civic space

 

  • Austria’s civic space rating downgraded

    The downgrade is based on an assessment of conditions for the exercise of the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression on theCIVICUS Monitor.

    CIVICUS has today downgraded Austria’s civic space rating from open to narrowed. This decision was taken following a thorough assessment of conditions in the country for the free exercise of civic freedoms, as protected by international law. The downgrade follows nearly a year of rule by the ÖVP-FPÖ coalition government, during which the space for civil society has worsened. A narrowed rating indicates a situation in which the state mostly allows individuals and civil society organisations to exercise their rights to freedom of association, peaceful assembly and expression, however certain restrictions on these rights take place.

    “The Austrian government appears intent on turning its back on the values of the European Union, as it chooses division over dialogue and restrictions over rights,” said Cathal Gilbert, Civic Space Research Lead at CIVICUS. “Austria’s failure to protect fundamental freedoms is borne out by verbal attacks and administrative encroachment on media freedoms, as well as restrictive measures such as an increase in the notice period required for protests from 24 to 48 hours.”

    Protests against the new government took place in January 2018, in the face of a heavy police presence, helicopters and water cannon. Since then, the new administration has steadfastly refused to engage in structured dialogue with civil society in a range of sectors. Instead, leaders have made a number of derogatory remarks about non-governmental organisations. This includes Chancellor Sebastian Kurz who accused international humanitarian NGO - Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) of cooperating with people smugglers. More recently, the environment minister introduced amendments which will significantly limit consultation with many NGOs working to protect the environment in Austria. Funding to NGOs in many sectors has also been drastically reduced.

    Freedom of expression has also come under attack this year, with government ministers denigrating journalists and the media. One minister even went so far as to expressly instruct officials not to brief certain media outlets which are critical of the government. Earlier in the year, media monitors in Austria reported a spate of attacks, including online hate speech, directed at independent media. Also in 2018, the CIVICUS Monitor reported worrying moves by Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache to weaken Austria’s public broadcaster, ORF.

    Meanwhile, a law passed in 2017 by the former SPÖ-led government coalition is restricting the freedom of peaceful assembly, by increasing the notice period required for protests to 48 hours and designating certain “protection zones”, in which protests are prohibited. 

    “CIVICUS calls on the Austrian authorities to discard its policy of exclusion and denigration of civic activists,” said Gilbert. “We call on the government to instead begin a constructive dialogue with CSOs in all sectors, and to review laws and policies which are out of step with Austria’s commitments under international law and as a member of the European Union.” 

    These developments are supported in a damning new report published this month by the Chamber of Austrian Lawyers, which sets out a bleak perspective for the protection of fundamental freedoms in Austria in the coming years. 

    Austria is now rated narrowed on the CIVICUS Monitor. Visit Austria’s homepage for more information and check back regularly for the latest updates. Next week, on 27th November 2018, CIVICUS will release People Power Under Attack 2018 - a fresh global analysis on civic space. 

    For more information or to arrange an interview, please contact:

    Cathal Gilbert, Civic Space Research Lead, CIVICUS 

    cathal.gilbert[at]civicus.org or media[at]civicus.org

     

  • Backsliding on civic space in democracies

    By Mandeep Tiwana

    It’s no secret that democracy is facing a global stress test. Divisive politicians are creating a chasm between the majoritarian impulses of electoral democracy and the inclusive strands of constitutional democracy. The former emphasises a simplistic ‘winner takes all’ mentality to advance partisan political agendas while the latter accommodates dissent and minority voices through checks and balances. Notably, civil society activists and organisations speaking truth to power and seeking inclusion in decision making are facing severe hurdles as civic space appears to be backsliding in several democratic countries.

    Read on: Open Democracy

     

  • BANGLADESH: ‘Out of fear, people are being silent’

    CIVICUS speaks with Aklima Ferdows, who works with the Centre for Social Activism in Bangladesh, about civil society’s challenges and support needs in the face of a sustained government crackdown.

    Can you tell us about your background and work?

    I have a civil society background, working with civil society organisations (CSOs) for almost 10 years, mostly on advocacy and capacity development. I also have law background and voluntarily work with the Centre for Social Activism (CSA), whose work focuses mostly on the freedom of expression and protection of human rights defenders. CSA documents human rights violations and advocates for the rights of marginalised communities on the ground.

    What are the current challenges around the freedom of expression in Bangladesh?

    Bangladesh had a long struggle for freedom and finally got independence from Pakistan in 1971 after a nine-months’-long war. But unfortunately, although we achieved our independence, our freedom is not assured even after so many years of independence. For civil society workers, human rights defenders, journalists and citizens in general, there is an environment of fear and self-censorship in the country now. Out of fear, people are being silent or are speaking on relatively ‘softer issues’ such as the rights of poor people, women and children. Because of fear of reprisal, people are refraining from doing things they used to do or not protesting or speaking openly. People need to think several times before they speak and act.

    Social media and online content monitoring are becoming strict, and you can see the changes in social media use. People used to share various types of news, updates and their thoughts. Now they mostly use social media for sharing their personal stuff or family related activity. People also complain about their calls being recorded. There were efforts to make people register to use social media with their national identity document. Some websites and online portals have been banned, contents are blocked and there are occasional internet shutdowns and slowdowns, including during elections. We have had several killings of online activists in recent years. Other online activists have left the country or gone silent. People’s ability to express themselves freely and creatively is limited and people are more fearful about sharing their views with other people.

    As an example of how the freedom of expression is restricted, in August 2019 a local councillor filed a case in Khagrachari district of the Chittagong Hill Tracts area against one of the reporters of the Daily Star, a major daily newspaper, simply because the reporter had used the word ‘Indigenous’ in a report. The plaintiff alleged that the journalist had intentionally made a provocation to destroy peace in the hills in the report, titled, ‘Three Indigenous villages face land grabbing’. The police were ordered to investigate. Although the court dismissed the case, it showed how sensitive the authorities can be. The people living in the country's plains and hills have long been demanding constitutional recognition as Adibashi (‘Indigenous’ in English). The Press Information Department issued a release (reference no. 2,704) in March 2015 urging the media, experts, university teachers and civil society members to avoid that word in discussions and talk shows on the International Day of the World's Indigenous People. There is no legal barrier to using the word ‘Adibashi’ anywhere in the country, but it seems that we are trying to push a group of people in their own country into a status of denial.

    Eighty-three lawsuits were filed against the Daily Star’s editor, Mahfuz Anam, by plaintiffs across the country, in 56 districts, who were not personally aggrieved. The matter began on 3 February 2016 when the editor of a TV talk show made an introspective comment about a lapse in his editorial judgment in publishing reports, based on information given by the Taskforce Interrogation Cell during the rule of the 2007-2008 caretaker government, without being able to verify those independently. He was accused of defamation and sedition. The number of cases show how many people can be mobilised against one. Allegations and legal actions can be brought against anyone on the grounds that they are trying to instigate communal violence, hurt religious sentiment or cause law and order violations.

    What are the other key restrictions against civil society freedoms, and what are the impacts on civil society?

    People need to get permission from the local authorities to hold an assembly or gathering. This has become very strict now. In some cases, people don’t get permission and, in some instances, permission have been withdrawn at the last moment.

    Another source of fear is the disproportionate use of force by law enforcement agencies. It is being used against opposition parties and their related organisations, but also against civil society, garment workers, student groups and cultural activists. The police force is often aggressive and there is impunity. So, people are reluctant about organising collectively as they did before. There are clear, direct threats as well as intimidation and there are also smears. For example, anti-corruption campaigners have been accused of avoiding paying taxes. And then there are repressive laws, which affect the freedom of expression and other freedoms of the people.

    Cases are being brought to harass people under the Digital Security Act, passed in October 2018. The law brought in jail sentences to a maximum of three years or fines of 300,000 taka (approx. US$3,750), or both, for publishing or assisting in the publication of information that is offensive or is known to be false with the intention of tarnishing the image of the state, or spreading confusion, or sending or publishing information intended to annoy or humiliate someone. The punishments can be almost doubled for a second offence. Now anyone can claim that someone is spreading rumours or is humiliating someone else, even if they are just sharing news online without any intention of spreading confusion or humiliating someone.

    The law also brought in a sentence of seven years in jail for hurting religious sentiment and values, and there are sentences of up to 14 years in jail or 2,500,000 taka (approx. US$29,450) in fines, or both, for charges of computer spying or digital spying for collecting, preserving, or sending any secret documents through a computer, digital device, computer network, digital network, or any electronic form. Journalists fear that the provisions of this Act will work against conducting investigative journalistic work and compromise the quality and freedom of journalism in Bangladesh. Under an earlier law, the ICT Act of 2016, several cases were brought against activists, journalists and activists. Now the police don’t even need a warrant to take someone in for questioning; it can be done based on mere suspicion.

    Another key obstacle for civil society is the restriction of funding. This has been going on for some time. The Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Act controls foreign funding for CSOs. There is also a funding shortage from foreign donors and development partners for rights advocacy programmes following the passing of the NGO Law and development partners have shifted their priorities to other regions. One of the provisions of the NGO law allows the NGO Affairs Bureau to suspend the registration of a CSO or to close it down if it makes any ‘derogatory’ remarks about the constitution or constitutional bodies.

    Any CSO or person receiving funding from a foreign entity must have permission. To get permission you need to give a copy of the proposal to the NGO Affairs Bureau, which sits in the prime minister’s office. Permission is sometimes withheld. Critics of civil society have occasionally raised concerns about some CSOs, alleging they could have links to terror financing, or that they are doing different work in the name of development. There is a fear that anything that doesn’t go well with the authorities could be blocked and the CSO denied funding.

    Then there is the new draft Volunteer Social Welfare Organizations (Registration and Control) Act of 2019. According to media reports, the draft says that all CSOs will have to register with the Ministry of Social Welfare, and any receiving foreign funding will also have to register with the NGO Affairs Bureau. CSOs cannot set up and operate unless they do so. Section 10 states that all CSOs will be able to work in only one district when they first register. After registration, CSOs can expand their scope of work, but only to five districts at a time. We have 64 districts, so this is the most restrictive.

    Section 14 requires CSOs to have an account with a state-owned bank and conduct all financial transactions via state-owned banks. It requires CSOs to submit their annual workplans, audit reports and activity reports. It also requires CSOS to submit tri-monthly bank statements to the local social welfare office and registration authorities. Section 11, in sub-sections 1 and 2, states that registrations must be renewed every five years, and failure to reregister or the refusal of registration will result in an organisation being dissolved.

    Incredibly, section 16 says that the government can expel the heads of CSOs and replace them with a government-appointed five-person committee and section 17 says that CSOs can be dissolved if they are believed to not be working in the best interests of the public or to have broken the law.

    According to the NGO Affairs Bureau, between March and June 2019, the government cancelled the registration of 197 CSOs.

    Civil society members are in a very tight situation now. They have become very cautious and are playing safe out of fear. If they don’t compromise, they might lose the funding they have and face threats. We are not seeing CSOs making many statements on human rights issues. Many CSOs are struggling for funding. There are some social movements starting up, working on issues such as the protection of natural resources and against gender-based violence, but they are being cautious about talking about gross human rights violations.

    What impacts did the December 2018 general election have on civil society?

    In advance, people felt a participatory election might not be held. I went out one day just to see how many posters in the vicinity were from the opposition. In my neighbourhood, I would say 99 per cent of the posters were of the ruling party candidate. Opposition party candidates and activists were not fully free to campaign, and the election was allegedly manipulated.

    Fears increased during the election, in which the ruling party won a landslide victory, because it confirmed the ruling party’s power. The ruling party has everything and after the election, we hardly hear the strong voice of opposition.

    What role is being played by student groups affiliated with ruling party?

    One of the main sources of attack are by the non-state actors linked to the ruling party, particularly its student and youth wing. Academic institutions such as universities are controlled by ruling party student activists. At protests, ruling party student groups work alongside law enforcement officers to attack people and harass them. This sometimes includes sexual harassment of women protesters.

    Given these challenges, what are the main support needs of Bangladeshi civil society?

    Bangladeshi civil society voices should be raised with unity and there is a need to raise concern about Bangladesh at the international level more and more. At the international level, the rights of the Rohingya refugees from Myanmar have received huge attention, which is necessary, but this should not be used to overshadow other human rights violations in the country.

    We also need security and protection initiatives for CSO members. Bangladeshi CSOs should be developing these but they do not have funding for this, and requests for security and protection in funding proposals do not get much attention. There is also a need to explore flexible funding for CSOs.

    There is a need for more solidarity actions with local civil society. Those few organisations that are still trying to defend human rights, and local and grassroots groups, urgently need solidarity.

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

     

  • Bangladesh: Two years on, impunity for attacks against student protesters

    Two years since student protest movements mobilised in Bangladesh, there is still no accountability for human rights violations against protesters.

    Crushing Student Protests,’ a new report launched today by civil society groups Front Line Defenders, CIVICUS and South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR), highlights the use of excessive force, arbitrary arrests and allegations of torture and ill-treatment by the Bangladesh security forces during the protests, as well as attacks by non-state actors perpetrated with impunity against the students.

    In April 2018, senior students from universities mobilised to call for reform in the quota system for government jobs. Three months later, in July and August, junior students from schools and colleges led protests demanding public transport safety reform after students were killed in traffic accidents.

    Law enforcement agencies responded to both movements with excessive force. Protesters reported that the police attacked them with teargas, rubber bullets and high pressure hot water cannons. Unidentified armed individuals believed to be members of the student wing of the ruling party, known as the Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL), operated as an auxiliary force to Bangladeshi security forces to attack protesters with wooden logs, sticks, iron rods, and sharp weapons. They used social media to intimidate, harass and threaten protest leaders and organizers.

    An activist from Jagannath University in Sadarghat, Dhaka said that on 20 April 2018, he was attacked by BCL members: “They accosted me and dragged me to a corner. There were 12 people, and they beat me up, and cut my lip…They beat me until I was senseless and left me there.”

    Police also arbitrarily arrested protesters and filed multiple cases against them without specifying names, detaining students at will. Some reported torture and ill-treatment in detention.

    One activist arrested on 1 July 2018 in the Bhasantek area of Dhaka related his experience of being beaten up for a full day by security forces. “They made me lie down on the floor, with my arms handcuffed, and several policemen beat me with rods,” he said. “I bled on the floor, and they made the others detained clean the floor.”

    Bangladeshi journalists also were assaulted and detained as part of government efforts to control the narrative and silence critical voices.

    One of those arrested was 63 year old Shahidul Alam, a well-known photojournalist and activist. He was detained by plainclothes policemen on 5 August 2018, hours after giving an interview to Al Jazeera English on the student protests and charged a day later under the Information and Communication Technology Act for making "false" and "provocative" statements. Alam told reporters that he had been beaten in police custody.

    “The failure to hold anyone accountable for the violence against protesters points to deeply ingrained impunity in Bangladesh. We demand a prompt and independent investigation into all reports of violence by the police and nonstate actors against human rights defenders, journalists and protesters, and for those responsible to be brought to justice,” said Sultana Kamal, noted Bangladeshi Human Rights Defender and Chairperson of SAHR.

    “The police must drop all charges against the student human rights defenders and protesters and review the convictions of protesters and other individuals prosecuted for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly,” said Roshmi Goswami, SAHR bureau member from India who took part in the joint international mission.

    The crackdown occurred just prior to elections held later in 2018, indicating the kind of actions the ruling party was, and remains willing, to take to hold its grip on power.

    Long after the protests stopped, many student activists, their friends and family members continue to face surveillance, intimidation and harassment, effectively silencing future dissent. Social media has been deployed to intimidate and smear human rights defenders and civil society groups that supported the protests. 

    A prominent activist was attacked eight times after the protest movement ended. Another protest organizer has been routinely stalked by members of the National Security Intelligence (NSI).

    “The authorities must end all forms of harassment, intimidation and surveillance against those involved in organising, participating or supporting the protests and ensure a safe and enabling environment for protest leaders to carry out their activism without fear of reprisals,” said Andrew Anderson, Executive Director of Front Line Defenders.

    The crackdown on the protests is indicative of a broader pattern of aggression and attacks by the government against critics to silence dissent. The now defunct Information Communication and Technology (ICT) Act, and its successor, the Digital Security Act, have been used to restrict freedom of expression while human rights activists, journalists and government critics have been charged or convicted for speaking up and, in some cases, forcibly disappeared.

    “The Digital Security Act criminalizes many forms of freedom of expression and imposes heavy fines and prison sentences for legitimate forms of dissent. It is incompatible with international law and standards and should be amended immediately,” said David Kode, Advocacy and Campaigns Lead at CIVICUS.

    The human rights violations documented in this report around the protests are inconsistent with Bangladesh’s Constitution and the country’s international human rights obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and other international laws and standards. Despite the fact that many of these issues have been raised by states, the Bangladesh authorities have failed to address them.


    Front Line Defenders is the Ireland-based international human rights organization that works for the security and protection of human rights defenders at risk (HRDs) around the world.

    CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation is a global alliance of civil society organisations and activists headquartered in Johannesburg, South Africa and dedicated to strengthening citizen action and civil society throughout the world. 

    South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR) is a democratic regional network with a large membership base of people committed to addressing human rights issues at both national and regional levels. SAHR seeks to contribute to the realisation of South Asian peoples’ right to participatory democracy, good governance and justice by strengthening regional response, including regional instruments, monitoring human rights violations, reviewing laws, policies and practices that have an adverse impact on human rights and conducting campaigns and programmes on issues of major concern in the region.


    Civic space in Bangladesh is currently rated as repressed by the CIVICUS Monitor.

     

  • Big business and activists finally agree. On this one issue

    By Danny Sriskandarajah

    With some of the world’s biggest economies now companies, not states, the benefits for civil society of working more closely with business are clear. Yet, perhaps less well understood, are the benefits for business of defending civic space – the freedom of citizens to organise, speak up and protest governance failings and corruption. The good news is that in one area at least, businesses and civil society are increasingly seeing eye to eye.

    Read on:World Economic Forum

     

  • BOLIVIA: ‘Civil society, like political society, is deeply divided’

    CIVICUS speaks about the 2019 protests and elections in Bolivia with Eliana Quiroz, Executive Director of Fundación Internet Bolivia (Bolivia Internet Foundation), an organisation dedicated to strengthening free and secure access to the web. In its work to defend online human rights against censorship, surveillance, manipulation, extortion and other harmful practices, the Bolivia Internet Foundation focuses its actions on capacity strengthening among vulnerable publics, the promotion of open discussion spaces and the development of knowledge and technology-based strategies.

     

  • BOLIVIA: ‘The pandemic became a justification for tightening information control’

    CIVICUS speaks about the Bolivian political landscape and upcoming elections in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic with Cristian León, programme director of Asuntos del Sur and coordinator of Public Innovation 360, a project focused on strengthening democracy at the subnational level which is currently being implemented in three Latin American countries. Asuntos del Sur is a regional civil society organisation (CSO) based in Argentina that designs and implements political innovations to develop democracies that are inclusive, participatory and based on gender parity. Cristian León is also a founder and current collaborator of InternetBolivia.org, which promotes digital rights in Bolivia.

     

  • BRICS bloc’s lofty aims lack legitimacy without civil society

    By Mandeep Tiwana and Cathal Gilbert

    As Xiamen prepares to host 2017 summit, the group's vision of a "just, equitable and democratic multi-polar international order" is not served well by its member states' disregard for citizens' voices.

    Read on: Asia Times 

     

     

  • Brics: Uma proposta de nova ordem mundial que ignora os direitos básicos dos cidadãos

    Escrito por Fabio de Almeida Pinto, Coordenador Executivo do IDS, e Marianna Belalba Barreto, da CIVICUS - World Alliance for Citizen Participation

    Entre 3 e 5 de setembro, o presidente Michel Temer estará em Xiamen, China, para a 9ª Cúpula dos Brics, onde se reunirá com os líderes de Rússia, Índia, China e África do Sul para discutir e aprofundar a cooperação em comércio internacional, desenvolvimento e segurança.
    Leia aqui: Estadão 

     

     

  • BURUNDI: ‘The election of new leaders is not synonymous with democracy’

    CIVICUS speaks about the recent elections in Burundi with a civil society activist who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons.

    Presidential, parliamentary and municipal elections were held in Burundi on 20 May 2020, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. In March, two months before the elections, the United Nations (UN) Commission of Inquiry on Burundi launched an appeal to the international community, including the UN Security Council and regional institutions, to join forces to encourage the government of Burundi to reopen democratic, civil and political space. On the day of the elections, the president of the Commission of Inquiry stated that the conditions to perform credible and free elections were not met. Asreported by the CIVICUS Monitor, opposition members faced death threats and physical attacks, as well as administrative hurdles, as several candidacy applications were rejected. The leader of an opposition party was murdered and other candidates were arrested on bogus charges. Independent reporting was systematically impeded through the arrest of journalists and the blockage of social media platforms.

    Burundi Elections

     Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

    Has the government of Burundi’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic further restricted the space for civil society?

    Civic space in Burundi has been closed since April 2015, due to the political unrest caused by the decision of former President Pierre Nkurunziza, recently deceased, to run for a controversial third term. This led to widespread violence that left at least 1,200 people dead and forced 400,000 to flee the country. Surprisingly, in March 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic was spreading in almost all African countries, the Burundian authorities opened space for political campaigns to be held ahead of the May presidential, parliamentary and municipal elections. But one can conclude that civic space is still closed in terms of being able to express any open criticism about how the country is politically run, including criticism regarding the way the government handled the pandemic during the electoral period.

    What were the views of civil society about holding elections during the pandemic?

    The decision of the Burundian authorities to allow election campaigns to proceed during a period in which many other African countries were taking measures of confinement to stop the spread of COVID-19 was viewed as denial of the reality of the pandemic to save the political interests of the ruling party, the CNDD-FDD (National Council for the Defence of Democracy-Forces for the Defence of Democracy), to the detriment of the public’s health.

    Despite fears of mass COVID-19 contamination, the elections were rushed, at least in part, due to the opportunity to hold an electoral process in the absence of a sizeable number of independent and international observers who could denounce any irregularities. By doing so, given that the National Independent Electoral Commission was mostly composed of members of the ruling party, the government ensured that it could manipulate the election results as much as it wanted.

    Was the outcome of the election accepted by majority of Burundians?

    On 20 May 2020, CNDD-FDD candidate Évariste Ndayishimiye was elected president with 71 per cent of the vote. The ruling party also won 72 of the 100 seats at stake in the National Assembly.

    As soon as the Electoral Commission announced the results, opposition parties such as the National Council for Liberation, which came a distant second, stated in foreign media that the official numbers were not credible and were the result of massive fraud. The truth is that the elections were held in a context of continuing repression of the political opposition, independent media and civil society. No international observers were present because the government had warned that due to the pandemic they would have to be quarantined for 14 days after their arrival.

    Low-key criticisms were made by others, including the Catholic Church, regarding incidents that marked the election processes. Others whispered, as it’s not easy to make open criticisms, that election results were rigged. But that was it. Powerful members of the international community such as the governments of Belgium and the USA were fast to congratulate the elected president, and the East African Community congratulated Burundi for holding a “peaceful and successful” election.

    In my personal view, the outcomes of the elections were eventually accepted because many feared that bloodshed could follow if an open rejection of the election results by the opposition was followed by street protests.

    How likely is that the elections result will lead to an improvement of democracy and civic space?

    Some pretend to believe that the election of new leaders is synonymous with democracy. The outcome of the May 2020 elections helped Burundi change the faces of top leaders and show that the dictator who ruled us for 15 years is no longer leading the country. However, the human rights violations that took place during the electoral campaign, the appointment of officials under European or US economic sanctions for the human rights abuses they had committed and the political rhetoric describing some countries and their leaders as colonialists all show that democracy in Burundi still has a long way to go.

    However, some measures to fight against corruption and others abuses that President Ndayishimiye has taken since assuming office have allowed us to believe that the impunity that some local authorities enjoyed during Nkurunziza’s administration might come to an end.

    Many had argued that the plan was for former President Nkurunziza to remain the power behind the scenes. Have prospects changed as a result of his death?

    Former President Nkurunziza died unexpectedly in June, before his successor had even been inaugurated. As a new president had already been elected, the Constitutional Court decided that he should be sworn in two months early.

    Many believed that Nkurunziza’s passing would allow President Ndayishimiye to rule with total independence, and his inaugural speech seemed to confirm it, as he vowed to enter into dialogue with anyone, on any issue. It is too soon to say whether the fact that Nkurunziza is out of the equation will allow the new administration to open up civic space and whether the new president will seize this opportunity. However, it is encouraging to see that the new president has already met with the leaders of other political parties, former Burundi presidents and Anglican and Catholic bishops, and has promised to promote dialogue. We are expectant to find out whether his words will turn into actions.

    At the same time, however, the Minister of Home Affairs has recently issued a note to halt the registration of all new civil society organisations and churches and the recognition of newly elected authorities of organisations, pending a new order. Such decisions are inconsistent with the change that is being sought. If maintained, they will hinder civil society from growing and becoming a legitimate and publicly recognised sphere.

    What should the international community do to help improve civic space in Burundi?

    It is hard to set just a few priorities, as many things need to be put in place for Burundi to become a place of freedoms. However, it would be vital to engage the government of Burundi in multidimensional dialogue. International cooperation needs to be relaunched in a way that helps the Burundian government to end endemic poverty. The international community should advocate the repatriation of all refugees, including those who are under an arrest warrant from the Burundian government, and ensure their protection. And it also should offer its mediation to solve conflict between Burundi and its neighbouring countries, especially Rwanda, in order to facilitate the movement of people and goods and the reestablishment of diplomatic relations.

    If the suggested priorities are pursued, the Burundian authorities might come to realise that Burundi is not isolated and that the international community is not acting to sabotage its interests, but rather to strengthen the positive aspects of globalisation in all domains.

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

     

  • Call for proposals: Application for partners for pilot national civil society assessment in El Salvador, Georgia and Indonesia.

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    BACKGROUND INFORMATION

    The Enabling Environment National Assessment (EENA), developed by CIVICUS and the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL), is a participatory, civil society-led and action-oriented research methodology.

     

  • CAMBODIA: ‘This is a textbook case of organised crime with links to the state’

    CIVICUS speaks with Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, a Spanish national and co-founder of Mother Nature Cambodia (MNC), a civil society organisation (CSO) that advocates and campaigns locally and internationally for the preservation, promotion and protection of Cambodia’s natural environment. Due to their work, the authorities have systematically intimidated and criminalised MNC activists. Gonzalez-Davidson has been convicted in absentia for his activism and currentlyfaces further charges.

    Alejandro Gonzalez Davidson

    What were the origins of MNC?

    We founded MNC in 2013, and the most important factor leading to its founding was that the environment in Cambodia, and especially the forest, was being decimated so fast. Because I could speak Khmer, I was a translator and was reading about it in the news and eventually also seeing it happen.

    This senseless destruction was being disguised as development, but in reality it was organised crime sponsored by the state, including the army, the police, politicians at all levels and local authorities. It was painful to see. Local Indigenous people were being cheated and this got me fired up.

    I also came to the realisation that civil society, and especially international organisations that were allegedly protecting the environment, were not doing anything that was effective enough. Local groups were not able to do much, and some international groups were doing greenwashing: misleading the public with initiatives that were presented as environmentally friendly or sustainable, but were not addressing the real causes of the problems. 

    A small group of friends and I started a campaign to stop a senseless hydroelectric dam project, which we knew was never about electricity but about exploiting natural resources and allowing logging and poaching. I was deported a year and a half after we started MNC. Over time, we have had to evolve to try and expose environmental crimes by the state on a large scale.

    What have been the main activities and tactics of MNC?

    They have changed over time. Back in 2013 to 2015, we could still do community empowerment and hold peaceful protests. We could bring people from cities to remote areas. In 2015, the harassing and jailing of activists started. We realised peaceful protests could not happen anymore because protesters would be criminalised. We continued to do community empowerment until 2017, but then had to stop that too.

    One of our biggest tactics is going to a location, recording short videos and presenting them to the public so that Cambodians can understand, click, share and comment. We have received millions of views. We also did shows on Facebook live and lobbied opposition parties in parliament. From 2019 onwards, activists could no longer appear in the videos and we had to blur their faces and distort their voices. Now we can’t even do that because it is too risky.

    What is the state of civic space in Cambodia?

    The regime of Prime Minister Hun Sen has destroyed democratic institutions, including active and independent civil society, independent media and opposition parties. It has dismantled all these as it realised people were ready and hungry for democracy.

    There is a lot for the regime to lose if the status quo changes, mainly because of money. The regime is mostly organised crime. They don’t want pesky independent journalists, activists organising protests or CSOs doing community empowerment. They don’t want to lose power and be held accountable. This is why now there is very little space compared to five years ago, and the situation is still going downhill. 

    Most civil society groups have retreated and are not pushing the boundaries. They are afraid of their organisation being shut down, funding being cut, or their activists and staff being thrown in jail. Indeed, working in Cambodia is difficult but it’s not acceptable to have a very small number of CSOs and activists speaking up.

    What gives me hope is that conversations and engagement among citizens about democracy are still happening, and that repression cannot go on forever.

    Why has MNC been criminalised, and what impact has this had and what is impact of the court cases?

    Cambodia doesn’t really have any other group like us. We are a civil society group, but we are made up of activists rather than professional staff. Other activists used to do forest patrols in the Prey Lang forest, but the government forced them to stop. There are also Indigenous communities and environmental activists trying to do some work, but what happened to MNC is also a message to them.

    In 2015, three MNC activists were charged and subsequently convicted for their activities in a direct-action campaign against companies mining sand in Koh Kong province. In September 2017, two MNC activists were arrested for filming vessels we suspected were illegally exporting dredged sand on behalf of a firm linked to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party. In January 2018, the two activists were fined and sentenced to a year in jail.

    In September 2020, three activists affiliated with MNC were arbitrarily detained while planning a peaceful protest as part of a campaign against the planned privatisation and reclamation of Boeung Tamok lake in the capital, Phnom Penh. They were sentenced to 18 months in prison for ‘incitement’.

    Most recently, in June 2021, four environmental activists affiliated with MNC were charged for investigating river pollution in the Tonle Sap river in Phnom Penh. They have been charged with ‘plotting’ and ‘insulting the King’. There are currently six MNC activists in detention.

    We have been charged with threatening to cause destruction, incitement, violating peoples’ privacy – just for filming at sea – and the latest additions to the list are ‘plotting’ to violently overthrow institutions – just for recording sewage going into the Mekong river – and insulting the King. The government is no longer even pretending that this is about law enforcement and is now just picking crimes to charge us with.

    As we become more effective in what we do, the state’s rhetoric against us has become more aggressive. The authorities have vilified us, calling us traitors and terrorists. Repression starts from the very bottom, with the local police, the mayor, the military police and their civilian friends who are in the business of poaching, logging and so on. They follow you, threaten you and even try to bribe you. They also control the media narrative and have trolls on social media. Even if all you do is a media interview, they will threaten you online.

    This has created a climate of fear among activists. As in any other dictatorship, Cambodia has always been ruled by fear. This percolates down to young people, who make up the vast majority of our activists. Their families and friends get really worried too. When people feel there is less of a risk in getting involved, the state hits activists and civil society again with more arbitrary and trumped-up charges, as a way to instil further fear in people’s minds.

    The impact of the court cases against MNC has been strong. At first we were able to put up with them by diversifying our tactics and putting new strategies in place, but over the last two years and with six people in jail, it’s become more difficult. But this won’t stop our activism. It will not defeat us.

    Have you faced threats from private companies?

    The line between the private sector and the state is blurred in Cambodia, and in certain cases is just not even there. You don’t have a minister or the army saying, ‘this is my hydroelectric dam’ or ‘we are doing sand mining’, but everyone knows the links are there.

    Those representing the state will provide the apparatus and resources to threaten activists and local communities, and businesspeople – who sometimes are their own family members – will give them a percentage of the earnings. For example, sand from mining exported to Singapore – a business worth a few hundred million dollars – was controlled by a few powerful families, including that of the leader of the dictatorship, Hun Sen. This is a textbook case of organised crime with links to the state. And when a journalist, civil society group or local community tries to expose them, they use the weapons of the state to silence, jail, or bribe them. 

    Why did MNC decide to formally disband?

    In 2015 the government passed a repressive NGO law with lots of traps that made it difficult for us to be in compliance. I was also no longer in the country, as I was not allowed to return even though I had been legally charged and convicted there. In 2013, when we registered, there were three of us, plus two nominal members who were Buddhist monks. The other two founders were taken to the Ministry of Interior and told to disband or otherwise go to jail, so they decided to disband.

    We also thought it would be better not to be bound by the NGO law. Cambodian people have the right to protect their national resources. According to the Cambodian Constitution and international treaties the state has signed, we are not breaking the law. But we know this will not stop them from jailing us.

    What can international community do to support MNC and civil society in Cambodia?

    Some things are being done. Whenever there is an arbitrary arrest of activists, there are embassies in the capital, United Nations institutions and some Cambodian CSOs who speak up. 

    That’s good, but sadly it’s not enough. If you are doing business with Cambodia, such as importing billions of dollars per year worth of garments, you have to do more than just issue statements. You should make a clear connection between the health of democracy in Cambodia and the health of your business relationships. For example, the UK is working on a trade deal with Cambodia, and it must attach to it conditions such as ensuring a free media and halting the arbitrary jailing of activists. 

    The problem is that some diplomats don’t understand what is going on or don’t care about the human rights situation. Southeast Asian countries should also help each other and speak up on the situation in Cambodia. Not just civil society but members of parliament should call out, send letters to their ambassador and so forth.

    Civic space inCambodiais rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with Mother Nature Cambodia through itswebsite or itsFacebook page, and follow@CambodiaMother on Twitter. 

     

  • Cambodia: Drop Fabricated Charges against ‘ADHOC 5’

    Cambodian authorities should immediately drop politically motivated bribery charges against five human rights defenders known as the ADHOC 5 (“FreeThe5KH” in social media campaigns), five international organizations said today. The trial of the five – four current and one former senior staff members of the nongovernmental Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC) – is scheduled for August 27, 2018, after lying dormant for a year. If convicted, each faces between 5 and 10 years in prison.

     

  • Carta desde la prisión: líder campesino nicaragüense, Medardo Mairena

    El líder campesino Medardo Mairena escribe una carta a los medios de comunicación desde la prisión 

    SOSNicaragua6

    Medardo Mairena Sequeira, es Coordinador del Consejo Nacional de Defensa de la Tierra, el Lago y la Soberanía y miembro de la Alianza Cívica por la Justicia y la Democracia. Medardo es uno de los líderes del movimiento contra la construcción del Canal en Nicaragua, fue detenido el 13 de julio junto con el líder campesino Pedro Joaquín Mena Amador cuando planeaban abordar un avión a los Estados Unidos para participar en un evento de solidaridad con Nicaragua. Medardo y otros dos líderes campesinos, se enfrentan a cargos falsos que van desde terrorismo, asesinato, secuestros, robo agravado y obstrucción a los servicios públicos.


    Agradezco a Dios y a mi familia, al pueblo de Nicaragua, a los medios de comunicación independiente, a las comisiones de derechos humanos nacional e internacionales, a la Organización de Estados Americanos, al Consejo de Seguridad de las Naciones Unidas por no dejarnos solo al pueblo de Nicaragua.

    A todos mis amigos, amigas, a todo el pueblo en general, les pido que nos mantengamos unidos en oración en estos momentos difíciles para todos, por los presos políticos, que nos tienen detenidos injustamente solo por pensar diferente. El régimen de Ortega no es más que un cobarde, por eso nos detiene, por alzar nuestras voces por los que no pueden y por los que ya no están con nosotros.

    En el sistema penitenciario, en las cárceles estamos en máxima seguridad, las celdas están en malas condiciones, no hay luz, los servicios higiénicos están dañados, las ventanas que son para que entre aire las han cerrado. Nos tienen como si nos estuviéramos horneando en un horno y aislados de los demás presos. En esta modelo estamos los campesinos, en la 300, conocida como el “infiernillo”. Estamos 20 presos en las mismas condiciones. He estado enfermo igual que otros y no nos permiten que nos revise un médico. Gracias a Dios estoy mejorando, por el poder de Dios. Nada más aquí hay zancudos, cucarachas, alacranes, etc. No nos sacan de las celdas ni a tomar el sol. A mi amigo Pedro Mena le quitaron su tratamiento, ya que él padece de azúcar, de la presión. Él trae su tratamiento en su mochila y se tiene que tomar una pastilla diaria. Nos tratan inhumanamente.

    Insto al pueblo a seguir manifestándose pacíficamente, como siempre lo hemos hecho. Aunque no me vean, mi corazón está con ustedes, en las calles. Porque tenemos que exigir nuestra liberación, porque somos inocentes de lo que nos acusan. El día que sucedieron los hechos en Morito, nosotros estábamos en la marcha en Managua exigiendo que se reanudara el diálogo, ya que es la mejor salida pacífica a la crisis, porque pensamos como personas civilizadas, porque queremos justicia y democratización. No podemos olvidar a los que les arrebató la vida el régimen. Al menos mi familia todavía tiene la esperanza de verme pronto, pero las madres que perdieron a sus hijos no, y no las dejaremos solas.

    Atentamente,

    Medardo.

    Transcripción de la carta original


    CIVICUS ha pedido a las autoridades de Nicaragua que retiren todos los cargos contra Medardo Mairena, Pedro Joaquín Mena y Víctor Manuel Díaz y los liberen en condiciones de seguridad. CIVICUS también pide la liberación de todos los líderes rurales, estudiantes y activistas actualmente detenidos por ejercer su derecho a la protesta.

    Nicaragua ha sido añadida al listado de países del "watchlist" que están sufriendo una alarmante escalada de amenazas contra las libertades fundamentales. Este listado es recopilado por el CIVICUS Monitor, una plataforma online que evalúa las amenazas a las que se enfrenta la sociedad civil por todo el mundo. 

     

     

  • Chad: Stop violence against peaceful protesters and respect democratic rights of Chadians

    Chadian authorities must stop the brutal repression of peaceful protesters and ensure an immediate democratic transition in Chad, says global civil society alliance CIVICUS. Unrest is likely to continue if the military does not allow for a civilian-led government.  
     
    On 8 May 2021, security forces used violence against peaceful protesters who denounced a military takeover in Chad following the death of long-term President Idriss Déby Itno on 20 April 2021.  
     
    More than 5 people were killed and several others wounded during similar protests held on 27 April. Led by a coalition of civil society groups and members of the political opposition, the protests condemn the continuation of a Chad dynasty after President Déby’s son, General Mahamat Idriss Déby, succeeded his father and appointed a military transitional government.  
     
    “The Chadian military has once again chosen to ignore an opportunity to put in place democratic reforms, reset Chad’s political trajectory and respect constitutional and international human rights obligations.  The military continues a pattern of violence over dialogue and continues to trample on democratic norms,” said David Kode, Advocacy and Campaigns Lead for CIVICUS  
     
    Background
     
    Ahead of Chad’s recent elections in April 2021, the authorities imposed a ban on peaceful protests to deter members of civil society and the political opposition from protesting President Idriss Déby Itno’s decision to stand for a sixth term in office.  In February 2021, more than 100 people were arrested for protesting and several were later charged with disturbing public order.  President Idriss Déby was killed fighting rebels in April. Since then, civil society and the political opposition have been protesting the Transitional Military Council and calling for a return to civilian rule. 

    Civic space in Chadis rated asRepressed by the CIVICUS Monitor.

     

  • CHILE: ‘There has been a citizen awakening of historical proportions’

    soledad munozProtests broke out in Chile in October 2019, initially led by students rejecting an increase in the price of transport and quickly escalating into mass demonstrations urging structural change. Protests were repressed with savagery by security forces. CIVICUS speaks about the protests with Soledad Fátima Muñoz, a Chilean activist and the founder of a mentoring programme and feminist festival,Current Symposium. (Photo by Kati Jenson)

    How did something that started with a small increase in the price of the metro ticket become a mobilisation of unprecedented dimensions?

    The first thing to clarify is that this was not caused just by an increase in the price of the metro ticket, nor is it an isolated protest. Mobilisations against the abuses derived from the neoliberal system have been a constant occurrence in Chile over the years. Among these were mass protests against the privatised pension system, against the Trans-Pacific Economic Cooperation Agreement and against the Fisheries Law, feminist protests and protests by the movement promoted under the slogan ‘Ni Una Menos’ (not one less), mobilisations about the historic debt owed to teachers, the student protests held in 2006 and 2011, and the more recent mobilisations by students against the so-called Safe Classroom Law. On top of this, there’s the outrage caused by systematic state repression of the Indigenous peoples in Wallmapu, the deaths of Camilo Catrillanca and Macarena Valdés, and the imprisonment of Machi Francisca Linconao and Lonko Alberto Curamil, among other political prisoners. Combined with a generation-long dissatisfaction with the impunity granted to those responsible for the tortures, disappearances and killings of thousands of people under the dictatorship led by Augusto Pinochet, this produced an environment conducive to a citizen awakening of historical proportions. After years of abuse, the Chilean people woke up and want a new constitution, since the current one was drafted under the dictatorship and was designed to promote social inequality.

    The big difference between the current protests and all the previous ones is the response they triggered from the government of President Sebastián Piñera, who declared a state of emergency and a curfew, unleashing a police and military repression against the Chilean people that is only paralleled by the crimes perpetrated during the dictatorship.

    The protests are not being centrally organised and are not guided by a single political motto; there are many independent initiatives calling for people to gather and demonstrate, through social media or through various independent information channels. Some of the most widespread demands call for a constituent assembly to write a new constitution. Frequently demanded are the nationalisation of basic services and natural resources, including copper, lithium and water. There are also demands for direct democracy and binding referendums, the prosecution of political and economic corruption, respect for Indigenous peoples and plurinational sovereignty, and for health, education and decent pensions. On top of these there are also more specific demands, such as raising the minimum monthly wage to 500,000 Chilean pesos (approx. US$650), reducing legislators’ salaries and raising taxes on the richest.

    These were the reasons why the movement began, but in the face of excessive state repression, citizens are now also demanding the resignation and prosecution of President Piñera and all the people involved in the systematic violations of human rights that have taken place over the past month.

    Twenty deaths have been reported during the repression of the protests, in addition to large numbers of people injured and under arrest. Could you describe the human rights violations committed against protesters?

    It is difficult to estimate right now the human rights violations that are being committed by the Piñera administration, since – as was also the case under the dictatorship – thousands of detainees are being kept incommunicado. That is why, when people are taken away in the streets, they shout out their name, surname and identity card number. The latest official figures from the National Institute of Human Rights (INDH) account for 335 legal actions initiated, 489 victims represented, 6,199 people under arrest – 726 of them minors – and 2,365 injured people registered in hospitals. But it is difficult to confirm the veracity of these figures since the institutions that disseminate them may have been pressured by the government.

    The INDH in particular partly lost its credibility when its director denied the existence of systematic human rights violations in our country on an open-air TV programme. That was simply a lie, since the institution itself had submitted complaints in the face of arbitrary actions by the police and the military. More than 200 cases of eye mutilations have happened as a result of the excessive use of pellets by the police, and there have been numerous cases of mistreatment, sexual violence and torture in detention centres. Additionally, there was an instance of repression at a school, Liceo 7 in Santiago, where a carabinero, a member of the military police, fired against students who were inside the building. There have also been raids on private homes and arrests made out of cars without police identification.

    On top of repression by the security forces, there is a group of citizens who call themselves ‘yellow vests’ and say their mission is to maintain civic order and protect the work of the police, but in reality they are a violent far-right group. Among its members is John Cobin, who fired a firearm at a protester in broad daylight on the busy streets of the Reñaca resort. He belongs to the League of the South, a white supremacist organisation from California.

    What immediate actions should the Chilean government take to safeguard civil rights and democratic freedoms?

    A month into the protests, the government has not yet listened to its citizens, and instead has responded with increasing violence. In the early hours of 15 November, lawmakers reached a political agreement behind closed doors, named the ‘Peace Agreement’ which would lead to a new constitution. The agreement guarantees a ‘blank slate’ for free discussion to take place and establishes that the call for a constitutional convention is going to be done through a public referendum. But part of the mobilised citizenry is not satisfied with either the deadlines or the required quorum of two thirds established for decision-making by the constituent body, since they think it will redirect the current democratic process towards a system designed to protect the political class and prevent minority voices from gaining power.

    I think what’s most important at this moment is the security of the citizenry and, above all, of the communities at greatest social risk, which are not only the most affected by the neoliberal system, but are also at the epicentre of the undiscerning violence applied by carabineros and the armed forces. An example of this happened in the community of Lo Hermida, in Peñalolén. After the authorities announced that they would not build the decent homes they had promised, inhabitants occupied the Cousiño-Macul vineyard. `Police repression was not long in coming, and in just one night 200 people were injured, two of them with severe eye trauma. In addition, carabineros broke in and threw pepper gas into homes with older people and minors inside.

    It is time for the Piñera government to stop the repression, release the more than 6,000 protesters who are currently being held in detention centres, take responsibility for the consequences of its actions, and – for the first time in Chilean history since Pinochet – end impunity for the systematic human rights violations that have been committed. The Piñera government must respond before the law for the more than 20 people who have been killed and the 200 that experienced eye mutilations, plus the torture of minors and sexual abuses against women, men and non-binary people, since all of these were consequences of the lousy decisions made by the government, and would have been at least partly avoided if they had maintained a direct dialogue with the public since the beginning. In this regard, the slogan chanted on the streets is: "There is no peace without justice."

    Do you think that the mobilisations in Chile are part of broader regional trends?

    What is happening in Chile is structurally international, since it derives from the austerity measures perpetrated by neoliberalism. Chile’s current socio-economic system is rooted in European colonialism and was enshrined by Pinochet’s coup d'état in 1973. Specifically, it came from a group of students belonging to Chilean elites who studied in the USA in the mid-1950s, where they absorbed the ideology of extreme monetarism and neoliberalism, under the tutelage of Milton Friedman and Arnold Harberger. These students – nicknamed the ‘Chicago Boys’ – served as finance and economics ministers under the dictatorship and introduced extreme privatisation measures. These measures were accepted and naturalised by a citizenry that was in a state of shock and repression.

    The consequences of this privatisation translate into abuses perpetrated by multinational corporations that are enabled by governments around the world. In Chile, a good example of this is the case uncovered by journalist Meera Karunananthan in an article published by The Guardian in 2017. The author explains that the Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan is the largest investor in Aguas del Valle, Essbio and Esval, which control 41 per cent of the water and sanitation system in Chile. This is possible because the constitution allows for the private ownership of water, which has left entire communities in a drought situation and unprotected by the law. However, in 2010 the United Nations’ General Assembly passed a resolution recognising access to water and sanitation as a human right. This means that in Chile human rights are violated not only through police repression but also through the maintenance of an unfair and abusive economic system.

    The example cited above is just one within the great chain of international abuses perpetrated by corporations, including by the Canadian company Barrick Gold and the Norwegian state company Statkraft, which continue to abuse the policies of the Chilean subsidiary state and threaten our planet. That is why we must raise awareness at an international level so that the decisions of the Chilean people are respected and protection is provided to Indigenous peoples, without blockages or political interventions protecting foreign capital and perpetuating the destruction of our environment.

    What support does Chilean civil society need from international civil society in this process?

    At this time, it is important to recognise and create international awareness about the abuses committed against the working class, Indigenous peoples, Afro-descendant communities and sexual minorities. I personally have learned a lot in the course of these mobilisations. One of the most subversive things that citizens are doing is rejecting the right/left binarism that has so severely affected Latin American societies and that has been used by neoliberal governments as an excuse to repress working people. The prevalence of citizen politics that do not identify with any dogmatic position on the right/left spectrum meant that the government could not identify an ideological enemy and ended up declaring war on its own people.

    Mainstream national and international media are misrepresenting the facts and building a narrative against the mobilised population. But unlike what happened in the past, we are now equipped with phone cameras and can report directly. I invite people around the world to get informed through independent media and civil society channels to really know what is happening.

    Civic space in Chile is classified as ‘narrowed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

    Get in touch with Soledad Muñoz through herwebsite or followmúsica_del_telar on Instagram.

     

  • CHILE: ‘There's radical discontent with how the country's been ruled for decades’

    Nicole Romo

    Protests broke out in Chile in October 2019, initially led by students rejecting an increase in the price of transport and quickly escalating into mass demonstrations urging structural change. Protests were repressed with savagery by security forces. CIVICUS speaks about the protests with Nicole Romo, director of the public policy area of ​​the Community of Solidarity Organisations (Comunidad de Organizaciones Solidarias), a network of more than 200 Chilean civil society organisations that work to combat poverty and exclusion. Together, its member organisations work with more than 900,000 people, mobilising around 11,000 staff members and over 17,000 volunteers.

     

    Why did protests break out in Chile, and what made them escalate as they did?

    The social outbreak in Chile came after decades of the promotion of a development model that focused on creating wealth, which for years was distributed with no fairness or justice. Individualistic, short-term and assistance-based social policies that deeply damaged social cohesion and the community and collective sense of wellbeing were implemented. Alongside this there were housing policies that segregated Chileans into ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ territories where access to goods and services was distributed in the same way, a pension system that impoverishes senior citizens, lack of access to healthcare in a timely manner and with adequate quality standards, and an education system that also segregates and grants diametrically opposed opportunities to the rich and the poor.

    In this context, the motto ‘it is not about 30 pesos, it is about 30 years’, which was heard a lot during the protests, expresses quite well the feeling that prevailed among the citizenry. Although this social movement began with students massively evading payment of public transportation fares, after a rise of 30 Chilean pesos in the cost of a metro ticket, deep-seated malaise has been accumulating for over 30 years. There have been several protests to advance various social demands over the years, but this profound discontent had never been heard or even made visible. The social eruption of 18 October 2019 was the result of the accumulation of radical discontent with the government and the way the country has been ruled for several decades.

    How have people and civil society organisations reacted to the protests?

    The national state of mobilisation that we are experiencing has clearly shown that two Chiles coexist within the same territory – two Chiles that do not know each other and do not intersect. This division is the brutal expression of the difference in the quality of life between those who have privileges and those who don’t. Our country spent the past few decades convincing itself that achievements are based on individual merit, that each person’s efforts are the only guarantee of social mobility, which in fact, as shown by a variety of studies, is absolutely untrue.

    In the face of this, data from various surveys show a high rate of approval of social demands among citizens. On the other hand, people are more divided when it comes to violence, and especially the forms of violence that have resulted in damage to public and private infrastructure, such as looting, the destruction of stores and the burning of commercial premises and other types of services, as well as regarding violence by state agents, who have been responsible for numerous human rights violations.

    How has the government reacted to the protests?

    The government has handled this conflict in a quite regrettable way, by mainly emphasising its security agenda, criminalising protests and furthering a legislative agenda focused on punishing protesters, which reveals their lack of understanding of the nature of the protests, their demands and their urgency.

    The social agenda proposed by the government is quite weak. It does not seek to make radical changes to existing structures that deepen inequality and does not guarantee the rights of all people. The changes and the contents of the social agenda led by the government are not up to the protesters’ demands and their urgency. Its numerous initiatives and measures involve limited improvements, which are necessary but will not affect the structures that reproduce unfairness in our country; therefore, they only duplicate the same old short-term public policies that are not based on a rights approach and focus on the individual rather than on the needs of the thousands of families in vulnerable conditions.

    The latest reports speak of dozens of people dead and hundreds injured. Could you describe the extent of the repression and human rights violations committed during the protests?

    Since the protests broke out in Chile, numerous human rights violations have been committed by state security agents. These violations have been denounced by national and international organisations, but the state has tended to downplay them.

    It is essential for us to reiterate that at all times unrestricted respect for human rights must prevail, and that each case of violation must be investigated, resulting in punishment for the perpetrators and reparation for the victims. Civil society is key in monitoring and watching over these processes, to ensure that they remain transparent and foster accountability of the state.

    Data from the National Institute of Human Rights indicate that in 48 per cent of the observed cases of detention, detainees were protesting peacefully, regardless of whether or not they were occupying roads. Likewise, gases were used indiscriminately in 56 per cent of recorded cases, and in 60 per cent of the cases observed, force was not used in a graduated way, and was instead applied without prior notice and in the absence of any kind of dialogue. There were 2,727 documented cases of injured adults who were treated in hospitals, as well as 211 children and adolescents, and 241 people with eye injuries. There was also a series of human rights violations against people detained and held in police stations. The most frequent of these was the excessive use of force during detention, with 751 cases. Overall, 190 cases of sexual harassment or sexual violence were recorded, 171 of them being cases in which detainees were stripped naked.

    How have people and civil society organisations responded to the state repression and rights violations that occurred during the protests?

    We have responded without fear. Entire cities have shouted fearlessly in protest at the human rights violations that occurred during the past months. Many people have compiled testimonial material to make visible the level of exposure and violence they experienced during the protests.

    From civil society organisations the responses have been diverse, but generally speaking all organisations have called for non-violence and the establishment of new spaces for dialogue leading to the strengthening of a society based on social justice and fairness. Without a doubt, civil society organisations have played a prominent role, promoting the establishment of meeting spaces and helping present the demands of the citizenry. This was done through the creation of a large network of networks called the New Social Pact, which brings together more than 600 civil society organisations that have worked tirelessly to search for real solutions to substantial demands.

    The Community of Solidarity Organisations supports the principle of nonviolence and since day one of the protests we voiced the need for unrestricted respect for human rights. Even if it is not our field of work, we believe that this outbreak revealed how urgent it is to restructure the police forces. We faithfully believe in the data published by the National Institute of Human Rights, and we know that their work is conscious and rigorous, as is the report delivered by Amnesty International, so as civil society we will support from our field of work all actions aimed at bringing reparation for the rights violated during the protests.

    What immediate measures should the Chilean government take to overcome this crisis? What are the chances of this happening and a lasting solution being reached?

    A lasting solution would require a long process of construction and change including short-term, medium-term and long-term measures.

    The short-term and medium-term measures are related to the social agenda, which has three dimensions. The first consists in improving the quality of life through measures on issues such as health, education and pensions. The second dimension includes measures to end abuses by economic and political elites and close the gaps in justice administration between cases involving members of the economic elite and ordinary citizens, who face completely different sanctions for committing crimes: ‘ethics classes’ for the former and effective jail terms for the latter. The third dimension involves raising the resources that the state needs to implement a deep and powerful social agenda. Chile requires a tax reform to increase revenue and needs a much more efficient tax management system.

    The long-term axis refers to a constituent process whose main milestones have already been established: an initial referendum, the election of representatives and a ratification referendum. However, conditions guaranteeing participation by a cross section of people, equitable representation, gender parity, minority quotas and independent candidacies have not yet been achieved. Without these conditions in place, the legitimacy of the constitutional process will severely weaken.

    Civic space in Chile is classified as ‘narrowed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

    Get in touch with Comunidad de Organizaciones Solidarias through theirwebsite orFacebook page, or follow@ComunidadOrgSol and@nromo_flores on Twitter.

     

  • Citizens’ Freedoms in Chains in Zambia?

    Guest article by McDonald Chipenzi

     

  • Civic Space and the World Cup

    Football is the world’s most popular sport, played on all continents, by girls and boys and women and men of all ages. For many, it is an invaluable outlet for expression, for joining together with others and for collectively enjoying the outdoors. Even in the world’s most repressive countries, football is a thriving sport. However, for people who also want to express themselves, assemble and associate in other ways, or promote causes or ideas with which the authorities in their country disagree, the world is not such a welcoming place. These graphics show how teams competing at the FIFA World Cup in Russia fare when assessed on their respect for the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression. On this evidence, minnows Iceland come out on top, while favorites Brazil languish near the bottom. The graph below also shows that there are several countries - including Russia, Egypt, Iran and Saudi Arabi - which implement widespread or systematic repression of their citizens are taking part in this year's tournament.

    See how the 32 competing countries compare by visiting the World Cup section of the CIVICUS Monitor, which is an online research tool that tracks and rates civic space scores across all countries.

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  • Civic space in Tunisia: international dynamics don’t always help

    Guest article by Amine Ghali