civic space

 

  • Tanzania: upsurge in restrictions on fundamental freedoms

    Tanzania has been placed on a watch list of countries in which there are growing and worrying threats to civic space. The country is rated as obstructed on the CIVICUS Monitor, a global platform tracking civic violations around the world, who issue a quarterly watch list to highlight ongoing concerns in countries demonstrating worrying trends.

     

  • Tchad: Arrêtez les violences contre les manifestants pacifiques et respectez les droits démocratiques des Tchadiens

    Les autorités tchadiennes doivent cesser la répression brutale des manifestants pacifiques et assurer une transition démocratique immédiate au Tchad, déclare l'alliance mondiale de la société civile CIVICUS. Les désordres risquent de se poursuivre si les militaires ne permettent pas la mise en place d'un gouvernement dirigé par des civils.  
     
    Le 8 mai 2021, les forces de sécurité ont fait usage de la violence à l'encontre de manifestants pacifiques qui dénonçaient une prise de pouvoir militaire au Tchad à la suite du décès du président Idriss Déby Itno le 20 avril 2021.  
     
    Plus de 5 personnes ont été tuées et plusieurs autres blessées lors de manifestations similaires organisées le 27 avril. Menées par une coalition de groupes de la société civile et de membres de l'opposition politique, les manifestations condamnent la poursuite d'une dynastie tchadienne après que le fils du président Déby, le général Mahamat Idriss Déby, a succédé à son père et nommé un gouvernement militaire de transition.  
     
    "L'armée tchadienne a une fois de plus choisi d'ignorer une opportunité de mettre en place des réformes démocratiques, de réinitialiser la trajectoire politique du Tchad et de respecter les obligations constitutionnelles et internationales en matière de droits humains.  L'armée continue à privilégier la violence au dialogue et à fouler aux pieds les normes démocratiques", a déclaré David Kode Responsable du plaidoyer et des campagnes pour CIVICUS
     
    Contexte
     
    Avant les récentes élections tchadiennes d'avril 2021, les autorités ont imposé une interdiction des manifestations pacifiques afin de dissuader les membres de la société civile et de l'opposition politique de protester contre la décision du président Idriss Déby Itno de se présenter pour un sixième mandat.  En février 2021, plus de 100 personnes ont été arrêtées pour avoir manifesté et plusieurs ont ensuite été inculpées de trouble à l'ordre public. Le président Idriss Déby a été tué en combattant les rebelles en avril. Depuis lors, la société civile et l'opposition politique protestent contre le Conseil militaire de transition et appellent à un retour à un régime civil.  
     
    Pour plus d'informations sur les violations de l'espace civique, visitez la page du Tchad sur leCIVICUS Monitor.

     

  • THAILAND: ‘Young people question the government abusing their rights and compromising their future’

    CIVICUS speaks to Amnesty International Thailand’s executive director, Piyanut Kotsan, about the Thai pro-democracy movement and the repression of protests. Established in Bangkok in 1993, Amnesty International Thailand has more than 1,000 members across Thailand. Its work focuses on the promotion of the freedoms of online and offline expression and peaceful assembly, human rights education, abortion rights and the rights of people on the move, while denouncing torture, enforced disappearances and the death penalty.

     

  • The business case for civic space

    By Danny Sriskandarajah

    The long-term health of all societies depends on the ability of individuals to come together to share new ideas, promote social cohesion and advance shared interests for mutual benefit. But the freedom and space to do this—civic space—is increasingly under attack.

    Read on: BRINK

     

  • The CIVICUS Monitor – global data provides picture of a global crackdown

    By Cathal Gilbert, Dom Perera and Marianna Belalba

    Today we launch ratings for all UN Member States on the CIVICUS Monitor – the first ever online tool specifically designed to track and rate respect for civic space, in as close to real time as possible.

     

  • The deterioration of civic space in Colombia, Guatemala and Honduras

    37th Session of the UN Human Rights Council
    Statement during the High Commissioner's country briefings

    CIVICUS is extremely concerned about the spate of attacks against HRDs journalists and peaceful protestors that has taken place across Colombia, Guatemala and Honduras. 

    We remain gravely alarmed by the striking inattention given to the disturbing increase of killings of HRDs since the signing of the Peace Agreement by the Colombian government and the FARC guerrilla group. Local partners report that 106 defenders were killed and 310 attacks on media workers and journalists took place during 2017. In addition, arbitrary detentions, attacks and judicial harassment are also on the rise.

    Moreover, CIVICUS is concerned about the situation in Honduras.  Honduras has been placed   on the CIVICUS Monitor Watch List because of the violence surrounding the November 2017 contested presidential elections. Protests were met with excessive police force and more than 20 protesters were killed, with many others injured or detained. Additionally, reports show increasing attacks against HRDs who denounce the repression of protests.  There has also been an increase in violations of the right to freedom of expression, including smear campaigns, threats, harassment and physical attacks against media workers and activists expressing dissent on the media.

    Finally, Mr President, CIVICUS is extremely concerned by the continuing violence against local communities involved in land rights struggles in Guatemala. These violations are perpetrated by state security forces or by private security working under the orders of private corporations. The authorities have not taken any action to protect these communities. During one such event in late November 2017, a Maya community that had been evicted from their land and were camping on the side of a road was attacked by security guards that opened fire, killing one community member and injuring another.

    In all three cases, CIVICUS calls on the authorities to stop the use of violence against activists, media workers and peaceful demonstrators, to conduct investigations on threats and attacks, and ensure perpetrators of unlawful killings are brought to justice without further delays.

     

  • The power of togetherness: standing against the shrinking space for action

    By Laura Brown, Movement and Network Capacity Manager at Womankind Worldwide

    Last week I attended the International Civil Society Week (ICSW) conference in Belgrade hosted by CIVICUS. The conference was an opportunity for civil society organisations to discuss and generate solutions to the most pressing challenges affecting their ability to realise their human rights, sustain democratic values and achieve lasting impact.

     

  • The quest for resilience

    By  Patricia Deniz, Senior Research and Development Officer CIVICUS 

    Civil society, more than ever, is in dire need to reinvent itself, at least figure out how to be flexible, adaptable and resurgent in an ever-changing, uncertain and increasingly restrictive environment. Sustaining the status quo or surviving a crisis are no longer sufficient in contexts in which change happens unpredictably and drastically, requiring innovative responses to old problematics and new complex challenges. Instead, civil society aspires to becoming resilient, a term well known in the environmental and humanitarian spheres that is yet to be further analysed and explored in the CSO world.   

     

  • The restriction of basic freedoms has become the global norm

    By Cathal Gilbert, CIVICUS Head of Civic Space Research

    Imagine inviting your ten closest friends to dinner but only four of them show up. The other six can’t make it because they’ve either been arrested for criticising the government during a protest, are caught up in a protracted legal battle to clear their name after a smear campaign or have gone into hiding because of anonymous threats to their life on social media.

     

    Read on: Mail and Guardian 

     

  • Threats to civil society’s HIV and AIDS progress have lessons for COVID-19 response

    NEW REPORT --See mini-site and supplementary materials

    Achievements made in the fight to end the HIV and AIDS epidemic are at risk because of continuous attacks on basic civil liberties all around the world. It has become more and more difficult for civil society to reach out to people in need, says a new report from a global civil consortium which is relevant for the COVID-19 response.

    Vulnerable groups like LGBTQI+ communities, particularly transgender people, are among the most commonly persecuted, and police and law enforcement authorities are among the main perpetrators, according to the report by Aidsfonds, CIVICUS, and Frontline AIDS. 

    The report, titled Activism and AIDS: protect civil society’s space to end the epidemic, launched during the 23rd International AIDS conference, examines the risks and restrictions facing civil society who are fighting to end the HIV and AIDS epidemic. At the launch event, activists shared how new COVID-19 restrictions undermine their efforts to carry out their work on HIV and AIDS and further jeopardise the achievements towards ending AIDS by 2030. 

    “The success that we’ve made towards fulfilling the goal of ending AIDS by 2030 has only been achieved because civil society is able to reach the most marginalised communities,” says Sylvia Mbataru from CIVIUS, lead author of the report. “But this is at serious risk of being derailed by increasing ultra-conservative politics. As we confront the COVID-19 pandemic and we witness new restrictions on civic space, it is imperative that AIDS activists and organisations are given the space to serve their communities.”

    The research, unique in its scope and breadth and the global human rights monitors involved, was conducted using the CIVICUS Monitor. The Monitor provides quantitative and qualitative data on the state of civil society and civic freedoms in countries around the world. The report covers trends from four diverse countries - Zimbabwe, Ukraine, Indonesia, and Vietnam  ( see civic space rating scale)

    The report calls civil society’s response to the disease an “unparalleled example” of ”engagement and leadership”, with those living with HIV and AIDS having played “a vital role as advocates, as watchdogs and in the provision of services”. But governments and law enforcement agencies, among others, are making it difficult and dangerous for civil society to support people living with the disease. 

    “The diminishing space for civil society and an increasingly hostile political and social landscape herald an urgent international and regional call for action,” the report says. 

    In Indonesia, activists and organisations were attacked online, had their social media content censored by authorities, had protests broken up even before they began, and had their offices raided, among other abuses, according to the report. The country is now a potential coronavirus hotspot, where the government has been accused of lack of transparency, and people have been charged for allegedly spreading fake news about coronavirus. 

    In Ukraine, key populations including gay men and other men who have sex with men, sex workers and their clients, and transgender people have been targeted by influential religious figures. “I personally saw how supporters of religious organisations disrupted protests of key populations,” says a civil society organisation (CSO) representative, according to the report. In April, one of the country’s LGBTQI bodies announced it was suing an eminent preacher for remarks blaming COVID-19 on same-sex marriage. 

    The report also finds that opposition to civic space is strengthening at international and regional levels, with one CSO representative saying that “voices are not heard at the UN”. The World Health Organization (WHO) was a “very closed space for civil society”, the report says, with a complex registration system for organisations.

     

  • To Achieve Ambitious Goals – We Need to Start with our Basic Rights

    By Oliver Henman and Andrew Firmin

    Recent protests in Ethiopia have seen people demonstrate in their thousands, angry at their authoritarian government, its favouritism towards those close to the ruling elite, and its failure to share the country’s wealth more equally. The response of the state, in a country where dissent is simply not tolerated, has been predictably brutal: at the height of protests last year hundreds of people were killed, and a staggering estimated 24,000 were arrested, many of whom remain in detention today.

    Read on: Inter Press Service

     

     

  • Togetherness Against the Riptide of Restrictions

    By Ellie Stephens and Katie Mattern

    We’ve all heard it repeated multiple times in our lives:  we all work better together. The work we do is greater than one individual, and together we can solve the challenges our world and communities face. We’ve also heard this refrain multiple times in our sector, it’s not a revolutionary idea but it’s one that’s seemingly harder and harder to take ownership of in our work.

    This adage has never been more important than it is today, as civil society faces an increasing challenge of legitimacy in an evolving world too often dominated by political and financial elites. According to the CIVICUS Monitor, only 3 percent of the world currently lives in countries where fundamental civic rights are respected and enforced, leaving 6 billion people living in countries where freedom of association, assembly, and speech are curtailed.

    Read on: Disrupt and Innovate 

     

  • Trends and Challenges in Global Civil Society

    Bernadette Johnson interviews CIVICUS’ Secretary General Danny Sriskandarajah on broad trends affecting civil society spaces globally.

    We know it’s a cliché, but the world continues to shrink. Events, trends, and emerging ideas in other countries have the potential to affect us all. This is just as true for charities and nonprofits as it is for other parts of society. Whether it’s proposals to end the restriction on partisan activities by charities in the United States, potential curbs on lobbying by charities in the UK, limits on charities accepting foreign funding in Russia, or the day-to-day challenges organizations face in countries like Turkey or Venezuela, we can learn from – and in some cases be warned by – the happenings outside our own borders.

    Raed on: Imagine Canada 

     

  • UGANDA: ‘No candidate can possibly win the election without young people’s votes’

    CIVICUS speaks with Mohammed Ndifuna, Executive Director of Justice Access Point-Uganda (JAP). Established in 2018, JAP aims to kickstart, reignite and invigorate justice efforts in the context of Uganda’s stalled transitional justice process, its challenges implementing recommendations from its first and second United Nations Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Reviews and the backlash by African states against the International Criminal Court.

    Mohammed is an experienced and impassioned human rights defender and peacebuilder with over 15 years of activism in human rights and atrocity prevention at the grassroots, national and international levels. He was awarded the 2014 European Union Human Rights Award for Uganda, has served on the Steering Committee of The Coalition for the Criminal Court (2007-2018) and the Advisory Board of the Human Rights House Network in Oslo (2007-2012), and currently serves on the Management Committee of The Uganda National Committee of Prevention of Genocide and Mass Atrocities.

     Mohammed Ndifuna

    What is the state of civic space in Uganda ahead of the much-anticipated 2021 elections?

    Civic space in Uganda may be characterised as harassed, stifled and starved. It would seem like civil society has been on a slippery slope of sorts, with things turning from bad to worse. For instance, civil society organisations (CSOs) have witnessed a wave of brazen attacks against their physical space in the form of office break-ins and broad-daylight workplace raids. In the meantime, there seems to be no let-up in the waves of attacks against CSOs, and especially against those involved in human rights and accountability advocacy. Over the past few years, an array of legislation and administrative measures has been unleashed against CSOs and others, including the Public Order Management Act (2012) and the NGO Act (2016).

    Ahead of the general and presidential elections, which will be held on 14 January 2021, the Minister of Internal Affairs has ordered all CSOs to go through a mandatory validation and verification process before they are allowed to operate. Many CSOs have not been able to go through it: by 19 October 2020, only 2,257 CSOs had successfully completed the verification and validation exercise, including just a few that do mainstream advocacy work on governance.

    Ugandan CSOs are largely donor-dependent and had already been struggling with shrinking financial resources, severely affecting the scope of their work. This situation became compounded by the COVID-19 outbreak and the lockdown that was imposed in response, all of which impaired CSO efforts to mobilise resources. Therefore, these three forces – harassment, restrictions and limited access to funding – have combined to weaken CSOs, pushing most of them into self-preservation mode.

    The stakes for the 2021 elections seem to be higher than in previous years. What has changed?

    The situation started to change in July 2019, when Robert Kyagulanyi, better known by his stage name, Bobi Wine, announced his bid to run for president as the candidate of the opposition National Unity Platform. Bobi Wine is a singer and actor who is also an activist and a politician. As a leader of the People Power, Our Power movement, he was elected to parliament in 2017.

    Bobi’s appeal among young people is enormous, and let’s keep in mind that more than 75 per cent of Uganda’s population is below the age of 30. This makes young people a significant group to be wowed. No candidate can possibly win the Ugandan election without having the biggest chunk of young people’s votes. In the upcoming presidential race, it is Bobi Wine who appears most able to galvanise young people behind his candidature. Although not an experienced politician, Bobi is a charismatic firebrand who has been able to attract not just young people but also many politicians from traditional political parties into his mass movement.

    Bobi Wine, long known as the ‘Ghetto President’, has taken advantage of his appeal as a popular music star to belt out political songs to mobilise people, and his roots in the ghetto also guarantee him an appeal in urban areas. It is believed that he has motivated many young people to register to vote, so voter apathy among young people may turn out to be lower in comparison to past elections.

    Given the ongoing cut-throat fight for young people’s votes, it is no surprise that the security apparatus has been unleashed against young people in an apparent attempt to stem the pressure they are exerting. Political activists linked to People Power have been harassed and, in some instances, killed. People Power’s political leaders have been intermittently arrested and arraigned in courts or allegedly kidnapped and tortured in safe houses. In an apparent attempt to make in-roads into the ranks of urban young people, President Yoweri Museveni has appointed three senior presidential advisors from the ghetto. This raises the spectre of ghetto gangster groups and violence playing a role in the upcoming presidential elections.

    Restrictions on the freedom of expression and internet use have been reported in previous elections. Are we likely to see a similar trend now?

    We are already seeing it. Restrictions on the freedoms of expression and information are a valid concern not just because of hindsight, but also given recent developments. For instance, on 7 September 2020 the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) issued a public notice stating that anyone wishing to publish information online needs to apply for and obtain a licence from the UCC before 5 October 2020. This will mostly affect online users, such as bloggers, who are paid for published content. Obviously, this is meant to stifle young people’s political activities online. And it is also particularly concerning because, as public gatherings are restricted due to COVID-19 prevention measures, online media will be the only method of campaigning that is allowed ahead of the 2021 elections.

    There is also increasing electronic surveillance, and the possibility of a shutdown of social media platforms on the eve of the elections may not be too remote.

    How has the COVID-pandemic affected civil society and its ability to respond to civic space restrictions?

    The COVID-19 pandemic and the measures taken in response have exacerbated the already precarious state in which the CSOs find themselves. For instance, civil society capacity to organise public assemblies and peaceful demonstrations in support of fundamental rights and freedoms or to protest against their violation has been restricted by the manner in which COVID-19 standard operating procedures (SOPs) have been enforced. This has resulted in the commission of blatant violations and onslaughts against civic space. For instance, on 17 October 2020, the Uganda Police Force and the Local Defense Units jointly raided thanksgiving prayers being held in Mityana district and wantonly tear gassed the congregation, which included children, women, men, older people and religious leaders, for allegedly flouting COVID-19 SOPs.

    As the enforcement of COVID-19 SOPs gets intertwined with election pressure, it is feared that the clampdown on the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association will be aggravated. Regrettably, CSOs already find themselves restricted.

    How can international civil society help Ugandan civil society?

    The situation in which Ugandan civil society finds itself is such that it requires the urgent support and response of the international community. There is a need to turn the eyes towards what is happening in Uganda and to speak up to amplify the voices of a local civil society that is increasingly being stifled. More specifically, Ugandan CSOs could be supported so they can better respond to blatant violations of freedoms, mitigate the risks that their work entails and enhance their resilience in the current context.

    Civic space inUganda is rated repressedby the CIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with Justice Access Point through itswebsite orFacebook page, and follow@JusticessP on Twitter.

     

  • Uganda: CIVICUS condemns another break-in at the office of HRAPF  

    Global civil society alliance CIVICUS condemns recent attacks on the premises of the Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum (HRAPF) in Uganda which left security guards wounded and in need of urgent medical attention.  In the early hours of the morning of 9 February 2018, at least nine unidentified individuals broke into the offices of HRAPF and attacked two security guards with iron bars and batons.

     

  • UN Panel Discussion, Freedom of peaceful assembly and association and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development

     

    Freedom of peaceful assembly and association and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development

    When: 13:15-14:30, Wednesday 17 October 2018

    Where: UNHQ, Conference Room E, New York

    Co-sponsors: Civic Space Initiative, CESR, ISHR, Oxfam, Solidarity Center

    Keynote: Andrew Gilmour, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, delivering opening remarks
     
    Panellists:
    Clément Nyaletsossi Voule, UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association
    Kate Donald, Director, Human Rights in Sustainable Development Program, Center for Economic and Social Rights
    Shayana Kadidal, Attorney, Center for Constitutional Rights

    Moderator: Lyndal Rowlands, CIVICUS

    Panellists will discuss the connections between sustainable development and the the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association drawing on examples from movements related to different aspects of sustainable development from the environment to worker’s rights. The discussion will take place on the occasion of UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of peaceful assembly and of association Clément Nyaletsossi Voule presenting his report (A/73/279) ‘The linkages between the exercise of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association and the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’ to the UN General Assembly, on Tuesday 16 October.

    Please register here.

    *Non-UN pass holders must register by noon on Monday 15 October to attend this event*

    For more information please contact: Lyndal Rowlands, CIVICUS, 

    Clément Nyaletsossi Voule - @cvoule

    Clément Nyaletsossi Voule, a national from Togo, has been appointed as United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association in March 2018. Prior to his appointment, he led the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) work to support human rights defenders from States in transition and coordinated the organization’s work in Africa as the Advocacy Director.

    Andrew Gilmour - @gilmourUN

    Andrew Gilmour of the United Kingdom assumed his functions as Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights on 1 October 2016, heading OHCHR’s Office in New York. In October 2016, Mr. Gilmour was designated by the Secretary-General as senior official to lead the efforts within the UN system to address intimidation and reprisals against those cooperating with the UN on human rights.

    Kate Donald - @Mskaydee

    Kate Donald joined Center for Economic and Social Rights (CESR) in 2014. She is currently the director of the Human Rights in Development program at the Center for Economic and Social Rights (CESR) and former Adviser to the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights.

    Shayana Kadidal - @ShayanaKadidal

    Shayana Kadidal is Senior Managing Attorney of the Guantanamo litigation project at the Center for Constitutional Rights. He is counsel in Energy Transfer Equity, et al, v. Greenpeace, a lawsuit brought by the owners of the Dakota Access Pipeline against a number of environmental groups aiming to recast their support of grassroots activism against the pipeline's construction as criminal conspiracy and terrorism.

    Lyndal Rowlands - @lyndalrowlands

    Lyndal works in UN advocacy for CIVICUS the global alliance for citizen participation. She is an award-winning journalist and former UN correspondent and has written or conducted research for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Al Jazeera, the Diplomat, The Saturday Paper and IPS, where she was UN Bureau Chief.

     

  • Under threat: five countries in which civic space is rapidly closing

    By Danny Sriskandarajah

    The closing of civic space is not just about people’s right to organize or protest in individual countries. This year’s Gobal Risks Report, published last week by the World Economic Forum ahead of its annual Davos meeting, looks in detail at the risks posed by threats to governments clamping down on fundamental civic freedoms. The report points out that, “a new era of restricted freedoms and increased governmental control could undermine social, political and economic stability and increase the risk of geopolitical and social conflict.”

    Read on: Open Democracy 

     

  • Upholding fundamental rights is crucial for global crisis response

    Joint Statement at the 44th Session of the UN Human Rights Council

    Interactive Dialogue with the High Commissioner for Human Rights


    Madame High Commissioner,

    Thank you for your timely report. This is a statement on behalf of the Civic Space Initiative, including CIVICUS, Article 19, ICNL, ECNL and the World Movement for Democracy.

    The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated existing challenges to civic freedoms.

    The CIVICUS Monitor shows that it has exacerbated the ongoing use of restrictive laws; restrictions on funding; reprisals, attacks and acts of intimidation; the ongoing violent repression of mass mobilisations for change; and the wilful exclusion of civil society from decision making processes. It has provided cover for executive overreach and spurred new growth in the use of surveillance technologies. According to ICNL-ECNL’s Civic Freedom Tracker, at least 145 countries have enacted 280 measures in response to COVID that further affect civic freedoms and human rights.

    But it has also revealed the centrality of civil society in crisis response: in providing critical information and services to communities, running feeding schemes and health screenings, providing aid and monitoring abuses.

    Civil society has again proved itself to be an integral stakeholder. And time of crisis is a time of opportunity. As has been so often said, this is the time to build back better.

    We have seen many examples of good practice to draw on. Several States are developing specialised online platforms for better consultation on emergency measures. Others are establishing oversight bodies inviting the public to share views on the measures governments have taken, or conducting surveys to gauge public response on government handling of the crisis.

    We call on all States, in their response to the crisis, to:

    1. Create avenues for inclusive participation and feedback and reach out to those most at risk and those most likely to be excluded.
    2. Ensure transparency and access to information to enable civil society to respond with the most accurate information available.
    3. Ensure that existing channels of civil society participation, at local, national and international levels are maintained – and possibly expanded – in the COVID-19 context.
    4. Undertake thorough human rights impact assessments to ensure that measures and actions in response to the crisis do not infringe human rights and fundamental freedoms.

    We have seen time and time again positive change emerge when people are able to organize, speak out and take action. A strong and vibrant civil society is a core pillar of a thriving democracy. We must not allow emergency responses to undermine democratic gains.

     

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    What more support is needed?

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

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

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

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

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

     

  • Why Trump, Brexit and populism could be an opportunity

    By Danny Sriskandarajah

    Many of the business and political leaders gathering in Davos this week will be focused on how to protect the global economic order - and their interests - after a year of major political and social upheavals. That is the last thing they should be doing. For me, the greatest lesson from 2016 is that we need to build new mechanisms for airing political grievances and addressing economic frustrations.

    Read on: Huffington Post