United States of America

 

  • ‘Democracy is a struggle that never ends’

    As part of our 2018 report on the theme ofreimagining 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 US activist and CIVICUS board member Jesse Chen of Powerline about the growing popularity of citizen activism in the United States. Since the start of 2017, an unprecedentedone in five US citizens have marched in the streets. But, Jesse points out, the growing number of people’s movements hasn’t come from nowhere: they are part of a longer trajectory that has seen political activism rising on both the left and right in the United States for at least a decade.

    1. Given the unprecedented numbers of US citizens taking to the streets, including in the 2018 March for Our Lives movement, do you think that there is a new moment in political activism in the United States?

    When Trump won in November 2016 and took office in January 2017, we witnessed an entire movement and energy on the left, but also on the right. People have been marching in the streets from the resistance and women’s marches over the first weekends of the Trump presidency to the science marches that came shortly after. On the right, the energy has been rising as well, not only with Donald Trump beating 16 other candidates for the Republican nomination, but also, for example, his rallies as well as the Charlottesville marches, a display last August of white nationalism and threatened white patriarchy.

    The students participating in the March for Our Lives had plenty of recent context, fresh in their minds, that they could look to and say, “We’ve seen people marching very recently. Agree or disagree, it’s irrelevant. Being an activist is normal, socially-acceptable behaviour. I’m going to do this, too.” That said, I think it’s unwise to draw conclusions from a snapshot in time. To me, this moment that we are in right now, with students forming mass protests for gun reform, is naturally aligned with a trend line that can be traced back over the last 10 years at least.

    In my view, this trend started in the early years of the Obama administration when many on the left realised that Barack Obama was not as far to the left as they had hoped. I believe this realisation partly led to the rise of Occupy Wall Street. As much as the left liked Obama, he was far more centrist and establishment than they had hoped. When financial reform and healthcare reform opportunities came and went, the left realised that Barack Obama wasn’t nearly as progressive as he had looked at the time compared to Democratic establishment forerunner and primary candidate, Hillary Clinton.

    Fast-forward a few years and we saw the Dreamers, we saw Black Lives Matter and, of course, we saw Bernie Sanders, among others on the left. A clear thread of anti-establishment energy can be seen across each of these movements. Similarly, at the same time, on the right the conservative Tea Party movement was forming with rallies and marches across the country in response to the loss of the 2008 election. The Tea Party would go on to win several seats in Congress in 2010, leading not only to control of Congress and a number of government shutdowns, but also, indisputably, to the remarkable rise of Donald Trump a few years later.

    Throughout this same period, we have gone through several mass shootings. Of those, we had the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, 14 years after Columbine. Six-year-olds, children no higher than your thighs, were gunned down in an elementary school, and this country’s government and its people did nothing. That was a moment of collective failure for this country where people suddenly realised that, if we can’t act on something so tragic as that, then maybe there actually is no way to act feasibly on guns. So, I definitely think that there was a feeling of hopelessness after the years of Sandy Hook Elementary School and the failure of our government to do something meaningful about it. That hopelessness seems to have given way, at least partially, with the Marjory Stoneman Douglas students. Also, now that we have the Trump administration, all issues are back on the table, both open and closed.

    2. What do you think that the March for our Lives Movement has learned from these other movements that have emerged over the past 10 years, including Black Lives Matter?

    One important thing that Black Lives Matter shows is that translocal movements work. The notion of centralised control under a civil society organisation’s campaign or under some iconic leader is one of the reasons, in my view, why progressive movements aren’t as successful on the whole as a lot of conservative movements. Conservatives know that you don’t need to march on Washington to affect change - you can march in your own town, in your own city, in your own neighbourhood. Comparatively speaking, liberals over-extend and over-invest their trust in government as the solution and fail to get involved at the personal and local level. This is something that Black Lives Matter really helped bring out of the shadows and into the mainstream for those on the left. I think Black Lives Matters’ leadership really deserves credit for positively disrupting progressive activism in the United States in that way because that hyperlocal, translocal model can be extremely effective, especially for systemic change.

    The cofounders of March for Our Lives from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have become iconic, but the movement also includes people here at Public School 123 in Brooklyn or Hoboken High School in New Jersey. The leaders in those translocal spaces are leaders, too - and they are not being ‘controlled’ by a central leadership just like how the Black Lives Matter activists are not being ‘controlled’ by the leadership at the Black Lives Matter network or at any of the other facilitating networks. Civil society organisations (CSOs) need to think about this too - movements are too centralised in CSO offices in too many parts of traditional civil society.

    Of course, the elephant in the room for the difference between Black Lives Matter and March for Our Lives is that the students are a diverse group of citizens. So to many bystanders, there appears less of a direct challenge to the existing power structure and the white patriarchy with the March for Our Lives Movement versus the Black Lives Matter movement. I look at Black Lives Matter and I see a story of fundamental oppression that has literally been both part of the DNA of this country and the driver of an enormous movement. It tells me a number of things, but number one is that democracy is a struggle that never ends. That struggle includes the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Jesse Jackson’s candidacy in the 1984 Democratic primary and the election of Obama as President in 2008. But we don’t win democracy with new laws, with elections, or even with revolutions. Democracy is something that you need to keep on fighting for. I think what Black Lives Matter teaches us is that, in general, this fight is a fight that never ends. I hope our educators within school spaces are walking the student activists through this process because, as those students have undoubtedly already learned in the last months, it’s not enough for people to feel sorry for you over a tragedy in order to get people to change what is a remarkably ingrained injustice in our system.

    3. Movements like March for Our Lives both rise and fall on social media. Does this make it difficult for them to be sustained?

    Social media networks were never designed for democracy. There is no question that social media and the major social networks have had a democratising effect, but we’re being pushed against our limits in terms of what current social media can and cannot do for society. That’s because current social networks were never intentionally designed for the needs and nuances of democracy. The design of the platforms has led to echo chambers and ideological bubbles. They’ve led to the sort of trolling problems that we see, the sorts of privacy problems that we see, the fake news, and many more problems. The situation is currently evolving as we work through the aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica revelations, so it is against that context that I make the claim that we are between states on this as people awake to this flawed system. Of course, we can’t deny the role that Twitter is playing in helping these March for Our Lives activists organise and activate. The problem is that eventually there becomes a sustained engagement problem because, at their cores, these platforms were not designed to support real mass engagement over time. The students have had the benefit of physical co-location in their schools to anchor their local organising even as they use Twitter to connect translocally, and this has been helpful for sustaining for the last few months. Personal hopes aside, it remains to be seen how much the students stay active, energised and focused as the school year ends and summer break begins.

    4. Are you hopeful about the trajectory of activism in the United States? Do these student activists show that it is ‘cool’ to be an activist now?

    Activism is less nerdy than it used to be. The popular response in the past used to be ‘I’m not into politics.’ But try ‘not being into politics’ in Donald Trump’s America, and you’re seen as both uninformed and uncool. We’re seeing a ton more engagement in civic space, and this is one of the best non-partisan things Trump has done for the United States given its years-long declining citizen participation. Now, people are talking civics again, and they’re even talking politics in sports arenas. This is fundamental for a democracy. We can’t just keep going along on autopilot, holding an election every four years and expecting our leaders to do the right things for us. We must learn to organise, channel and sustain pressure between elections translocally and at scale on the government we do have, not the one we wish we had. These students are showing us ways in which that can be done, and I can’t be the only one that thinks that’s pretty cool.

    From the student perspective, it gives us great hope that these kids will not have to wait until they’ve gone through a couple of years of college and ‘come out of their shell’ for a fraction of them to become activists as young adults. You have kids that were marching in the streets of their own towns, in some cases much to the chagrin of their own school administrations and city councils, and they were out there standing up for themselves. Good for them. Youth are the future in human form. They deserve to have their voices heard just like the rest of our citizens.

    With activism being popular in high school now, we’ve got more people joining the ranks of active citizenship and, hopefully, they’re not going to wait five years until they are in college to get involved. If we look at the larger trend line, this gives all of us an opportunity to reconnect with the grassroots and to reconnect on issues that even some of us, despite best intentions, may have given up on in the past. So yes, I am hopeful at where this larger trend will eventually lead.

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

    Get in touch with Powerline through theirFacebook andTwitter pages.

    See also ourinterview with Jaclyn Corin and Matt Deitsch from March for Our Lives.

     

  • ‘Democracy is not failing the American people - politicians are’

    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 governance, and the challenges they encounter in doing so. CIVICUS speaks to Jaclyn Corin and Matt Deitsch, from March for Our Lives, a student-led demonstration held on 24 March 2018 in Washington, DC, with hundreds of sibling events throughout the USA and around the world, in demand of tighter gun control. The march was organised in reaction to the February 2018 shooting that left 17 people dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

    1. Is democracy failing the American people, and young Americans in particular?
    JC: I don’t think democracy is failing Americans, but I do think we need to remember what democracy really is, because right now our politicians are not embracing its true definition.

    MD: There are parties that are actively trying to obstruct democracy; there are people trying to suppress voters, whether by voter ID laws, or through registration procedures. The change towards automatic registration in several states is a big step in the right direction, allowing anyone to vote who is eligible. Mass incarceration is also a form of voter suppression, so there are things happening in the US that do suppress democracy. And nobody is free until we are all free, so we need to step up and fight for those who have their power taken away by this unfair system.

    JC: It is just a matter of Americans taking advantage of their democracy, because a lot of people don’t realise that they do have a lot of rights. One of them is the right to vote, and many people don’t take advantage of it. So it is a matter of showing people that one vote can make a difference, even though the prevailing thought has long been ‘I’m only one person, I can’t do anything’.

    2. What was different about the Parkland shooting? Why do you think it was this particular event that sparked a movement like #NeverAgain, in a context in which mass shootings, and school shootings in particular, have become almost routine?
    JC: When this happened, and we were there, we weren’t even that surprised. I remember being in the classroom and thinking ‘this makes sense’. Because I grew up seeing mass shootings, they were all over the place on television. I wasn’t even alive during Columbine, which was one of the most memorable mass shootings in American history. So it was just a matter of us being tired of seeing that happening all the time. It was really important for young people to stand up, because with every mass shooting before this one, either nobody stood up, or they were too quiet and nobody listened to them. This time, there were 16, 17 and 18-year-olds appearing on TV screens, screaming at the very people that they were meant to ‘respect’. We were yelling at them, and people were just intrigued by our fierceness.

    MD: The National Rifle Association (NRA) has practised something that is sometimes referred to as ‘normalisation’, where they create a narrative that is not grounded in reality, but this story is told so many times that it becomes fact to some people. So we immediately knew that what we needed to do is just speak with the truth on the matter. They have of course been trying to discredit this truth, but they have been unable to. When it came to Parkland, I was personally terrified for my brother and sister, and when they came home, my sister – it was her birthday – was pretending like everything was fine, but my brother was visibly angry. At that point we thought that only three people had died, and my brother was like ‘I need to find out if so-and-so is OK’, and he was so angry, he looked at me and said ‘I’m not traumatised, I’m pissed. I’m pissed because something needs to happen’. He was saying this 20 minutes after getting home, and we felt then that we could do anything.

    JC: Yes, the fact that we didn’t even have time to mourn shows how messed up the system is. In a way, we were prepared for this to happen.

    MD: The media was outside almost every funeral, if not at all of them. Every funeral I attended, I walked out and there was a camera on my face. So they give you a choice: you can either mourn and internalise that anger about the need for change, or you can voice it. We then took advantage of the eyes on us and voiced a very powerful message. It’s not that other mass shooting victims or other gun reform advocates have had less powerful messages – what made the difference is that we did something that people were not used to seeing: we broke the cycle that happens when there’s a crime: the families on TV, the funerals, the graduation - it’s almost like watching an exhibit. And we didn’t allow ourselves to be turned into an exhibit. There was something that someone said – Joaquin’s dad, actually – that stuck with me: he said ‘when reporters call me, I tell them I’m not news. What we are doing may become news, but we are not news anymore. The shooting in Parkland happened, and it’s done. We need the news to be something better, positive, something that produces change’. He told me this a week after his son’s funeral, and his message really inspired me. We are not telling people what happened – everyone knows what happened. They may be twisting their own version of it, but everyone knows what occurred. It’s just about making sure that we don’t have to go through something like this again, and that no family feels the way these amazing families now feel.

    3. How were you able to move past the ‘thoughts and prayers’ phase, and into the policy-making arena?
    JC: The idea of ‘policy and change’ instead of ‘thoughts and prayers’ only came with us after speaking to politicians directly. But what we were getting was just an illusion of change, because it didn’t really do anything: they raised the age to buy firearms, but it wasn’t enough. They proposed a programme to arm teachers, which was exactly the opposite of what we wanted, because that pours even more money into gun corporations.

    MD: There’s no scientific evidence that more guns in any situation will make you safer.

    JC: Exactly. And there have been hundreds of local laws implemented since Parkland, and 25 across 15 states at a state level, but that’s not nearly enough because what really needs to happen is federal change. Especially when it comes to universal background checks. No matter how strict a state may be, there’s always a state that is less strict and it’s so easy to move firearms around that it just doesn’t change anything.

    MD: For instance, Chicago has strict gun laws, but they still have high gun violence, because they are next door to Indiana, which has no gun laws, and there is nobody at the border checking the guns that come through. And we have no federal registry, no way of tracking where guns come from, who owns them or what they are being used for. We need this to enforce individual responsibility for gun ownership.

    4. What do you think your chances of success are, and why?
    JC: We think our chances are incredibly high; it’s just a matter of time. The easy stuff is going to come first: for instance, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) now will be able to research gun violence on a funded level; a digitised register may be created - all that is going to come first. It’s going to be a longer push for assault weapons and high capacity magazines to be banned. But it’s going to happen, because we are not going anywhere until it’s done.

    MD: David Hogg, one of the movement’s founders, was asked on TV whether he thought we would be successful. He said yes, and the reporter said: ‘but the people against you are very powerful, they are a large organisation, they are training leaders every day, and they have tons of money’. And David goes: ‘yeah, but we are going to outlive them’. It’s that simple: young people are coming together to save each other’s lives. The selfish older generation, including the NRA leadership, is going to crumble. It’s bound to happen, because they have been a part of the corruption of our democracy and of America’s freedoms for so long. We are calling their bluff, exposing their façade, for stepping on the flag and using it as a podium instead of representing what that flag means.

    JC: There are very few people on the other side compared to ours because young people have a more open mind now, in the 21st century, compared to ever before, and that makes us optimistic. Our open minds stem from the education we have received and the fact that we are aware that we have so much more to learn.

    MD: This generation is better educated than most generations before. We were born in the internet age. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t able to look things up online when I had a question, and that ability to have all our questions answered is something that we have taken for granted - now we understand why it means so much. We can use that ability to communicate with loads of people to continue this education and produce policy that makes sense. A true democracy can only work in an educated society, so being an educated voting force is key to tackling the corruption that seems to have taken over the US, especially in recent years.

    5. How did you personally become involved in this movement, and what was your source of inspiration?
    MD: We model a lot of what we do after Martin Luther King Jr. and the Freedom Riders, the civil rights movement, the women’s suffrage and the women’s liberation movements: all the movements that expanded democracy. We are getting the same sort of message out. It worked – we didn’t have a democracy in America until everyone was granted the right to vote. In fact, America has only been a democracy for around 50 years! And we talk about being a free country, but even now, with the trend of mass incarceration, voter ID laws, registration requirements – all tactics of voter suppression – we are not actually a true democracy. We are using the same methods that worked in the past to expand our democracy.

    JC: The movements that were most successful in the US had defined goals. Movements that are scattered about and lack one major thing they are striving for end up dwindling away. The fact that we have five main goals makes for a very clear finish line that is achievable. The first one is funded research on gun violence by the CDC – because until recently, as a result of the 1996 Dickey amendment, the CDC was not allowed to receive money to research the effects of gun violence in our country. This legislative provision was changed recently, but the CDC was still given no money – so what we need is categorised grants to fund this research. The second goal is a single digitised registry of files for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). Currently there is no single place where you can find who owns a particular gun, and sometimes it is impossible to find out, because so many guns are bought on the black market or in private sales. We have the technology to fix this, but it hasn’t happened because people think it is a violation of their Second Amendment Rights – which has been completely taken over by the NRA lobby, with a definition that makes no sense, as it treats the reasonable regulation of the exercise of a right as an infringement. But the truth is, even if all our demands were made into federal law, people would still be able to go through a screening process and buy a firearm intended for protection, which is what the Second Amendment is for.

    MD: The third goal is universal background checks. For instance, in no state should a domestic abuser be allowed to purchase a gun legally. Domestic abuse is the number one indicator for a mass shooter; it has a higher correlation with mass shootings than mental health issues. But that’s not in the law in most places. In some places there are no checks at all. In 12 states a concealed carry permit only requires you to sign a piece of paper. If you are on the terrorist watch list you cannot get on a plane, but you could still purchase an assault weapon. There are places where you need to go through background checks if you want to adopt a cat, but not if you want to buy an assault weapon! This makes no sense. Background checks should be required for every single gun purchase.

    JC: It is important to emphasise that background checks should be mandated by federal law, so that every jurisdiction has the same requirements and procedures, and there are not places where regulations are less strict, creating loopholes that can be taken advantage of. Lastly, our fourth and fifth goals are longer term, as they are the hardest to swallow for conservatives. According to polls, they are still supported by a majority of public opinion, but less than the previous three, for which approval rates are around 80 to 90 per cent. Goals four and five are a high-capacity magazine ban and a ban on semi-automatic assault rifles. The shooter in our school fired 180 rounds in less than six minutes, while walking around and taking the time to go to classroom after classroom. When he was firing, it was like rainfall. No person should have the ability to shoot that many bullets in such short amount of time. Most hunting ranges have banned this type of weapon – which in fact are not really meant for hunting animals; they are meant for hunting people. This kind of firing power can only be in the hands of highly trained individuals, and has no place in our homes and streets. This is what so many veterans are telling us: these weapons are a danger not only to other people, but also to their owners and the people close to them, because they don’t know how to handle them, store them and take care of them.

    6. In which ways could international civil society and like-minded movements elsewhere help you achieve your goals?
    JC: A lot of other countries, like Australia and most European ones, have laws like the ones we advocate for, and their levels of gun crime are incredibly lower than ours. This proves there is a way to fix this, and we should stop ignoring the fact that we have a gun problem and blaming it all on mental health. Other countries have mental health problems but these problems don’t cause the same amount of damage as here, so the argument doesn’t hold. If the international community could add their voices in support of the idea that these laws do work, it would be of a lot of help.

    MD: The international community could help a lot in promoting an educated democracy, saying how important it is for young people to not only vote, but also become educated in the voting process, given that our political system has clearly failed us when it comes to protecting us. This is important not only for the US but also for the world, because others emulate the US, as we can see with the current administration and how it has played out in the rest of the world in terms of the increase in intolerance and hate crimes. By promoting education and democracy, the international community would be helping us.

    Civic space in the United States is rated as ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with March for Our Lives through their website or Facebook page, or follow @AMarch4OurLives, @JaclynCorin and @MattxRed on Twitter.

     

  • ‘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.

     

  • “Fake news” violates citizens’ right to be informed

    CIVICUS speaks to Lyndal Rowlands, United Nations Bureau Chief at Inter Press Agency on what is “fake news”, its effect on civil society and how civil society can respond to it.

    1. How would you define fake news? How is this different from propaganda and established forms of political campaigning?
    Fake news only very recently became a part of our collective vocabulary. During the 2016 United States of America presidential election “content mill” websites created articles which mimicked the real news but were in fact entirely made up with the sole intention of going viral to make money from “clicks” or people visiting their websites. Yet before most of us had even begun to wonder what exactly fake news was, the term was co-opted by the very people who arguably benefited from fake news in its original form, and I think that it is important for civil society to pay attention to this later shift in how the term fake news has been employed.

    As comedian John Oliver has said, audiences need the press to help them to sort out fact from fiction and yet now that same press finds itself under attack. Even small mistakes made by journalists, have been seized upon by political figures as a way to discredit and delegitimise the so-called fourth estate. In light of this, I think it’s important to try and restore trust in the vast majority of the media who do uphold the professional standards that differentiate them from fake news.

    So, rather than trying to define fake news, I think that it’s better to focus on how we can discern which news audiences should trust and why. A few things that I would suggest would include making sure that you get your news from a wide variety of sources, finding out who owns the media companies you are getting your news from, and making sure that you double-check check anything that seems unusual against a primary source.

    2. Why do you think we are seeing a rise in fake news?
    The motivation for the initial rise in fake news was advertising revenue, however the disinformation that we are now seeing shared is more complex. New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen says that the spread of disinformation can help benefit a political side because it makes it more difficult for undecided voters to find out the truth. These undecided people may hear so much shouting and disagreement going on that they decide that it’s simply easier to go about their everyday lives, than to try and work out exactly who is telling the truth.

    This may explain why USA President Donald Trump’s team have now referred to three separate incidents which haven’t happened: namely Trump’s reference to “last night in Sweden”, Kelly Anne Conway’s reference to the Bowling Green Massacre and White House spokesperson Sean Spicer’s three references to a terrorist attack in Atlanta.

    As professor Rosen says, many of the Trump/Republican administration’s policies are not necessarily popular so by surrounding them with “fog and confusion” the administration “can get a lot more done”. However it’s also another reason why it’s so important that we all commit to not add to that fog and confusion ourselves, by making sure we don’t inadvertently share disinformation.

    3. Why do you think some citizens believe fake news?
    Sometimes we may believe a fake news story because it confirms our world view. We may then not be corrected, because for most of us, our world view has become increasingly polarised because of social media bubbles, which mean that we now almost exclusively see news which confirms our pre-existing opinions and values.

    4. How does fake news impact on civil society and human rights defenders?
    Attacks on press freedom affect civil society and human rights defenders because it is the job of the media to hold the powerful to account. If the vital democratic role of a free press is endangered through accusations that they are fake news and should be censored, then who will be there to report when the government or others in positions of power attack people demonstrating in the street or imprison them?

    Those who spread disinformation may also use it to discredit human rights defenders and civil society organisations. They may make up information about how many people attended a demonstration or argue that protestors are “paid”. Disagreements have begun to emerge over which protestors are violent, and whether they have been planted by the opposition, in order to discredit one side or the other. This may lead eventually to a curtailing of the right to protest, if peaceful protestors are successfully discredited.

    5. How should civil society respond to fake news?
    Sadly, the same people who seek to curb the freedoms of civil society organisations often also seek to control the media, so I definitely think that civil society and the media should work together to address these issues. Many media organisations are now also set up to serve the public interest as non-profit organisations, and many journalists are also freelancers, so there are other things that the media and non-profits have in common. If you rely on high quality journalism to get your story out, don’t forget to also support the journalists who produce these stories. If you can’t afford to buy a subscription, find other ways to support journalists, even through messages of support. Foundations and other funding organisations should also seriously consider supporting public interest journalism.

    In countries where the media is not free or where due to ownership interests they only partially or incompletely cover civil society issues, civil society organisations have also successfully begun using social media to tell their own narrative. By telling their stories directly to the public civil society organisations can also counter the sharing of disinformation. However, I would also encourage civil society to work together with the media, since there are many journalists who are committed to accurately representing issues on a wide range of topics in the public interest from human rights to climate change. 

    Follow Lyndal Rowlands on Twitter at @lyndalrowlands

     

  • #BEIJING25: ‘More women in public office translates into better government and a more robust democracy’

    For the 25th anniversary of theBeijing Platform for Action, CIVICUS is interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about the progress achieved and the challenges ahead. Focused on eliminating violence against women, ensuring access to family planning and reproductive healthcare, removing barriers to women’s participation in decision-making and providing decent jobs and equal pay for equal work, the Beijing Platform for Action was adopted at the United Nations’ (UN)Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995. After 25 years, significant but unequal progress has occurred, not least as the result of incessant civil society efforts, but no country has yet achieved gender equality.

    CIVICUS speaks to Pakou Hang, Chief Program Officer at Vote Run Lead, an organisation dedicated to training women to run for political office and win, increasing women’s representation at every level of government. Founded in 2014, it has already reached over 36,000 women across the USA, nearly 60 per cent of whom are women of colour, and 20 per cent of whom are from rural areas. Numerous Vote Run Lead alumnae are now serving on city councils, county boards, statehouses, supreme courts and the US Congress.

    Pakou Hang

    A quarter century later, how much of the promise contained in the Beijing Platform for Action has translated into actual change?

    A lot of progress has transpired since 1995, but there is still a lot to be done, and we are still far from equitable. In terms of political representation, there has been some progress, but it has also been slow: globally, 24.3 per cent of all national parliamentarians were women in early 2019, compared to just 11.3 per cent in 1995. Only three countries around the world have achieved or surpassed parity in their single or lower houses, but many more have reached or exceeded the 30 per cent threshold. As of last year, there were also 11 women serving as heads of state and 12 serving as heads of government, and women accounted for almost 21 per cent of government ministers – often in areas most associated with women’s issues, such as social affairs and portfolios dealing with family, children, young people, older people and people with disabilities. So the bottom line is mixed: a lot of progress has been made, but it has been slow and it is far from sufficient.

    Also, there has been a lot of variation among regions and countries, from about 16 per cent female legislators in the Pacific to more than 40 per cent in Nordic European countries. The Americas averages about 30 per cent, but the USA is below average. Congress is still disproportionately male: although women make up more than half the population, we hold barely 24 per cent of seats. Congress is also less racially diverse than the overall population, with 78 per cent of members identifying as white, a much higher percentage than the population’s 60 per cent of white Americans.

    According to the Center for American Women and Politics, the situation is not very different in states across the country: 29.2 per cent of state legislative seats and 18 per cent of state governorships are occupied by women. There is fewer data about local executives, and the information mostly concerns major cities, 60 per cent of whose mayors are white men, although they make up just 20 per cent of the population of those cities. And even as more women ascended into local office in 2018, it was still not uncommon for city councils and county commissions to include just one woman or no women at all.

    On the other hand, despite the relatively small number of women legislators, and especially women of colour, the current US Congress is the most diverse in history. And the group of candidates who ran for Congress in 2020 were also the most diverse we have ever seen. Of course, these candidates received a lot of backlash from the media and their political opponents. But I think we need to shift our perspective to understand the amount of change that has taken place. I surely was disappointed that we ended up with two older, white men leading the two major presidential tickets – but now we also have a Black, Indian American woman as our Vice President-elect, so there is progress.

    I remember when the 2020 presidential election was called for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, I contacted my nine-year-old niece with the news. She was ecstatic. I was reminded that she belongs to a new generation of Americans who were born under President Barack Hussein Obama. And growing up, she will know that Donald Trump was the President, but she will also know that Trump was beaten by a Black, Indian American woman. As we were talking, my niece said to me, “We are almost there, Auntie.” And it dawned on me: yes, we are almost there.

    Why is it important to achieve gender parity in political representation? Is it only a matter of women’s rights and equal opportunity, or would it also have positive effects on democratic institutions and policymaking?

    A big reason why we need more women in public office is because they govern differently than men. Women in government are more collaborative, more civil, more communicative. They are more likely to work across the aisle to solve problems. They bring home more money for their constituents, pass more bills, and their bills focus more on vulnerable populations like children, older people and sick people. Women broaden the political agenda, well beyond traditional women’s issues. And the result is better policies for all of us, not just for women and girls but also for men and boys. Because they bring an entirely new set of perspectives and life experiences into the policymaking process, the presence of women also ensures that women’s perspectives are not sidelined, and issues such as gender-based violence or childcare are not ignored. All in all, women in public office tend to be more effective than their male counterparts. And given the current gridlock and hyper-partisanship in politics, we need to do things differently. More women in public office translates into better government and a more robust democracy.

    Moreover, the need for women in power and politics has become even more critical in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. This past electoral cycle, donors wanted to contribute to female candidates’ campaigns more than before, because the pandemic brought awareness not just about the many inequities that plague our society and the healthcare system, but also of the outstanding work women, and in particular women of colour, are doing in their communities to respond to urgent needs, fill in the gaps left by inadequate government policies, and address the needs of excluded populations who have been disproportionately impacted on by COVID-19 and the economic downturn. During this crisis, women have played major roles in keeping communities connected, collecting and distributing food and other staples to needy families, finding ways to support local businesses and providing pop-up community services, among other things.

    Research that looks at the ways in which various countries have responded to the pandemic seems to show that countries with female leaders tended to have fewer cases and fewer deaths from COVID-19. It seems that women in power have embraced a transformative style of leadership, which may be better at handling crises. This type of leadership focuses on deep human relationships, investment in teams and sharing knowledge, and being a role model and motivating others. These qualities are very useful in our current context.

    Why do you think the political representation of women in the USA is still so low?

    There are many reasons why we do not have gender parity in our political representation. First, there are still too many structural reasons why women do not run nor get elected. Women still do a disproportionate amount of housework and child-rearing and there is still sexist media coverage that focuses on women’s appearances and personalities rather than their policies. Further, those in party structures and the people with political knowledge, networks and money still continue to be men, and often they determine who is politically viable; for example, a young man who studied community development at Harvard is deemed more viable than a middle-aged Black woman who has been a community organiser for the past 20 years.

    Paradoxically, female candidates win at roughly the same rates as their male counterparts, and according to polls, voters are excited about getting women elected. But the second reason why women don’t get elected is simply that women don’t run at the same rate as men – and of course, you can’t win if you don’t run.

    Why don’t women run for public office? Perhaps the most pervasive reason is that women are self-doubters. They do not believe they are qualified. They do not see other women who look like them or think like them in those positions of power, and thus it’s a self-fulfilling cycle. But it’s not just women who self-doubt. Outsiders do plenty of that too. In fact, if a woman has never filled a position of power, then a question that keeps coming up in the media, said in a doubtful tone, is: is a woman electable? We heard a lot of that during the 2020 Democratic presidential primary race.

    There’s also the fact that certain qualities that are deemed positive in men are given a negative connotation when applied to women, like assertiveness or ambition. While angry and vindictive men have surely been elected president, women who are perceived as ‘angry’, or ‘vindictive’ are deemed unlikeable, and thus disqualified. Women candidates are held to much higher standards of competency, sometimes by themselves, but more often by others, and as a result we do not have gender parity in our political representation.

    When was it that you realised that, unlike men, women needed training to run for office?

    Even though I had studied political science in college, I felt that American politics was dirty and corrupting and I never got involved in electoral politics. That was until 2001, when my older cousin, Mee Moua, decided to run for a State Senate seat on the East Side of Saint Paul in a special election. The East Side of Saint Paul was fast becoming a district where people from minorities were in the majority, and yet all its elected officials from the state level to the county and the city were all white, conservative-leaning men. My cousin was Ivy League-educated, had been a lawyer and the president of the Hmong Chamber of Commerce, and she decided to run for public office after having volunteered on numerous political campaigns over many years. However, as often happens with female candidates, she was told she needed to wait her turn. Well she didn’t, and since no one in the mainstream political community would help her, she looked to our 71 first cousins to become her volunteer army and recruited me to be her campaign manager because I was the only one of us who had studied political science. Against all odds, without any political experience, and in the middle of a Minnesota winter, we knocked on doors, made phone calls, mobilised voters using ethnic radio stations, drove people to the polls and won, making history by electing the very first Hmong state legislator in US and Hmong history.

    Looking back, I realised that I managed that campaign purely based on instincts, honed from my childhood experience helping my non-English speaking parents navigate the mainstream world. And while we won, we could have just as easily been out-organised and lost. It was only years later, after having gone through a Camp Wellstone political training course, that I realised women candidates needed something for ourselves, something that uniquely spoke to us, and prepared us for the real issues we would face as female candidates.

    What kind of training does Vote Run Lead provide, and how does it help break down the barriers that keep women away from power?

    Vote Run Lead is the largest and most diverse women’s leadership programme in the USA. We have trained over 38,000 women to run for public office, including rural women, transgender women, young women, moms and Black and Indigenous women and women of colour. Over 55 per cent of our alumnae who were on the general election ballot in 2020 won their races, and 71 per cent of our alumnae who are women of colour won their races too.

    The women we train often decide to run for public office because they see something wrong in their community and they want to fix it. But they do not see a lot of people who look like them in positions of power. Vote Run Lead offers a number of training modules that teach women the basics about campaigns, from delivering a stump speech to building a campaign team or crafting a message, to fundraising and getting out the vote. But what makes our training programme different is that we train women to run as they are. Women often need support to view themselves as qualified, capable and deserving candidates. We show them that they don’t need to obtain another promotion or degree and that in fact, their personal story is their biggest asset. Our Run As You Are training curriculum reminds women that they are enough and that they are the fierce leaders we need to elect to build the just democracy that we all deserve.

    What’s the ‘typical’ profile of the women you help run for office? Do you support any women willing to run, regardless of their politics?

    There isn’t a typical Vote Run Lead alumna. We are a nonpartisan organisation, so we train women from all walks of life, all professions, all political parties, and in all stages of their political development. Our values are deeply embedded in promoting intersectional, anti-racist women who are committed to building a just and fair democracy.

    Given the widespread phenomenon of voter suppression in the USA, does your programming also focus on getting out the vote?

    Traditionally, Vote Run Lead does not employ our own get out the vote (GOTV) programme because most of our alumnae are either running or working on a campaign. But in 2020, with the high levels of voter suppression fuelled by misinformation campaigns and health safety concerns, Vote Run Lead did launch a robust GOTV programme with our alumnae. This GOTV programme included eight GOTV-specific training modules, from how to respond to apathy and cynicism around voting, to which digital field and communication tools to use to get out the vote. We also activated over 200 volunteers, had 3,000 conversations, made 30,000 phone calls and sent out over 33,000 text messages to get our alumnae and their networks to go vote.

    Prior to the summer, we also launched a series we called ‘Your Kitchen Cabinet’, where we trained women on how to raise money, do direct voter contact and even launch a digital plan while social distancing. Those guides and webinars can be found on our website and YouTube channel and offer real-time advice and fact-based information.

    Civic space in the USA is rated as ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with Vote Run Lead through itswebsite orFacebook page, and follow@VoteRunLead on Twitter.

     

  • 5 Ways New Movement Leaders Are Effecting Change

    By Michael Silberman, Global Director of Mobilisation Lab, a network that equips social change-makers and their organisations to deliver more effective, people-powered campaigns in order to win in the digital age.

    The publication of this piece was facilitated by CIVICUS as part of our 25th anniversary celebrations. 

    The Parkland students and others are reinventing models for people-powered activism that adapts to today’s rapid pace of change.

    Read on: Yes Magazine 

     

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  • CIVICUS at Human Rights Council: Civil society helps fulfil human rights commitments

    35th session of the Human Rights Council
    Dialogue with Special Rapporteur on freedom of assembly and of association and the Special Rapporteur on the right to education
    7 June 2017

    Thank you Mr. President,

    CIVICUS welcomes the reports of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of assembly and of association and the Special Rapporteur on the right to education.  We again commend the former Special Rapporteur, Maina Kiai, for his steadfast support for civil society across the world. We also welcome the new Special Rapporteur, Annalisa Ciampi, and remain committed to supporting the mandate to undertake its essential work.

    The Special Rapporteur’s report on mapping the achievements of civil society articulates an unassailable case for why civil society should be seen as an ally, rather than an adversary. As expressed by the mandate holder, civil society has played a crucial role in shepherding and realizing scores of progressive values and rights. The report provides a wealth of examples of these achievements, including through pursuing accountability, supporting participation and empowerment, driving innovation and fostering sustainable development. We urge all states to explicitly acknowledge the integral role that civil society plays in ensuring that states can actualize their domestic and international human rights commitments.

    We further reiterate the recommendations raised by the Special Rapporteur in his report on the  United States. National and public security concerns must not be misused to suppress freedom of assembly. The continued use of excessive force by police departments across the United States against peaceful protesters requires a concerted and proactive federal response. We also regret that immigrant workers face the specter of official harassment and deportation for attempting to exercise their right to freedom of association, including joining labor unions. 

    In the United Kingdom, we remain equally concerned by recent reports that Prime Minister Theresa May is willing to forfeit human rights in the pursuit of countering terrorism. Such a wholesale forfeit of human rights undermines the United Kingdom’s international obligations as well as efforts to address the roots causes of terrorism.

    We urge all States to pledge their support to the Special Rapporteur including by providing all necessary informational and financial resources to discharge the mandate and to work closely with civil society.

    We thank you.

     

  • CIVICUS: #WhyWeMarch

    On Saturday, 21 January 2017, millions will gather in Washington D.C. and in hundreds of other cities around the world to take part in the Women’s March. CIVICUS stands in solidarity with the demonstrators who in the spirit of democracy, seek to honour the champions of human rights, dignity, and justice, and reject the sexist and bigoted rhetoric used during the US election against minorities and excluded groups.

    Globally, the sister marches carry a message of solidarity in celebration of our multiple, diverse and intersecting identities and reject all forms of patriarchy and the discriminatory systems that support them worldwide. We will not rest until women have parity and equity at all levels of leadership in society.

     

  • Civil society letter to U.S. State Dept on Human Rights Defenders

    80 civil society organisations from 30+ countries urge Honarable Secretary of State, Antony Blinken to strengthen U.S. government foreign policy to support human rights defenders globally


    Hon. Antony Blinken Secretary of State

    United States of America

    CC:      Senator Robert Menendez, Chairman,Senate Foreign Relations Committee

    Senator James Risch, Ranking Member, Senate Foreign Relations Committee

    Representative Gregory Meeks, Chairman,House Committee on Foreign Affairs

    Representative Michael McCaul, Ranking Member, House Committee on Foreign Affairs

     Dear Secretary Blinken:

    We, the undersigned organisations, work to promote human rights, democracy, media freedom, environmental sustainability, and an end to corruption around the world. The protection of human rights defenders — such as activists, lawyers, and journalists — is critical to each of our missions. We are deeply concerned by the unabated rise in reprisals against human rights defenders, both globally and within the United States, and the chilling effect that these attacks have on fundamental freedoms and civic space.

    We would like to request the opportunity to begin a discussion with the incoming State Department political leadership on the role that the Biden Administration will play in protecting human rights defenders.

    As the Administration prepares to re-engage the U.S. government at the United Nations and other multilateral institutions, we encourage you to elevate the protection of human rights defenders as a U.S. foreign policy priority and commit to play a global leadership role on this issue.

    Read the full letter here

    Signed by

    1. Access Now
    2. Accountability Counsel
    3. African Centre for Democracy and Human Rights Studies Al-Haq
    4. Alliance of Baptists Amazon Watch
    5. American Jewish World Service
    6. Amnesty International USA
    7. ARTICLE 19
    8. Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP)
    9. Balay Alternative Legal Advocates for Development in Mindanaw, Inc (BALAOD Mindanaw)
    10. Bank Information Center
    11. Business and Human Rights Resource Centre
    12. Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS)
    13. Center for Civil Liberties
    14. Center for Human Rights and Environment
    15. Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL)
    16. China-Latin America Sustainable-Investments Initiative Church World Service
    17. CIVICUS
    18. Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach Committee to Protect Journalists
    19. COMPPART Foundation for Justice and Peacebuilding Nigeria
    20. Congregation of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd, U.S. Provinces
    21. Crude Accountability
    22. DefendDefenders (East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project)
    23. EarthRights International
    24. Ecumenical Advocacy Network on the Philippines Equitable Cambodia
    25. FIDH, within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders FORUM-ASIA
    26. Freedom House
    27. Freedom Now
    28. Front Line Defenders
    29. Gender Action
    30. Global Witness
    31. Green Advocates International (Liberia)
    32. Greenpeace
    33. Human Rights First
    34. Inclusive Development International Indigenous Peoples Rights
    35. International International Accountability Project International Rivers
    36. International Service for Human Rights (ISHR)
    37. Jamaa Resource Initiatives Kenya
    38. Japan NGO Action Network for Civic Space Just Associates (JASS)
    39. Kaisa Ka (Unity of Women for Freedom) KILUSAN
    40. Latin America Working Group
    41. Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns
    42. National Advocacy Center of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd
    43. Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala - NISGUA
    44. Network Movement for Justice and Development
    45. Odhikar – Bangladesh OECD Watch
    46. Oil Workers Rights Protection Organization Public Union Azerbaijan
    47. OMCT (World Organisation Against Torture), within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
    48. Open Briefing
    49. OT Watch
    50. Oxfam America
    51. Peace Brigades International - USA (PBI-USA)
    52. Phenix Center for Economic and Informatics Studies
    53. Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates (PAHRA)
    54. Philippine Human Rights Information Center (PhilRights)
    55. Project HEARD
    56. Project on Organizing, Development, Education, and Research (PODER) - Latin American NGO
    57. Protection International
    58. Rivers without Boundaries Coalition Mongolia Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights
    59. Sisters of Mercy of the Americas Justice Team Somali Journalists Syndicate (SJS)
    60. Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network Swedwatch
    61. Task Force Detainees of the Philippines (TFDP)
    62. Transparency International
    63. United Church of Christ, Justice and Witness Ministries Urgent Action Fund for Women's Human Rights
    64. Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA)
    65. Witness Radio – Uganda

    Civic space in United States of America is rated Obstructed by the CIVICUS Monitor, see country page.

     

     

  • Civil Society Responses to US Withdrawal From UN Human Rights Council

    Following the announcement of the United States withdrawal from the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), a number of civil society organisations with offices in Geneva, the headquarters of UNHRC, offer their opinions on the resulting impact on the work of the Human Rights Council. For media enquiries, please contact

    CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance

    “The USA did not engage in the Human Rights Council under the Bush administration and only returned under the Obama Administration. The Council survived then and it will survive now. The worrying part is that global power dynamics have shifted significantly since then and with the US withdrawal, the vacuum will certainly be filled by Russia and China who have not demonstrated commitment to advancing the human rights discourse. This could negatively impact on Council priorities. Democratic states committed to protecting and promoting human rights will need to show increased commitment to safeguarding human rights norms.”

    • Susan Wilding, Head of Geneva office, CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance

    Amnesty International

     “Once again President Trump is showing his complete disregard for the fundamental rights and freedoms the US claims to uphold. While the Human Rights Council is by no means perfect and its membership is frequently under scrutiny, it remains an important force for accountability and justice.

    “The US should urgently reverse this decision, which places it squarely on the wrong side of history. It is wilfully choosing to undermine the human rights of all people everywhere, and their struggles for justice.”

    • Salil Shetty, Secretary General, Amnesty International

     International Commission of Jurists

    "The withdrawal of the United States from the United Nations Human Rights Council is unlikely in itself to have much impact on the Council, or human rights in the world. The real issue is the Trump administration's broader rejection of multilateralism and rule of law (international or otherwise), and how it acts in practice, both at home and abroad.”

    • Matt Pollard, Senior Legal Adviser, International Commission of Jurists

     International Service for Human Rights (ISHR)

    "The withdrawal of the US is deeply regrettable. The constructive engagement of States with a genuine commitment to human rights and the rule of law is essential for peace, security and sustainable development."

    ‘While the Human Rights Council is far from perfect, it makes a significant contribution to protecting human rights, providing justice to victims, and promoting accountability for perpetrators."

    • Phil Lynch, International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) Director 

     DefendDefenders

    "The Trump administration decision to turn its back on the UN's top human rights body is childish, hypocritical, and self-defeating. Today, only the enemies of human rights, some of whom sit on the Council, are pleased. 

    “Nature abhors a vacuum, and the same goes for multilateral fora. While the US will lose voice and influence, China, Russia, Egypt will likely try and assert greater control over the Human Rights Council's agenda and dynamics." 

    • Nicolas Agostini, Representative to the UN for DefendDefenders 

     Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies

    "By withdrawing the US put appeasement of Israel before the need to protect and support those struggling for human rights and democracy around the world."  

    • Jeremie Smith, Director, Geneva Office, Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies

     

  • CONSPIRACY THEORIES: ‘When social trust has been eroded, people don’t know what to believe’

    Chip BerletAs part of our 2019thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about their experience of facing backlash by anti-rights groups and how they are responding. CIVICUS speaks about the role that conspiracy theories are playing with Chip Berlet,an investigative journalist and activist who specialises in the study of extreme right-wing movements in the USA.

     

    You have done a lot of work around social and political speech that demonises specific groups in society. You call this the rhetoric of scripted violence. What is scripted violence, and how is it operating in the USA?

    Scripted violence is part of a dynamic process in a society under lots and lots of stress. It starts with stories circulating in a nation that warn of subversion and conspiracies. These stories are called ‘narratives of insecurity’ by Professor Abdelwahab El-Affendi, and he warns that these stories can lead to mass violence and other forms of terrorism. The process continues with ‘scripted violence’, which is when a high-status political or religious leader publicly identifies and demonises a specific group of people alleged to be conspiring to ruin the ideal nation. The result is called ‘stochastic terrorism’. That’s an awkward term, but it just means that the specific terrorist act is unpredictable. Yet the violence has been generated by this three-step process that starts with conspiracy theories.

    Conspiracy theories are nothing new, but now they seem to be more widespread than ever. What role has the internet played in spreading them?

    Conspiracy theories have always been around. Conspiracy theories are improbable explanations alleging a vast conspiracy by evil powerful people and their cronies. Stories circulate that make allegations posing as facts. During moments of societal stress and political change it is often harder for folks to separate what is reality-based, what is political propaganda and what is pure fantasy.

    The internet has been fertile ground for planting misinformation and conspiracy theories because it’s a new medium, and all new forms of mass media go through a phase in which they are easily misinterpreted, and there are as yet not enough safeguards in place, so it’s hard for folks to tell reliable and unreliable content apart. We live in a time in which too many people think stories are real if they are on the internet. When you go to a library, there is the fiction section, and then there’s the rest of the library, where you can find history, science and other material based on facts. But content has not yet been separated that way in the internet age.

    We are going through an adjustment period. We are still learning how to use the medium. In the past, misunderstandings arose when people were using a new medium that they didn’t truly understand. In the USA, the best example of this happened in 1938, when a fictional story about a Martian invasion, The War of the Worlds, was broadcast during a radio programme, and people didn’t realise it was not real news, so some people called the police and went running out into the streets in a panic. Similarly, it is really difficult for the average person to differentiate between what’s a reliable piece of information and what’s just a conspiracy theory recirculated by someone with no training or understanding of the subject they post on. Much worse is when sinister propaganda is spread for political gain. There currently is no mechanism to separate what’s true and what’s fake on the internet, although I hope someday there will be.

    Conspiracy theories abound on both right and left, but these days largely seem to be fuelling far-right movements. Do you see any affinity between conspiracy theories and the extreme right?

    I don’t think it has as much to do with the left or right side of the political spectrum, but rather with fear and instability in a specific society at a specific moment. What would cause relatively normal and average people, wherever they are on the political spectrum, to act out against a claimed enemy? It’s because they believe their society is under attack, and then act accordingly.

    In any healthy society there always are conspiracy theories circulating, but when you hear them from somebody pushing a shopping cart down the street with all their belongings and shouting about an imminent Martian invasion, almost nobody pays any attention. These conspiracy theories are dismissed because they are being circulated by marginal or low-status folks. Most rational people simply reject them.

    In an unhealthy and unstable society, in contrast, people don’t know what to believe, and may latch onto normally farfetched theories to explain why they feel so powerless. When social trust has been eroded and there is so much anger, increasingly less legitimacy is assigned to people who have actual knowledge. Instead, it is transferred to those who will name the evildoers. And some people lack the kind of restraints that most of us luckily have and prevent us from attacking others who are not like us and might seem threatening or dangerous.

    Let’s say I’m an average middle-aged, middle-class white male in the USA, and I’m stressed and anxious because I fear that my status in society is being diminished. And then someone comes and tells me it’s okay to feel that way because there are evil forces at play that are causing this and tells me who is to blame for what is happening to me. According to this narrative, I would be still seated near the top of the social ladder if it weren’t for those people.

    Of course, people who have privilege see it as normal. We are not aware of it. So, when the status quo that has folks like them near the top changes – because previously marginalised groups successfully claim rights for themselves – the privileged don’t see this as the loss of unfair privileges, but as undermining the natural order, the traditional community or the nation itself. They talk about themselves as real ‘producers’ in the society being dragged down by lazy, sinful, or subversive ‘parasites’.

    In other words, conspiracy theories are a reflection of a society that is under stress, and they cause people who would normally be ignored suddenly to have an audience to speak to because they appear to have the answer that everybody else is lacking. People are disoriented: they do not feel connected to a common narrative of a healthy nation. Folks feel that their society, ‘our’ society, is under attack by ‘the others’, whoever they might be. So, if someone comes and tells them the name of the group of ‘others’ who are destroying our idealised community or nation, then common sense will tell us to stop them. Perhaps we need to eliminate them before they attack us – and that’s the narrative storyline of every genocide in history.

    Isn’t it strange that so many ‘others’ in today’s conspiracy theories do not really have the power that they are attributed: they are usually already vulnerable groups whose rights are being attacked?

    There is an interesting dynamic storyline in many conspiracy theories about the sinister people below working with certain traitorous powerful people above. Conspiracy theories, especially in the middle class, tend to identify a group of evil people down below on the socio-economic spectrum when defining who belongs and who doesn’t belong to the nation. So, a lot of the problems are blamed on these people down below in the ‘lower’ class who are portrayed as lazy and ‘picking the pockets’ of the middle class by draining tax dollars. Barbara Ehrenreich, for example, wrote a book about this called Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class.

    But the middle-class conspiracy theorists generally also blame a sector of the ruling elites who are portrayed as traitors. So if you look, let’s say, at the US political scene today, the narrative during the Trump administration blames some people who are down below and who are portrayed as lazy, sinful, or subversive. These folks are breaking the rules or taking advantage. But some people listed as conspirators are high-status: such as those rich, Democratic Party bureaucrats who are depicted as the ones pulling the strings, as in a puppet show. Sometimes those spreading the conspiracy theories use a graphic of a huge mechanical vice squeezing the middle class from above and below.

    Is there anything that progressive civil society could do to counter these regressive trends?

    There sure is. Democratic civil society has historically developed mechanisms to face these challenges. Historically, religious leaders and journalists have played a very important role in making these kinds of claims become judged unacceptable. But the influence of both of these actors has now collapsed. Religious figures have been losing their status everywhere except in religious authoritarian countries. The internet is undermining the influence of major news organisations, and the cost of producing good journalism has become very high relative to the cost of posting a rumour on the internet. So, democracies need to develop new safeguards and mechanisms to counter these trends.

    In the age of the internet, these mechanisms have not yet been developed. But although we are going through a very unstable and stressful period, the situation is not hopeless. The history of democracy is a sort of cycle in which at some point things stabilise only to fall apart again eventually until resistance builds up and safeguards are put back in place.

    Leaders with some status and legitimacy within democratic civil society need to admit that we are in a really bad place and we’ve got to fix it together, so that the answer comes not from the demagogic and authoritarian political space, but from the democratic one – the demos – and that’s all of us. People need to start talking to their neighbours about the things that are not going well and about how to fix them, because these problems can only be solved collectively. When doing activist training sessions, I tell people to go sit at a bus stop and talk to the first person who sits down next to them. If you can get up the courage to do that, then you certainly can talk to your neighbours and co-workers. Regular people need to start doing just that.

    In the USA, there is a kind of smug, liberal treatment of people who feel that they are being pushed down the ladder. These folks are not ‘deplorables’; they are basically scared people. These are people who had a union job and worked in a machine shop or at building automobiles. They worked for 30 years and now have nothing: their whole world has been shot down while others have become billionaires. They cannot be dismissed as ‘deplorables’. That word slip may have actually cost Democrat presidential candidate Hillary Clinton the election. We need to engage these people who are so angry and disoriented in face-to-face conversations. We need to care about them.

    How can these conversations take place when social media, increasingly the means of communication of choice, often operates as an echo chamber that solidifies beliefs and fuels polarisation?

    I know, I’m so old-fashioned. My solution is actually quite low-tech. You know, my wife and I have been political activists for many years, and as students in the 1960s we were involved in the anti-racist civil rights movement. At one point black organisers said: if white people really want to challenge racism against black people they should move into white communities where there is racism and try to turn it around. So in 1977, my wife and I picked up our household and moved to Chicago, Illinois. We lived in an overwhelmingly white Southwest side neighbourhood where there was white racism, but also Nazis, literally guys in Nazi uniforms, kicking black people out of the neighbourhood. A house on our street was firebombed.

    Eventually we became part of a community group, and for the first three years we were out-organised by neo-Nazis. Few things could be more mortifying for a leftist activist in 1970s USA. But in the Southwest side of Chicago there was also a multi-racial group, which we joined. One day some of us who were strategists were invited over to a house for a meeting with a group of black ministers. They sat us down and gave us coffee and tea, cakes and cookies, and then one of them asked, “Do you know why black parents take turns sleeping in your neighbourhood?” We looked at each other; we had no idea. They said, “That’s because when the firebomb explodes one of the adults has to be awake to get the kids out of the house.” It had never occurred to us that black parents had to take turns to stay up all night in their own homes so they could just stay alive. Then another of the ministers said, “Do you think all those white Catholic women want babies to get killed by firebombs?” We said no, and he replied, “Well, there’s your strategy.”

    Our strategy was to start talking to people: first to Catholic women who were horrified to learn what was going on, then getting them to talk to their neighbours and members of their congregations. Eventually some white Catholic priests started talking about what was happening. Five years later, the neighbourhood had become safe for black people to live in.

    It seems we still have a lot to learn from the civil rights movement and their organising tactics. Nowadays it’s so tempting to organise and mobilise online, because it’s so fast, but it’s also so much more difficult to create sustained commitment, isn’t it?

    Yes. I think face-to-face organising is still how you change neighbourhoods, and how neighbourhoods change societies. But of course, you cannot ask young people who are using technology to organise and protest to let go of the internet. You can’t tell people to ignore the technologies that exist. We do have a technology that enables instantaneity. I post constantly on the internet, I have a Facebook page and so on. I think it’s great to use the internet to organise people to confront racism online as well as to organise counter-demonstrations when white supremacists gather. But that’s not enough, in the same way as in the 1960s it wasn’t enough for writers to just write about the evils of racism. Those kinds of articles were published all along, but nothing really changed until people started organising – that is, talking to their neighbours to challenge the status quo.

    Take civil rights legend Rosa Parks, who sat down in the white section of a bus in Alabama. There is the misconception that her act was spontaneous, but it was nothing like that: it was a tactic created by a training centre that had been set up in the south by religious leaders and trade unions. Behind one black woman who refused to give up her seat in the front rows of a bus were 10 years of training and organising at the Highland Center.

    In a way, that’s also what the young climate activists and the members of the new democracy movements are doing. Look at Hong Kong: it is people rising up and saying ‘enough,’ often organising online while also organising and mobilising locally, staying in their neighbourhood, talking to their neighbours, building networks. And internationally we see young people demanding a right to stay alive – just stay alive.

    You need organisation, you need training in strategies and tactics, you need support groups, and you need to talk to your neighbours. That’s how it works; there is no magic formula.

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

    Get in touch with Chip Berlet through hisFacebook profile andAcademia page, follow@cberlet on Twitter, and visit Chip’sonline resources page on these topics.

     

  • Don't lecture the Americans about our values. Demonstrate them.

    By Danny Sriskandarajah and Julia Sanchez 

    There has never been a better time for Canada to show progressive leadership globally in support of inclusive and open societies that respect human rights. As the government prepares a new budget and a new approach to international assistance, the stage is set for Canada to put its money where its mouth is and support its values, at home and abroad.

    Read on: iPolitics

     

  • Importance of protest in a Trump United States

    By Elizabeth Stephens 

    In a speech shortly after the November election, President Barack Obama urged anti-Trump protesters not to be silent. Yet, the number and attendance of events meant to challenge the values embodied by a Trump presidency dwindled exponentially months after election night. Why is this?

    Read on: Capitol Hill Times 

     

  • Law enforcement agencies and decision makers must respect the right to protest in the US 

    • ​​​​​​CIVICUS expresses solidarity with US protesters in their struggle for justice
    • We defend the right to peaceful assembly and condemn violent police force
    • National and global protests highlight the need to address institutionalized racism, and police impunity and militarisation

    Global civil society alliance, CIVICUS, condemns violence against protesters by law enforcement officials over the past few days, and stands in solidarity with those protesting against deep-rooted racism and injustice.

    Hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets across the United States (US) to protest the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis on 25 May. Their demands for justice for George Floyd and other Black people unlawfully killed at the hands of police have been met with force. Law enforcement agencies have responded to protests using rubber bullets, concussion grenades and tear gas.  

    CIVICUS reaffirms that the right to protest, as enshrined in international law, must be protected. We call for an end to police violence against Black communities.

    Earlier this week, as law enforcement agencies suppressed protests in Washington DC, President Trump threatened to deploy the National Guard to crush demonstrations:

    “President Donald Trump is stoking violence by threatening to forcibly deploy military units in states and cities to crush the demonstrations and restore order in a constitutionally questionable manner,” said Mandeep Tiwana, Chief of Programmes at CIVICUS. 

    There are reports that over 10,000 protesters have been arrested since protests began. CIVICUS is concerned by the arbitrary arrests of thousands of protesters, including 20 members of the press. There are numerous cases of journalists being deliberately targeted by law enforcement agencies and at least 125 press freedom violations have been reported since the start of the protests.

    Demonstrations have broken out across the world in solidarity with the US protesters and their demands for justice and accountability. Our recently released State of Civil Society Report 2020 highlights the importance of people’s movements in demanding change. CIVICUS supports the right of protesters around the globe to peacefully and safely assemble during lockdown:

    “These protests are a call to action to address systemic racism and unprovoked violence experienced by the Black community in the US and beyond. A systemic reckoning with unaddressed notions of white supremacy is needed,” Tiwana continued.  

    As a matter of urgency, CIVICUS calls on authorities to respect the rights of freedom of assembly and expression. We urge systemic reforms to address police impunity, militarisation and institutional racism. The deliberate targeting of journalists must also end, as must the incendiary language used by President Trump and other politicians. 

    We also call on law enforcement agencies to stop using violent methods to disperse protesters and call for an investigation into the unwarranted use of force.

    About CIVICUS

    CIVICUS is a global alliance of civil society organisations and activists dedicated to strengthening citizen action and civil society throughout the world. We have over 9000 members across the globe. The CIVICUS Monitor is our online platform that tracks threats to the freedoms of assembly, association and expression across 196 countries. Civic space in the United States is currently rated as narrowed by the research and ratings platform.

     

  • No country is above scrutiny -- resolution needed for human rights emergency in USA

    Statement at the 43rd Session of the UN Human Rights Council

    Like so many, we have watched with horror as protesters seeking justice and equality in the US have been met with state-sanctioned violence and their attackers with impunity. Journalists, protest monitors and medical teams alike have been deliberately targeted by law enforcement officials.

    We are inspired by worldwide solidarity with the Black Lives Matter protests to end systemic racism, and by the changes that the protests have already brought about. Laws have been introduced at the local level. Overdue conversations have begun. But piecemeal modifications are no substitute for systemic change.

    Protests worldwide are routinely brutally suppressed, and accountability for violence by law enforcement is rare. This is not unique to the US; nor is systemic racism. But racism and white supremacy are entrenched in the country. Similarly entrenched issues of police violence, impunity and militarization impact harmfully and disproportionately the Black community in the US.

    The Human Rights Council has a role to play in addressing both the systemic racism that plagues our institutions, as well as its implications – from over-policed communities, to violence meted out on peaceful protesters, to murder with impunity.

    The credibility of the council is at stake. It must show that human rights are universal and no country is above scrutiny for grave human rights violations.

    CIVICUS supports a resolution mandating an independent investigation into systemic racism in the US, and into excessive use of force against peaceful protests in US cities since the murder of George Floyd. These measures would bring accountability, justice and equality one small but necessary step closer. As we heard with such power yesterday, individuals, their loved ones, and whole communities have been failed by the national institutions that are supposed to protect them. The international community must step up.


    Civic space in the United States is currently rated as Narrowed by the CIVICUS Monitor

    See our wider advocacy priorities and programme of activities at the 43rd Session of the UN Human Rights Council

     

  • Shock and sadness spurs anti-Trump protestors

    Ahead of the inauguration of Donald Trump as president of the United States of America, activists and civil society are mobilising protests against the new establishment. CIVICUS speaks to Nicole Barner, an activist who works on economic justice and is based in Washington D.C. Barner will take part in some of the inauguration day protests.

     

  • UN Human Rights Council: Statement on widespread arbitrary detention

    UN Human Rights Council
    36th session
    12 September 2017

    Statement at the UN Human Rights Council during interactive diialogue with the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention
    CIVICUS welcomes the annual and mission reports of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.  We applaud the Working Group for its unstinting dedication and invaluable work in exposing the wilful and unwarranted persecution of human rights defenders.

    As noted by the Working Group from its annual missions to both Azerbaijan and the United States, politically motivated detention of those who dare to speak out against the government or its policies afflicts both mature and emerging democracies across the world.

    It is a matter of deep concern that despite constitutional protections, peaceful demonstrators engaged in legitimate activities continue to face judicial harassment in the US. At least 20 states that have proposed legislation making it harder to protest, creating harsher penalties for protesters who are arrested.

    One recent example of the criminalisation of protests is the trial of protesters arrested during the mass demonstration on Inauguration Day in January 2017. Initially, approximately 230 people were arrested and charged with felony rioting. However, on 27th April 2017, additional charges were made against 212 defendants, including three of whom had not previously been charged. 

    In Azerbaijan, the authorities have failed to head repeated calls from the Work Group and a range of independent UN experts to end the use of judicial harassment to suppress independent dissent. On 3 March 2017, Journalist and blogger, Mehman Huseynov was sentenced to two years in prison on libel charges.

    Weeks earlier on 17 February 2017, another Azeri journalist, Elchin Ismayilli, was arrested. Ismayilli is well-known for his articles detailing acts of corruption and human rights violations in Azerbaijan. The authorities haev since charged him with extortion and abuse of power in a position of influence.

    We urge both Azerbaijan and the United States to immediately and unconditionally implement the recommendations made by the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, including releasing all persons detained for exercising their legitimate rights and repeal all laws and policies which criminalise international and national enshrined rights to association, assembly and expression. 

     

  • United States: ‘Even in challenging times, civil society needs to be proactive in setting the agenda"

    CIVICUS speaks toNick Robinson, a legal advisor at the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL) and lead of theirUnited States Program. ICNL is a civil society organisation that works with governments, civil society and the international community in more than 100 countries to improve the legal environment for civil society, philanthropy and public participation. 

    1. How is ICNL engaging with the impacts on civil society of the current political climate in the United States?

    ICNL has engaged with the current political environment by developing a set of initiatives focused on the United States. For example, in one of our central initiatives, the US Protest Law Tracker, and related freedom of assembly work, we analyse and advocate against anti-protest laws and overly aggressive prosecution of demonstrators. In another initiative, we are engaging Congress and other policy-makers about concerns we have regarding recent legislative proposals to strengthen the enforcement of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). Dating from 1938, FARA requires those who engage in political activities on behalf of foreign principals to register as a ‘foreign agent’ with the Department of Justice. While the Act has traditionally been rarely enforced, its provisions are so broad and vague that if it was implemented it could lead to many civil society organisations (CSOs) having to register as ‘foreign agents’. It is worth noting that ‘foreign agent’ acts in other countries, like Russia, have stigmatised and undercut civil society. In fact, as we’ve documented in a recent report, many of these other countries claim to have based their legislation on FARA.

    Other projects include one that provides support to CSOs concerned about politicised government legal compliance actions against them and third party attacks; and a project that aims to help address vulnerabilities we see in the US university space.

    1. What has been the impact on US-based civil society groups in this first year of the Trump Presidency? What rights and groups do you perceive as being in the most danger?

    We see a number of types of civil society groups and activities being particularly vulnerable at the present moment. As the prosecution of so-called ‘J20 protesters’ made clear, the use of collective liability is on the rise against protesters. This is deeply disturbing. In the J20 case, which was a case resulting out of protests in Washington DC against President Trump on Inauguration Day (20 January 2017) that damaged property, almost 200 protesters had charges brought against them that could bring decades in jail. The prosecutors never claimed they had evidence that the specific individuals who were charged had damaged property or assaulted anyone; instead, they were trying to hold liable anyone who was present at the protest under a theory of collective liability.

    The protesters in the first batch were found innocent on all charges by a jury in December 2017, but it took 11 months to get a verdict. The other protesters charged are still awaiting trial. Keep in mind, this is a prosecution brought not by an obscure local prosecutor, but by the federal government – the Department of Justice. Along with CIVICUS and the Charity & Security Network, ICNL was able to bring our concerns about the freedoms of association, assembly and expression to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). We brought one of the charged J20 protesters, Elizabeth Lagesse, to give her testimony at an IACHR hearing that anyone interested in the case should check out.

    We’ve also seen discriminatory or aggressive actions taken against civil society groups. For example, in September 2017, Representative DeSantis introduced a bill that would have banned Islamic Relief Worldwide from receiving federal funds based on unsubstantiated claims that they had ties to terrorist organisations. ICNL participated in a coalition that spoke out against this bill, which was ultimately withdrawn. However, this is part of a larger pattern of trying to target some groups by claiming they have ties to terrorist groups.

    Finally, we’ve seen a number of impacts on civil society because of the administration’s new immigration policies. Organisations have mobilised to fight some of these policies because of the effect they will have on the country and people’s lives, but they also affect the functioning of organisations. Employees or volunteers of many groups are now facing deadlines by which they have to leave the US or are facing the threat of deportation. The visa bans of targeted countries, most of which are predominantly Muslim, have made it difficult, and sometimes impossible, for civil society groups to do something as simple as bring a speaker for a conference from one of these countries.

    This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list, but it gives you a sense of some of the challenges we are seeing.

    1. Can you tell us more about your US Protest Law Tracker, its uses and main findings?

    My colleague Elly Page has led ICNL’s efforts on the US Protest Law Tracker. ICNL created it when we realised there was an increase in the number of anti-protest bills being introduced in states across the country. As of the beginning of 2018, 28 states had considered 50 bills that restrict the right to protest since November 2016. Eight of these bills have been enacted, while a number of others are still pending. The tracker provides succinct analysis of each bill and categorises them under topics like ‘campus speech’ and ‘trespass’. Activists, the media, and the public can then search the tracker to find out the latest information about what bills are being considered.

    We’ve seen not only an uptick in these laws, but a proliferation in the ways that the right to protest can be chilled. Perhaps most disturbing has been the number of bills that apply theories of collective liability or that increase the penalties for relatively minor offences frequently related to demonstrations – like blocking traffic or trespassing.  We’ve also been troubled by governors declaring states of emergency in response to protests – even in situations where this might make sense, like the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville in August 2017, these powers aren’t being tailored sufficiently. And we are concerned that these powers are beginning to be used whenever there is the mere threat of violence at a protest. This can chill participation in protests.

    1. How big an impact do you think democratic regression in the US is having at the regional and global level?

    Other governments are picking up on US rhetoric and actions. For example, in Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán started using rhetoric around “Hungary comes first”, modelled on President Trump’s slogan “America First”, to justify the passage of a restrictive bill targeting international funding of civil society. President Trump’s practice of labelling certain stories “fake news” has been picked up and used by governments in countries like Cambodia, China, Russia and Syria against media reports documenting their human rights violations. It’s an easy way to delegitimise critics.

    It’s important to note though that we don’t just see these challenges in the US, but across several developed democracies. Australia has seen proposals to ban foreign funding to CSOs and limit the amount of advocacy they are allowed to engage in. France has seen the repeated extension of national states of emergency and the use of other national security measures that can undercut a free and open civic space. It’s a bigger challenge than just the US.

    1. What message would you like to convey to international civil society groups working in challenging circumstances?

    I would leave them with two thoughts. First, as the US government takes a step back from taking a lead on protecting civil space globally, and I think it is taking a step back, international civil society needs to push governments of other democracies to step up and take on more of a leadership role. There is a vacuum that needs to be filled.

    Second, and related, in times like these it’s understandable that many of the responses of civil society are defensive. We need to defend the gains we’ve made over the years. Yet I think it’s also really important that we continue to pursue a vision of the independent pluralistic civil society that we want to create in the world. Even in difficult times we want to be proactive, and set the agenda we want to set – not just react to the latest crisis or concern. It’s difficult to do, but a vital task.

    • Civic space in the United States is rated as ‘narrowed’ in theCIVICUS Monitor
    • Get in touch with ICNL through theirwebsite orFacebook page, or follow @ICNLAlliance 

     

  • UNITED STATES: ‘The 2020 election is a political and moral mandate against fascism’

    CIVICUS speaks about voter suppression and its implications for US democracy with Yael Bromberg, Chief Counsel for Voting Rights at The Andrew Goodman Foundation, an organisation thatworks to make the voices of young people – one of the most underrepresented voter groups in the USA – a powerful force for democracy. The Foundation was set up in 1966 to carry on the spirit and the purpose of Andy Goodman, who in 1964 joined Freedom Summer, a project aimed at registering Black Americans to vote to dismantle segregation and oppression, and who was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan on his first day in Mississippi. The Foundation supports youth leadership development, voting accessibility and social justice initiatives in almost a hundred higher learning institutions across the country.

    Yael Bromberg

    It is confusing for outside observers to see a country that promotes itself as the paragon of democracy put barriers that limit the right to vote of millions of its citizens. Can you tell us more about voter suppression in the USA?

    It's true that the USA has promoted itself as a beacon of democracy. As an immigrant and naturalised citizen whose grandparents survived the Holocaust and Soviet gulags, I appreciate some of the unique freedoms that are afforded in this country. For example, while our judicial system is currently under serious threat due to the politicisation and polarisation of the bench, it has generally withstood the type of corruption that is embedded in other countries. While our legal system is fraught and certain norms like extremist police impunity need to be tackled, our congressional system is able, if willing, to fill the gaps left by the judiciary. While big money, including dark money, has radically swamped our politics, serious advocates who have withstood far worse teach us that democracy is a long persistent journey and not a destination. Yes, we have systemic issues in this country that need serious repair, and real lives suffer due to the dysfunction of the tyranny of a minority. But we also have the founding American principles of freedom, liberty, and equality, and the possibility of fulfilling our ideal.

    At this nation’s founding, only property-owning white men had the right to vote. Through the constitutional ratification process, slavery was abolished and freed men were enfranchised. Unjust laws persisted, such as literacy tests and poll taxes for racial minorities to prevent them from voting. This was coupled with other Jim Crow laws that created arbitrary reasons to imprison freed slaves and force them back into labour camps, and to disenfranchise them upon release. Popular resistance grew as the physical and political violence of Jim Crow segregation was laid bare in the 1960s, leading to stronger laws and new constitutional amendments.

    Voter suppression today is the equivalent of the fox guarding the henhouse. Those who are privileged enough to define the laws determine who is in and who is out. For example, strict voter identification laws that go above and beyond standard proof of identification swept the nation after the election of President Obama. Alabama enacted strict voter identification, and then shut down driver licence offices where one could obtain such IDs throughout large rural sections of the state where Black people reside. Politicians draw district lines in efforts to secure their own party’s future, and their personal future bids for office. Polling places are not readily available on college campuses where young people are concentrated. Even during a global pandemic, vote-by-mail is not a universal right for all. While one state, New Jersey, offers at least 10 droboxes per town to collect vote-by-mail ballots, another, Texas, litigated the matter successfully to limit droboxes to only one per county. To make matters worse, when these laws are litigated, the courts do not always rule on behalf of the voters.

    This 2020 election season has been particularly startling. The federal judiciary seems obsessed with the idea that last-minute changes to election rules lead to voter suppression, even where the law expands access to the ballot. This defies logic. If the law limits access, that is one thing. However, if the law simply expands access, the harm to voters is unclear.

    The natural question that emerges from our paradigm is: if America truly is a beacon for democracy, then why are we so afraid to embrace the first three words in our Constitution – “We the People”?

    Was voter suppression a crucial issue in the context of the 2020 presidential election?

    Absolutely. The 2020 presidential election reveals at least five significant takeaways: 1) Our state governments are readily able to safely expand access to the ballot, including by extending early voting periods and vote by mail opportunities; 2) Voters across partisan lines take advantage of these mechanisms, and benefit from them, as demonstrated by the record-breaking voter turnout this year; 3) Expansion and election modernisation do not lead to voter fraud; 4) Voters were motivated to vote this year despite the discriminatory and arbitrary obstacles that were put in their way; 5) The myth of voter fraud, rather than actual systemic evidence of it, has emerged as a significant threat both to protecting access to the ballot and public confidence in our election systems.

    In 2013, the Supreme Court eviscerated a key sunshine provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. That safeguard mandated that states with a demonstrated history of voter suppression must get approval before changing their election laws. With the safeguard eliminated, the floodgates to voter suppression were open. The number of polling places shrank: 1,700 polling places were shut down between 2012 and 2018, including over 1,100 between the 2014 and 2018 midterm elections. Strict voter identification laws were passed, making it harder for poor people, people of colour and young people to vote. Other measures like the purging of state voter rolls and the rezoning of election districts further diluted voting power. It’s important to note that all of this happens on the back of the taxpayers – they foot the bill for the backlogged judiciary and the prevailing party’s litigation fees, and on the back of voters – they are forced to accept the results of a rigged election system even though the voter suppression law might be overturned in the future.

    The thin, fake trumpet of voter fraud has caused a clamping down on rights across the board. There was no reason why, especially amid a pandemic, access to vote-by-mail should not be universal. Yet, eight states only allowed voters over a certain age to vote by mail, but not younger voters. The pandemic does not discriminate, and neither should our electoral system. Similarly, the United States Postal Service was suddenly politicised as it became increasingly obvious that voters would be voting by mail at unprecedented rates. Discussions were renewed about its privatisation, and expensive mail sorting machines were ordered to be dismantled for no reason other than to suppress the vote. In the wake of the election, the Trump campaign has done much harm to delegitimise the results, even though not one shred of evidence of voter fraud was revealed in the over 50 lawsuits challenging the outcome of the election. This has been an extraordinary disservice to the country, as it has convinced a substantial base within one political party to question the outcome of an election that the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency has declared “the most secure in American history.”

    As all of this has taken place, the pandemic has also driven an expansion of access in key respects. Even some Republican-led states demonstrated leadership in expanding the early voting period and access to vote-by-mail systems. We must use this as a learning opportunity to push for common sense election modernisation, so it is not a pandemic-related, one-off thing. COVID-19 has normalised election modernisation from a fringe progressive issue to a mainstream one that empowers voters across the political spectrum. Moreover, while the Trump campaign’s endless unsubstantiated lawsuits may play to a certain base of voters, one wonders if they will cause the judiciary to be finally convinced that voter fraud is not pervasive. This is important because invariably, we will see voter suppression state laws introduced in the wake of this election, just as we saw following the 2008 Obama election, and they will certainly lead to legal challenges. Perhaps the courts will respond to such challenges differently this time around in light of the audit of the 2020 race.

    As much as voter suppression was present this cycle, the response was to overwhelm the system with voter engagement. As expected, election turnout was unprecedentedly high. Initial estimates indicate that youth turnout was even higher this cycle than when the voting age was lowered to 18 in 1971 and the base of newly eligible voters suddenly expanded. We simply cannot afford the voter apathy that we have seen in years past. In 2016, there were wins by razor-thin margins in three key states: Michigan, by 0.2 per cent, Pennsylvania, by 0.7 per cent and Wisconsin, by 0.8 per cent. Voter suppression can certainly be called into question with these types of slim margins. However, we cannot forget the power of voting: about 43 per cent of the eligible voter population did not vote in 2016. Current estimates indicate that approximately 34 per cent of the eligible voter population – about one in three voters – did not participate in 2020. How do we maintain this new record-setting voting rate, and even improve upon it, once fascism is no longer on the ballot?

    Can you tell us about the work done by The Andrew Goodman Foundation on the intersection of the two major issues of voting rights and systemic racism?

    The Andrew Goodman Foundation’s mission is to make young voices and votes a powerful force in democracy. Our Vote Everywhere programme is a national nonpartisan civic engagement and social justice movement led by young people on campuses across the country. The programme provides extensive training, resources and a peer network, while our Andrew Goodman Ambassadors register young voters, break down voting barriers and tackle important social justice issues. We are on nearly 100 campuses across the nation, and maintain a diverse docket of campuses, including People of Color Serving Institutions such as Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

    What is powerful about youth organising and voting is that it crosses all lines – sex, race, national origin and even partisanship. This was born out of the history of the expansion of the youth vote in 1971, when the 26th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, thereby lowering the voting age to 18 and outlawing age discrimination in access to the franchise. It was the quickest amendment to be ratified in US history, in large part due to its nearly unanimous support across partisan lines. There was a recognition that young voters help safeguard the moral compass of the country, as recognised by then-President Richard Nixon during the ceremonial signing of the amendment.

    Andrew Goodman’s legacy is directly tied to solidarity struggles among and between communities for the betterment of the whole. Throughout the 1960s, Black college students in the south courageously sat at white-owned lunch counters in political protest for integration and equality. In May 1964, young Americans from across the country migrated south during Freedom Summer to register Black voters and overturn Jim Crow segregation. Three young civil rights workers were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan with the help of the county sheriff’s office: Andy Goodman and Mickey Schwerner, both Jewish men from New York who were only 20 and 24 years old, and James Chaney, a Black man from Mississippi who was only 21 years old. Their stories struck a public chord that helped galvanise support for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It is a story about the power of young visionaries fighting for their futures, allyship, and about the power of what can be accomplished when Americans from different backgrounds come together in unity.

    Young activists led various social justice movements of the 1960s, just as they do today. When this country responded and enacted critical reforms, young people finally turned to their own enfranchisement as they were being sent to their graves early in endless war in Vietnam. Today, young people are leading the call for climate justice, for gun control, for human dignity for our Black and immigrant communities, and for affordable higher education. They have the most to gain and lose in our elections, because it is they who inherit the future. They recognise, particularly in light of the nation’s changing demographics, that the issue of youth voting rights is a racial justice issue. The more that we can look to the youth vote as a unifier – because all voters were young once – the more we can hope to inject some common sense into a contested and polarised system.

    Civic space in the USA is rated as ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with the Andrew Goodman Foundation through itswebsite orFacebook page, and follow@AndrewGoodmanF and@YaelBromberg on Twitter.

     

     

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