subtle ways in which democracy is hurt. As a legacy of slavery and colonialism, our country has a hierarchical social structure that has stayed in place even after independence. It is a pyramid on top of which are white people, followed by brown people in the middle, and black people (who account for 85% of the population) at the bottom. Of course it’s not clear-cut: we have black politicians and top public officials, for example. But there is a sharp distinction between the brown and the black. The middle class is largely brown, although there are blacks among them as well. This distinction reflects in education: we have a two-tier education system, with the brown and upper class in private, proprietary and secondary schools, and the large mass of the mostly black population receiving and inferior education. Fortunately, this is changing, and formerly weak schools are now beginning to compete with privileged schools thanks to state funding. As for police abuses, they are directed against the black majority in poor communities: you don’t see upper class and white people being beaten by the police.

    In other words, democracy is in many ways corrupted by overlapping race and class injustices. The system is not corrupt in the sense that officials massively take bribes, but it is indeed damaged by this racial and class hierarchy that, according to public opinion polls, is unfortunately accepted by the vast majority of the people. Interestingly, this is not reflected in the way Jamaicans individually behave: we don’t see ourselves as less than anybody else, and when overseas we are often regarded as aggressive. We have a strong sense of our rights, but at the same time there is a broad segment of black people bleaching their skin in an attempt to climb up the social ladder.

    4. Do you think representative democracy in Jamaica is participatory enough? Do regular citizens and organised civil society have a say in how public affairs are run?

    Our democracy is not participatory enough, which is part of our struggle. Recent events have enhanced the prospects for civil society participation, however. In the latest election, in early 2016, the government won by a very tight majority, which made it more open to civil society. So as to gather as much support as they could, they gave continuity to an institution called Partnership for a Prosperous Jamaica (PPJ, formerly known as Partnership for Jamaica).

    The PPJ includes representatives of the state (both from the government and the opposition), the private sector, trade unions and civil society organisations. It was in fact as a result of civil society efforts that we got representation for five distinct civil society groups: a faith-based group, a rights advocacy group, a youth group, a women’s group and an environmental CSO. The Prime Minister, who chairs the Partnership, agreed to our proposal to have three sub-committees: on women and children; on violence and the rule of law; and on the environment. The chairpersons of all three sub-committees are civil society people.

    The chairwoman of the environment sub-committee, in particular, is a civil society representative who is highly respected by both major political parties and who had resigned to her position in the previous Partnership because she was disgusted by the fact that there was all talk and no real action. She just led a petition to the Prime Minister to protect Jamaica’s Cockpit Country against bauxite mining. According to a recently established mechanism, if you gather 15 000 signatures in 40 days, the government will review the petition, and if it complies with certain standards the Office of the Prime Minister will issue an official response. This petition surpassed the target by far, so we are now waiting to see whether we won this battle or not.

    So, there is an element of participation, but making it count is a permanent struggle. Additionally, there is a section of civil society that is mobilised around conservative or even reactionary causes, which means that not all forms of participation are helping advance a progressive agenda. For instance, an area in which we are struggling very strongly is LGBTQ rights. We have long been pushing for the revocation of buggery or sodomy laws, old pieces of legislation that criminalise male same-sex sexual activity. Under these statutes, loosely defined “unnatural offences” and “outrages on decency” can be punished with up to ten years of imprisonment and hard labour. But there is a wide section of society, led by conservative churches such as evangelists and Seventh-Day Adventists, which strongly oppose the repeal of these laws. The majority of the population belong to these churches, while more liberal churches are a small minority.

    Politicians are afraid of conservative religious people, so the government has proposed to submit the issue to a referendum. So the government is in fact listening to civil society, just not to the progressive side of it. Now, why would the majority go against itself, its own social norms and its own privilege? We just had an international conference with leading Anglicans and human rights activists, including Anthony Gifford, explaining why this is not the kind of issue to be decided by a popular vote. It doesn't make any sense to ask the majority whether they would like to respect the rights of a minority they are oppressing. Sodomy laws were repealed in Britain 50 years ago, but in Jamaica we are not likely to have them revoked anytime soon. On this issue, a section of civil society is fighting another section of civil society.

    5. What support, including from international actors, does progressive Jamaican civil society need to play a full role in building a fairer society and a more participatory democracy?

    We get international support, for example in the form of the conference I just mentioned, with highly-respected figures putting forward a cogent argument that will hopefully help shape public debate. UNDP has also collaborated in a similar way.

    Financial support, on the other hand, is not that good. That’s where organisations like JFJ are struggling. We get some funding locally, but it is very little. For instance, we have one donor who gives us nearly 2.5 million Jamaicans, but that’s just a few hundred US dollars. We have an annual fundraising art auction, which is quite unusual for an organisation like ours, but that’s because we have some middle- to upper-class donors, and this brings in a couple million Jamaican dollars a year. And it takes months of efforts.

    So most of our funding comes from international sources. We had funding from the UN Democracy Fund (UNDEF), but it expired last December. We just got UNICEF funding for our work with children, which is set to last for at least two years. We also have some funding from the European Union, but it ends in about five months, and we are finding it hard to replace it. We have been trying to get funding from the Open Society Foundations but have not yet succeeded. We are approaching the Inter-American Development Bank, and we might get something from them.

    In short, we are struggling with funding. Until 2013 we had a Legal Department but we had to close it. We still employ one of the lawyers from our former Legal Department, but we need more lawyers because a lot of our work with pre-trial detainees is of a legal nature. For instance, we have a case now going to the Privy Council and we are struggling to get the money to send people there. Even though we have some pro bono lawyers in England, it still costs us money: we need to send them 3 000 pounds that we can ill afford.

    When we get our Legal Department going, we will be able to use it to earn some money. In the past, we stupidly thought that, as a charity, we shouldn’t. But in fact, even as a charity we can earn some money by imposing retainer fees to those who can pay them, while working for free for those who cannot afford them. We are set to do that, but we have made that decision quite recently, so we won’t be earning any money from it for a few months yet.

    • Jamaicans for Justice (JFJ) was founded in 1999 and primarily works with victims whose rights have been breached by members of the security forces. In the upcoming period of sessions of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights) in Montevideo, Uruguay, JFJ will take part in a hearing on extrajudicial executions and the excessive use of preventive detention against Afro-descendants in Jamaica.
    • Civic space in Jamaica is rated as “narrowed” by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    • Get in touch with Jamaicans for Justice through theirwebsite or Facebook page, or follow@JAForJustice on Twitter.

     

  • ‘Threats to women’s and LGBTI rights are threats to democracy; any retrogression is unacceptable’

    Recent years have seen an apparently growing tendency for anti-rights groups to seek to claim the space for civil society, including at the intergovernmental level. CIVICUS speaks about it with Gillian Kane,asenior policy advisor for Ipas, a global women’s reproductive health and rights organisation.Founded in 1973, Ipas is dedicated to ending preventable deaths and disabilities from unsafe abortion. Through local, national and international partnerships, Ipas works to ensure that women can obtain safe, respectful and comprehensive abortion care, including counselling and contraception to prevent future unintended pregnancies.

    1. Do you observe any progress on sexual and reproductive rights in the Americas? What are the main challenges looking ahead?

    Ipas has robust programmes in Latin America, and we have definitely seen progress on legislation that increases women’s and girls’ access to safe and legal abortions, including in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Uruguay and Mexico City. Still, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy organisation, more than 97 per cent of women of childbearing age in the region live in countries where abortion is restricted or completely banned. A woman who lives in restrictive settings and wants an abortion will have to do so under illegal conditions and at great risk to not just her health, but also her security. Women who have abortions are vulnerable to harassment, intimidation, arrest, prosecution and even jail time.

    We also see that restrictive abortion laws are damaging the provider-patient confidentiality relationship. A study by Ipas and the Georgetown Law School’s O’Neill Institute found that an alarming number of medical staff across Latin America are reporting women and girls to the police for having abortions. Many countries now require, protect or encourage medical providers to breach their confidentiality duties when they treat women seeking post-abortion care.

    1. Are we facing a democratic regression at the global level? Do you think women are being targeted?

    We are indeed facing a democratic regression, and I do think women are being targeted, both which are incredibly alarming. With the United States leading, we’re seeing the rapid degradation of the political and legal infrastructure that is designed to promote and protect the interests of citizens. For example, you see this in attacks against the Istanbul Convention, which is intended combat violence against women. You would think this would be uncontroversial. Yet, there are right-wing groups like the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) objecting to the Convention, claiming that it takes away parental rights and that it promotes gender as social construct, and not as a binary biological truth, as they see it. This is also happening in international spaces. This year at the United Nations’ Commission on the Status of Women, the US State Departmentappointed two extremists to represent it. One was an executive leader of a known LGBTI-hate group, and the other was from an organisation that has advocated for the repeal of legislation that prevents violence against women. And at the country level, for example in Brazil, conservative leaders are downgrading the power of ministries that promote equal rights for women and black communities.

    But it’s not all doom and gloom. Women are responding forcefully. Poland provides an amazing example of women organising and effecting change. In late 2016 thousands of women and men crowded the major cities of Warsaw and Gdansk to join the ‘Black Monday’ march, to protest against a proposed law banning abortions. The full ban wasn’t enacted, which was a huge victory. And of course, the women’s marches and the #MeToo movement are incredible, and global.

    1. Not many people in Latin America have ever heard of the Alliance Defending Freedom. How is this organisation surreptitiously changing the political conversation in the region?

    ADF is a legal organisation. It was founded in 1994 by a group of white, male, hard-right conservative evangelical Christians. It was designed to be the conservative counterpoint to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which they saw as out to squash their religious liberties. They are huge, and have a global reach, which they say is dedicated to transforming the legal system through Christian witness. To that end they litigate and legislate on issues linked to the freedoms of expression and religion.

    I wouldn’t say that their actions are surreptitious; they’re not deliberately trying to fly under the radar. They are intervening in spaces that don’t necessarily get a lot of news coverage, such as the Organization of American States (OAS). But in recent years they have definitely increased their activism both at the regional and country level in Latin America. In terms of the conversation, what they are doing is reframing rights issues to use religion as a sword, rather than a shield. Right now they are litigating, in the United States Supreme Court, the case of a baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple. As my colleague Cole Parke has explained, they are corrupting religious freedom. They are claiming it is legal to discriminate against a gay couple because of religious beliefs: that religion trumps all other rights. They are doing the same with conscientious objection: they have supported a midwife in Sweden who has refused to provide abortion as required by law. The list goes on.

    1. What strategies have anti-rights groups used, and what accounts for their success in international forums?

    As I have explained in a recent op-ed, in international forums these groups express concern for the wellbeing of children, who they claim are being indoctrinated by permissive governments in the immoral principles of ‘gender ideology’. Of course there is no such thing as a gender ideology, and much less governments forcing children to learn inappropriate material. The wellbeing of children is being used as a cover to disable efforts to enforce rights and protections for girls, women and LGBTI people.

    The 2013 General Assembly of the OAS, held in Guatemala, witnessed the first coordinated movement agitating against reproductive and LGBTI rights. This was, not coincidentally, also the year when the OAS approved the Inter-American Convention against all forms of discrimination and intolerance, which included protections for LGBTI people.

    At the 2014 OAS General Assembly in Paraguay, these groups advanced further and instead of only being reactive, began proposing human rights resolutions in an attempt to create new policies that they claimed were rights-based, but were in fact an attempt to take rights away from specific groups. For instance, they proposed a ‘family policy’ that would protect life from conception, in order to prevent access to abortion.

    From then on, their profile increased with each subsequent assembly, in the same measure that their civility declined. At the 2016 General Assembly in the Dominican Republic, they even harassed and intimidated trans women attending the event as they entered women’s restrooms. As a result, the annual assembly of the OAS, the regional body responsible for promoting and protecting human rights and democracy in the western hemisphere, turned into a vulgar display of transphobic hate.

    1. Should progressive civil society be concerned with the advances made by these groups in global and regional forums? What should we be doing about it?

    Progressive civil society should definitely be concerned. Constant vigilance is needed. There are many ways to respond, but being informed, sharing information and building coalitions is key. I would also recommend that progressive movements think broadly about their issues. Consider how groups like ADF have managed to attack several rights, including abortion, LGBTI and youth rights, using one frame, religion. We need to be equally broad, but anchored, I would argue, in secularism, science and human rights. We started the conversation talking about democracy, and this is where we should end. We need to show how threats to specific rights for women and LGBTI people are threats to democracy. Any retrogression is unacceptable.

    Get in touch with Ipas through theirwebsite or theirFacebook page, or follow @IpasLatina and @IpasOrg on Twitter.

     

  • " Les gens ne peuvent pas rester sur la touche lorsque leurs droits leur sont retirés "

    Uma Mishra Newbery1Dans le cadre de notre rapport thématique de 2019, nous interrogeons des militants et des dirigeants de la société civile sur la manière dont ils sont confrontés aux réactions hostiles de la part des groupes anti-droits et sur leurs stratégies pour renforcer les approches progressistes et réponses de la société civile. CIVICUS s'entretient avec Uma Mishra-Newbery, directrice exécutive par intérim de Women's March Global, un réseau de sections et de membres qui se mobilisent pour promouvoir les droits des femmes dans le monde. Womens' March Global a été créée pour donner une continuité à la dynamique des mobilisations dejanvier 2017, lorsque des millions de femmes et de militants aux Etats-Unis et dans le monde sont descendus dans la rue pour se faire voir et entendre. Sa vision est celle d'une communauté mondiale au sein de laquelle toutes les femmes - y compris les femmes noires, les femmes autochtones, les femmes pauvres, les femmes migrantes, les femmes handicapées, les lesbiennes, les transgenres et les femmes de toutes religions, et non religieuses - sont libres et peuvent exercer leurs droits et réaliser pleinement leur potentiel.

    Vous avez récemment été témoin de groupes anti-droits en action à la Commission de la condition de la femme des Nations Unies. Sommes-nous en train de voir apparaître une nouvelle génération de groupes anti-droits plus agressifs et actifs au niveau mondial ?

    Je ne pense pas que cela soit nouveau. Ces groupes ont toujours été là, toujours en toile de fond. Mais il y a une résurgence massive de groupes anti-droits en cours. À la suite de changements dans la direction politique de certains pays, dont les États-Unis, ils se sont fait entendre et se sont impliqués plus profondément. Et ils sont devenus beaucoup plus stratégiques et mieux coordonnés. Si nous regardons le financement de ces groupes, nous constatons qu'il provient de fondations familiales très bien établies qui travaillent délibérément à bafouer les droits des femmes. Mais ils le font sous couvert de l'égalité des sexes.

    Lors de la 63ème session de la Commission de la condition de la femme des Nations Unies (ONU), tenue en mars 2019, le Saint-Siège a organisé une manifestation parallèle (en anglais) intitulée " Égalité des sexes et idéologie du genre " : Protéger les femmes et les filles ". À première vue, cela pourrait sembler très progressiste - ils essaient de donner l'impression qu'ils font la promotion des droits des femmes. Mais vous entrez dans l'événement et c'est extrêmement transphobe, car ils rejettent catégoriquement le concept d'identité sexuelle et insistent sur le sexe biologique, refusant ainsi de considérer les femmes transgenres comme des femmes. Ces personnes prétendent mieux savoir ce que signifie être une femme et ce que toutes les femmes ressentent et dont elles ont besoin, ce qui les amène à tolérer la violence contre les transgenres et à rejeter les droits sexuels et reproductifs.

    La façon dont ces groupes se sont transformés et ont évolué, je pense qu'ils sont devenus mieux préparés dans la façon dont ils se montrent en public. Ils sont également devenus plus sophistiqués et utilisent les technologies de l'information et de la communication, comme les mouvements de résistance l'ont toujours fait, afin d'organiser et de diffuser leurs opinions.

    Pourquoi pensez-vous qu'ils essaient de paraître progressistes et qui tentent-ils de tromper ?

    On pourrait espérer qu'ils essayaient de tromper l'ONU, qui devrait filtrer les groupes haineux, mais en vérité, l'ONU laisse toujours la National Rifle Association (en anglais) (NRA) conserver son statut ECOSOC (Conseil économique et social des Nations Unies), et la NRA fait activement pression (en anglais) contre tout traité commercial régissant les armes - des armes qui tuent les gens aux États-Unis à un rythme étonnant. L'ONU devrait comprendre que ces groupes existent pour miner la démocratie et les droits humains - mais plus que jamais, l'ONU est devenue partiale sur cette question. Dans le même temps, un nombre sans précédent d'organisations de base se voient refuser l'accréditation - et ce sont toutes des organisations qui travaillent sur des questions que les États puissants ne veulent pas voir mises au premier plan.

    Je ne pense donc pas qu'ils essaient de tromper qui que ce soit - à ce stade, ils n'en ont pas vraiment besoin.

    Vous avez mentionné les fondations qui soutiennent ces groupes anti-droits. Pourquoi toutes ces fondations apportent-elles du financement ? Qu'est-ce qu'elles y gagnent ?

    Nous devons examiner les réseaux d'intérêts qui maintiennent ces groupes actifs dans ces espaces, car il y a beaucoup d'intérêts politiques et financiers qui les maintiennent à l'ONU et au sein de la Commission de la condition de la femme (CSW).

    Si nous regardons, par exemple, la Heritage Foundation dans un espace comme la CSW, qui s'élève contre ce qu'elle appelle l'idéologie du genre, à quoi sert-elle ? En creusant davantage, nous constatons que la Heritage Foundation a été financée par la Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation. Et Betsy DeVos est actuellement la secrétaire à l'éducation de l'administration Trump. Elle et sa famille sont très profondément attachées au gouvernement américain, et elles ont leurs propres intérêts politiques au Michigan, d'où elles sont originaires. Ce que Betsy DeVos a fait au Michigan, détruisant pour ainsi dire le cadre de l'éducation publique, est profondément troublant. Nous devons examiner toutes ces couches pour comprendre pourquoi ces groupes existent, à quel point ils sont sophistiqués et pourquoi il est si difficile de les éliminer.

    Comment ces groupes influent-ils sur la société civile progressiste, en général, et plus particulièrement dans des forums comme la CSW ? Comment provoquent-ils des perturbations ?

    Nous assistons actuellement au phénomène de la collaboration des gouvernements pour nier les droits des femmes, alors qu'il y a quelques décennies, la collaboration entre divers acteurs du développement, y compris les États et leurs agences d'aide, les organisations de la société civile (OSC) et les groupes de base, a conduit à un élargissement de ces droits.

    Ces nouveaux partenariats régressifs sont très clairs à l'ONU. Alors que certains États continuent de s'opposer à la violence sexuelle dans les conflits, par exemple, d'autres États membres - y compris le gouvernement américain - ont changé et menacent maintenant de rejeter les mesures anti viol parce que le libellé des documents contient des termes et des considérations relatifs à la santé sexuelle et reproductive. Ces États travaillent ensemble pour priver les femmes - et pas seulement les femmes - de leurs droits.

    Dans ce contexte, les OSC progressistes sont désignées comme étant celles qui s'élèvent contre les gouvernements régressifs et sont dépeintes comme étant celles qui essaient de saper la démocratie. Ces attaques délégitimisantes contre les OSC ouvrent la voie à d'autres attaques. Elles sont un signal pour les groupes anti-droits, qui sont de plus en plus enhardis par ce que font leurs gouvernements. Quand votre gouvernement dit littéralement " nous nous moquons des droits sexuels et reproductifs des femmes, nous nous moquons de ce que les femmes vivent à la suite des conflits - des conflits que nous finançons ", les groupes anti-droits qui entendent cela savent qu'on leur donne carte blanche pour exister et agir librement dans ces espaces. C'est exactement la même chose avec les partisans de la suprématie blanche, aux États-Unis et dans d'autres pays du monde. Ces groupes sont encouragés par un discours public qui donne le feu vert aux fascistes, aux racistes et aux partisans de la suprématie blanche pour avancer. Et c'est exactement ce qu'ils font en entrant dans l'espace de la société civile.

    En plus d'être encouragés par les gouvernements qui font la promotion de leurs idées, pensez-vous que les groupes anti-droits le sont aussi parce qu'ils sont de plus en plus populaires auprès du public ? Si c'est le cas, pourquoi pensez-vous que leurs récits font écho auprès des citoyens ?

    Il est possible qu'ils deviennent aussi plus populaires - ce qui paraissait autrefois des idées marginales, ou des positions trop politiquement incorrectes pour être exprimées à haute voix, sont maintenant en train de devenir un courant dominant.

    Quant à savoir pourquoi cela se produit, au risque de dire un cliché ridicule, je pense que c'est parce qu'il est plus facile pour les gens de haïr que d'aimer. Lorsque nous parlons des droits de la personne, ce que nous disons, c'est que, à un niveau très fondamental, chaque personne sur cette planète devrait avoir les mêmes droits. C'est un message que tout le monde devrait pouvoir suivre. Mais, bien sûr, beaucoup de ceux qui détiennent le pouvoir depuis des centaines d'années et qui ont bénéficié du patriarcat et de la suprématie blanche vont essayer de défendre ce qu'ils considèrent comme leur droit de continuer à exercer ce pouvoir. Cela inclut les gouvernements ainsi que les groupes anti-droits non étatiques.

    C'est ce qui est ressorti du panel organisé par le Saint-Siège à la CSW. Le Saint-Siège est un État actif et très actif à l'ONU. Nous avons fait un reportage en direct sur leur événement sur Twitter, et vous ne pouvez pas imaginer la façon dont nous avons été traqués en ligne. Les groupes anti-droits nous ont accusés de promouvoir les droits des transgenres plutôt que les droits des femmes. Mais nous sommes une organisation intersectionnelle : nous comprenons que les formes d'oppression sont interconnectées et qu'en luttant pour les droits des femmes trans, nous luttons pour tous les droits des femmes, tout comme nous luttons pour les droits des femmes et pour les droits des personnes en général. Parce que la lutte pour les plus marginalisés est une lutte pour nous tous. Mais comment pouvez-vous expliquer cela à des gens qui ont vu leurs droits si protégés, qui ont vécu dans un tel privilège pendant si longtemps ?

    Y a-t-il quelque chose que la société civile progressiste pourrait apprendre de la façon dont les groupes anti-droits promeuvent leurs positions ?

    Nous devons absolument être capables de travailler ensemble vers un but commun, comme ils le font, et d'utiliser les réseaux sociaux à des fins progressistes aussi intelligemment qu'ils les utilisent pour bafouer les droits humains. Dans de nombreux pays, Facebook fragilise la démocratie. Au Myanmar, le génocide du peuple Rohingya a été incité sur Facebook (en anglais), et combien de temps a-t-il fallu à Facebook pour interdire les militaires du Myanmar ? En Nouvelle-Zélande, le tireur de Christchurch a essayé de diffuser des images de la fusillade en direct sur Facebook, et combien de temps cela a-t-il pris pour que Facebook le retire ?

    En tant que société civile, nous savons que si nous n'utilisons pas activement les outils utilisés par d'autres groupes et gouvernements pour faire reculer les droits humains, nous sommes sur la voie de l'échec. Nous devons travailler de manière coordonnée, en coalitions. Par le passé, les OSC ont eu tendance à se faire concurrence pour obtenir du financement - nous devons vraiment nous améliorer dans le partage des ressources, la collaboration et la mise à profit de nos forces.

    Nous essayons d'aller dans cette direction. Récemment, nous avons travaillé au Cameroun avec l'un de nos partenaires stratégiques, la Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, sur la formation aux réseaux sociaux pour la paix. Dans ce cas, nous nous sommes concentrés sur l'organisation de campagnes sur les réseaux sociaux pour promouvoir le vote pour les politiciens qui soutiennent les droits des femmes et les droits humains.

    Pour notre campagne Free Saudi Women, nous avons des partenariats avec six autres OSC, dont CIVICUS, et nous travaillons activement en tant que coalition. Les victoires que nous avons obtenues sont le résultat d'un travail d'équipe. Par exemple, à la mi-2018, le gouvernement islandais (en anglais) a obtenu, pour la toute première fois, un siège au Conseil des droits de l'homme des Nations Unies et a dirigé une initiative conjointe (en anglais) qui appelait publiquement l'Arabie saoudite à améliorer sa situation en matière de droits humains. La déclaration commune que l'Islande a faite au nom de 36 États est le résultat direct du plaidoyer mené en coulisse par une coalition de la société civile.

    Selon vous, de quoi la société civile progressiste a-t-elle besoin pour poursuivre la lutte ?

    Je pense que les gens doivent comprendre que les OSC ont toujours été sur le terrain, qu'elles ont toujours travaillé au niveau local pour demander des comptes aux gouvernements et faire avancer les programmes des droits humains. Les gens doivent savoir que 90 pour cent du temps, il y a un haut niveau de coordination qui se fait en coulisse et que les OSC travaillent d'arrache-pied pour faire avancer les choses. Mais beaucoup de gens ne voient pas tout le travail en coulisses. Et dans beaucoup d'endroits, nous ne pouvons pas être très explicites et fournir trop de détails sur notre travail de plaidoyer, parce que pour des raisons de sécurité, nous ne pouvons pas révéler les noms des activistes ou des journalistes.

    Les gens doivent comprendre que, dans la lutte pour les droits humains, les militants et les organisations de base, ainsi que les plus grandes OSC, font un travail vraiment important et nécessaire et ont plus que jamais besoin d'un soutien réel de leur part. Nous avons besoin que les gens s'investissent à la base. Les gens ne peuvent pas rester sur la touche lorsque leurs droits leur sont retirés. Si votre gouvernement vous prive de vos droits, vous devez intervenir avant qu'il ne soit trop tard. Si vous vivez dans une démocratie libre et stable, vous avez le devoir de faire entendre votre voix et de dénoncer les violations des droits de la personne dans le monde. Ce travail a besoin de la présence de chacun de nous.

    Contactez Womens' March Global par le biais de son site web et de sa page Facebook, ou suivez @WM_Global et @umajmishra sur Twitter.

     

  • Advocating for women’s sexual and reproductive rights in Peru, a risky fight against powerful enemies

    Spanish

    CIVICUS speaks to María Ysabel Cedano, Director of DEMUS –Study for the Defense of Women’s Rights, a Peruvian feminist organisation that since 1987 defends human rights, and particularly women’s sexual and reproductive rights, by promoting their free exercise and questioning the hegemonic cultural paradigm on women and their sexuality. DEMUS carries out public opinion campaigns and advocacy work with the three branches of government; it conducts strategic litigation and promotes mobilisation on issues related to the promotion of equality and non-discrimination, a life free from gender-based violence, access to justice, and sexual and reproductive rights.

    1. How would you describe the context for the exercise of feminist activism in Peru?
    Generally speaking, conditions for activism greatly depend on the ideology, programme and nature of the organisation and movement in question - on its stance regarding the state and the incumbent government, and on its relationship with political forces and the powers that be.

    Due to our agenda, we feminists are antagonists of Fujimorism, the political movement founded by Alberto Fujimori, who ruled Peru between 1990 and 2000. Our organisation has criticised and opposed them since the 1990s, as we have fought for justice and reparations for the thousands of victims of the Fujimori administration’s policy of systematic forced sterilisation. Its victims were mostly peasant, indigenous and poor women who underwent irreversible surgical contraception without being able to give their free and informed consent, in a context of widespread violence.

    On this issue, in 2003 we reached a Friendly Settlement Agreement (FSA) in the Mamérita Mestanza case. As a result, the Peruvian state acknowledged its responsibility for human rights violations in the context of the forced sterilisation policy and committed to providing justice and reparation to victims. We also obtained favourable statements by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that have boosted our work to defend the right to access justice and to promote a policy of integral reparations. That made us a target of Fujimorist attacks, in the form of defamation in the national media as well as in social media. We have in fact sued former congressman Alejandro Aguinaga, under investigation in the preliminary examination of forced sterilisations as a crime against humanity and other serious violations of human rights, which the Public Ministry opened in 2004 in compliance with the already mentioned FSA. The case still remains in its preliminary stages due to political interference, which we have publically denounced. For more than fourteen years, the Public Ministry has failed to accuse former President Fujimori and his former Health Ministers, including Aguinaga, and no prosecution has taken place. In the meantime, Fujimorism has not undergone any renovation whatsoever: it still does not believe in human rights and cannot fathom the right of women to decide on their own. In fact they all remain very convinced that it is the state that has to decide for them.

    The other antagonists we have as a result of our feminist agenda are the Catholic and Evangelical ecclesial hierarchies, as well as other conservative and fundamentalist religious groups such as Opus Dei, Sodalitium and Bethel. These are the leaders of an anti- sexual and reproductive rights agenda and seek to legislate and implement public policies to strengthen the institutions that guarantee their political, economic, social and cultural dominance, thereby ignoring the secular character of the state that the authorities in turn fail to enforce. For decades they have run a strong campaign against what they call “gender ideology”, not just in Peru but throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and beyond. These are multimillion-dollar campaigns that maintain that “gender ideology” attacks life, marriage and family. The funding they poured into the fear campaign against the peace accords in Colombia is a good example of this. They have also promoted a campaign called "Don't mess with my children" in several countries in the region.

    While these actors have questioned the scientific and legal validity of the gender perspective, the concept of gender has been adopted in the Beijing Platform for Action (1995) and in standards such as CEDAW, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and the Convention of Belém do Pará. In Peru it was included into several laws, public policies and institutions, as a result of which conservative sectors are currently trying, for instance, to eliminate the gender perspective from the school curriculum, including all allusions to sexual orientation and gender identity. They have done so by means of both street actions and lawsuits. These however have not yielded the desired results: the overwhelming response from the Ministry of Justice’s Attorney General even covered them in ridicule. As a result, they had no alternative left other than using their power in Congress, where there are currently two bills that have been submitted by Fujimorism towards that aim.

    Lastly, in addition to harassing us through their press, as they have always done, these sectors now also attack us for our funding sources. They say we are the instruments of great powers seeking to impose Western models of family and sexuality in our country.

    Thanks to a journalistic investigation that then became a criminal investigation, we currently know of child sexual abuse perpetrated by members of the Sodalitium, one of the most conservative and powerful groups within the Catholic Church. The scandal contributed to weakening the attacks coming from the ecclesial hierarchy. We are also beginning to know about the unholy business the Church does with education, health and even cemeteries within the framework of the Concordat between the Peruvian state and the Vatican. The very same priests who have spent years fighting us on the decriminalisation of abortion for rape cases, and who have said the worst things about us because they consider themselves to be the “defenders of life”, have allegedly covered for rapists of children and adolescents in their congregations and communities. This has helped people overcome their fear of denouncing the Catholic Church’s hypocrisy and double standards, and has limited the church’s ability to demand the government implement specific policies. For instance, the government has recently obeyed a court order to resume the distribution of emergency oral contraception despite pressures from Cardinal Cipriani.

    Given that our struggles for transitional justice have led us to seek justice and integral reparations for the victims of sexual violence during the internal armed conflict (1980-2000), we face not only Fujimorism but also APRA, a traditional party that ruled during a part of this period. They both seek to divide Peruvians between terrorists and non-terrorists and associate the left and human rights with terrorism. They never get tired of asserting that those who attack the military are terrorists - or ungrateful to say the least, for persecuting those who freed us from terrorism. If we strive for the legalisation of abortion we are abortionists, and if we defend human rights we are terrorists.

    2. How does DEMUS work to overcome these obstacles?
    We combine organisational and mobilisation strategies to strengthen the feminist and women’s diversity movement, public and political advocacy for legislation, public policies and access to justice measures, and strategic litigation. Among the latter were for instance the Manta y Vilca trial on rape during the internal armed conflict, which established that this was a crime against humanity; the case of forced sterilisations during the Fujimori administration; and other cases that have allowed us to move forward in terms of the recognition and guarantee of the human right to therapeutic abortion, among other sexual and reproductive rights.

    Ours is not just a lawyers’ struggle: we work in multidisciplinary teams and in alliances and within networks including other feminist, women’s, LGBTIQ and human rights NGOs, groups and platforms. Experience has taught us that it is not enough to obtain jurisprudence, standards, laws and public policies if there are no social movements and citizens defending them, that is, if there is no social base accompanying and empathising with the victims. Strategic litigation, legal defence and psycho-legal and therapeutic help are therefore always to be accompanied with mobilisation and campaigning.

    3. Is the Peruvian women’s movement integrated into regional or global networks, so as to face an adversary that is?
    There are indeed very important global and regional networks. In Latin America, the level of articulation reached by indigenous, peasant and environmental women human rights defenders is astonishing in contrast with the weakening of some feminist networks. New technologies have revolutionised communications, and we now have various alternative means to organise ourselves in networks.

    We must think about how to strengthen our thematic networks, for instance in the field of sexual and reproductive rights, in order to resist together. This is facilitated by a number of conceptual convergences, but complicated by the scarcity of resources reaching Latin America, competition around which affects alliances and articulations. Neoliberalism has also had an impact on inter-subjective relations: conflicts and rivalries arise due to scarce funding. It is impossible to understand the degree of difficulties we face without analysing the changes in and the new rules of international cooperation and funding mechanisms.
    On the other hand, we must not forget that Peru’s is a post-conflict society, with open wounds and an abundance of distrust, which has not yet learned to resolve differences without violence. We need to be aware of these limitations, so as not to reproduce what we criticise. But we are certainly still very strong: with much greater organisation and resources than we have, Catholics and evangelicals have not yet managed to create enough pressure in the streets and on public opinion to remove sex education from the school curriculum. Their only hope is now placed on authoritarian conservative forces in Congress.

    4. What progress or setbacks do you perceive in the struggle for women’s rights in Peru?
    Taking stock of the forty years of contemporary feminism in Peru, there has been net progress in terms of the legal-institutional framework. Advances have been the result of constant struggle and permanent dispute, and are neither ideal nor stable: they need to be continuously defended and perfected.

    For instance, in late 2015 a substantial amendment to Law No. 26260 (1993) on domestic violence was finally passed. The new legislation, Law No. 30394, is a law against gender-based violence. Shortly after, in July 2016, the Third National Plan against Gender Violence (2016-2021) was passed. In both cases there was a dispute over the diversity of the women to be protected. There was much resistance against the possibility that legislation would also protect lesbian, bisexual and transgender women. In fact, recognition of the variety of forms that gender violence can take was not as resisted as the extension and recognition of the objects of protection. The women’s movement succeeded in getting some previously unacknowledged forms of gender violence recognised as such, including gender-based violence in the context of social conflicts. We wanted the new law to protect women human rights defenders of land, the environment, and natural resources, that is, indigenous and peasant women who are currently criminalised and on whom conflicts have a differential impact on the basis of gender. This we achieved. We had also proposed that the violation of sexual and reproductive rights be recognised as gender violence. And while we achieved recognition of forced sterilisation, rape in the context of internal armed conflict, violence due to sexual orientation, and obstetric violence as forms of gender-based violence, such recognition was not expressed in the language of sexual and reproductive rights. In additional, sexual orientation-based violence was recognised but gender identity-based violence was not.

    Fifteen years after the First National Plan was launched, and more than twenty after the first law against then-called “domestic” or “intra-family” violence was passed, tension between women’s rights and family protection persists. Although Law No. 30364 has in many respects aligned legislation with the Belém do Pará Convention, violence based on gender identity discrimination has not yet been recognised. Public debate continues to focus on nature as a determinant of sexuality, reproduction and family.

    Why is it that feminists and LGBT people perceive “family protection” as contrary to our rights? First, because not all families are protected. Family rights of the LGBT population are not recognised. Secondly, because why protect the existing family – a traditional, hierarchical, violent family based on sexual division of labour and the exclusive recognition of heterosexual sexuality? A family organisation free of discrimination and gender-based violence should be promoted instead. In other words, measures should be taken to dismantle the patriarchal family, which functions as the very first place of normalisation and control, particularly for women and LGBT persons. The family has become a space in which physical, psychological and sexual violence remain unpunished: in fact, Peru has the second highest rate of denunciation of sexual offences against girls and adolescents in the region, and these are in many cases perpetrated by family members. Finally, a person’s (and in this case a woman’s) rights can never be subordinated, conditioned or reduced to a by-product of family welfare, in the same way as the rights of an actual person cannot be subordinated to the rights of being yet to be born.

    In sum, in historical perspective there has been progress in the recognition and guarantee of rights, but these have been the product of constant struggle. We face strong resistance, and if we had not permanently defended our conquests, we would certainly have seen them retreat long ago.

    5. In this context, how has DEMUS’ agenda changed since its beginnings in 1987?
    DEMUS is an organisation well known for its work for the right to a life free of gender-based violence. We specialise in prevention, care, denunciation, therapeutic and psycho-legal accompaniment, litigation, advocacy with legislative, policymaking and justice administration bodies, and campaigning and mobilisation on gender-based violence. For instance, we developed the “Not one more death” campaign, which placed femicide on the public agenda, and the “A man doesn't rape” campaign, which contributed to call attention on the problem of sexual violence, impunity and the culture of rape.

    In the beginning we had to dispute about the very concept of what was then called “intra-family violence”, which we designated as “violence against women” and today we call “gender-based violence”. We saw violence against women as a problem of power inequality, sexual discrimination and impunity, so we advocated for equality and access to justice. However, as years passed and the first laws and policies on the issue were passed, we realised that we were not obtaining the results we expected.

    The fight against violence against women had gained consensus as part of the state agenda and had occupied a space in the institutional structure of the state (commissions, ministries, etc.), and even ultraconservatives had begun to accept equal opportunities between men and women (which was enshrined in Law No. 28983 of 2007) all the while resisting the recognition of other sexual orientations and gender identities. So we began a conceptual revision and concluded that if we wanted to combat gender-based violence, our central strategic battle had to revolve around women’s autonomy and self-determination in the field of sexuality and reproduction, the recognition of and the provision of guarantees for sexual and reproductive rights understood as fundamental human rights, and access to justice in cases where these were violated. The perspective of sexual and reproductive rights came to enrich the equality and non-discrimination approach in addressing the problems of gender-based violence and impunity.

    Thus, although the defence of LGBT rights and the legalisation of abortion were already in DEMUS’ agenda, they have since become more central to it. And our strategies became richer in the process, because besides strategic litigation and therapeutic and psycho-legal accompaniment we started to focus as well on organisation and mobilisation, public advocacy and communication. We have used the whole toolbox in our search for justice and reparations for the victims of forced sterilisations, and also in our campaigns for emergency oral contraception and the legalisation of abortion (first of all for reasons of rape, foetal malformations incompatible with extra-uterine life, and unconsented artificial insemination and egg transfers, and eventually on the basis of women’s dignity and right to decide).

    Most recently, in our work to defend victims of sexual violence and impunity, we have learned from the indigenous and peasant women defenders of land and water that women human rights defenders are being differently affected by the extractivist economy due to their gender, and are being specifically criminalised by corporations such as the Yanacocha mining company and by the state itself. In their struggle to defend lakes and resist mining projects such as Conga, women are having a hard time, since gender-based violence is being used against them. In the actions of the police and the Armed Forces we are currently seeing a criminalisation of social protest, threats and violations of women’s rights echoing those that took place during armed conflict. In order to avoid the repetition of serious violations of human rights and crimes against humanity, we are using the new legislation, which now enables it, to denounce Yanacocha and make it clear that there is gender-based violence behind situations of harassment like that suffered by women human rights defenders such as Máxima Acuña.

    The other agenda that we increasingly adopted as central is the defence against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, in order to achieve recognition of and guarantees for the right to gender identity and lesbians’ right to maternity. We choose the issues we fight for on the basis of several criteria. One of them is that of revolutionising whatever the system resists the most, so that if we win, we will not only have obtained a law, public policy or jurisprudence, but we will also have conquered people’s common sense. And what the system most resists today is transgender identity and the right of LGBT persons to love and family. The system condemns us to civil death, poverty, marginalisation, murder, harassment and rape.

    6. In Peru, there have recently been major mobilisations with the motto #NiUnaMenos. How was the issue placed on the public agenda in such a way that mobilisation turned out to be so massive? What roles did regional networks play in the process?

    The marches in Argentina, Mexico and other countries inspired many of us: we wanted to do something similarly massive in our own country. But mobilisation did not occur in Peru as a response to a regional call, or as a result of prior coordination within a regional network.

    A year prior to this mobilisation there was a high profile case in Peru, in which a woman was savagely attacked in a hotel in Ayacucho, dragged by the hair and almost raped and murdered. The episode had been recorded on video, and everyone followed the case in the media and expected the attacker to be convicted. The ruling came out a few months before the demonstration, and it acquitted the accused. It denied that an attempted rape and femicide had taken place, and it even ruled that the injuries on the victim had been minor. This generated a social phenomenon of indignation that spread throughout the national territory and in social media. Women who were in the ideological and social antipodes from one another agreed that something had to be done, and feminists started talking about a mobilisation meant to make it clear that “if they touch one of us, they are touching us all”. The #NiUnaMenos (#NotOneLess) slogan was adopted out of the belief that the time had finally come and that this would be a mobilisation of a magnitude similar to those that had taken place in other countries.

    In Peru, the idea persists that if you do not obtain justice it is because you cannot prove what has happened to you. You only have your word and that is not enough for justice administrators. Now, if even in a case where there is a video like that, the aggressor is eventually absolved, what kind of security and justice is left for the rest of us? This created an unprecedented feeling of helplessness. Fear quickly turned into indignation, and this in turn into mobilisation. I was invited to join a Facebook chat a few hours after the video was made public. There were ten of us to start with, and a little while later we were over sixty, and the next day we were meeting at a comrade’s place. Within a few hours, the closed group formed in Facebook went from a few women testifying to the various forms of violence in their daily lives to 20 thousand, 40 thousand women reporting on their own stories of violence: at home, in the streets, at work, in school. Terrible stories, and everybody was telling them and keeping each other company.

    Thus, in Peru citizens went out into the streets to reject impunity and defend the right to justice. People began to wonder why violence against women persists despite all the laws and policies to combat it. The media started talking about patriarchy and machismo as its causes. There was some recognition of the importance of the feminist struggle, at least in that particular context. Much of the leadership and organisational work towards mobilisation was done by various organised and unorganised female citizens, leaders of feminist groups in neighbourhoods, universities, trade unions, NGOs. Women of a wide diversity of movements, colours, desires, education, professions and talents, in alliance and dialogue with the survivors whose emblematic cases united diverse sectors of society. Conservative sectors have still not managed to obtain similar success in defence of their agenda.

    7. Did the mobilisation have any positive effect in terms of public policy?
    The mobilisation resulted in some concrete measures, although these were too narrowly focused and involved little public investment. A Circle of Protection program was created, thereby extending attention to 24/7 in five out of over 200 Emergency Women’s Centres (EWC). Coverage of the emergency line Línea 600 was extended to all days of the week. This contributed to an increase in addressed complaints. Also, cases of femicide and rape were subsequently included into the rewards programme to stop offenders.

    Additionally, there were announcements regarding the expansion of temporary shelters, the provision of gender training to justice operators, and in particular to the National Police, and the creation of at least 50 new EWCs in various police stations across the country. The Public Ministry adapted its guidelines to Law No. 30364 and announced the creation of prosecution offices specialised in femicide. The Judiciary established a National Gender Commission.

    Nonetheless, femicidal violence persists as a savage daily occurrence; there is in fact a patriarchal and male chauvinist counteroffensive underway. They continue to kill us and rape us, and the femicide and rape culture keeps blaming us for it. And the measures adopted by the state in defence of the gender approach and gender equality fall short: they are basically reactions and responses to public pressure. We women do the reporting and monitoring job that the state should be doing. The state and the government always give in when it comes to the sexual and reproductive rights of women and LGBTIQ people. Which makes it clear that unless it becomes feminist, public policy will yield no results. If public policy priorities do not change, women will continue to die.

    The most important changes have occurred in the realms of common sense. #NiUnaMenos has shown that there is widespread rejection of violence against women, and that women have become empowered to talk about sexual violence in the same way that we first learned to talk about partner and domestic violence. There is no longer shame in having been a victim: it is clear that the other party is the one at fault. Women now know that there are things that are not right, and that if they happen to them it is not their fault, or God’s will, or the work of nature: it is a violation of rights and a matter of justice, and those responsible have to be punished.

    Civic space in Peru is rated as ‘obstructed’ in the CIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with DEMUS through their website, visit their Facebook page, or follow ‪@DEMUS_f‬ and ‪@MYCfeminista‬ on Twitter.‬‬‬‬

    Image ©Peru21

     

  • ANTI-RIGHTS GROUPS: ‘They don’t think human rights are universal, or they don’t view all people as equally human’

    gordan bosanac

    As part of our 2019thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about their experience of facing backlash by anti-rights groups. CIVICUS speaks about the rise of far-right extremism and religious fundamentalism in Eastern Europe with Gordan Bosanac, co-author of a case study on Eastern Europe for the Global Philanthropy Project’sreport ‘Religious Conservatism on the Global Stage: Threats and Challenges for LGBTI rights.’

      

    You have worked on a variety of issues, from racism and xenophobia to religious conservatism and LGBTQI rights. Do you think the rise of nationalism and attacks against migrants’ rights and sexual and reproductive rights are all part of the same trend?

    These are all definitely part of the same phenomenon. The vast majority of the organisations that mobilise against women’s rights also reject LGBTQI people and migrants and refugees. They are all part of the same global movement that rejects liberal-democratic ideas, and they all mobilise against minorities or vulnerable groups.

    They are a very heterogeneous set of groups and organisations. Their common denominator is what they fight against: liberal democracy. Neo-Nazi, anti-women, anti-LGBTQI and anti-migrant rights groups have different targets, but they share an agenda and collaborate towards that agenda. Many of these groups come together at the World Congress of Families, where you will find lots of hate speech against the LGBTQI community, against women and against migrants. They share the same philosophy.

    To me, these groups are the exact reverse of the human rights movement, where some organisations focus on women’s rights, others on LGBTQI rights, still others on migrants or indigenous peoples, or social, cultural, or environmental rights, but we all have a philosophy founded on a positive view of human rights. We are all part of the human rights movement. It is the exact opposite for them: they all share a negative view of human rights, they don’t think they are universal, or they don’t view all people as equally human. Either way, they mobilise against human rights.

    When and why did Christian fundamentalist groups emerge in Eastern Europe?

    A colleague of mine says that these groups have been around for a long time. She’s currently investigating the third generation of such groups and says they originated in the 1970s, when they first mobilised around neo-Nazi ideas and against women’s rights. The most recent turning point in Eastern Europe happened in the early 2010s. In many cases it has been a reaction against national policy debates on LGBTQI and reproductive rights. Croatia, where I come from, was one of the exceptions in the sense that these groups did not mobilise in reaction to policy gains by women’s and LGBTQI rights groups, but rather in anticipation and as a preventive measure against processes that were advancing internationally, specifically against same-sex marriage.

    The Croatian experience has played out in three phases. Beginning in the 1990s, an anti-abortion movement developed, led by charismatic Catholic priests. Following the fall of Communism, abortion was presented as being against religious faith, family values and national identity. The Catholic Church set up so-called ‘family centres’ that provided support services to families. Since the early 2000s, independent civil society organisations (CSOs) formed by ‘concerned’ religious citizens emerged. What triggered them was the introduction of sexuality education in the public-school curriculum. A third phase started around 2010, with the rise in nationally and internationally-connected fundamentalist CSOs, independent from the Church structure. For instance, the new groups had links with ultraconservative Polish movements – Tradition, Family, Property and Ordo Iuris. The Catholic Church remained in the background and the role of anti-rights spokespersons was relegated to ‘concerned’ religious citizens.

    Fundamentalists in Croatia made good use of citizen-initiated national referenda. In 2013, they voted down marriage equality, in large part thanks to voting laws that do not require a minimum voter turnout in national referendums, as a result of which a low turnout of roughly 38 per cent sufficed to enable constitutional change. In contrast, similar referendums in Romania and Slovakia failed thanks to the requirement of a minimum 50 per cent turnout.

    Anti-rights groups seem to have made a lot of progress in Eastern Europe since the early 2010s. Why is that?

    We started closely monitoring these groups in Croatia around the time of the referendum, and what we saw is that their rise was linked to the redefinition of their strategies. They used to be old fashioned, not very attractive to their potential audiences and not very savvy in the use of the instruments of direct democracy. From 2010 onwards they changed their strategies. The anti-rights movement underwent a rapid renewal, and its new leaders were very young, eloquent and aware of the potential of democratic instruments. In their public appearances, they started downplaying religion, moving from religious symbolism to contemporary, colourful and joyous visuals. They started organising mass mobilisations such as the anti-abortion Walk for Life marches, as well as small-scale street actions, such as praying against abortion outside hospitals or staging performances. Ironically, they learned by watching closely what progressive human rights CSOs had been doing: whatever they were doing successfully, they would just copy. They also revived and upgraded traditional petition methods, going online with platforms such as CitizenGo.

    Internationally, anti-rights groups started taking shape in the mid-1990s in reaction to the United Nations’ Fourth World Conference on Women, held in 1995 in Beijing. It was then that a consensus formed around women’s rights as human rights, and when gender first came on the agenda. Religious groups felt defeated in Beijing. Many academics who studied this process concluded that it was then that the Catholic Church got angry because they lost a big battle. They underwent several defeats in the years that followed, which enraged them further. In 2004, the candidacy of Rocco Buttiglione, an Italian nominee for the European Commission, was withdrawn under pressure from the European Parliament because of his anti-gender and homophobic positions. Christian fundamentalists were also enraged when heated discussions took place regarding the possibility of Europe’s ‘Christian roots’ being mentioned in the European Constitution. All of this made the Vatican very angry. There were quite a few symbolic moments that made them angry and pushed them to fight more strongly against liberal ideas.

    In reaction against this, they modernised, and it helped them to have increasingly tight connections to US-based fundamentalist evangelical groups, which had a long experience in shaping policies both within and outside the USA.

    Do you think this is mostly a top-down process, or have these groups reached deeply at the grassroots level?

    In Eastern Europe it is mostly a top-down process, possibly related to the fact that for the most part these groups are Christian Catholic, not evangelical. These ideas come from very high up. They have been produced and disseminated by the Vatican for decades. They are not spontaneous and are very well organised. Their strategies have not spread by imitation but rather because they are all dictated from the top.

    This does not mean that they have not been able to appeal to citizens; on the contrary, they have done so very successfully, even more so than human rights groups. That is because they use very simple language and play on people’s fears and insecurities. They build their popularity upon prejudice and fears of others who are different. Fear seems to be an easy way to mobilise people, but people on the left don’t want to use it because they feel that it is not fair to manipulate people. Anti-rights groups, on the other hand, don’t have any problem with scaring people. When they first appeared in Croatia, these groups gained huge support because they stirred fear and then presented themselves as the protectors and saviours of people against the fictional monster that they had created.

    What are the main strategies that these groups have used in order to grow?

    First, they share a unified discourse that is built around the rejection of what they call ‘gender ideology’, which is nothing but an empty signifier to designate whatever threat they perceive in any particular context. They declare themselves the protectors of the family and the natural order and use defamation strategies and a pseudo-scientific discourse against women’s and LGBTQI people’s rights. A nationalistic rhetoric is also omnipresent in Eastern European countries.

    Second, they have co-opted human rights discourse and adopted the practices of civic organising of the human rights movement. They not only profit from direct access to church-going citizens, but they also mobilise the grassroots through lectures, training, youth camps and social networks. They also benefit from sufficient funding to bus people to central rallies such as the Walk for Life marches, pay the expenses of numerous volunteers and cover the cost of expensive advertising.

    Third, they have successfully used citizen-initiated referendum mechanisms. In Croatia and Slovenia, they collected the required number of signatures to initiate national referenda against same-sex marriage, which they won. In Romania and Slovakia, in turn, they succeeded in collecting the signatures but failed to meet the minimum participation requirement. Voter turnout in all these referenda ranged from 20 per cent in Romania to 38 per cent in Croatia, which shows that fundamentalists do not enjoy majority support anywhere, but they are still cleverly using democratic mechanisms to advance their agenda.

    Fourth, they use litigation both to influence and change legislation and to stop human rights activists and journalists who are critical of their work. In order to silence them, they sue them for libel and ‘hate speech against Christians’. Although these cases are generally dismissed, they help them position themselves as victims due to their religious beliefs.

    Fifth, they not only get good coverage of their events on mainstream media but they also have their own media, mostly online news portals, in which they publish fake news that defames their opponents, which they then disseminate on social media. They also host and cover conservative events that feature ‘international experts’ who are presented as the highest authorities on issues such as sexuality and children’s rights.

    Sixth, they rely on transnational collaboration across Europe and with US-based groups.

    Seventh, they target the school system, for instance with after-school programmes intended to influence children between the ages of four and 14, when they are most susceptible and easily converted.

    Last but not least, they work not only through CSOs but also political parties. In this way, they are also present in elections, and in some cases, they gain significant power. Such is the case of the far-right Polish Law and Justice Party, which fully integrated these groups into its activities. In other cases, they establish their own political parties. This happened in Croatia, where the main fundamentalist CSO, In the Name of the Family, established a political party called Project Homeland. The case of Romania is most concerning in this regard, as it shows how Christian fundamentalist positions on LGBTQI rights can be mainstreamed across the political and religious spectrum.

    In other words, these groups are present in various spaces, not just within civil society. And they are targeting mainstream conservative parties, and notably those that are members of the European People’s Party, the European Parliament’s centre-right grouping. They are trying to move centre-right and conservative parties towards the far right. This is their crucial fight because it can take them to power. It’s the responsibility of conservative parties around the world to resist these attacks, and it is in the interest of progressive groups to protect them as well because if they lose, we all lose.

    Do you think there is anything that progressive civil society can do to stop anti-rights groups?

    I’m not very optimistic because we have been fighting them for several years and it’s really difficult, especially because the global tide is also changing: there is a general rightwards trend that seems very difficult to counter.

    However, there are several things that can still be done. The first thing would be to expose these groups, to tell people who they really are. We need to expose them for what they are – religious fundamentalists, neo-Nazis and so on – because they are hiding their true faces. Depending on the local context, sometimes they are not even proud to admit that they are connected to the Church. Once these connections are exposed, many people become suspicious towards them. We would also have to hope for some common sense and disclose all the dirty tracks of the money and hope that people will react, which sometimes happens, sometimes doesn’t.

    The main role should be played by believers who refuse to accept the misuse of religion for extremist purposes. Believers are the most authentic spokespeople against fundamentalism and their voices can be much stronger than the voices of mobilised secular people or political opposition. However, the lack of such groups at the local level, due to pressure from local religious authorities, can be a problem. Pope Francis has seriously weakened fundamentalist groups and he is a great example of how religious leaders can combat religious extremism and fundamentalism.

    It is also productive to use humour against them. They don’t really know how to joke; sarcastic, humorous situations make them feel at a loss. This has the potential to raise suspicions among many people. But we need to be careful not to make victims out of them because they are experts in self-victimisation and would know how to use this against us.

    Finally, let me say this again because it’s key. It may seem counter-intuitive, but it’s very important to empower conservative parties across the globe so they stand their ground and resist far-right hijacking attempts. Progressives need to protect conservative parties from extremist attacks, or they will become vehicles for the far-right to get to power, and then it will be too late.

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

    Follow @GordanBosanac on Twitter.inter

     

  • El Salvador es uno de los pocos países que aún no han decidido que la vida de las mujeres importa

    English

    CIVICUS conversa con Sara García Gross, Coordinadora Ejecutiva de la Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto Terapéutico, Ético y Eugenésico de El Salvador e integrante de la Red Salvadoreña de Defensoras de Derechos Humanos. Fundada en 2009, Agrupación Ciudadana es una organización de la sociedad civil multidisciplinaria que busca generar conciencia para cambiar la legislación sobre la interrupción del embarazo en el país; defender legalmente a las mujeres que han sido acusadas o condenadas o por abortos o delitos relacionados; y promover la educación en materia de salud sexual y reproductiva.

     

  • 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: 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.

     

  • LATVIA: ‘Faced with hatred, we focus on delivering a human rights message’

    Kaspars ZalitisAs part of our 2018 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. CIVICUS speaks to Kaspars Zālītis about the challenges faced by LGBTI people in Latvia, and the actions undertaken by civil society to broaden civic space for sexual minorities and therefore to make democracy truly inclusive. Kaspars is the director ofMozaika - Association of LGBT and their friends, currently the only LGBTI rights civil society organisation (CSO) in Latvia. Established in 2006, Mozaika promotes gender equality and anti-discrimination; raises awareness of diverse sexual orientations, gender identities and expressions of identity;promotes an understanding of diverse family models and their legal recognition; and advocates for the harmonisation ofLatvian laws with international standards.

    1. What is the current situation of LGBTI rights in Latvia?

    On the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association’s ILGA-Europe Rainbow Map, which measures each country’s respect for LGBTI rights, Latvia ranks 40th within Europe, and last of all European Union (EU) member countries. In turn, the CIVICUS Monitor has reported several restrictions of civic space in Latvia. CSOs working on controversial topics are being targeted, and civil society has found it increasingly difficult to gain access to policy-makers. Mozaika has tried to lobby politicians and policy-makers for years, but they often prefer to meet in private rather than attract any attention that can lead to attacks from right-wing activists and politicians.

    The political climate is hostile for sexual diversity and for diversity as a whole. ‘Moral upbringing’ amendments introduced into the Education Law in 2015 - which mandate schools to promote ‘family values’ and marriage as part of education - have been implemented through the publication of guidelines that have caused fear among teachers of negative reactions if they touch on any LGBTI issues, and sexual and reproductive rights issues more generally. In 2016, a schoolteacher whose students had requested her to start a Gay-Straight Alliance was asked to refrain from doing so, and another teacher faced calls that he should close all his social media accounts so that students wouldn’t see his ‘LGBT-friendly’ attitudes - in other words, he was asked to hide his sexual orientation. Legislators bashed him on social media and insinuated that he was ‘recruiting’ children.

    In March 2018, parliament was quick to dismiss a Cohabitation Bill that would have granted basic rights to non-married couples, including same-sex ones. It did so on the grounds that couples could access these rights by getting married, even though the Latvian Constitution prohibits same-sex marriage. The initiative had started three years earlier through an online petition that gathered 10,000 signatures, which was why parliament had to consider it.

    2. What is the role of religious groups in this?

    Indeed. The Catholic Church has a lot of influence, and it is taking the lead in fighting the LGBTI community and pushing back against women’s rights. For instance, there has been a lot of disagreement over the ratification of the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, also known as the Istanbul Convention, and parliamentary debate on the issue has been postponed until after parliamentary elections are held in October 2018.

    Church leaders and many public officials oppose ratification of the Istanbul Convention because one of its non-discrimination clauses concerns sexual orientation and gender identity. The Catholic Archbishop is rallying against it and has gathered considerable support among political parties and parliamentarians. He has managed to convince them that ratification is part of the secret agenda of so-called ‘genderists’ – an expression that originated in Russia, a country with a very strong cultural influence in Latvia. Church officials, right-wing activists and politicians and anti-LGBTI and anti-abortion groups depict the Convention as contrary to Latvian traditional values and as being aimed at over-sexualising and ‘converting’ children. These arguments are gaining ground among the public.

    This rhetoric is not the exclusive preserve of the Catholic church: the Lutheran church, which is the largest Protestant church in Latvia, is also taking a lead in fighting us and the Istanbul Convention. This is quite strange, because Lutherans, prevalent in Nordic countries, tend to be more liberal. But in Latvia they even voted against having female priests, following the lead of the Catholic church. Additionally, new religious organisations with direct links with US evangelical groups are emerging. Some of their leaders have been trained in the USA and are quite good at influencing people.

    Although religious leaders and organisations don’t have a direct and institutionalised role in policy-making, given that the Latvian Constitution establishes a separation between church and state, in practice they have a lot of influence. Church-state separation notwithstanding, the state has a religious advisory council, as does the City Council. It is not uncommon for the Catholic Archbishop to meet with the ruling coalition’s leading party, and for the party’s leader to then say that he has ‘consulted’ with the Catholic church and has decided to vote in one way or another. You can see a direct link because all this happens in public.

    We, on the contrary, don’t have access to leading politicians because they are not willing to risk their reputations by meeting us in public. At the most, we can expect to have a private meeting here and there. This has a lot of impact on us, especially as we see the religious right rise all over Europe. Religious organisations and right-wing parties are increasingly organised and coordinated to fight against gender equality and LGBTI rights at the European level, and they are getting a major influx of resources from the USA. They have way more resources than we do, and their message also resonates better with the latent homophobia in Latvian society, which is becoming increasingly vocal. And after the Brexit vote and the Trump victory, they are emboldened. The latest developments in Hungary and Poland are also proof to them that they may be closer to winning.

    3. Has this discourse penetrated the media?

    Most definitely. Our media landscape is quite pluralistic, and the state channel and public broadcaster at least try to provide balanced coverage. But some media outlets are outright hostile towards LGBTI groups, and one of them, a Russian outlet with a major agenda against the rights of women, migrants, refugees and LGBTI people, is clearly leading a crusade against us.

    Vilification of women’s and LGBTI rights groups is also increasingly taking place online. We are now constantly harassed on Facebook. At some point we realised these were not the usual people who used to attack us and we did some research to find out where the attacks were coming from, and found links to evangelical churches.

    Since January 2018, Mozaika has reported over 200 posts that are openly homophobic to social media administrators, and most of them have been taken down and their authors temporarily or permanently blocked. This caused all Mozaika activists to be blocked from accessing certain groups and pages, and we have evidence that a number of secret Facebook and WhatsApp chat groups have been created to follow our activities.

    4. Can you tell us more about the significance of Pride in Latvia and the Baltic Pride that was recently held in the capital, Riga?

    Pride in Latvia is the most visible LGBTI event in the country. It draws widespread social and media attention to our cause, but it also attracts a large number of expressions of hatred and brings to the surface negative attitudes towards the LGBTI community. Pride in Latvia grew from 70 participants who faced 3,000 protesters in 2005, to 5,000 participants at EuroPride 2015, which was held in Riga, and 8,000 in the recent Baltic Pride. In between, it was banned by Riga City Council three times.

    Mozaika applied for permission to hold Baltic Pride in February 2018. Latvian laws state that applications must be submitted no earlier than four months prior to the event and that if there is more than one application for an event to be held at the same time, priority will be given to the first applicant. Mozaika’s representative arrived at Riga City Council an hour before opening to make sure that Baltic Pride was the first applicant, and just seconds after he entered the building Antiglobalists, an anti-rights organisation, arrived to submit another request for an event that would take place at the exact same time and venue, but under the name “Promotion of paedophilia, zoophilia, necrophilia and other perversions.” They wanted to make the statement that if ‘homosexuals’ can promote their ‘perversions’, then they should also be allowed to promote any other perversion they could think of.

    Since it became known in late 2017 that Riga would host Baltic Pride, both Mozaika and Baltic Pride became targets. The leader of the Latvian Green Party-Riga Unit started a //medium.com/@juriskaza/latvian-science-fund-head-asks-to-ban-riga-pride-event-87173b6e2cbe">personal campaign against so-called ‘genderists’. He insisted that Baltic Pride should be banned and set up a Facebook page to ‘inspire’ activists for ‘traditional values’. Starting in January, Baltic Pride organisers received over a hundred personal attacks, warnings or threats. We were insulted, called sick and branded perverts on our Facebook pages on a daily basis. Hate campaigns were launched to convey the idea that Pride is a ‘sex festival’. Countless posts were made showing rainbows and guns, to create fear among potential participants and the LGBTI community and dissuade them from attending. Antiglobalists, Tautas tiesību kustība (National Rights Movement) and activists inspired by right-wing politicians also constantly posted statements to encourage others to stand against Baltic Pride. Sometimes they provided details about our activities, forcing us to restrict them to registered participants to ensure safety. We also had to take unprecedented security measures for Pride events.

    Fortunately, we could find common ground and work closely with the police. Counter-protesters attack and humiliate the police, but we treat them with respect. No public official or security officer supporting us would ever say so publicly, but we have been able to work together behind closed doors. In the end, Baltic Pride was a great success. We would have considered it a success if 2,000 people had attended, but over 8,000 did. There were no major incidents, although at some point eggs and smoke bombs were thrown at participants.

    5. How do you counter the anti-rights message?

    We focus on delivering a human rights message. We never blame the church or call anyone by name - we don’t talk about them. We counter argument with argument, and fiction with facts. If they say that perverts will march, we state the fact that 70 per cent of those ‘perverts’ are straight people with children. Against arguments that ‘naked people’ will march, we simply say we don’t know what Pride they are referring to because we have never had people marching naked in Latvia. When we are called perverts, we thank them for their opinion but insist that we want to have a conversation within a human rights framework. That is, we don’t want to limit anyone’s rights and we want to be able to exercise ours. Compromising and always staying within the confines of a positive message may be personally difficult for many activists, but that is what we are going for, no matter what we hear. We might explode afterwards, but while we meet we listen and stay calm.

    I always meet the Catholic Archbishop at state visits or embassy receptions and we have polite exchanges. I’ve told him I’m non-believer but I know that the message of Jesus is all about love and respect and I don’t see that coming from him – that’s when he leaves the conversation. Within Mozaika there are also religious people, and we have invited churches to have an open and public dialogue, but so far, they have always refused.

    6. What is civil society in Latvia doing to overcome these challenges?

    Civil society uses all the available mechanisms to highlight rights violations in the international arena, including at the EU level, and to try and influence decision-makers and politicians. However, our Minister of Justice, who is openly homophobic and transphobic, ‘does not see’ any restrictions. While we were organising our Pride event, the government was putting a lot of effort into organising celebrations for the centennial of the Latvian state, and often blamed critical CSOs for shaming the country abroad as such an important date approached.

    In this context, Mozaika planned several actions, including a social media campaign (‘I support freedom’) in which public personalities publicly expressed their support for LGBTI rights, and human rights more generally, and demanded that our government ensure that Baltic Pride could take place safely. We aimed to bring in people who are not typically seen as supporters of human rights and LGBTI rights, and then amplify their voices as allies of the LGBTI community. Ultimately, what we wanted to show is that the LGBTI community and its supporters were a lot more numerous and diverse than the handful of activists and the few hundred people who normally show up to our events. We also undertook efforts targeted at international organisations and foreign governments and activists. We asked them to encourage people to participate in Baltic Pride and demand that the authorities guarantee their safety.

    Of course, we continue to monitor, document and report online and offline abuses against LGBTI people, activists and organisations. We take down hate comments and instruct the community to report any attacks that they experience on social media to us so we can work to take down the posts. If prominent hate expressions get out there, we try to respond to them with a counter-message. But we have limited resources, so sometimes we leave them for liberal commentators to deal with, and we focus on using social media to counter the most blatant expressions of hatred, particularly if someone is attacked physically.

    Finally, we are trying to place LGBTI issues and broader diversity issues on the agenda of the campaign for the upcoming October 2018 parliamentary election. We are promoting public debate on these issues, presenting political parties with examples of the rights restrictions that LGBTI people face on a daily basis and asking them to provide policy solutions to create a safe environment for LGBTI people and other minorities. We will consider it a success if three or four political parties include LGBTI issues or other diversity issues on their agenda.

    7. What are your needs and what can donors do to help?

    The one thing we have wanted to do for a long time is a long-term communications campaign – not the kind that individual CSOs put together on their own, but a broader one coordinated by various CSO leaders and activists who provide the substance and set the tone, and that is executed and managed by a professional communications team. The problem is that all CSOs live from project to project and are barely sustainable. Mozaika is able to function thanks to the work of volunteers. So what we need most is resources to ensure sustainability. This includes building capacity, but this has to be done on the basis of the expertise that we already have. We have attended countless training events and seminars, and are tired of going to international meetings just to be told ‘this is the right way to do it’. We need customised approaches to find practical solutions to our specific problems. There is a lot for us to learn from France, Germany, or the USA, but lessons must be customised and they should come alongside the resources to ensure sustainability.

    Civic space in Latvia is rated as ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

    Get in touch with Mozaika through their Facebook page or follow @lgbt_mozaika and @KasparZ on Twitter and Instagram.

     

  • LES GROUPES ANTI-DROITS DE L'HOMME: "Ils ne pensent pas que les droits de l'homme sont universels ou ils ne considèrent pas toutes les personnes comme des êtres humains égaux "

    gordan bosanacDans le cadre de notre rapport thématique de 2019, nous interrogeons des militants de la société civile, des dirigeants et des experts sur leur expérience des réactions hostiles de la part des groupes anti-droits humains. CIVICUS parle de la montée de l'extrémisme des groupes d'extrême droite et du fondamentalisme religieux en Europe de l'Est avec Gordan Bosanac, co-auteur d'une étude de cas sur l'Europe de l'Est pour le rapport du Global Philanthropy Project: « Conservatisme religieux sur la scène mondiale : Menaces et défis pour les droits LGBTI ».

     

    Vous avez travaillé sur diverses questions, du racisme et de la xénophobie au conservatisme religieux et aux droits LGBTQI. Pensez-vous que la montée du nationalisme et attaques contre les droits des migrants et les droits sexuels et reproductifs font tous partie de la même tendance ?

    Tout cela fait indéniablement partie du même phénomène. La grande majorité des organisations qui se mobilisent contre les droits des femmes rejettent également les personnes LGBTQI et les migrants et réfugiés. Ils font tous partie du même mouvement mondial qui rejette les idées démocratiques libérales, et ils se mobilisent tous contre les minorités ou les groupes vulnérables.

    Il s'agit d'un ensemble très hétérogène de groupes et d'organisations. Leur dénominateur commun est ce contre quoi ils luttent : la démocratie libérale. Les groupes néonazis, misogynes, anti-LGBTQI et anti-migrants ont des objectifs différents, mais ils partagent le même programme et y collaborent. Beaucoup de ces groupes se réunissent au Congrès mondial des familles, où vous trouverez beaucoup de discours de haine contre la communauté LGBTQI, contre les femmes et contre les migrants. Ils partagent la même philosophie.

    Pour moi, ces groupes sont exactement l'inverse du mouvement des droits de l'homme, où certaines organisations se concentrent sur les droits des femmes, d'autres sur les droits des LGBTQI, d'autres encore sur les migrants ou les peuples indigènes, ou sur les droits sociaux, culturels ou environnementaux, mais nous avons tous une philosophie fondée sur une vision positive des droits humains. Nous faisons tous partie du mouvement des droits de la personne. C'est exactement le contraire pour eux : ils partagent tous une vision négative des droits de l'homme, ils ne pensent pas qu'ils sont universels, ou ils ne considèrent pas tous les gens comme des êtres humains égaux. Quoi qu'il en soit, ils se mobilisent contre les droits de l'homme.

    Quand et pourquoi des groupes fondamentalistes chrétiens sont-ils apparus en Europe de l'Est ?

    L'une de mes collègues dit que ces groupes existent depuis longtemps. Elle enquête actuellement sur la troisième génération de ces groupes et affirme qu'ils ont vu le jour dans les années 1970, lorsqu'ils se sont mobilisés pour la première fois autour des idées néonazies et contre les droits des femmes. Le tournant le plus récent en Europe de l'Est s'est produit au début des années 2010. Dans de nombreux cas, il s'agit d'une réaction contre les débats politiques nationaux sur les LGBTQI et les droits reproductifs. La Croatie, d'où je viens, était l'une des exceptions en ce sens que ces groupes ne se sont pas mobilisés en réaction aux avancées politiques des groupes de défense des droits des femmes et des LGBTQI, mais plutôt par anticipation et à titre de mesure préventive contre les processus qui progressaient au niveau international, et en particulier contre le mariage homosexuel.

    L'expérience croate s'est déroulée en trois phases. A partir des années 1990, un mouvement anti-avortement s'est développé, dirigé par des prêtres catholiques charismatiques. Après la chute du communisme, l'avortement a été présenté comme étant contraire à la foi religieuse, aux valeurs familiales et à l'identité nationale. L'Église catholique a créé des " centres familiaux " qui offrent des services de soutien aux familles. Depuis le début des années 2000, des organisations indépendantes de la société civile (OSC) formées par des citoyens religieux " concernés " sont apparues. Leur naissance est liée à l'introduction de l'éducation sexuelle dans les programmes scolaires publics. Une troisième phase a commencé vers 2010, avec la montée en puissance d'OSC fondamentalistes liées au niveau national et international, indépendantes de la structure de l'Eglise. Par exemple, les nouveaux groupes avaient des liens avec les mouvements polonais ultraconservateurs "Tradition, Famille, Propriété" et "Ordo Iuris". L'Église catholique est restée à l'arrière-plan et le rôle des porte-paroles anti-droits a été relégué aux citoyens religieux " concernés ".

    En Croatie, les fondamentalistes ont fait bon usage des référendums nationaux organisés à l'initiative des citoyens. En 2013, ils ont rejeté l'égalité en matière de mariage, en grande partie grâce à des lois électorales qui n'exigent pas une participation électorale minimale aux référendums nationaux; la faible participation d'environ 38 %, suffisant à permettre un changement constitutionnel. En revanche, des référendums similaires ont échoué en Roumanie et en Slovaquie grâce à l'exigence d'une participation minimale de 50 %.

    Les groupes de défense des droits de l'homme semblent avoir fait beaucoup de progrès en Europe de l'Est depuis le début des années 2010. Pourquoi ?

    Nous avons commencé à suivre de près ces groupes en Croatie au moment du référendum, et ce que nous avons vu, c'est que leur progression a été liée à la redéfinition de leurs stratégies. Ils étaient démodés, peu attrayants pour leurs publics potentiels et peu habiles dans l'utilisation des instruments de la démocratie directe. A partir de 2010, ils ont changé de stratégie. Le mouvement de lutte contre les droits de l'homme a connu un renouveau rapide, et ses nouveaux dirigeants étaient très jeunes, éloquents et conscients du potentiel des instruments démocratiques. Dans leurs apparitions publiques, ils ont commencé à minimiser la religion, passant du symbolisme religieux à des visuels contemporains, colorés et joyeux. Ils ont commencé à organiser des mobilisations de masse telles que les marches contre l'avortement "Walk for Life", ainsi que des actions de rue à petite échelle, comme la prière contre l'avortement devant les hôpitaux ou la mise en scène de performances. Ironiquement, ils ont appris en observant de près ce que les OSC progressistes en matière de droits de la personne avaient fait : tout ce qu'elles faisaient avec succès, ils l'ont copié. Ils ont également relancé et amélioré les méthodes traditionnelles de pétition, en allant en ligne avec des plateformes telles que CitizenGo.

    Sur le plan international, les groupes de lutte contre les droits ont commencé à prendre forme au milieu des années 1990 en réaction à la quatrième Conférence mondiale des Nations Unies sur les femmes, tenue en 1995 à Beijing. C'est alors qu'un consensus s'est formé autour des droits des femmes en tant que droits humains, et que le genre est apparu à l'ordre du jour. Les groupes religieux se sont sentis vaincus à Pékin. Beaucoup d'universitaires qui ont étudié ce processus ont conclu que l'Église catholique était alors irritée parce qu'elle avait perdu une grande bataille. Ils ont subi plusieurs défaites dans les années qui ont suivi, ce qui les a rendus encore plus furieux. En 2004, la candidature de Rocco Buttiglione, candidat italien à la Commission européenne, a été retirée sous la pression du Parlement européen en raison de ses positions sexistes et homophobes. Les fondamentalistes chrétiens ont également été furieux lorsque des discussions animées ont eu lieu sur la possibilité que les "racines chrétiennes" de l'Europe soient mentionnées dans la Constitution européenne. Tout cela a mis le Vatican très en colère. Il y a eu quelques moments symboliques qui les ont rendus furieux et les ont poussés à lutter plus fermement contre les idées libérales.

    En réaction à cela, ils se sont modernisés, ce qui leur a permis d'avoir des liens de plus en plus étroits avec des groupes évangéliques fondamentalistes basés aux États-Unis, ayant une longue expérience dans l'élaboration de politiques à l'intérieur et en dehors des États-Unis.

    Pensez-vous qu'il s'agit surtout d'un processus du sommet vers la base, ou ces groupes ont-ils véritablement atteint la base ?

    En Europe de l'Est, il s'agit surtout d'un processus descendant, peut-être lié au fait que la plupart de ces groupes sont catholiques chrétiens, et non évangéliques. Ces idées viennent de très haut. Elles sont produites et diffusées par le Vatican depuis des décennies. Ces groupes ne sont pas spontanés et sont très bien organisés. Leurs stratégies ne se sont pas répandues par imitation, mais plutôt parce qu'elles sont toutes dictées par le sommet.

    Cela ne veut pas dire qu'ils n'ont pas pu faire appel aux citoyens ; au contraire, ils l'ont fait avec beaucoup de succès, encore plus que les groupes anti-droits humains. C'est parce qu'ils utilisent un langage très simple et jouent sur les peurs et les insécurités des gens. Ils construisent leur popularité sur les préjugés et les craintes des autres qui sont différents. La peur semble être un moyen facile de mobiliser les gens, mais les gens de gauche ne veulent pas l'utiliser parce qu'ils estiment qu'il n'est pas juste de manipuler les gens. Les groupes de défense des droits, par contre, n'ont aucun problème à faire peur aux gens. Lorsqu'ils sont apparus pour la première fois en Croatie, ces groupes ont obtenu un énorme soutien parce qu'ils ont suscité la peur et se sont ensuite présentés comme les protecteurs et les sauveurs des citoyens contre ce monstre fictif qu'ils avaient créé.

    Quelles sont les principales stratégies que ces groupes ont utilisées pour se développer ?

    Premièrement, ils partagent un discours unifié qui s'articule autour du rejet de ce qu'ils appellent "l'idéologie du genre", qui n'est qu'un signifiant vide pour désigner toute menace qu'ils perçoivent dans un contexte particulier. Ils se déclarent les protecteurs de la famille et de l'ordre naturel et utilisent des stratégies de diffamation et un discours pseudo-scientifique contre les droits des femmes et des personnes LGBTQI. Une rhétorique nationaliste est également omniprésente dans les pays d'Europe de l'Est.

    Deuxièmement, ils ont coopté le discours sur les droits de l'homme et adopté les pratiques d'organisation civique du mouvement des droits de l'homme. Ils profitent non seulement de l'accès direct aux citoyens qui vont à l'église, mais ils mobilisent aussi la base à travers des conférences, des formations, des camps de jeunes et les réseaux sociaux. Ils bénéficient également d'un financement suffisant pour emmener les gens en bus aux rassemblements importants comme les marches « Walk for Life », payer les dépenses de nombreux bénévoles et couvrir le coût de la publicité dispendieuse.

    Troisièmement, ils ont utilisé avec succès des mécanismes référendaires à l'initiative des citoyens. En Croatie et en Slovénie, ils ont recueilli le nombre requis de signatures pour lancer des référendums nationaux contre le mariage homosexuel, qu'ils ont remportés. En Roumanie et en Slovaquie, à leur tour, ils ont réussi à recueillir les signatures mais n'ont pas réussi à satisfaire à l'exigence minimale de participation. Le taux de participation à tous ces référendums a varié de 20 % en Roumanie à 38 % en Croatie, ce qui montre que les fondamentalistes ne bénéficient d'aucun soutien majoritaire, mais qu'ils utilisent toujours intelligemment les mécanismes démocratiques pour faire avancer leur programme.

    Quatrièmement, ils ont recours aux poursuites judiciaires à la fois pour influencer et modifier la législation et pour arrêter les militants des droits humains et les journalistes qui critiquent leur travail. Afin de les faire taire, ils les poursuivent en justice pour diffamation et 'discours de haine contre les chrétiens'. Bien que ces affaires soient généralement rejetées, elles les aident à se positionner en tant que victimes en raison de leurs croyances religieuses.

    Cinquièmement, ils bénéficient non seulement d'une bonne couverture de leurs événements dans les médias grand public, mais ils ont aussi leurs propres médias, principalement des portails d'information en ligne, dans lesquels ils publient de fausses nouvelles qui diffament leurs adversaires, qu'ils diffusent ensuite sur les réseaux sociaux. Ils accueillent et couvrent également des événements conservateurs mettant en vedette des " experts internationaux " qui sont présentés comme les plus hautes autorités sur des questions telles que la sexualité et les droits de l'enfant.

    Sixièmement, ils s'appuient sur une collaboration transnationale à travers l'Europe et avec des groupes basés aux États-Unis.

    Septièmement, ils ciblent le système scolaire, par exemple avec des programmes extrascolaires destinés à influencer les enfants âgés de 4 à 14 ans, lorsqu'ils sont les plus vulnérables et les plus facilement convertibles.

    Enfin, ils travaillent non seulement par l'intermédiaire d'OSC, mais aussi de partis politiques. De cette façon, ils sont également présents aux élections et, dans certains cas, ils acquièrent un pouvoir significatif. C'est le cas du parti d'extrême droite polonais Droit et Justice, qui a pleinement intégré ces groupes dans ses activités. Dans d'autres cas, ils créent leur propre parti politique. C'est ce qui s'est passé en Croatie, où la principale OSC fondamentaliste, "Au nom de la famille", a créé un parti politique appelé "Project Homeland". Le cas de la Roumanie est particulièrement préoccupant à cet égard, car il montre comment les positions fondamentalistes chrétiennes sur les droits LGBTQI peuvent être intégrées dans l'ensemble du spectre politique et religieux.

    En d'autres termes, ces groupes sont présents dans divers espaces, pas seulement au sein de la société civile. Et ils ciblent les principaux partis conservateurs, notamment ceux qui sont membres du Parti populaire européen, le groupe de centre-droit du Parlement européen. Ils essaient de déplacer les partis de centre-droit et conservateurs vers l'extrême droite. C'est leur combat crucial parce que cela peut les mener au pouvoir. Il est de la responsabilité des partis conservateurs du monde entier de résister à ces attaques, et il est dans l'intérêt des groupes progressistes de les protéger également, car s'ils perdent, nous perdons tous.

    Pensez-vous qu'il y a quelque chose que la société civile progressiste puisse faire pour arrêter les groupes anti-droits ?

    Je ne suis pas très optimiste parce que nous les combattons depuis plusieurs années et c'est très difficile, d'autant plus que la mouvance mondiale est aussi en train de changer : il y a une tendance générale à droite qui semble très difficile à contrer.

    Cependant, il y a encore plusieurs choses à faire. La première chose à faire serait de faire la lumière sur ces groupes, de dire aux gens qui ils sont vraiment. Nous devons les exposer pour ce qu'ils sont- les fondamentalistes religieux, les néonazis et ainsi de suite - parce qu'ils cachent leur vrai visage. Selon le contexte local, ils ne sont parfois même pas fiers d'admettre qu'ils sont liés à l'Église. Une fois que ces liens sont mis en évidence, de nombreuses personnes deviennent méfiantes à leur égard. Il faudrait aussi espérer qu'il y ait du bon sens, que les circuits d'argent sale soient dévoilés et que les gens réagissent, ce qui arrive parfois, mais pas toujours.

    Le rôle principal devrait être joué par les croyants qui refusent d'accepter l'utilisation abusive de la religion à des fins extrémistes. Les croyants sont les porte-paroles les plus authentiques contre le fondamentalisme et leur voix peut être beaucoup plus forte que celle des laïcs mobilisés ou de l'opposition politique. Toutefois, l'absence de tels groupes au niveau local, en raison des pressions exercées par les autorités religieuses locales, peut être un problème. Le pape François a sérieusement affaibli les groupes fondamentalistes et il est un excellent exemple de la manière dont les chefs religieux peuvent combattre l'extrémisme religieux et le fondamentalisme.

    Il est également productif d'utiliser l'humour contre eux. Ils ne savent pas vraiment plaisanter ; les situations sarcastiques et humoristiques les déconcertent. Cela peut susciter des soupçons chez de nombreuses personnes. Mais nous devons veiller à ne pas en faire des victimes, car ce sont des experts en matière d'auto-victimisation et ils sauront comment s'en servir contre nous.

    Enfin, permettez-moi de le redire parce que c'est fondamental. Cela peut sembler contre-intuitif, mais il est très important de donner aux partis conservateurs du monde entier les moyens de tenir bon et de résister aux tentatives de détournement d'extrême droite. Les progressistes doivent protéger les partis conservateurs contre les attaques d'extrémistes, sinon ils deviendront des véhicules de l'extrême droite pour accéder au pouvoir, et il sera alors trop tard.

    L'espace civique en Croatie est classé comme " rétréci " par le Monitor CIVICUS.

    Suivez @GordanBosanac sur Twitter.

     

  • LGBTQI RIGHTS: ‘There is an ongoing desire among many to more closely regulate morality’

    T King OeyAs part of our 2019thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about their experiences of backlash from anti-rights groups and their strategies to strengthen progressive narratives and civil society responses. CIVICUS speaks to T King Oey, an Indonesian capacity development expert and a founder and board member ofArus Pelangi, the Indonesian Federation of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Transsexual and Intersex Communities.

    How does your network work, and what are the challenges you are addressing?

    Our organisation, Arus Pelangi, which means the Flow of the Rainbow, was established in 2006. This was during the Reformasi era that followed the ousting of President Suharto in 1998 after three decades in power. After this there was much more freedom and many repressive laws were revised. At this time LGBTQI people felt we should come together to stand for our rights. Before then the only context in which people talked about LGBTQI people was in relation to the mitigation of HIV/AIDS. So we decided to form an organisation purely to advocate for the rights of LGBTQI people.

    Arus Pelangi is a coalition of national and local groups of LGBTQI people. We network a lot with other human rights organisations, including those working on other aspects of diversity and legal reform. We have also been instrumental in the formation of a network across the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member countries – the ASEAN SOGIE Caucus. It is based in the Philippines and Arus Pelangi is an important member. At the same time we are reaching out to local communities around the huge country of Indonesia. There are still capacity challenges in enabling far-distant communities to make their voices heard.

    What challenges have you faced in recent years?

    The space for democracy in Indonesia is becoming more restricted, and it is harder for us to be visible. When we started in 2006 we saw it as strategic to raise our visibility as much as possible, so people could see and understand LGBTQI people and know who we are. So we took part in demonstrations, held flash mobs, held public discussions, made media appearances – anything to make us visible as a group.

    From the very beginning there were all kinds of groups attacking us. But things got much worse in 2016, when all of a sudden there was this massive wave of attacks. Persecutions also began from 2016 onwards. The trigger was a pronouncement by the Minister of Research, Technology and Higher Education, Muhammad Nasir, that LGBTQI people should be banned from university campuses. Suddenly everyone joined in, saying that LGBTQI people should be banned from everywhere, that we should be criminalised.

    These attacks came especially from hardline religious groups. These groups had always advocated for criminalisation, but suddenly they had momentum because of what the minister had said.

    From then on it was no longer possible to be visible as an organisation, and to some degree even as individuals.

    How have extremist groups been able to organise, and how have they mobilised support?

    The Reformasi era created all kinds of freedoms for people to organise themselves, but the fundamentalists had the same freedoms, and they did very well in organising themselves. They have received lots of funding from Saudi Arabia.

    There has been a two-track development in Indonesia. Indonesia has become more part of a global society, more integrated in terms of technology, but at the same time people’s minds have become more conservative, due to the influence of fundamentalists. Fundamentalists have had more chances to preach, and to organise in all kinds of groups and organisations. One of the most well-known is Islam Defenders Front (Front Pembela Islam, FPI), which has been very vocal in attacking us, and they have been able to stop some of our activities.

    The attitude of the police has been ambivalent. They haven’t stopped the FPI from attacking us. Rather they have said that for our safety it would be better if we disband. They always use this argument of safety. Since 2016 the police have also been proactive in outing and arresting people. People are arrested, paraded in front of the media and then released without charge.

    This has had a huge effect on the whole community. People have become afraid. Since 2016 we have held hardly any public events. We have to keep things secret and do everything underground. We have also had to learn to take security measures. Many of our people became depressed and closed themselves away, stopped going out. It’s just like being back in the Suharto era. We aren’t free any more.

    Fundamentalists reached the level of power that in 2017 they were able to put Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, the Christian governor of our capital city, Jakarta, into jail for blasphemy. This was when the network of fundamentalist groups reached the height of their power. They were able to work together to do this. Indonesia has a blasphemy law, and once someone has been indicted, it is certain they will be convicted. I haven’t heard of any case when someone charged with blasphemy has walked free.

    How has the government responded?

    What is interesting is that this level of fundamentalism got to the point where it was threatening the position of President Jokowi. Only then did we see a concerted effort from the government to push back, and this process is still going on. The government has banned one of the fundamentalist groups, an international Muslim network that calls for the establishment of the caliphate, on the grounds that it does not adhere to the national ideology, known as Pancasila.

    A law the government recently passed on civil society organisations enabled it to do this. Human rights organisations criticised this law for being too loose and flexible. It could potentially enable the government to ban any group. This is the first time it has been used. The same law could be used against any group. It’s a double-edged sword.

    The government is considering banning the FPI. The government is also saying that it is coming to realise how many campuses have been infiltrated by fundamentalist groups, but it’s hard to know what’s going on behind the scenes.

    Has the April 2019 presidential election brought any changes?

    President Jokowi won re-election in April, but it seems he felt he couldn’t do it without the support of the moderate Muslims, as he took an Islamic cleric, Ma’ruf Amin, as his running mate. Ma’ruf is a fairly conservative cleric who has made all kinds of negative pronouncements against LGBTQI people. It’s a mystery for many people, even for supporters of President Jokowi, why he was chosen over all other candidates.

    For LGBTQI people, now President Jokowi has won re-election, it remains to be seen whether the coming five years will bring any improvement. We don’t believe President Jokowi is against LGBTQI people, and on some occasions, he has said that the rights of LGBTQI people should be protected. But this is the kind of thing he has said when he has been interviewed by the BBC. It is a message for the outside world, rather than for a domestic audience.

    What is also disappointing is that in his first term, President Jokowi prioritised a focus on the investment climate, emphasising massive infrastructure projects, such as ports, roads and power plants, and reforming the bureaucracy to remove obstacles against investment. Just recently he has announced that his second-term priorities are the same. He said nothing about human rights. Many were hoping that he would be less cautious in his second term. It remains to be seen how committed he will be to human rights.

    As well as LGBTQI groups, which other communities are subject to persecution?

    Other groups particularly vulnerable to human rights abuses are minority Muslim sects, which have been heavily persecuted over the years, and communists and those associated with them. This goes way back to the mass killings of 1965-1966. Survivors and second and third-generation family members are still suffering from discrimination and threats.

    The struggle for gender equality goes back many decades. Women are targeted by conservative groups. Shariah law applies in the province of Aceh, and they have introduced and are applying draconian punishments such as caning and stoning to death. Several LGBTQI people have been the victim of caning. There are attempts to criminalise non-normative sexuality elsewhere in Indonesia.

    There is an ongoing effort and desire among many to more closely regulate morality. It is a continuous battle to try to prevent more repressive measures. For example, parliament is currently debating a law on domestic violence, and conservative law-makers are asserting that many things we would consider as sexual violence, like marital rape, are not included. The dividing line is between following a hardline interpretation of the Quran or not. Despite its secular appearance, Indonesia has become a de facto religious state.

    How is civil society responding to these challenges, and what support could the international community and international civil society best offer to Indonesia’s LGBTQI community?

    Civil society has been trying to respond through networking, joint statements, lobbying parliament and campaigning, including through Change.org. But it can feel like fighting an impossible war, because the conservatives always seem to be more powerful, better organised and better resourced.

    We have to be careful when considering outside assistance, because one of the arguments that fundamentalists always use is about foreign influences and attempts to make Indonesia a liberal country. LGBTQI is characterised as a western concept that is incompatible with the culture. Of course if you look at the culture and history of Indonesia you see all kinds of expressions of non-binary gender, including in dances, songs, literature and rituals. This culture has been denied consistently by conservatives who say that the only culture is hardline Islam. The conservatives forget that Islam itself is an imported religion.

    In 2015, when the US Supreme Court legalised same-sex marriage, this created quite an uproar in Indonesia. Conservative groups always point to this and say that once they give in to one thing, this is what will happen. The global debate about same-sex marriage works both ways for us, because LGBTQI people in Indonesia have never suggested this – it seems too far away to even contemplate this, and we need to have our fundamental rights respected first – but at least it tells us we’re not alone.

    So you have to be careful, but solidarity helps. It helps LGBTQI people here to know they are not alone and have not been abandoned. If people have any chance to speak to government officials from Indonesia, they should use that opportunity to speak up for LGBTQI people and other vulnerable groups.

    At Indonesia’s United Nations Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review session in 2017, many shadow reports pointed to the severe situation of LGBTQI people. There was quite a bit of criticism. The usual attitude of the Indonesian government is to cite social conservatism, but this time it was forced to acknowledge the need to take steps and it committed to hold a dialogue with the LGBTQI community. This was a concession that came because of international pressure. Of course, it remains to be seen what will happen on the ground. We have to keep the pressure on.

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

    Get in touch with T King Oey throughArus Pelangi‘s website.

     

  • LGBTQI+ RIGHTS IN UGANDA: ‘Intolerance is fuelled by anti-rights groups and leaders’

    Following our 2019special report on anti-rights groups and civil society responses, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their experiences of backlash from anti-rights groups and their strategies to strengthen progressive narratives and civil society responses. CIVICUS speaks with Pepe Julian Onziema, Programme Director at Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG). Formed in 2004, SMUG is a civil society umbrella organisation focused on advancing LGBTQI+ rights and supporting and protecting LGBTQI+ people in Uganda. SMUG advocates for policy reform and helps to coordinate the efforts of 18 LGBTQI+ organisations in the country. These organisations provide a variety of services to the LGBTQI+ community, including medical attention, counselling, guidance and economic empowerment programmes. SMUG works closely with local, regional and international human rights organisations and activists to end discrimination and ensure equal treatment of and respect for all LGBTQI+ people in Uganda.

    pepe Onziema

    What is the situation of LGBTQI+ rights in Uganda?

    I would say it’s very unpredictable, but also not okay. At some level everything is mixed up; you can’t just look at one thing and say, okay, we are making this progress, because somehow when you make progress you also move backwards on another front. So generally speaking, I would say the situation is confusing and unpredictable. The only aspect in which we have made consistent progress is in the area of HIV/AIDS, working through the Ministry of Health.

    The situation of LGBTQI+ people is difficult, and I wouldn’t be able to say whether it’s because of social attitudes or discriminatory laws. People’s social attitudes towards LGBTQI+ people are affected by the law, but on the other hand the law is what it is because of people’s religious views and the influence of religion over politics. But if I had to say which the biggest problem is, I’d say it’s social attitudes and widespread lack of acceptance. If this changes, I am sure the law would follow.

    In Uganda, LGBTQI+ people experience all kinds of attacks and violence, but this depends much on where you live. In popular areas trans women and gay people, or people thought to be gay, both male and female, are attacked from motorbikes or taxis. In the suburbs and expensive urban areas there is a bit more safety. However, a lot of new apartments have been built and many people are moving in, and then if your neighbour finds out or suspects that you are an LGBTQI+ person, then they can go tell the landlord, who will usually feel the pressure to throw you out without even paying back your rent. Everything is based on suspicion, spying and resentment. There is no need for any evidence of someone being gay, so people panic. There is a lot of gay panic because if anyone just mentions that someone else is LGBTQI+, it is to be expected that action will be taken, including physical violence. They can beat up the accused person or use extortion and blackmail. This is especially common with trans people, who are accused of impersonating someone else, adopting a fake identity.

    We’ve worked a lot to raise awareness, informing people that even under our regressive laws, being gay is actually not a crime. It’s subtle, but the law talks about acts that are not permitted, rather than about identities that are not allowed to exist. There is more awareness of this now, but this awareness has made intolerant people more clever: they know they cannot denounce someone just for being gay, so they go on and invent stories. They tell the police false stories about things that gay people have done, so the police have to come and arrest them.

    Although the law does not ban the existence of gay people, there is certainly no law that protects the rights of gay people. While laws guarantee the right to life, to the freedom of association, and so on, when it comes to LGBTQI+ people those do not fully apply. We don't have access to all those rights as anyone else.

    Are LGBTQI+ civil society organisations allowed to function, or do you face restrictions? How do you manage to get your work done?

    LGBTQI+ organisations are not allowed to register. They are denied formal recognition as civil society organisations (CSOs). That is the case with my organisation, Sexual Minorities Uganda, which was founded in 2004, so it will soon be turning 16 years old, and is still unregistered. Our right to associate is limited in several ways, but we’ve been persistent and consistent in challenging the government. We take advantage of legal loopholes and organise ourselves as a loose group. We have sued the government on the basis that the constitution grants us the right to the freedom of association. We’ve found the court system is not terribly fair, but still, it does not always work against us, and we have won several cases.

    In the past few years, the High Court has issued several progressive rulings, stating that the fundamental rights recognised in the constitution, such as the right to personal liberty, the right not to be subjected to torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, and the right to privacy, apply to all citizens. As a result of a High Court ruling on discrimination, it is now possible for LGBTQI+ people to file cases against employers who have fired or harassed them, or landlords who have evicted them. So we’ve seen some progress within the justice system, and this has given us the courage to continue going to the courts to fight when the government wants to impose further restrictions.

    As well as the lack of legal recognition, we face restrictions in our daily work. For instance, when we hold a workshop or some formal function for the community, we are usually raided by the police. The Minister of Ethics and Integrity has been particularly notorious and shameless in shutting down our meetings. He has gone on radio and other media to say that he would never allow LGBTQI+ organisations. So we try to keep up our work by doing it through collaborations with other CSOs, but there’s only so much we can do, because when they learn that we are working with us then somehow they also become targets by association.

    Who is behind these restrictions? Is discrimination and violence against LGBTQI+ people fuelled by political or religious leaders?

    Absolutely. The intolerance enshrined in the law and expressed in social attitudes is fuelled by anti-rights groups and leaders. This backlash was particularly intense around 2009, when right-wing evangelical groups from the USA came to Uganda and helped our government draft a law, the Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Act, that would have criminalised same-sex relationships and introduced the death penalty for serial offenders, HIV-positive people who engage in sexual activity with people of the same sex, and people who engage in same-sex sexual acts with minors. The law also sought to punish the promotion of LGBTQI+ rights with fines, imprisonment, or both.

    We fought this bill for years. The proponents of the law said that we are after children, that we were recruiting them and needed to be stopped. They wanted to turn people into spies – our own neighbours, our parents, teachers, doctors and priests. Anyone who knew a gay person had to report this fact to the authorities or they would also become a criminal.

    A modified version of the bill was passed in 2013, and it punished ‘aggravated homosexuality’ with life in prison instead of the death penalty. In reaction, the US State Department announced several sanctions against Uganda, and in 2014 the Constitutional Court annulled the law on a technicality. But its effects are still there, in the form of ingrained discrimination against LGBTQI+ people. And the root causes of such laws being proposed in the first place are also still there. It all comes down to the idea of turning people’s religious belief into law.

    So the most homophobic piece of legislation that Uganda has ever seen was actually a foreign import. Do you see an international anti-LGBTQI+ rights coalition at work here?

    Absolutely, and curiously enough – because anti-LGBTQI+ rights groups keep saying things like homosexuality is a foreign custom, and that it runs counter to national culture and morals, while in fact it is homophobia who is most foreign. Homosexuality was accepted and quite common in pre-colonial Ugandan society; we even had a king who was gay. Laws punishing homosexuality were first introduced in colonial times, under British rule, and they stayed in place after we gained independence. Something similar happened with Christianity, which was an import but took deep roots.

    And the churches that were brought from the USA and started proliferating are of the most intolerant kind. You can find these evangelical churches every 500 meters in Uganda, and people preaching all over the place, even outside the churches, on every street corner. The evangelical movement is huge and has spread fast across the country. In most cases, they focus their preaching on sexuality, abortion, how women dress, things like that. They deliberately use their Bible to discriminate against LGBTQI+ people and women.

    Have you seen any change, for better or worse, over the past year?

    It is difficult to tell. For instance, in 2018 we thought we were making a bit of progress, but then we started seeing more murders, at least three or four, so we felt in danger and we panicked because we thought, we’ve made progress in dialogue with governmental officials, we have done training the police, and it really shocked us – the idea that we were trying to educate people, we are trying to have a conversation, and this is the kind of response that we get. This cast doubt on the progress we were making.

    Still, I would say that the fact that we are able to have some form of dialogue with the government is a proof of progress. The fact that when people are arrested we are able to negotiate the release of some is something that we wouldn’t have seen even three or four years ago, so there is some progress.

    How do you account for the differences between Uganda and, say, Botswana, which is currently experiencing significant positive change?

    I think we are not experiencing the same kind of progress because religion is so deeply rooted in Uganda. If you speak to Ugandans, the first thing that they will tell you, even before introducing themselves, is that they are Christians. And our president has been able to turn religion into law. Ugandan politicians have manipulated religion to divert attention from corruption and mismanagement, so they focus on homosexuality instead. This political use of religion, and the fact that religious beliefs have been made into law, that’s what sets us apart from Botswana.

    What are LGBTQI+ organisations in general, and SMUG in particular, doing to change both legislation and public attitudes?

    SMUG focuses on four areas: advocacy for reform, capacity strengthening, research and safety and protection. The four areas are connected: in the area of safety and protection, for example, we take care of victims and survivors of violence, but we also document, collect and analyse data and use it as evidence in our advocacy work. We also make sure that police officers are trained so they know how to treat LGBTQI+ person in case they are arrested, so they change their attitudes and the ways they handle them. We work with magistrates and the judiciary services institute and try to educate them on LGBTQI+ issues, because otherwise when a gay person is arrested, most of the time cases are based on hearsay and they don’t even ask for evidence; they make decisions based on prejudice. We do a lot of campaigning and awareness-raising across Uganda. We have regional focus groups where we train people on how to deal with safety and security.

    We also do international work at the United Nations human rights bodies, in Geneva, as well as at the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights as well: we have a document that came out of there, Resolution 275, that we did with activists and organisations from across Africa, which prohibits any country from violent attacks towards LGBTQI+ people. Of course we are trying to get that implemented in our own countries so our human rights bodies can take on that Resolution as guidance on the protection of LGBTQI+ people.

    Is there any evidence that people’s attitudes might be changing?

    We put most of our work on social media, and about 10 years ago, we would find out on Facebook that 98 or and 99 per cent of Ugandans were against homosexuality. Ninety-nine per cent – it’s crazy, because it would mean that even gay people – who are definitely more than one per cent of the population - rejected homosexuality.

    But now we’ve come to the point where both sides appear to be more balanced. We post something on our website or our social media platforms, and find reactions are split approximately in half. So I think there has been a change of attitudes, especially among young people, because there are a lot of young people on social media who really don’t care about this whole debate over sexuality. They are just trying to live their lives.

    To what extent is Ugandan civil society as a whole standing with LGBTQI+ civil society?

    There definitely are divisions within civil society. You have to remember that we all come from the same society and have the same background, which is religious, and we are talking about a society and a religion that consider homosexuality as an abomination. However, there are a few – fewer than 10 – CSOs that stand with us. Most of our allies are organisations working on health, and a couple of them do legal work. They have all come from a long way educating themselves about LGBTQI+ issues, and when they do not know something, they ask.

    You mentioned that anti-right groups have international connections and support. Do LGBTQI+ rights organisations enjoy similar connections? What kind of support would you need from international civil society?

    If you had asked me this question five years ago I would have told you to please give human rights organisations money because we are able to work with them. But now I would respond differently: what we need most urgently is to empower more LGBTQI+ people to occupy positions of influence. We’ve experienced violence and discrimination from within the movement, from our own allies, so we need to start having more honest conversations and better accountability for the work that human rights organisations do on LGBTQI+ issues, and see if they really understand what they are doing. To me, it’s about power coming back to the LGBTQI+ community, and the LGBTQI+ community being able to use those positions of power to speak up and negotiate for our own freedom. So my main advice would be, don’t fund other people to speak for us, because we can speak for ourselves.

    It is important that you consult us. There certainly are organisations that are good to us. So if you want to support us, talk to us and we’ll tell who work we best with us, and use this as guidance rather than deciding according to what works best for you as an international organisation.

    Civic space in Uganda is rated as ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with Pepe throughFacebook,LinkedIn orInstagram, contact SMUG through itswebsite andFacebook page, and follow@Opimva and@SMUG2004 on Twitter.

     

  • MALAYSIA: ‘We need global solidarity to push back on attacks on rights’

    As part of our 2019thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their experiences of backlash from anti-rights groups and their strategies to strengthen progressive narratives and civil society responses. CIVICUS speaks to Thilaga Sulathireh of Justice for Sisters and Seksualiti Merdeka about LGBTQI rights in Malaysia and the ways in which state and non-state forces are working together to deny rights.

    Can you tell us about your work and the status of LGBTQI rights in Malaysia?

    I work with Justice for Sisters and Seksualiti Merdeka. Justice for Sisters is a network that primarily works for the human rights of trans people in Malaysia, and we provide legal support, do human rights documentation, engage in national policy work and undertake advocacy with the United Nations (UN) to highlight human rights violations. At Seksualiti Merdeka, we recently launched a website, Queer Lapis. We do capacity strengthening and content production. The work we do is very much grounded in feminist, intersectional principles, and from a queer perspective.

    The human rights of LGBTQI people are definitely regressing in Malaysia. Malaysia historically inherited section 377 of the Penal Code, which criminalises ‘unnatural’ sexual acts, from British colonial rule. Section 377 has been amended several times, and the last amendment in 2017 resulted in the imposition of mandatory whipping as a punishment for consensual carnal intercourse deemed unnatural. The law is gender-neutral but it is used in political ways. As a result, people see it as a law that applies to gay people. We also have shariah laws in three states of Malaysia, introduced between 1995 and 2013, that penalise same-sex relations and posing as a woman or man. Unlike Section 377, these laws directly criminalise sexual and gender identity. The implementation of these laws varies according to state, but amongst them, the law against posing as a woman is most actively used.

    Has the situation for LGBTQI people changed in recent years?

    In recent years, arrests and raids made under these laws have decreased, because of a legal challenge that took place between 2010 and 2015. An appeal went through the different stages of courts. We got a negative decision in the High Court and then won in the Court of Appeal, which upheld that the law was unconstitutional, but then the decision was overturned by the Federal Court. But because of the activism around this case, the number of arrests significantly reduced.

    At the same time we saw a shift in tactics by the government’s Islamic Department, which has adopted a softer evangelical approach towards LGBTQI people. They saw that heavy prosecutions were giving the department a bad image, so there was a shift towards a softer approach, around promoting the ‘rehabilitation’ of LGBTQI people. There is a narrative that LGBTQI people need help in returning to the ‘right path’.

    We saw an increase in state-funded ‘rehabilitation’ activities in this decade, at the same time that Seksualiti Merdeka, which used to organise festivals, was banned in 2011. The government decided it needed to increase its response to this growing LGBTQI movement. This gave rise to more groups that promote and provide ‘rehabilitation’ or ‘conversion therapy’. We have seen more anti-LGBTQI campaigns in universities and on social media. We have seen more concerted efforts overseen by the Ministry of Religious Affairs, which sits under the Prime Minister’s office, and which launched a five-year action to plan to address the ‘social ills’ caused by LGBTQI behaviour. This brought together most ministries.

    As well as the use of various laws and increased state funding for anti-LGBTQI activities, we have seen a heavy-handed response to the freedoms of association and assembly of LGBTQI people. For example, when LGBTQI people have taken part in women’s marches, their organisations have been investigated.

    Did anything alter as a result of the May 2018 election, which saw the first change of government in Malaysia’s independent history?

    The 2018 election has historic in that it changed the administration, but the government has adopted and continued the same policies. Nothing has changed from the LGBTQI perspective. We still see the same amount of resources going into policies that treat LGBTQI people as a problem.

    There is also an ongoing struggle between the new government and the former ruling party that is now in opposition, and this is used to justify the lack of change for LGBTQI people. Right after the election a lesbian couple was arrested in the state of Terengganu, which is an opposition-controlled state. They were charged for sexual relations between women and caned openly in the public court. After this there were also two cases of caning of sex workers.

    So there is all this moral policing. Homophobia is real, but there is also a political tussle and mind games being played over who are the guardians of Islam and race. In this crossfire LGBTQI issues and people become politicised.

    Who are the main groups attacking LGBTQI rights in Malaysia?

    All the groups attacking LGBTQI rights use evangelical language, similar to the right wing in Europe or the USA. They reject the universality of human rights, are nationalistic, oppose pluralism and diversity in many ways, prioritise a particular race or religion and support ‘conversion therapy’. Some of the state-funded activities towards LGBTQI people are carried out by these groups.

    There are celebrity preachers who post social media videos encouraging people to troll LGBTQI people and those who post LGBTQI-related content. There are also individuals who make homophobic comments and conservative student groups who organise against LGBTQI people. But they are less physically aggressive than those in Europe and the USA. They are often careful not to insult LGBTQI people out of fear of giving Islam a bad name.

    There are also ethno-nationalist groups, with the purpose of protecting Muslims and ethnic Malays, that also engage in anti-LGBTQI activity. These don’t adopt an evangelical approach. They engage more in reporting LGBTQI people to the police, and sometimes physical intimidation and violence. At the last women’s march, we saw some of these groups physically intimidating participants. They also issue statements and have an active social media presence.

    Then there are groups that call themselves Islamic non-governmental organisations (NGOs), some of which come together under a coalition of Islamic NGOs that participate in the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). These include groups that use more rights-oriented language, given that they engage in the UPR process, and particularly use the language of religious rights. They position what they call the ‘rehabilitation’ of LGBTQI people as consistent with these religious rights. They also cite examples such as the case of a bakery in the USA that was taken to court for refusing to provide a cake for a same-sex wedding to support their arguments for religious rights. Some of these are groups of doctors, lawyers and academics, and they make pseudo-scientific and legal arguments against LGBTQI rights. Some of these Islamic NGOs also provide services, and as such are involved in the government’s ‘rehabilitation’ programme.

    Within civil society, there is a tension between groups that support the universality of human rights and those that oppose it. Between those that promote pluralism and liberalism and those that oppose these. Between those that support LGBTQI rights and those that talk in terms of ‘rehabilitating’ LGBTQI people.

    How do these tensions play out around civil society’s engagement at the international level?

    Some of those Islamic NGOs engage in policy spaces. If LGBTQI CSOs attend a government consultation on the UPR, they share the space with these.

    The UPR process – and UN processes more generally – offer a key site of contestation between these two camps. The second UPR cycle in 2013 was seen by critics as an attempt by civil society to push for the recognition of LGBTQI rights and destabilise the position of Islam in the Federal Constitution. There was a lot of pushback. And then in the third UPR cycle in 2018, these groups participated in the process and claimed space. Some of the recommendations of this group were included in the report compiled by the UNHRC.

    When the Government of Malaysia tried to ratify the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and the Rome Statue of the International Criminal Court, there was a lot of pushback from these groups and attempts to mobilise Muslim people against ratification. The government pulled out of ratifying on the grounds that it would affect the position of Islam and could offer an entry point to the recognition of LGBTQI rights.

    How do different groups that oppose LGBTQI rights connect and receive support?

    After the corruption scandal that led to the ruling party losing the election, ethno-nationalist groups are no longer as closely linked to political parties as they used to be. I suspect now they are mostly self-funded. With Islamic NGOs, I suspect they receive some foreign funding. Some have a presence outside Malaysia as well. There is an umbrella group, ISMA (Malaysian Muslim Solidarity), which apparently has an office in Germany.

    We also believe some groups receive state funding for their participation in the government’s anti-LGBTQI programme. When a colleague raised the issue of state-sponsored violence against LGBTQI people at a UPR meeting, this created a lot of protest from Islamic NGOs, including those linked with ISMA, who demanded an apology and retraction. The small organisations that are providing ‘rehabilitation’ services also mobilised in their support, making quite clear the connections between groups receiving state funding to provide services and Islamic NGOs advocating against LGBTQI rights.

    How is progressive, rights-oriented civil society trying to respond?

    In the last few years LGBTQI groups are also pushing back and being more organised. The coalition of human rights organisations that participated in the UPR process has also tried to engage with Islamic NGOs and tried to increase engagement by pro-human rights Islamic organisations. They had some success in the UPR process in getting some groups to recognise the discrimination LGBTQI people face. Now there are more civil society groups that are countering arguments against universal human rights online, and more actions to communicate human rights messages in popular ways and in different languages. LGBTQI groups are working on communication strategies. We need this because we face overwhelming misinformation about LGBTQI people.

    LGBTQI groups recognise that these issues aren’t restricted to Malaysia alone. We see a lot of tension at the UN level and realise these issues are ongoing, with states pushing the adoption of problematic language. For example at the Commission on the Status of Women in 2019, language about sexual orientation and gender identity was dropped because of pushback from conservatives. This is a global issue. Civil society everywhere is dealing with these challenges. So how can we come together and strategise around this? How can we do global activism better?

    We need to make sure there is diverse representation in these international forums. We need to have global solidarity to push back on attacks on rights.

    Because there’s a religious dimension to this, and because Islamophobia is on the rise, we need also to be careful when talking about these issues not to encourage more Islamophobia. We need to have more conversations about how we address intersectional forms of oppression and also give spaces for Islamic groups to participate in processes that help address Islamophobia. This is something that as civil society we need to be sensitive to.

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

    Get in touch with Justice for Sisters through itswebsite andFacebook page, orfollow@justice_sisters on Twitter.

     

  • PERÚ: ‘La corriente ultraconservadora está afectando la vida democrática y los derechos fundamentales’

    Eliana CanoEn el marco de nuestro informe temático 2019, que será publicado en octubre, estamos entrevistando a activistas, líderes y expertos de la sociedad civil acerca de su experiencia frente al avance de los grupos anti-derechos y sus estrategias para fortalecer las narrativas progresistas y la capacidad de respuesta de la sociedad civil. En esta oportunidad, CIVICUS conversa conEliana Cano, fundadora de Católicas por el Derecho a Decidir – Perú (CDD-Perú), un movimiento de personas católicas y feministas, comprometidascon la búsqueda de justicia social y elcambio de los patrones culturales que limitan la autonomía de las mujeres y sus derechos sexuales y reproductivos. Recientemente, CDD-Perú fue demandada civilmente por el Centro Jurídico Tomás Moro, que busca quitarle la personería jurídica con el argumento de que, en el marco del concordato entre el Vaticano y Perú, no debería utilizar la designación de “católicas”.

    CDD-Perú ha sido demandada civilmente para que se le retire la personalidad jurídica y se le impida definirse como ‘católica’. ¿Quiénes las están demandando, por qué se han ensañado con ustedes, y qué pretenden lograr?

    Hace aproximadamente un mes y medio fuimos notificadas de que el Centro Jurídico Santo Tomás Moro, que se autodesigna representante de la Iglesia Católica, nos había iniciado una demanda. Según los abogados que nos están asesorando, este grupo empezó a explorar todo el quehacer de nuestra organización hace aproximadamente un año. Eligieron la vía civil para demandarnos porque quieren hacer de esto un proceso largo, tedioso, cansado, de apelación permanente. Es un proceso que podría llevar en promedio entre tres o cuatro años. La estrategia de fondo es agotarnos en el proceso.

    Quieren que nosotros, como organización, dejemos de existir en la Superintendencia Nacional de los Registros Públicos, es decir, que perdamos nuestra personería jurídica y no podamos seguir operando en el Perú. Para ello aducen que, por llamarnos como nos llamamos, estamos faltando el respeto a la Iglesia Católica y a la feligresía; dicen que, en el marco del concordato entre el Vaticano y el Estado peruano, que reconoce el rol de la Iglesia Católica, estaríamos usando de mala fe el término ‘católicas’, que representa a una institución y a una identidad histórica. No aceptan la interpretación que hacemos de los textos bíblicos desde la teología feminista para cuestionar el dogma, la conciencia impuesta, el control que buscan hacer de la gente en nombre de Dios. Es importante señalar que nuestra organización no está registrada en la Iglesia Católica como grupo de fieles, y por lo tanto no está sujeta al mandato interno de la Iglesia.

    Ustedes existen desde hace unos cuantos años. ¿Es la primera vez que enfrentan una reacción semejante?

    Efectivamente, el proyecto Católicas por el Derecho a Decidir es bastante antiguo en América Latina. Comenzó en Uruguay y luego se extendió a Estados Unidos, y de allí pasó a México y a otros países de América Latina. En Perú la organización tiene existencia jurídica desde el año 2009. Nos organizamos porque nos identificamos como feministas con identidad católica, nos sentimos mujeres católicas de fe, pero tenemos una mirada crítica frente al dogma, al pensamiento estático y cerrado, sobre todo cuando se debaten temas relacionados con los derechos sexuales y reproductivos, donde el cuerpo y la sexualidad son el terreno donde se libran luchas políticas. En Perú siempre ha habido una voz pública muy homogénea alrededor de los Evangelios y el derecho a mandar sobre los cuerpos y las vidas de las mujeres, y nosotras, al ponerla en duda desde nuestra identidad católica, recibimos una respuesta bastante agresiva de la jerarquía de la Iglesia Católica local y grupos vinculados a esta.

    El primer ataque público fue por el debate en torno al protocolo por el aborto terapéutico, es decir, justificado por razones médicas, cuando hay riesgos graves para la salud o la vida de la mujer. Fue un ataque teñido por los mismos recursos que ellos siempre utilizan, fundados en la difamación, el descrédito y la mentira. Pero se trató básicamente de ataques verbales y escritos a través de las redes sociales.

    Estos grupos conservadores se manejan bien en las redes sociales, permanentemente nos atacan públicamente por cada cosa que se sale del sitio del dogma, del discurso homogéneo. Sin embargo, es la primera vez que enfrentamos una demanda legal; no esperábamos un ataque tan directo y de semejante magnitud. Tal vez deberíamos haberlo previsto, ya que en América Latina, y en el Perú específicamente, la corriente ultraconservadora ha penetrado profundamente en la estructura política del país y está afectando la vida democrática.

    Daría la impresión de que estos grupos ultraconservadores son ahora más grandes y están más envalentonados que en el pasado. ¿A qué se debe?

    Considero que una mirada en el tiempo permite ver cómo desde hace varias décadas se decidió desarrollar una respuesta global y regional para desalentar y debilitar el discurso de la Teología de la Liberación, cuyo énfasis estuvo principalmente en la preocupación por la pobreza. Con su discurso cuestionador dentro de la Iglesia que se extendía a otros ámbitos de la vida, la Teología de la Liberación afectó o incomodó mucho a la parte más dura y conservadora de la Iglesia. La reacción contraria ha sido de largo aliento. Ha logrado avances, al punto que hoy se hace visible una red altamente orgánica, con sedes de encuentro en los diferentes países de América Latina, publicaciones, conferencias y recursos económicos considerables. Su presencia comenzó a hacerse sentir con fuerza en el año 2005, con el II Congreso Internacional Pro-Vida organizado por el Centro de Promoción Familiar y de Regulación de la Natalidad (Ceprofarena) en la capital del Perú. Este congreso produjo un documento conocido como la Declaración de Lima, expresión de la concertación entre los grupos conservadores.

    Ceprofarena existe desde comienzos de los años ochenta; está estrechamente vinculado con Human Life international, una poderosa organización internacional conservadora, y cuenta entre sus miembros a reconocidos médicos y altos funcionarios del Estado, incluidos ex ministros de Salud. La organización se mueve dentro de numerosas organizaciones médicas y de salud, públicas y privadas. Estos actores ponen el discurso “científico” conservador al servicio de atropellos tales como la denegación de la anticoncepción oral de emergencia, tema en el cual le ganaron la pulseada al Ministerio de Salud: le hicieron una demanda, llevaron ante los tribunales el derecho a informarse y decidir de miles de mujeres, y lograron la prohibición de su distribución en todos servicios de salud a nivel nacional. Ahora están en campaña para deshabilitar el protocolo de aborto terapéutico que se logró establecer en el quinquenio 2011-2016.

    El entramado de organizaciones conservadoras en Perú se completa con la Oficina para Latinoamérica del Population Research Institute , con sede en Lima; la sede peruana de la Alianza Latinoamericana para la Familia, que promueve formatos familiares clásicos y produce y difunde libros escolares; y por supuesto organizaciones más antiguas como el Opus Dei, que hace labores de desarrollo y apoyo local y está muy inserto en espacios educativos, además de dentro de la burocracia de la Iglesia; y el Sodalicio de la Vida Cristiana, una organización de laicos.

    Estos grupos tienen mucho dinero del empresariado conservador y se han apropiado tanto de estrategias como de discursos efectivos. Esta demanda jurídica es una estrategia práctica que denota cambios en su forma de organizarse. Ya no hablan el lenguaje divino y clerical porque saben que cada vez atrae menos; en cambio se han apropiado del discurso de la democracia y los derechos humanos.

    ¿Están ustedes pensando nuevas estrategias para enfrentar este desafío?

    En este escenario nos vemos en la necesidad de fortalecer nuestras estrategias de comunicación. También tenemos que reforzar la parte económica ya que no contamos con financiación para enfrentar una demanda legal de esta magnitud. Los donantes internacionales no necesariamente contemplan en sus apoyos un rubro para planes de defensa institucional. Pero en los tiempos actuales se trata de un aspecto muy necesario para las organizaciones defensoras de los derechos humanos. En esta situación específica, felizmente, el Instituto de Defensa Legal, que ya había asumido casos parecidos en relación con periodistas, se interesó y decidió patrocinar el caso como parte de su apuesta institucional. Ellos consideran que esto es una “pelea ideológica” y que el cuestionamiento del nombre es un “pretexto” para desaparecernos como actores con influencia. El suyo es un gesto que agradecemos infinitamente.

    En lo que se refiere al discurso, sin embargo, no deberíamos movernos de nuestras posiciones, sino más bien poner en evidencia que la apropiación del discurso de los derechos humanos y la democracia por parte de los grupos ultraconservadores es tan superficial como poco respetuosa de los principios democráticos. Tal como acaba de suceder con la campaña “Con mis hijos no te metas”, centrada en la oposición a la educación sobre la igualdad de género y el respeto por las identidades sexuales, su discurso tiende a volverse muy agresivo cada vez que se sienten acorralados. Se les percibe como desesperados, porque en el fondo no hacen sino reaccionar frente a conquistas en materia de derechos.

    La situación de hecho ha progresado, porque no somos solamente nosotras, sino que se encuentran en movimiento nuevas generaciones y mucha gente respetuosa de la libertad, de la diversidad, de la garantía de derechos, que también está ganando espacios. No solamente son las tres o cuatro organizaciones feministas fundadoras que se mueven en la ciudad de Lima; se evidencian voces, rostros y jóvenes organizados desde las universidades, desde las comunidades, desde otras regiones del Perú que con un pensamiento crítico no aceptan los dogmas, incluso reaccionan con tono sarcástico ante ese tipo de discursos y posiciones.

    Desde ya que hay una juventud católica que es convocada por el Papa y ha decidido quedarse en ese perímetro ultraconservador, pero también hay una movilización social juvenil en torno de muchos temas, y con ellos muchas cuestiones de la agenda de derechos sexuales y reproductivos van permeando el debate público. Creo que esto está desesperando a los grupos ultraconservadores, y entonces reaccionan de manera feroz, con cólera, frustración, y hasta me atrevería a decir que odio. Es decir, reaccionan con actitudes que no se parecen nada a la misericordia, la bondad, la humildad, la comprensión y el no juzgamiento.

    ¿Por qué el hecho de que se definan como ‘católicas y feministas’ genera este tipo de rechazos?

    Nosotras somos mujeres de fe y la religión es parte de nuestra identidad. Hemos sido criadas como católicas, y en ese marco el mensaje que se nos inculcó fue de obediencia, prohibición y opresión. Conforme hemos crecido, nos rebelamos ante este y otros aspectos del control de la vida y la dimensión sexual-afectiva. Nos identificamos como católicas desde una interpretación renovada y no renunciamos a nuestra fe. Somos conscientes de que el catolicismo no es solamente una cuestión de fe, sino que también opera o se materializa en una institución, y como tal tiene prácticas tanto positivas como negativas que tienen impacto en la vida de la gente, y específicamente sobre su feligresía.

    Al mismo tiempo, todas nosotras venimos de trayectorias en organizaciones con identidad feminista. Somos feministas, cuestionamos el patriarcado como sistema de relaciones de poder asimétricas, pero no renunciamos a nuestra fe. Siempre nos hacemos estas preguntas: ¿por qué nuestra religión tendría que tener una sola voz, uniforme e incuestionable? ¿Por qué obedecer en silencio y validar el sacrificio y el sufrimiento en nuestras vidas y cuerpos? Encontramos un asidero en la teología feminista, que pasa por una deconstrucción y una reconstrucción del Evangelio. Estas herramientas conceptuales y políticas fortalecen nuestra convicción y nuestra lucha pública por los derechos sexuales y reproductivos.

    Desde la oficialidad se nos dice “ustedes no son católicas, quiénes son ustedes para hablar en nombre del catolicismo”, a lo que nosotras respondemos: “qué te hace a ti católico, qué te permite atropellar derechos en nombre de Dios”. Nosotras hemos hecho una reapropiación del lenguaje del evangelio que se centra en el derecho de las personas a deliberar en conciencia, a discernir y a decidir, y esto les incomoda. Yo soy católica, bautizada y apuesto por una teología feminista. No puedes cuestionar mi fe, así como yo tampoco puedo cuestionar la tuya. Es una lucha muy fuerte, porque puede ser fácil derrumbarse frente a una masa mayoritaria que te dice que tú no eres uno de ellos. Desde el principio supimos que enfrentaríamos la descalificación, la mentira y la difamación; sin embargo, no pensamos que los ataques llegarían a ser tan violentos como los que experimentamos actualmente en las redes sociales y a través de esta demanda.

    Como la experiencia de fe no nos la pueden arrancar, lo que intentan es arrancarnos la personería jurídica, hacernos desaparecer. Representamos un peligro porque no somos pocas, cada vez somos más quienes nos conocen y se sienten identificadas/os. Representamos la posición de muchas personas que no necesariamente tienen la oportunidad de articular públicamente este pensamiento, pero que lo sienten y lo viven. Hay una feligresía amplia y diversa que no piensa como la jerarquía y considera que la respuesta ultraconservadora en materia de políticas públicas es digna de la época de la Inquisición. Según las encuestas, la mayoría de los católicos disiente de la jerarquía en muchas cuestiones importantes, tales como la homosexualidad, que no consideran que sea una enfermedad o un castigo divino, o el matrimonio entre personas del mismo sexo. Decidir un aborto en circunstancias específicas de vida es una decisión altamente ética y responsable, no te hace una mala mujer, ni menos católica ni mala madre. Utilizar anticonceptivos para regular la maternidad y la paternidad o disfrutar una relación sexual sin procrear no está prohibido en los evangelios. El mal llamado estado de “virginidad” va perdiendo credibilidad divina y libera a las mujeres de sentimientos de culpa incluso en sociedades como las de América Latina, donde los gobiernos de turno y la Iglesia Católica estuvieron siempre de la mano para regular la vida de la gente. Es más, actualmente siguen utilizándose mutuamente cuando uno de ellos pierde credibilidad.

    ¿De qué maneras están promoviendo la distinción entre la privada y política pública?

    La nuestra es también una lucha por un Estado laico, un Estado que se encuentre separado de las iglesias. Esto es muy difícil de conseguir en la práctica, ya que la Iglesia Católica y el Estado peruano mantienen fuertes vínculos institucionales. Sin embargo, más allá de conseguir legal y constitucionalmente la separación entre la Iglesia y el Estado, hay otra lucha que estamos dando en el terreno de los imaginarios colectivos y de las actitudes. Mucha gente (políticos, funcionarios, servidores públicos) llegan a la esfera pública sin una reflexión sobre la importancia de separar la creencia religiosa de la función pública. En consecuencia, muchos legisladores y funcionarios públicos toman decisiones sobre la base de sus creencias religiosas. Es usual encontrar en los edificios de los Ministerios crucifijos, capillas e imágenes de carácter religioso. En el día a día la religión nos rodea y nos limita, no existen fronteras claras entre la práctica religiosa y la función pública.

    Los grupos ultraconservadores se afirman sobre este terreno y buscan expandir aún más los dictados de una religión que se presenta como homogénea, con la intención de obligar a toda la ciudadanía a vivir según sus propias creencias y mandatos. El problema no es la religión; la dificultad radica en el uso político que se hace de ésta en la esfera político–pública, donde el deber es garantizar los derechos humanos.

    El espacio cívico en Perú es clasificado como ‘obstruido’ por elCIVICUS Monitor.

    Contáctese con Católicas por el Derecho a Decidir-Perú a través de supágina web o su perfil deFacebook, o siga a@CDDperu en Twitter

     

     

     

  • PERU: ‘The ultra-conservative tide is affecting democratic life and fundamental rights’

    Eliana CanoAs part of our 2019 thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their experiences of backlash from anti-rights groups and their strategies to strengthen progressive narratives and civil society responses. CIVICUS speaks toEliana Cano, founder of Católicas por el Derecho a Decidir – Peru (Catholics for the Right to Decide – CDD-Peru), a Catholic and feminist movement committed to the pursuit of social justice and the change of cultural patterns that limit women's autonomy and their sexual and reproductive rights. CCD-Peru has recently been sued by the Tomás Moro Legal Centre, which wants to strip it of its legal status on the basis that, within the framework of an agreement between the Vatican State and Peru, it should not be using the term ‘Catholics’.

    CDD-Peru is being sued to have its legal personality withdrawn and prevented from calling itself 'Catholic'. Who is suing you, what do they have against you, and what are they trying to achieve?

    About a month and a half ago we were notified that the Santo Tomás Moro Legal Centre, which is a self-appointed representative of the Catholic Church, had brought a lawsuit against us. According to the lawyers who are advising us, this group began to look into the work done by our organisation about a year ago. They decided to sue us in the civil courts because they want to make this a long, tedious, tiring process, one of permanent appeal. The whole thing can take up to three or four years. Basically, their strategy is to drain us of energy in the process.

    They want us to cease to exist as a registered organisation, recognised by the National Superintendency of Public Registries. In other words, they want us to lose our legal status and not be able to continue operating in Peru. They argue that, by calling ourselves what we do, we are disrespecting the Catholic Church and its parishioners. They say that, in light of the existing agreement between the Vatican State and Peru – which recognises the role of the Catholic Church – we are using the term 'Catholic', which represents an institution and a historical identity, in bad faith. They do not accept the interpretation we make of biblical texts on the basis of feminist theology in order to question dogma, imposed conscience and control of people in the name of God. It is important to note that our organisation is not registered with the Catholic Church as a faith group, and therefore is not subject to the internal mandate of the Church.

    You have been around for a few years. Is this the first time you have faced such reaction?

    Indeed, the project of Catholics for the Right to Decide is quite old in Latin America. It began in Uruguay and then spread to the USA, and from there it passed on to Mexico and other countries of Latin America. In Peru the organisation has had a legal existence since 2009. We organised ourselves because we identify as feminists with a Catholic identity. We see ourselves as Catholic women of faith, but we have a critical view of dogma, of static and closed thought, especially where issues related to sexual and reproductive rights are concerned, as body and sexuality are a terrain where political battles are fought. In Peru there has always been a very homogenous public voice around the Gospels and the right to command over the bodies and lives of women, and we, by questioning this from the position of our Catholic identity, have received a rather aggressive response by the hierarchy of the local Catholic Church and groups linked to it.

    The first public attack happened on the occasion of the debate around the definition of a protocol for therapeutic abortion: abortion that is justified for medical reasons, when there are serious risks to the woman’s health or life. It was an attack tinged with the same resources these groups always use, based on defamation, vilification and lies. But in this case attacks basically took the form of verbal and written attacks on social media.

    Conservative groups know how to manage social media and constantly attack us publicly for everything we do that deviates from dogma or homogeneous discourse. However, this is the first time we have faced a lawsuit, and we were not expecting an attack so direct and of such magnitude. Maybe we should have foreseen it, since in Latin America, and in Peru specifically, ultra-conservative groups have penetrated deeply into the political structure of the country and are affecting democratic life.

    It would seem that these ultra-conservative groups are now larger and more emboldened than they used to be. Why is that?

    When looking back you realise that for several decades a global and regional response has developed to discourage and weaken the liberation theology discourse, which put the emphasis mostly on poverty. With a questioning discourse within the Church that extended to other areas of life, liberation theology made the most hardcore conservative elements of the Church very uncomfortable. The reaction against it has been sustained. It has made a lot of progress, to the point that today a highly organic network has become visible, which has bases in various Latin American countries and its own publications, conferences and considerable economic resources. Its presence began to make itself felt strongly in 2005, when the Center for Family Promotion and Regulation of Birth (Ceprofarena) organised the Second International Pro-Life Congress in the capital, Lima. This congress produced a document known as the Lima Declaration, an expression of the agreement reached by conservative groups.

    Ceprofarena has existed since the early eighties. It maintains close links to Human Life International, a powerful international conservative organisation, and among its members are renowned physicians and senior state officials, including former health ministers. The organisation acts within numerous medical and health organisations, both public and private. These actors put conservative ‘scientific’ discourse at the service of abuses such as the denial of emergency oral contraception, an issue on which they successfully took on the Ministry of Health. They sued the Ministry, bringing to court the right to information and choice of thousands of women, and succeeded in achieving the prohibition of the distribution of emergency contraception by all health services nationwide. Now they are campaigning to dismantle the therapeutic abortion protocol established during the 2011 to2016 period.

    The network of conservative organisations in Peru also includes the Office for Latin America of the Population Research Institute, based in Lima; the Peruvian headquarters of the Latin American Alliance for the Family, which promotes classic family formats and produces and disseminates school books; of course older organisations such as Opus Dei, which does local development and support work and is deeply embedded in educational spaces, as well as within the bureaucracy of the Church; and the Sodalicio de la Vida Cristiana, an organisation of lay people.

    These groups have a lot of money that comes from the conservative business sector and have appropriated effective strategies and discourses. This lawsuit is a practical strategy that denotes a change in their way of organising. They no longer speak the language of the divine and the clerical because they know that it attracts fewer and fewer people; instead they have appropriated the discourse of democracy and human rights.

    Are you thinking of new strategies to face this growing challenge?

    In the present scenario we view ourselves as in need of strengthening our communication strategies. We also need to strengthen our resourcing, since we do not have funds to face a lawsuit of this magnitude. International funders do not necessarily provide support that can be used to develop institutional defence plans. But at present, this is a profound need of human rights organisations. In our case, fortunately the Legal Defence Institute, which had already taken on similar cases affecting journalists, became interested and decided to sponsor the case as part of its institutional priorities. They consider that this is an "ideological fight" and that questioning our name is a "pretext" to make us disappear as influential actors. Theirs has been a gesture that we are infinitely thankful for.

    As far as discourse is concerned, however, we should not move from our positions, but rather show that the appropriation of the discourse of human rights and democracy by ultra-conservative groups is as superficial as disrespectful of democratic principles. As happened recently with the ‘Do not mess with my children’ campaign – against education about gender equality and respect for sexual identities – their discourse tends to become very aggressive every time they feel cornered. They seem to be desperate, because deep down they do nothing but react in the face of newly acquired rights.

    And the situation has indeed progressed, because this is not just us – new generations are mobilised and lots of people who are respectful of freedom and diversity and who uphold guarantees for rights are gaining ground. It is not just three or four old-time feminist organisations that are active in Lima; there are also the voices and faces of young people organised in universities, people in communities in various regions of Peru who think critically, do not accept dogmas, even react in a sarcastic tone to that type of discourse and perspective.

    Of course there is always a Catholic youth following that responds to the Pope and has decided to stay within the ultra-conservative field, but there is also youth social mobilisation around many issues, and with their help many aspects of the sexual and reproductive rights agenda are permeating the public debate. I think this is causing ultra-conservative groups to despair, and that is why they are reacting with such anger, frustration and, I would even dare say, hate. That is, they react with attitudes that are nowhere close to mercy, kindness, humility, understanding and non-judgement.

    Why does the fact that you define yourselves as both Catholics and feminists cause this type of reaction?

    We are women of faith and religion is part of our identity. We have been raised Catholic, and in that context the message that was instilled in us was one of obedience, prohibition and oppression. As we grew up, we rebelled against this and other aspects related to the control of our lives and their sexual dimension. We identify ourselves as Catholic on the basis of a renewed interpretation, but we do not renounce our faith. We are aware that Catholicism is not only a matter of faith, but it also operates within or materialises in an institution, and as such it includes both positive and negative practices that have an impact on the lives of many people, and specifically on its members.

    At the same time, we all come from organisations with a feminist identity. We are feminists and we question patriarchy as a system of asymmetric power relations, but we do not renounce our faith. We always ask ourselves these questions: why should our religion have to have one single voice, uniform and unquestionable? Why obey in silence and validate sacrifice and suffering in our own lives and bodies? We find a foothold in feminist theology, which offers a deconstruction and reconstruction of the Gospel. These conceptual and political tools strengthen our conviction and our public struggle for sexual and reproductive rights.

    High Church officials tell us: ‘you are not Catholic, who are you to speak in the name of Catholicism?’ We respond: ‘what makes you a Catholic, what allows you to trample rights in the name of God?’ We have claimed ownership of the language of the Gospel that focuses on the right of people to deliberate in conscience, to discern and to decide, and this bothers them. I am a Catholic, I was baptised and I am guided by feminist theology. You cannot question my faith, just as I cannot question yours. This is a very hard fight, because it is easy to fall in the face of a mass telling you that you are not one of them. From the beginning we knew that we would face disqualification, defamation and lies; we did not, however, think that the attacks would become as violent as those we are currently experiencing on social media, as well as in the form of a lawsuit.

    Given that the experience of faith cannot be taken away from us, what they are trying to do is take away our legal status, make us disappear. We represent a danger because we are not just a few. In fact, more and more people are increasingly getting to know us and identify with us. We represent the position of many people who do not necessarily have the opportunity to articulate this strand of thought publicly, but who feel it and live by it. There is a wide and diverse congregation that does not think the same way as the Church hierarchy and considers that the ultra-conservative response to public policy is more suitable to Inquisition times than today. According to polls, most Catholics disagree with the Church hierarchy on many important issues, such as homosexuality, which they do not consider to be an illness or a divine punishment, or same-sex marriage. Choosing an abortion in specific life circumstances is a highly ethical and responsible decision, and it does not make you a bad woman, a lesser Catholic, or a bad mother. Using contraceptives to regulate motherhood and fatherhood or enjoying a sexual relationship without procreating is not prohibited by the Gospels. The state of virginity is losing its divine quality and this is freeing women from feelings of guilt, even in societies such as Latin America’s, where governments and the Catholic Church have always worked in concert to regulate people’s lives. Still today they support one another every time one of them loses credibility.

    How else are you trying to encourage a distinction between private faith and public policy?

    Ours is also a struggle for a secular state, a state that is separated from all churches. This is very difficult to achieve in practice, since the Catholic Church and the Peruvian state maintain strong institutional ties. However, short of achieving constitutional and legal separation between Church and state, there is another fight to be had in the sphere of collective attitudes. Many people – politicians, public officials, civil servants – reach the public sphere without giving a thought to the importance of separating religious beliefs from public function. As a result, many lawmakers and public officials make decisions based on their religious beliefs. It is very common to find crucifixes, chapels and religious images in ministry buildings. In our everyday lives religion surrounds us and limits us; there are no clear boundaries between religious practice and public functions.

    Ultra-conservative groups set themselves on this ground and seek to further expand the dictates of a religion that presents itself as homogeneous, with the intention of forcing all citizens to live according to their own beliefs and mandates. The problem is not religion in itself; the difficulty lies with the political use of religion within the political-public sphere, where there is a duty to guarantee human rights.

     

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

    Get in touch with Católicas por el Derecho a Decidir-Perú through their webpage and Facebook

     

  • SRI LANKA: ‘Trolls accusing people of being traitors are organised and political’

    Ahead of the Sri Lankan presidential elections on 16 November 2019, CIVICUS spoke with Sandya Ekneligoda, a human rights defender and campaigner for justice for families of people who have been disappeared. Sandya is the wife of disappeared cartoonist Prageeth Ekneligoda and has been subjected to a barrage of hate, abuse, intimidation, harassment and death threats on social media.

    sanya Eknaligoda

    Photo: Ravindra Pushpakumara

    Can you tell us about the campaign on enforced disappearances in Sri Lanka and how you became involved in it?

    My husband Prageeth Ekneligoda was abducted in January 2010. Since that terrible day, I have campaigned for the truth behind his disappearance. When domestic efforts failed, I traveled to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva to press for justice. During my activism journey, I have worked with other mothers of the disappeared to raise awareness. We have asked the government to deliver on the truth behind the thousands of disappearances in our country. We also want the authorities to give support to families who often struggle with their livelihoods once a family member has been taken.

    There has been some progress with the International Convention on Disappearances, signed in 2007 and in effect since 2010, but much work needs to be done to find the truth and support the victims. The Convention has not yet resulted in relevant domestic legislation. To keep momentum going on Prageeth’s case I have attended court over a hundred times tracking the habeas corpus case. Meanwhile, in the north, hundreds of mothers have been protesting on the streets seeking answers about their children. Justice for those disappeared remains a critical issue for the country to resolve.

    What threats have you faced for your advocacy?

    I have faced a number of different threats. I have been called a traitor and received hate speech on Facebook. In 2016, Prageeth and myself became the targets of a defamation campaign that took many forms, including public speeches and posters smearing my name. I believe this was an organised smear campaign by the Rajapaksa clan, the clan of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. I have also been targeted by nationalistic Buddhist monks. Venerable Gnanasara Thero, General Secretary of the Bodu Bala Sena, a Buddhist nationalist organisation, threatened me as I was monitoring Prageeth’s court case. I filed a case against him, and he was found guilty by the court in Homagama in 2019. After this decision I got a lot of vicious threats, including threats to kill me and my children.

    In 2018, I managed to navigate my way through one of the Rajapaksa clan’s attempts to lure me into a trap. They sent one of their men, a former air force officer, to meet me. He offered to disclose information on chemical weapons in return for safe passage to the USA. I do not believe this was genuine; it was a way of distracting me from my important work to seek justice for Prageeth. These obstacles have not stopped me fighting for justice but they make life as an activist challenging.

    What is the situation for civil society in Sri Lanka a decade after the end of the conflict?

    Between 2010 and 2015 the situation for civil society in Sri Lanka was terrible. Repression was so severe we faced imminent threats of being forcibly disappeared or killed if we spoke out. We saw the state using the Prevention of Terrorism Act to try to silence activists. An example of this was the 2014 unlawful detention of Balendran Jeyakumary, an activist campaigning for the disappeared.

    After political change in 2015 the situation improved. There have been some incidents but space to talk about issues has increased. Recently, however, we have seen more clampdowns on the freedom of expression, including the arrest of Shathika Sathkumara, an award-winning writer, as well as of journalist Kusul Perera. This really troubles me. Although the environment is calmer, we see toxic elements appearing in social media. Trolls accusing people of being traitors and disseminating hate speech have emerged on Facebook and other social media platforms. This is organised and political.

    Are there any particular issues affecting civil society and the space for civil society that you are concerned about ahead of the elections?

    The participation in the elections of Gotabaya Rajapkasa, former defence chief and brother of Mahinda Rajapkasa, has re-energised racists and nationalists, who had been a bit dormant after 2015. These elements are now becoming quite vocal and issue threats. For example, following a petition filed by Gamini Viyingoda and Chandragupta Thenuwara querying Gotabaya’s eligibility for elections, Madumadawa Aranvinda, a politician, posted the comment that roughly translated as “there was a name which sounds like Viyangoda which was Ekneligoda and best wishes to you both and good luck.” As my husband was disappeared for speaking out, this was clearly a threat to the petitioners to stay silent.

    Ahead of the elections there’s a looming possibility that violence will erupt. There have already been some examples. When Gotabaya’s legal team won the petition, a Gotabaya supporter set fire to the house of a United National Party supporter. In a highly polarised context, with the two bigger parties fielding strong candidates, it’s possible that the parties will encourage proxies to incite violence. This violence could also turn against civil society activists raising issues. I feel wary of the path ahead as impunity prevails, as reflected in the little progress experienced in mine and other cases.

    What support does Sri Lankan civil society need from the international community and international civil society to help build greater respect for human rights and democratic freedoms?

    If Gotabhaya comes into power there will be a surge in threats. International civil society groups should be ready to help those most at risk, like myself, who have named and shamed him. This is an important time for international civil society to show its solidarity with activists in Sri Lanka and check in with friends and colleagues on protection needs. It’s also really important that organisations continue to work with the victims who raised awareness about the need for truth following the end of the war despite the threats they faced. Civil society organisations must stay vigilant and keep pushing on investigations for important justice cases in Sri Lanka, such as my fight for the truth about what happened to my husband, Prageeth.

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

    This interview was undertaken by independent researcher Yolanda Foster on behalf of CIVICUS.

     

  • VIETNAM: ‘The government is using non-state actors against minority religions’

    Thang NguyenCIVICUS speaks with Thang Nguyen of Boat People SOS (BPSOS), a civil society organisation based in the USA and Thailand, about the challenges for civil society and religious minorities in Vietnam, and about their work to enable civil society responses.

    Can you tell us about BPSOS and the work it does?

    I’m currently the CEO and President of BPSOS, having joined initially as a volunteer. BPSOS was founded in 1980. We have two major divisions. The first, our domestic programme, is about serving refugees and migrants in the USA, across six locations. Second, we have our international initiatives, run from our regional headquarters in Bangkok, Thailand.

    In Bangkok, we provide a legal clinic to help refugees and asylum seekers with their asylum claims and with protection – not only those coming from Vietnam but also from other countries, including Cambodia, China, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. We have a programme to help Vietnamese human rights defenders at risk, whether they be in prison or in hiding in Vietnam or seeking refuge in Thailand or elsewhere. A major component is to build capacity for civil society in Vietnam at the community level. Finally, we have a religious freedom project, working with local, regional and global partners, to build up a network for advocates for freedom of religion or belief in South East Asia. We hold an annual conference, the Southeast Asia Freedom of Religion or Belief Conference (SEAFORB).

    What are the key current challenges experienced by civil society in Vietnam?

    The regime is still very oppressive. The government has heavy-handed policies against people coming together to form their own associations, which make it hard for organised civil society to develop. The government is now somewhat more tolerant with individuals speaking out, or perhaps it is that the government struggles to control expression on social media to the same extent.

    Another challenge comes with the people themselves. Living in a closed society, they don’t have many opportunities to develop the necessary skills or experience to come together and form associations.

    Further, there’s very little commitment or investment from the international community to develop civil society in Vietnam, compared for example to Cambodia or Myanmar. There are very few organisations from outside Vietnam that work hand in hand with groups in Vietnam to help them develop capacity to implement programmes.

    Because of this, there are very few truly functional independent civil society organisations in Vietnam and the number of these has decreased over the last five years because they cannot sustain themselves in the face of interference from the government. There are only individual human rights defenders, some of them well-known, but not organised civil society.

    In contrast, there are tens of thousands of government-owned ‘non-governmental’ organisations (GONGOs) that are controlled by the Communist Party. They present themselves as the civil society of Vietnam.

    What are the challenges minority groups face in Vietnam, particularly religious minorities?

    Many of the minority groups are indigenous peoples, but the government of Vietnam does not recognise them as such; it only classes them as ethnic minorities. They therefore face a fight for the right to be recognised as indigenous people. They are often separated from their ancestral land.

    For many groups, a religion that is a minority belief in Vietnam is part of their social and cultural makeup. For example, the Cham are Muslim and the Khmer Krom are Theravada Buddhists, which is very different from the Mahayana Buddhism practised by the majority of Vietnamese Buddhists. Then there are the Hmong and the Montagnards: Christianity has spread among the Montagnards for decades, and the government wants to control and stop this. Since the early 1980s, Christianity also started to develop in the Northwest Region among the Hmong population. The government of Vietnam viewed this as an undesirable influence from the west, and therefore it has taken drastic messages to stop its further spreading in the Northwest and Central Highlands regions.

    Most of these groups of people are located remotely and so don’t have access to the internet, and don’t know how to attract resources, even from within Vietnam. Other people in Vietnam aren’t aware of the situation, let alone the international community. Little information is available about these groups.

    The government authorities are directly suppressing independent house churches. In the Central Highlands, thousands of house churches have been closed, set on fire and destroyed. In 2004 the government issued an ordinance on belief and religion, meaning that house churches have to be registered. There are credible reports that the government trained a lot of its own people to become pastors, and they have set up new churches allowed by the government. These are run and controlled by the government.

    A major challenge is the forced renunciation of faith. Christians have been ordered to leave their parish churches and told not to follow any religion, or to join a government-controlled church. People who have resisted joining government-controlled churches have been harassed, persecuted and tortured. Several deaths in police custody have been documented. There are quite a lot of religious prisoners of conscience, many of them Montagnard Christians.

    The repression of the Hmong is even more drastic. In many parts of Northwest Region, Hmong Christians who have refused to renounce their faith have been evicted from their villages by the local authorities. Their villages have been declared as Christian-free zones. Tens of thousands of Hmong have been affected, something that continues to this day. They became itinerant, and it has taken them many years to coalesce into new communities, usually in previously uninhabited areas unknown to local government. Many moved to the Central Highlands. They are completely undocumented and so have become functionally stateless. They live outside society. Married people are not issued with marriage certificates, babies do not get birth certificates, children can’t formally receive education – although some slip into school unofficially – and people can’t get legal employment, set up a business, or open a bank account. They are restricted in their travel: pastors can’t travel into these communities, while they cannot travel to worship elsewhere.

    In many provinces Catholics, even when they are part of the major ethnic groups, have been persecuted by the government. And then there is the Cao Dai religion, a minority religion with about five million reported followers, although the government only recognises around 1.2 million Cao Daiists. Its church structures were disbanded in 1978. In 1997 the government created a new Cao Dai sect, and then 10 years later turned this into a new religion with a similar name and transferred all the property of the Cao Dai religion to it. To the world the government presents this sect as the representative of the Cao Dai religion.

    The government is also using non-state actors against minority religions. In Nghe An Province, the authorities use organised mobs known as Red Flag Associations, which are supported and encouraged by local authorities to attack churches and beat up parishioners. We have had several reports of this.

    What steps are needed to help civil society respond to these rights violations?

    Because of the restriction of organised civil society there’s very little response to the suppression of religious minorities. This lack of organised civil society also makes it difficult to foster partnerships between civil society groups in Vietnam and international human rights organisations. In response, we are trying to build community capacity to develop organisations in Vietnam to protect rights.

    We train a lot of people in Vietnam to know how to report human rights violations. So far we’ve trained about a thousand local rapporteurs and they have generated about 200 different reports that have been submitted to various United Nations (UN) special procedures and UN bodies, and shared with other governments and international human rights organisations to raise awareness of the situation in Vietnam.

    We are helping to form community-based CSOs in each minority community. So far there are about 20 of these, and we aim to have 100 by the end of 2020. We have incubated a number of CSOs specialising in different aspects of human rights, based on the international commitments Vietnam has made as a result of signing various conventions. For example, we have supported the creation and development of Vietnamese Women for Human Rights, the Vietnam Coalition Against Torture and the Vietnam Freedom of Religion or Belief Roundtable. We have worked with Montagnard people to form a CSO specialising in Montagnard minorities. Now we are connecting these specialist CSOs with their peers outside Vietnam. For instance Vietnamese Women for Human Rights is now a member of FORUM-ASIA, a network of human rights organisations throughout Asia and the Pacific. We are cultivating these kinds of partnerships.

    What more support is needed?

    Once CSOs in Vietnam have developed some capacity, there is a need to connect them with civil society outside Vietnam. We are advocating for organisations to offer internship and fellowship schemes to enable staff to develop skills, experience, connections and exposure outside Vietnam.

    We hope to see more projects geared at further developing civil society in Vietnam, through training, coaching and technical assistance as well as advocacy. There has been an almost complete lack of this kind of investment from civil society worldwide. Organisations are issuing statements about Vietnam and that is appreciated, but this is the next step needed. Amnesty International now has a Vietnamese national working on Vietnam, who was with BPSOS before, so this is a positive step and a model to replicate.

    It would be much more effective if international human rights organisations working on Vietnam could coordinate among themselves, and with groups within Vietnam. For instance, a joint advocacy project on the functionally stateless Montagnard Christians, with pressure coming from multiple directions, would help.

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

    Get in touch with BSPOS through itswebsite orFacebook page and follow@BoatPeopleSOS on Twitter.

     

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