civic space

 

  • Guatemala: Las autoridades detienen a Jerson Antonio Morales al tiempo que continúan los ataques contra defensores de los derechos indígenas

    English

    La alianza global de la sociedad civil CIVICUS condenó el arresto y la detención ilegal del periodista y activista de los derechos indígenas Jerson Antonio Xitumul Morales por parte de las autoridades guatemaltecas, el 11 de noviembre de 2017.

     

  • HONG KONG: ‘The National Security Law infringes on freedom of expression and is intensifying self-censorship’

    CIVICUS speaks with Patrick Poon, an independent human rights researcher, on the human rights situation in Hong Kong after a new National Security Law (NSL) was passed in June 2020. Patrick is a PhD researcher at the University of Lyon, France, and has previously worked as a China Researcher at Amnesty International and in various positions at China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group, Independent Chinese PEN Center and China Labour Bulletin. 

    Civic space in Hong Kong is under renewed attack sincemass protests for democratic freedoms, sparked by a proposed Extradition Bill, began in June 2019. TheCIVICUS Monitor has documented excessive and lethal force by the security forces against protesters, arrests and the prosecution of pro-democracy activists as well as a crackdown on independent media.

       Patrick Poon

    Why has the NSL been imposed in Hong Kong and what have its impacts been so far?

    The NSL, imposed by the Chinese government on 20 June 2020, without any consultation or legislative oversight, empowers China to extend some of its most potent tools of social control from the mainland to Hong Kong. The law includes the creation of specialised secret security agencies, allows for the denial of the right to a fair trial, provides sweeping new powers to the police, increases restraints on civil society and the media and weakens judicial oversight.

    The new law undermines Hong Kong’s rule of law and the human rights guarantees enshrined in Hong Kong’s de facto constitution, the Basic Law. It contravenes the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which is incorporated into Hong Kong’s legal framework via the Basic Law and expressed in its Bill of Rights Ordinance.

    The Chinese government’s intention is to use the NSL to curb advocacy and support for independence as more people, especially young people, have increasingly embraced Hong Kong’s autonomy and their identity as Hongkongers. Although Hong Kong’s Basic Law enshrines a high degree of autonomy, the Chinese government apparently regards calls for autonomy and self-governance as a ‘danger to national security’.

    The NSL has seriously infringed Hong Kong people’s freedom of expression and is intensifying self-censorship in the city. Under the NSL, people who advocate for independence, as well as politicians and prominent figures who support foreign governments’ sanctions on Hong Kong and Chinese officials who are responsible for enacting the NSL, have been the target of the arbitrary arrests. The government is obviously attempting to scare off others not to follow these people’s calls. 

    Independent media have also been affected by the crackdown. The arrests of Jimmy Lai, media mogul and founder of popular local paper Apple Daily, and senior executives in his company, signify the government’s attempt to punish news media that are critical of it. Reports about criticism against the NSL and calls for sanctions by foreign government officials become the excuse for the crackdown on independent media. This will have long-term impact on Hong Kong media, even further intensifying self-censorship for some media outlets.

    How have civil society and the pro-democracy movement responded?

    Civil society has reacted strongly against the law because the process to enact it violated the principle of the rule of law and procedural justice in Hong Kong, and the vague and broad definitions of various provisions of the law exceed the normal understanding of law in the city. Pro-China politicians and government officials have been trying hard to justify the law, but their arguments are preposterous. 

    How have the opposition and civil society reacted to the government’s decision to postpone the legislative election due to the COVID-19 pandemic?

    The 2020 Hong Kong Legislative Council election was originally scheduled for 6 September 2020, but in July the Hong Kong Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, cited an upsurge in COVID-19 infections and used her emergency powers to postpone it for a whole year, so now it’s expected to take place on 5 September 2021. She denied that the change was due to any political speculation, but it was in fact a blow for pro-democracy activists, who were seeking a majority on the Legislative Council. 

    In the midst of massive protests, pro-democracy candidates had already won by a landslide in the 2019 District Council election. Along with the new NSL, the postponement of the election was viewed as part of the government’s strategy to neutralise the pro-democracy movement. Just prior to the announcement that the election was being postponed, 12 opposition candidates were disqualified from running, and four young former members of a pro-independence student group were arrested under the NSL for their pro-independence posts on social media.

    The postponement of the election created some conflict among the pro-democracy camp, with some calling for keeping up the fight in the Legislative Council and others urging a boycott over the government’s decision to postpone the elections. From the government’s decision to disqualify some pro-democracy candidates for their political views, it is clear that the government doesn’t want to hear any opposition voices in the legislature.

    What can the international community and international civil society organisations do to support civil society in Hong Kong?

    Civil society in Hong Kong needs to work together to ensure that the Chinese government and the Hong Kong government will not abuse the NSL to curb all dissenting views and closely monitor if the government abides by the principle of the rule of law and international human rights standards.

    The international community should continue speaking up against the Chinese and Hong Kong government’s crackdown on  civil society and keep raising concerns about the NSL, which is being forcibly imposed on Hong Kong by the Chinese government in the name of national security, but in fact is no more than an attempt to silence dissenting views in the city. The international community should send a clear message that national security should not be used as an excuse to crack down on the freedom of expression.

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

     

  • HONG KONG: ‘This is a leader-full movement, ran by countless small networks of talented people’

    johnson yeungCIVICUS speaks about the protests that have rocked Hong Kong since June 2019 with Johnson Ching-Yin Yeung, democracy movement organiser and chairperson of the Hong Kong Civil Hub. The Hong Kong Civil Hub works to connect Hong Kong civil society with like-minded international stakeholders willing to help promote the rule of law, democracy and human rights in Hong Kong. 

    What triggered the mass protests that have taken place for several months?

    The protests had both short and long-term causes. When Hong Kong was decolonised in 1997, China signed an international treaty promising that people in Hong Kong would enjoy a high degree of autonomy. In other words, Hong Kong would have its own government, legislation, courts and jurisdiction. But, long story short, China is not fulfilling that promise and Hong Kong is slowly becoming more like China due to Chinese intervention in our government and judiciary. Following the2014 Umbrella Movement, there have been increasing restrictions on the freedom of association, and for the first time in decades the government made use of colonial-era laws and outlawed organisations that advocated for Hong Kong’s independence. We expect restrictions on association, funding and exchanges with international organisations and civil society to increase over the next few years.

    Political participation has also been under attack. In 2017, for the first time since 1997, a few lawmakers were disqualified and expelled from the legislature. In the past three elections there have been disqualifications of candidates. This is becoming a major tactic used by China, based on claims that certain candidates are not respecting the law or they will not be loyal to Beijing. This explains why at some point people decided to take their grievances to the streets, given that most institutional channels for political demands are shut down.

    People took to the streets in 2014, under the Umbrella Movement. But protest is being severely punished. In April 2019, several pro-democracy leaders weresentenced to eight to 16 months in prison. Local leaders who advocate for political independence have also been punished with up to seven years of imprisonment.

    The current protests began in June 2019. On 9 June,more than a million people mobilised against the Extradition Bill, aimed at establishing a mechanism for transfers of fugitives to mainland China,  currently excluded in the existing law. Three days later, the legislature decided to continue the legislation process regardless of the opposition seen on the streets, so people besieged the parliamentary building, to which the Hong Kong police reacted with extreme brutality, firing teargas and rubber bullets, shooting into people’s heads and eyes.

    Amnesty International made a comprehensive report on the incidents of 12 June and concluded that the police had used excessive force, even though the protest had been authorised by the Hong Kong government.

    What changed after the repression of 12 June?

    There was a huge outcry because we had never experienced this kind of repression before, and two million people – almost one quarter of the population of Hong Kong – took part in the protests that took place four days after.

    From then on, protesters had a few additional demands on top of the initial demand that the extradition agreement be withdrawn, something that happened three months after the first protest. Protesters demanded the release of the arrested demonstrators and the withdrawal of the characterisation of the protests as riots, which is cause enough to hold someone and convict them: all it takes is for a defendant to have been present at the protest scene to face up to 10 years in prison for rioting. Protesters also demanded an independent inquiry into police activity. Over the past six months we’ve documented a lot of torture during detentions. Excessive force is used all the time against peaceful protests, so people really want the police to be held accountable. A recent survey showed that 80 per cent of the population support this demand. But the government is relying solely on the police to maintain order, so they cannot risk such investigation. Last but not least, there is the demand of universal suffrage and democratic rights, without which it is difficult to foresee anything else changing for real.

    What did not change was the government reaction and the police repression.Over the next few months, around 7,000 people were arrested – 40 per cent of them students, and 10 per cent minors – and around 120 people were charged. The fact that only 120 out of the 7,000 people arrested were charged shows that there have been lots of arbitrary arrests. The police would arrest people on grounds of illegal assembly. I was arrested in July when I was just standing in front of the corner line. I complied with police instructions, but I still got arrested.

    Thousands of people were injured during the protests. The official number is around 2,600 but this is a very conservative estimate because more than half of the injured people were not brought to public hospitals and did not seek medical assistance because they were afraid they would be arrested. Some doctors and nurses organised underground settlements to treat serious injuries like infections or rubber bullet injuries. But they had to remain anonymous and there simply were not enough of them and they didn’t have enough medical supply. There have been at least 12 suicides related to the protest movement. Lots of people have gone missing. Students and activists who are arrested are often deprived of their right to a lawyer and a phone call, and no one knows where they are detained. In many cases, it’s hard to verify whether people are in fact missing or have fled the country.

    Analysts have claimed that the strength of the current protests lies in their ‘leaderless’ character, something that prevents the government stopping the movement by jailing leaders. Do you agree with this characterisation?

    Many observers have seen the way we have used technology to coordinate the protests and they have concluded that our movement has no leaders. It is true that our movement is characterised by the decentralisation of communications and mobilisation. But this does not mean it is aleaderless movement. On the contrary, the Hong Kong protest movement is a leader-full movement: it is full of leaders and is run by countless small networks of talented people capable of organising and coordinating action on their own.

    While the demography of the protests is quite diverse in terms of age, background and social class, more than the 50 per cent of protesters are female, and the major force of the protests are people aged 20 to 49. There is also a strong presence of highly educated people: more than 85 per cent of protesters have tertiary education or above.

    But a notable characteristic of this disparate protest movement has been its unity, which may have resulted from the longstanding repression of civil society. When the leaders of the 2014 protests – most of them young students – were sentenced to prison, older people showed up at the protests because they felt that they had not been doing enough. People also united against police brutality, because there was no previous history of such a serious crackdown on protesters and people felt morally responsible to show up in support.

    Can you tell us more about how the protest movement has used technology for organising and coordinating action?

    During the first few months at least, people would rely on their cellphones and the Telegram app. People would have strategic discussions and channel these discussions into a Telegram channel. These are not the safest communication tools but they can hold more than 3,000 subscribers, which means that you can speak to 3,000 people at the same time, you can share action timetables, the site of protests or the location of the police with a huge number of people. We use a live map to inform protesters where the police are and where the protests are taking place, so they can avoid being arrested. Another app shows which businesses and stores are supportive of the movement. Pro-democracy businesses appear in yellow, while pro-government ones appear in blue.

    We also use Telegram bots for international advocacy. A group of people is dedicated to disseminating information on Twitter and Interact.

    We also use social media as a recruitment tool because after an action is held, people use social media to reflect about the strategies used and assess the outcomes. But after a few months, people started using online apps less and less. They would instead form their own groups and organise their own actions. There are frontier leaders, first leaders, people working on documentation, people who organise street protests – each is doing their own thing while at the same time warning others about clashes and organising timetables. This is how we use civic tech.

    How has the movement managed to grow and thrive in adverse conditions?

    Several elements explain why people keep showing up and why the movement is so resilient against government repression. First, people deploy their actions in their own neighbourhoods. We disperse action rather than concentrate it, because when we use concentration tactics, such as holding a protest in front of a government building, we become an easy target for the police. In the face of dispersed actions, the police would try to disperse protesters but would often end up attacking passers-by or people going about their business in their own neighbourhoods. For many people not involved directly in the protests, this was also a wake-up call and functioned as a recruitment mechanism: police brutality ceased to be a far-away problem; instead, it hit home and became personal, triggering a protective reaction.

    A tactic commonly used by protesters is the Lennon Wall, in which people post messages in public spaces, which creates a sense of community and helps organise public support. Lennon Walls appear in various places and people use them to send and receive information about the protests. People also put posters in bus stops so when people are waiting for the bus they can get information about the protests. People sing in protest in shopping malls. This way, people use their lunchtime to sing a song and protest while going about their business, and they reach people who don’t read the news and don’t pay much attention to politics. That is one of the key lessons here.

    Another key lesson concerns the importance of the unity between the moderate side and the radical front of the protests. Given that even authorised protests would be dispersed with teargas for no reason, some people began resorting to more militant actions to combat the police and protect their space. Some social movement analysts claim that radical incidents diminish popular support for the movement, but this does not seem to be happening in Hong Kong. In a recent survey, more than 60 per cent of respondents said they understood the use of violence by the people. I suppose that one reason why people do not reject militant actions is that they view the government and the police as responsible for most of the violence, and view violence by protesters as a fairly understandable response. Another reason is that radical protesters have been careful not to target ordinary people but only the police and pro-government businesses.

    What else have you learned in the process?

    A big lesson that we’ve learned concerns the effectiveness of creativity and humour to offset government repression. Protesters used laser tags to disable cameras used for the surveillance of protesters, so people started to get arrested for buying laser tags. After a student was arrested for possessing a laser tag, hundreds of thousands of people gathered in a public space and used laser tags to point at a public building. Another example of an effective response took place in early October 2019. There is a law that states that people can be jailed for a year if they wear a mask or anything covering their faces, so people responded in defiance, forming a human chain in which everyone was wearing some kind of mask.

    We’ve also come to understand the importance of global solidarity and leveraging geopolitics. The Hong Kong diaspora has organised a lot of lobbying and advocacy in various cities around the world. We have also lobbied foreign governments and supported the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, a bill that was introduced in the US Congress following the Umbrella Movement in 2014, but that was only passed in November 2019. This law requires the US government to impose sanctions against Chinese and Hong Kong officials responsible for human rights abuses in Hong Kong, and requires the US Department of State and other agencies to conduct an annual review to determine whether changes in Hong Kong's political status – namely its relationship with mainland China – justify changing the unique and favourable trade relations between the USA and Hong Kong. This is huge, and we are trying to replicate this in other countries, including Australia, Canada, Italy and New Zealand.

    We have also done advocacy at the United Nations (UN), where some resolutions about police brutality have been passed. But the UN is quite weak at the moment, and aside from the documentation of human rights violations there is not much they can do. Any resolution regarding the protests will be blocked by China at the UN Security Council. That said, a thorough UN investigation on police brutality would send a strong message anyway. We have been communicating with human rights civil society organisations to do more advocacy at the UN.

    We are also looking for alternative tactics such as working with unions in France, because water cannons are manufactured in France and we hope something can be done about it.

    What have the protests achieved so far?

    The democratic camp has made a lot of progress. In November 2019 we had elections for the District Council. True, the District Council doesn’t have any real political power because it carries out neighbourhood duties, like garbage collection and traffic management. Still, in the latest election 388 out of 452 seats went to the pro-democracy camps, whereas back in 2015 they were only 125 pro-democracy representatives, compared with 299 who were pro-Beijing.

    That said, I don’t think the pro-democracy movement should put too much of its energy into institutional politics because the District Council is not a place where the political crisis can be solved. However, the elections served as a solid foundation for organisers to organise people at the local level.

    According to the polls, almost 90 per cent of the people supported independent investigation of human rights violations, more than 70 per cent demanded the resignation of the Hong Kong Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, and 75 per cent supported universal suffrage. That kind of popular support has remained stable for several months, which is pretty amazing.

    What are the challenges ahead?

    While there is no sign of protests calming down, there is also no sign of the government making concessions anytime soon. Violence is escalating on both sides, and the protest movement might lose public support if some demonstrators decide to go underground. The Chinese government will not let itself be challenged by protesters, so it is infiltrating organisations and tightening the grip on civil society. Organised civil society is relatively weak, and Beijing can easily interfere with academic institutions, schools and the media by appointing more allies and dismissing those who are critical of the government. The next five years will likely be tough ones for civil society and democracy in Hong Kong, and we will have to work to strengthen civil society’s resilience.

    Another important issue is that a lot of young protesters are traumatised by the violence they have witnessed and experienced. We have support groups with social workers and psychologists, but they cannot provide support in their official capacity or they would find themselves under pressure by their employers who take money from the government. Social workers are also at risk and the police constantly harass them. To strengthen self-care and gain resilience for the battle ahead, we need to train more people and create support groups to help people cope, control their stress and share their stories.

    Another potential challenge is the limited sustainability of global solidarity. Right now Hong Kong is in the spotlight, but this will not last long. Our struggle is for the long haul, but the world will not be paying attention for much longer. So we will need to build more substantial and permanent alliances and partnerships with civil society groups around the world. We need to empower local groups and give people new skills regarding international law, advocacy and campaigning. The protest movement is not going anywhere. It’s going to be a long struggle so we will have to train more organisers. We will disseminate the knowledge gained by the protesters, so when they are sent to jail others will take over.

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

    Get in touch with the Hong Kong Civil Hub through itswebsite and follow@hkjohnsonyeung on Twitter.

     

  • Hong Kong: A year on, the National Security Law has crushed civic freedoms

    New research on the state of civic freedoms in Hong Kong - a look at restrictions over the past year

    CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance, is extremely concerned about the alarming regression of civic freedoms in Hong Kong. One year one from the passage of the draconian National Security Law, our research shows it has been weaponised to target dozens of pro-democracy activists and has created a chilling effect within civil society.

    The National SecurityLaw (NSL) punishes four types of activities: secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with “foreign forces”, all carrying a maximum sentence of life in prison.These offences are vaguely defined and can easily become catch-all offences to prosecute activists and critics with potentially heavy penalties.

    TheNSLestablishes new national security bodieswhich are partially or fully controlled by People’s Republic of China (PRC) officials, in violation of the Basic Law.It gives Hong Kong police sweeping new powers including to conduct warrantless searches and covert surveillance, and to seize travel documents of those suspected of violating the security law. The law also contravenes the UN Basic Principles on the Independence of the Judiciary and undermines the right to a fair trial by a competent, independent and impartial tribunal, guaranteed under Article 14 of the InternationalCovenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

    "The national security law has become the most dangerous threat to civic freedoms in Hong Kong and has allowed for any form of dissent to be criminalised. The law has increased the climate of fear in Hong Kong and has been weaponised to target government critics, including people who are merely expressing their views or protesting peacefully”,said David Kode, Head of Advocacy at CIVICUS

    Morethan ahundred people have been arrested underthe National Security Law including pro-democracyactivists,formerlawmakers,lawyers,journalists and students.Activists have been accused of inciting or abetting secession or subversion just for showing leaflets and banners with reference to Hong Kong Independence or for their social media posts. 

    In January2021, 55 people,including pro-democracy activists,opposition candidates, former lawmakers and lawyers, were arrested and detained under law for ‘subversion’ for holding and participating in primaryelections held by Hong Kong’s pro-democratic party in July 2020. 47 of the activists have been charged.

    TheNSL has alsodramatically changed the environment for civil society in Hong Kong, greatly impeding the ability of civil society to carryout their work.Some have quit on the eve of the law’s introduction while others have exercised greater caution in their activities. The chilling effect of the crackdown on the entire sector cannot be overstated.

    The lawhas also been deployed against the media. Media owner Jimmy Lai, the founder of Apple Daily, a major pro-democracy newspaper, has been detained since December2020. He is facing multiple charges, including ‘colluding with foreign forces’. In May 2021, authorities announcedthey had frozen assets belonging to Lai under the national security law marking the first time a company has been targeted by the controversial legislation.  On 17 June, six of the newspaper’s staff and executives were arrested for their role inthe publication of more than 30 articles that called on foreign countries to impose sanctions. All were charged under the NSL. Apple Daily ceased operations on 26 June.

    The use of the national security law to silence activism is a violation of international law. The repression against pro-democracy activists and other critics has led to the dismantling of civil society in Hong Kong, forcing many to flee the territory. The international community must not remain silent in the face of such abuses but must stand up and stand in solidarity with those defending human rights” said David Kode.

    Since 2019, theHong Kong authorities have also deployed other laws to criminalise peaceful protests in particular the Public Order Ordinance which has been used to charge activists holding and participating in an ‘unauthorised assembly’, It carries a maximumfive-year sentence.  The UN Human Rights Committee has criticised the law, saying that “it may facilitate excessive restriction” to basic rights. 

    Pro-democracyactivist Joshua Wong was sentenced to 13 and a half months in December 2020 for a mass protest outside a police station in June 2019. Wong’slong-time fellow activists Agnes Chow and Ivan Lam were also sentenced to 10 and seven months in prison for ‘incitement,’ referring to their use of a megaphone to shout slogans during the protest. 

    In April 2021,the courts sentenced ten pro-democracy activists to between eight and 18 months in prison for gatherings that were part of a series of mass protests triggeredby the proposed Extradition Bill. In May 2021, eight activists were sentenced for organising a protest in October 2019. More recently, On 4 June 2021, the authorities bannedthe annual Tiananmen massacre vigil for a second straight year and arrested barrister and activist Chow Hang Tung for breaching section 17A(1D) of the Public Order Ordinance by ‘promoting an unauthorised assembly’. 


    More information

    Download the Hong Kong research brief here.


    Interviews

    To arrange interviews, please contact Josef Benedict, CIVICUS Asia-Pacific Civic Space Researcher  and 

     

  • Hong Kong: A year on, the National Security Law has crushed civic freedoms

    New research on the state of civic freedoms in Hong Kong - a look at restrictions over the past year

    CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance, is extremely concerned about the alarming regression of civic freedoms in Hong Kong. One year one from the passage of the draconian National Security Law, our research shows it has been weaponised to target dozens of pro-democracy activists and has created a chilling effect within civil society.

    The National SecurityLaw (NSL) punishes four types of activities: secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with “foreign forces”, all carrying a maximum sentence of life in prison.These offences are vaguely defined and can easily become catch-all offences to prosecute activists and critics with potentially heavy penalties.

    TheNSLestablishes new national security bodieswhich are partially or fully controlled by People’s Republic of China (PRC) officials, in violation of the Basic Law.It gives Hong Kong police sweeping new powers including to conduct warrantless searches and covert surveillance, and to seize travel documents of those suspected of violating the security law. The law also contravenes the UN Basic Principles on the Independence of the Judiciary and undermines the right to a fair trial by a competent, independent and impartial tribunal, guaranteed under Article 14 of the InternationalCovenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

    "The national security law has become the most dangerous threat to civic freedoms in Hong Kong and has allowed for any form of dissent to be criminalised. The law has increased the climate of fear in Hong Kong and has been weaponised to target government critics, including people who are merely expressing their views or protesting peacefully”,said David Kode, Head of Advocacy at CIVICUS

    Morethan ahundred people have been arrested underthe National Security Law including pro-democracyactivists,formerlawmakers,lawyers,journalists and students.Activists have been accused of inciting or abetting secession or subversion just for showing leaflets and banners with reference to Hong Kong Independence or for their social media posts. 

    In January2021, 55 people,including pro-democracy activists,opposition candidates, former lawmakers and lawyers, were arrested and detained under law for ‘subversion’ for holding and participating in primaryelections held by Hong Kong’s pro-democratic party in July 2020. 47 of the activists have been charged.

    TheNSL has alsodramatically changed the environment for civil society in Hong Kong, greatly impeding the ability of civil society to carryout their work.Some have quit on the eve of the law’s introduction while others have exercised greater caution in their activities. The chilling effect of the crackdown on the entire sector cannot be overstated.

    The lawhas also been deployed against the media. Media owner Jimmy Lai, the founder of Apple Daily, a major pro-democracy newspaper, has been detained since December2020. He is facing multiple charges, including ‘colluding with foreign forces’. In May 2021, authorities announcedthey had frozen assets belonging to Lai under the national security law marking the first time a company has been targeted by the controversial legislation.  On 17 June, six of the newspaper’s staff and executives were arrested for their role inthe publication of more than 30 articles that called on foreign countries to impose sanctions. All were charged under the NSL. Apple Daily ceased operations on 26 June.

    The use of the national security law to silence activism is a violation of international law. The repression against pro-democracy activists and other critics has led to the dismantling of civil society in Hong Kong, forcing many to flee the territory. The international community must not remain silent in the face of such abuses but must stand up and stand in solidarity with those defending human rights” said David Kode.

    Since 2019, theHong Kong authorities have also deployed other laws to criminalise peaceful protests in particular the Public Order Ordinance which has been used to charge activists holding and participating in an ‘unauthorised assembly’, It carries a maximumfive-year sentence.  The UN Human Rights Committee has criticised the law, saying that “it may facilitate excessive restriction” to basic rights. 

    Pro-democracyactivist Joshua Wong was sentenced to 13 and a half months in December 2020 for a mass protest outside a police station in June 2019. Wong’slong-time fellow activists Agnes Chow and Ivan Lam were also sentenced to 10 and seven months in prison for ‘incitement,’ referring to their use of a megaphone to shout slogans during the protest. 

    In April 2021,the courts sentenced ten pro-democracy activists to between eight and 18 months in prison for gatherings that were part of a series of mass protests triggeredby the proposed Extradition Bill. In May 2021, eight activists were sentenced for organising a protest in October 2019. More recently, On 4 June 2021, the authorities bannedthe annual Tiananmen massacre vigil for a second straight year and arrested barrister and activist Chow Hang Tung for breaching section 17A(1D) of the Public Order Ordinance by ‘promoting an unauthorised assembly’. 


    More information

    Download the Hong Kong research brief here.


    Interviews

    To arrange interviews, please contact Josef Benedict, CIVICUS Asia-Pacific Civic Space Researcher  and 

     

     

  • Hope for citizen voice, despite ‘narrowed’ civic space

    By Ine van Severen and Corlett Letlojane

    President Jacob Zuma heads to China this week to meet with the leaders of Brazil, Russia, India and China at the the 9th Brics Summit. As far as respect for civic space is concerned, South Africa outshines its counterparts in the Brics bloc, whose members together account for more than 40% of the world’s population. But President Zuma now heads to Xiamen with that record looking worse for wear, in the midst of increasing restrictions on South Africans’ basic rights to organise, speak out and take action.

    Read on:Mail and Guardian 

     

  • How to Undermine Democracy – Curtail Civil Society Rights

    By Cathal Gilbert, Dom Perera, and Marianna Belalba

    Recent elections and referendums in a growing number of countries from Turkey to the USA and beyond are producing leaders and policies, which directly threaten some of the core principles of democracy.  In an increasing number of established and fledgling democracies, we see ruling parties violating the fundamental freedoms to speak-out, rally behind a cause and get involved in a social movement.

    Read on:Inter Press Service 

     

  • Human rights at risk for ASEAN citizens

    By Ichal Supriadi (Asia Democracy Network) and Josef Benedict (CIVICUS)

    As the 10 heads of state from ASEAN gather for the group’s latest summit in Singapore this week to discuss security, trade, and tensions in the South China Sea, the state of human rights and democracy in the region will once again be sidelined. 

    Read on: The Jakarta Post 

     

     

  • Importance of protest in a Trump United States

    By Elizabeth Stephens 

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

    Read on: Capitol Hill Times 

     

  • INDIA: ‘CSOs that dare speak truth to power are attacked with politically motivated charges’

    Mrinal Sharma

    CIVICUS speaks to human rights lawyer and researcher Mrinal Sharma about the state of civic freedoms in India. Mrinal works to help unlawfully detained human rights defenders, asylum seekers, refugees and stateless persons in India. She worked as Policy Advisor with Amnesty International India until the Government of India forced the organisation to shut down in October 2020. Her work with Amnesty focused on people who are arbitrarily deprived of their nationality in Assam, the barriers against access to justice in Kashmir and the demonisation of minorities in India. Mrinal had previously worked with the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative and Refugee Solidarity Network.

     

  • India: Amnesty International Forced to Halt Work

    Government Increasingly Targeting Rights Groups

    Today, CIVICUS joined fourteen other human rights organizations in condemning the Indian government’s actions against Amnesty India and pledged to continue support for local human rights defenders and organizations against the recent crackdown.

    Amnesty International India announced that it is halting its work in the country after the Indian government froze its bank accounts in an act of reprisal for the organization’s human rights work. Fifteen international human rights organizations condemned the Indian government’s actions against Amnesty India and pledged to continue support for local human rights defenders and organizations against the recent crackdown.

    The Indian government’s actions against Amnesty India are part of increasingly repressive tactics to shut down critical voices and groups working to promote, protect, and uphold fundamental rights, said the Association for Progressive Communications, Global Indian Progressive Alliance, International Commission of Jurists, CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation, Front Line Defenders, FORUM-ASIA, Foundation the London Story, Hindus for Human Rights, Human Rights Watch, International Service for Human Rights, Minority Rights Group, Odhikar, South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR), International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) in the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders.

    The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government has accused Amnesty India of violating laws on foreign funding, a charge the group says is politically motivated and constitutes evidence “that the overbroad legal framework is maliciously activated when human rights defenders and groups challenge the government’s grave inactions and excesses.”

    The BJP government has increasingly cracked down on civil society, harassing and bringing politically motivated cases against human rights defenders, academics, student activists, journalists, and others critical of the government under sedition, terrorism, and other repressive laws.

    These actions increasingly mimic that of authoritarian regimes, which do not tolerate any criticism and shamelessly target those who dare to speak out. With growing criticism of the government’s discriminatory policies and attacks on the rule of law, the authorities seem more interested in shooting the messenger than addressing the grievances. Women’s rights activists and indigenous and minority human rights defenders have been especially vulnerable. The recent action against Amnesty India highlights the stepped-up pressure and violence felt by local defenders on the ground, regardless of their profile.

    The authorities have repeatedly used foreign funding regulations under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA), a law broadly condemned for violating international human rights law and standards, to target outspoken groups. United Nations experts on human rights defenders, on freedom of expression, and on freedom of association have urged the government to repeal the law, saying it is “being used more and more to silence organisations involved in advocating civil, political, economic, social, environmental or cultural priorities, which may differ from those backed by the Government.”

    Yet, the Indian parliament amended the FCRA this month, adding further onerous governmental oversight, additional regulations and certification processes, and operational requirements that would adversely affect civil society groups and effectively restrict access to foreign funding for small nongovernmental organizations.

    A robust, independent, and vocal civil society is indispensable in any democracy to ensure a check on government and to hold it accountable, pushing it to do better. Instead of treating human rights groups as its enemies, the government should work with them to protect the rights of all people and ensure accountability at all levels of government.


    Civic space in India is currently rated as Repressed by the CIVICUS Monitor

    New report: Punished for speaking up: The ongoing use of restrictive laws to silence dissent in India


    For more information please contact:

    Head of Advocacy & Campaigns, David Kode

     

  • India: Democracy threatened by growing attacks on civil society 

    According to the policy brief, published by CIVICUS in November 2017, although civil society in India has been playing essential roles ever since the country's struggle for independence, the space for civil society - civic space - is increasingly being contested.

     

  • India: Report highlights ongoing misuse of restrictive laws during pandemic to keep activists behind bars

    • Report highlights judicial harassment of activists, targeting of journalists and crackdown on protesters 
    • Modi government has continued to use state resources to sustain its persecution of activists and critics during COVID-19 pandemic 
    • CIVICUS calls for the immediate release of arbitrarily detained human rights defenders

    The Indian government is using a variety of restrictive laws - including national security and counter-terrorism legislation - to arrest and imprison human rights defenders, peaceful protesters and critics.

    More than a year into  Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s second term in office, the CIVICUS report, Punished for speaking up: The ongoing use of restrictive laws to silence dissent in India,” shows an increasingly repressive environment for civic freedoms, such as the freedoms of expression, association and assembly.  The report highlights the arrest, detention and prosecution of activists, the targeting of journalists, and the unprecedented and brutal crackdown on protests against the discriminatory Citizenship (Amendment) Act. CIVICUS is also concerned about increasing violations in Indian-administered Jammu Kashmir.

    Further, India’s slide towards authoritarianism has led to the conflation of dissent with anti-nationalism, often with disastrous results for human rights defenders and activists who have been subjected to damaging smear campaigns.

    The activists profiled in the report represent a small fraction of the arbitrary arrests, prosecutions and imprisonments taking place across India, providing a snapshot of the challenges facing the country’s human rights defenders.

    The report also highlights a series of vaguely worded and overly broad laws being used by the Indian authorities to deprive activists of bail and keep them in ongoing detention. These include the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, (UAPA), which is India’s primary counter-terrorism law; section 124A on ‘sedition’ of the Indian Penal Code, a colonial-era relic; and administrative detention laws such as the National Security Act (NSA) and the Public Safety Act (PSA), which applies only in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir

    “The Indian government must stop using restrictive national security and counter-terrorism laws against human rights defenders and critics. The authorities must also drop the baseless and politically-motivated criminal charges against activists and release them immediately and unconditionally,” said Josef Benedict, CIVICUS Asia-Pacific Civic Space Researcher.

    “The laws are incompatible with India’s international human rights obligations as well as India’s Constitution. Not only are the laws themselves inherently flawed, but their implementation makes it clear that they have become tools for judicial harassment, rather than for preventing or addressing criminality.”

    During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Modi government has continued to use state resources to sustain its persecution of human rights defenders and critics, many of whom have underlying medical conditions or are at risk of contracting COVID-19 in overcrowded and unsanitary prisons. CIVICUS is also concerned about the judicial harassment of individuals and journalists who criticise the authorities’ handling of the pandemic. 

    “It is appalling that human rights defenders are locked up in overcrowded prisons and continuously denied bail despite calls by the UN to decongest prisons and release political prisoners during the pandemic. Holding them at this time puts them at serious risk of contracting COVID-19 and adds another layer of punishment for these activists, who have been detained just for speaking up for human rights,” said Benedict.

    Despite the hostile environment, human rights defenders and civil society organisations in  India are pushing back against oppression. The benefits of a vibrant civil society, and of human rights defenders who are free to do their work, are tangible. This has been evident in civil society’s crucial response to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, in providing vital help to communities in need, defending rights, and holding governments accountable.

    “As India’s political and economic influence increases, developments in the country are being closely followed by the global community. India’s quest to play a critical role on the international stage would be better served by committing to upholding democratic values and recognising the validity of people’s struggles,” said Benedict.

    In the report, CIVICUS makes a number of recommendations to the Indian authorities, including:

    • Drop all charges against human rights defenders, activists and protesters, and immediately and unconditionally release all those detained;
    • Review and amend India’s criminal laws to conform to international standards for the protection of fundamental freedoms;
    • Take steps to ensure that all human rights defenders in India are able to carry out their legitimate activities without any hindrance or fear of reprisals.

    More information

    The space for civil society in India was downgraded in December 2019 from ‘obstructed’ to ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that tracks civic space in every country. A repressed rating for civic space means that democratic freedoms – such as the freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association – are significantly constrained in India.


    Interviews

    To arrange interviews, please contact Josef Benedict, CIVICUS Asia-Pacific Civic Space Researcher  and 

     

  • India: Report highlights ongoing misuse of restrictive laws during pandemic to keep activists behind bars

    • Report highlights judicial harassment of activists, targeting of journalists and crackdown on protesters 
    • Modi government has continued to use state resources to sustain its persecution of activists and critics during COVID-19 pandemic 
    • CIVICUS calls for the immediate release of arbitrarily detained human rights defenders

    The Indian government is using a variety of restrictive laws - including national security and counter-terrorism legislation - to arrest and imprison human rights defenders, peaceful protesters and critics, the global civil society alliance CIVICUS said today in a new report.

    More than a year into  Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s second term in office, the CIVICUS report, Punished for speaking up: The ongoing use of restrictive laws to silence dissent in India,” shows an increasingly repressive environment for civic freedoms, such as the freedoms of expression, association and assembly.  The report highlights the arrest, detention and prosecution of activists, the targeting of journalists, and the unprecedented and brutal crackdown on protests against the discriminatory Citizenship (Amendment) Act. CIVICUS is also concerned about increasing violations in Indian-administered Jammu Kashmir.

    Further, India’s slide towards authoritarianism has led to the conflation of dissent with anti-nationalism, often with disastrous results for human rights defenders and activists who have been subjected to damaging smear campaigns.

    The activists profiled in the report represent a small fraction of the arbitrary arrests, prosecutions and imprisonments taking place across India, providing a snapshot of the challenges facing the country’s human rights defenders.

    The report also highlights a series of vaguely worded and overly broad laws being used by the Indian authorities to deprive activists of bail and keep them in ongoing detention. These include the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, (UAPA), which is India’s primary counter-terrorism law; section 124A on ‘sedition’ of the Indian Penal Code, a colonial-era relic; and administrative detention laws such as the National Security Act (NSA) and the Public Safety Act (PSA), which applies only in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir

    “The Indian government must stop using restrictive national security and counter-terrorism laws against human rights defenders and critics. The authorities must also drop the baseless and politically-motivated criminal charges against activists and release them immediately and unconditionally,” said Josef Benedict, CIVICUS Asia-Pacific Civic Space Researcher.

    “The laws are incompatible with India’s international human rights obligations as well as India’s Constitution. Not only are the laws themselves inherently flawed, but their implementation makes it clear that they have become tools for judicial harassment, rather than for preventing or addressing criminality.”

    During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Modi government has continued to use state resources to sustain its persecution of human rights defenders and critics, many of whom have underlying medical conditions or are at risk of contracting COVID-19 in overcrowded and unsanitary prisons. CIVICUS is also concerned about the judicial harassment of individuals and journalists who criticise the authorities’ handling of the pandemic. 

    “It is appalling that human rights defenders are locked up in overcrowded prisons and continuously denied bail despite calls by the UN to decongest prisons and release political prisoners during the pandemic. Holding them at this time puts them at serious risk of contracting COVID-19 and adds another layer of punishment for these activists, who have been detained just for speaking up for human rights,” said Benedict.

    Despite the hostile environment, human rights defenders and civil society organisations in  India are pushing back against oppression. The benefits of a vibrant civil society, and of human rights defenders who are free to do their work, are tangible. This has been evident in civil society’s crucial response to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, in providing vital help to communities in need, defending rights, and holding governments accountable.

    “As India’s political and economic influence increases, developments in the country are being closely followed by the global community. India’s quest to play a critical role on the international stage would be better served by committing to upholding democratic values and recognising the validity of people’s struggles,” said Benedict.

    In the report, CIVICUS makes a number of recommendations to the Indian authorities, including:

    • Drop all charges against human rights defenders, activists and protesters, and immediately and unconditionally release all those detained;
    • Review and amend India’s criminal laws to conform to international standards for the protection of fundamental freedoms;
    • Take steps to ensure that all human rights defenders in India are able to carry out their legitimate activities without any hindrance or fear of reprisals.

    More information

    The space for civil society in India was downgraded in December 2019 from ‘obstructed’ to ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that tracks civic space in every country. A repressed rating for civic space means that democratic freedoms – such as the freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association – are significantly constrained in India.


    Interviews

    To arrange interviews, please contact Josef Benedict, CIVICUS Asia-Pacific Civic Space Researcher  and 

     

  • INDONESIA: “Peaceful pro-independence activists may be labeled as terrorists”

    CIVICUS speaks to Samuel Awom, Coordinator of the human rights group KontraS Papua, which monitors human rights violations, advocates for victims and works for peace in Papua. KontraS Papua is based in Jayapura, Papua’s capital, and monitors human rights issues throughout the Papuan region.

    In Papua, located at the east end of the Indonesian archipelago, there have been gross human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings, torture and arbitrary arrest of activists by the Indonesian security forces under the pretext of suppressing separatism. Although Indonesia President Joko Widodo continues to promise to address the grievances of the Papuan people, they face ongoing discrimination, exploitation, and repression.

    Sam Awome

    What is the human rights situation in Papua?

    As shown by the monitoring undertaken by KontraS Papua and other civil society groups, the military and police perpetrate serious human rights violations in the Papuan region. Abductions, killings and other violations of the rights of activists and other civilians by the security forces have taken place since 1963, when Indonesia took over Papua from the Netherlands. This situation has persisted until today. No legal processes have been undertaken to investigate and resolve these incidents. This is a very serious problem in Papua.

    Recent events include the displacement of thousands of people from the Intan Jaya, Nduga, and Puncak areas, where there has been continued conflict between the military and pro-independence armed groups since December 2018.

    In 2019, the situation became extremely tense following incidents of racist speech against Papuan students by the authorities in Java island, which were challenged by mass protests and mobilisation across Papua. In response, there were mass arrests of protesters and activists, which in turn led to violent incidents, including riots and arson. Until today, the instigators and perpetrators of the violence remain unknown and there has been a failure to investigate this. No one has been brought to justice for the killing of students and young people at that time. Many Papuans are still traumatised by this.

    Following this, in December 2019 the armed conflict expanded in the Intan Jaya district, causing thousands of civilians to flee, and some were killed. 

    Most recently, on 25 April 2021, President Joko Widodo ordered the military commander and the chief of police to arrest all members of the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPN/OPM), an armed pro-independence group, after the head of the Regional State Intelligence Agency was shot dead. On 29 April, the Indonesian government officially categorised the TPN/OPM as a ‘terrorist' organisation. This was followed by the entry of large numbers of security forces into the Puncak district.

    What do you think will be the impact of the government labeling the TPN/OPM as a terrorist group? 

    This comes at a time when all the civil society organisations (CSOs) and peace networks are talking about reconciliation and peace. The end of conflict requires dialogue and negotiation between the central government and Papua. The labelling of the TPN/OPM armed group as terrorists is a regressive move by the Jokowi administration that will close the space for democracy and the protection of human rights.

    This has made the situation in Papua worse. We now see the deployment of thousands of troops to the region and public access to the internet being blocked. This will create a situation for increased human rights violations in Papua, as the anti-terrorism law will allow for arbitrary arrests and undermine the rule of law. The Anti-Terrorism Law grants police powers to hold suspects for up to 221 days without being brought to court – a blatant violation of the right of anyone arrested on a criminal charge to be brought promptly before a judge and be tried within a reasonable time or be released. The law also expands the use of military personnel in counterterrorism operations, which further increases the likelihood of the excessive use of force and other human rights violations.

    In my opinion, this decision was made because the Jokowi administration has been only listening to the view of top military officials and has failed to find a concrete solution to the Papua problem. Meanwhile, all the civil society groups and movements in Papua, as well as the regional parliaments in the provinces and the governor, are calling for dialogue.

    This decision now prevents CSOs from investigating when civilians are attacked in conflict areas because the military operations have brought along restrictions of movement.

    Why is the government carrying out this military operation, and what is its impact on civil society?

    The government's rationale for the operations is that it has accused the TPN/OPM of attacking civilians, including teachers, and burning schools and a plane. Further, the shooting of the head of the Papua Regional State Intelligence Agency in the Puncak district has worsened the situation. However, the shooting has yet to be fully investigated to determine what was behind the shooting, and the investigation needs to be undertaken by an independent team. There has been no further explanation about this so far.

    As a result of this shooting, the head of the Police Security Intelligence Agency, Commissioner General Paulus Waterpauw, stated that human rights activists and CSOs are undermining political stability and damaging democracy in Papua. This creates a risk for human rights defenders, and particularly for Papuan activists working on ending the conflict and who are involved in political discussions around independence, who will be categorised as allied with terrorists, stigmatised, and arbitrarily arrested.

    Why was Viktor Yeimo arrested and what are the charges against him?

    Viktor Yeimo, the international spokesperson for the West Papua National Committee and the Papuan People's Petition Against Special Autonomy, was detained by the authorities on 11 May on the grounds that he was behind the 2019 anti-racism protests. However, his interrogation by the police seems to be leaning towards linking him with the TPN/OPM armed group.

    He was arrested in Jayapura, taken to the Papua Police station, and then transferred to the Police Mobile Brigade headquarters in Abepura. He is being investigated for treason, incitement, and broadcasting false information as well as other charges. A coalition of lawyers is supporting him. Communication with his family has been denied and has been made difficult by the authorities.

    Several more activists of the Papuan student alliance movement were also detained in cities inside and outside Papua and have been questioned. The democratic space in Papua is being squeezed.

    This has been reinforced by an internet disruption that began about one month ago after the Papuan head of intelligence was shot. It has made it very difficult for us to communicate with contacts and activists throughout Papua. It has made it challenging to get updates on the situation in the field and to send material to places in Intan Jaya, Nduga, and Puncak Jaya.

    What do Papuan activists need from the international community and civil society?

    We need support from international CSOs working with local civil society to promote and develop the concept of peace and reconciliation. We also need support on how to open negotiations between the central government in Jakarta and Papua. Further, we need to open up the space for access to international CSOs, journalists, and humanitarian monitors in Papua, which is currently closed.

    International actors and governments must also monitor and speak up against the anti-terrorism policies of the Indonesian government that have the potential to increase human rights violations. Civilians in Papua are often viewed as supporting armed groups and this makes them vulnerable. Those who have been displaced because of the conflict must also be assisted by the international community.

    Our hope is that CSOs in Papua, Indonesia, and internationally can work together to protect human rights and seek solutions to severe violations in Papua. There is also a need for international solidarity to seek lasting peace to the conflict in Papua.

    Civic space inIndonesiais rated as ‘obstructedby theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with KontraS through itswebsite and follow@KontraS on Twitter. 

     

  • Iran: free Baquer Namazi on second anniversary of his arbitrary detention

    Two years ago, this week, human rights champion Baquer Namazi was arbitrarily arrested and detained by the authorities as he arrived in Iran to visit his detained son. During his incarceration at the notorious Evian prison in Tehran, the 81-year-old Iranian-American’s health has deteriorated significantly in terrible conditions.

     

  • It is #TimesUp for sexual harassment, including within civil society

    This is a significant time to be calling for greater progress in the fight against gender inequality and sexual abuse.

     

  • It's time for G20 leaders to embrace civil society

    By Cathal Gilbert 

    There is a growing list of critical problems in the G20's inbox, namely a faltering global economy, terrorist threats in a majority of G20 member states, and a patched-up climate change agreement. Solving these problems will take more than 20 heads of state and their economic ministers. The role of the private sector is widely acknowledged, but the power of civil society is often dismissed. Addressing these expensive and expansive issues requires the will and contribution of the people.

    Read on: Al Jazeera

     

  • Joint letter to UN Member States: Ensure meaningful virtual participation in 2020 review of the SDGs

    Joint letter to United Nations Member States: Ensure meaningful civil society participation in the 2020 virtual High Level Political Forum

    Civil society participation in the United Nations cannot be lost as the world fights COVID-19. This July, 48 Member States are reviewing national progress towards the 17 Sustainable Development Goals.


    Dear Excellencies, 

    We, the undersigned 460 civil society organisations (CSOs) from 115 countries, write to seek your support in ensuring the effective participation of civil society during the upcoming UN High Level Political Forum (HLPF) scheduled for 7-16 July 2020. As the preeminent multistakeholder body responsible for the review and implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), HLPF processes derive strength from the engagement of diverse actors including a broad range of civil society organisations (CSOs) working at various levels. As the HLPF transitions to virtual communication and convening for its July 2020 session due to the global spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is essential that all relevant actors, including States and UN agencies, support and devise clear modalities to enable robust virtual civil society participation.

    In response to disruptions caused by COVID-19, a number of Inter-governmental bodies have taken concerted efforts to facilitate extensive virtual participation in official meetings. Inclusive virtual modalities are crucial to supporting international cooperation in the spirit of multilateralism. An enabling environment for all stakeholders to participate that takes into account digital divides is thus crucial. 

    In his “We are all in this Together” statement of 23 April 2020, UN Secretary General António Guterres underlined the importance of promoting and protecting civic space in response to COVID-19. With respect to the SDGs, Secretary General Guterres unequivocally stated that, “Looking ahead, we need to build back better.  The Sustainable Development Goals — which are underpinned by human rights — provide the framework for more inclusive and sustainable economies and societies”. Civil society is key to implementing the SDGs and we must take united action to ensure that the virtual HLPF reflects the broad spectrum of stakeholders who are committed to creating The World We Want. 

    To this end, we urge all states and UN agencies to support the following measures: 

    • Provide an opportunity for at least three Major Group and Other stakeholders to respond to each Voluntary National Review (VNR), one of which should be from civil society.
    • Representatives from national civil society groups voices should be prioritized for inclusion during the HLPF, with adequate representation from regional and international civil society organisations.
    • Written questions should also be presented and answered within a month of the HLPF for those who are unable to ask their question within the given time of the VNR session.
    • All civil society shadow VNR reports should be published on the UN’s official HLPF website. 
    • Ensure side events are inclusive of stakeholder participation, including a wide range of civil society led side online events to be shared in the official programme.
    • Identify more participatory approaches to engage with stakeholders on an ongoing basis, including best practice on use of online meeting technology to provide inputs, to ensure a more inclusive process before, during and after the main HLPF sessions

    We thank you in advance for your consideration.

    Sincerely,

    A Toda Voz AC 
    Aakash Welfare Society Hyderabad 
    Access Now 
    Acción Solidaria 
    ACCIONA Transformando Caminospara SER y HACER A.C.
    Accountability Lab
    Achtung labs private limited 
    ACT Alliance
    ActionAid Denmark
    ActionAid International
    Action for Sustainable Develpment
    ADAB (Association of Development Agencies in Bangladesh)
    ADD International
    Adivasi Women's Network
    Adivasi-Koordination, Germany
    Advocacy, Research, Training and Services (ARTS) Foundation 
    Afghan NGOs Coordination Bureau (ANCB)
    Ageing Nepal
    Agenda Cero A.C. 
    Aid Organization
    AIDS-Fondet - The Danish AIDS 
    Foundation
    AidWatch Canada
    AIESEC MÉXICO A.C. 
    Al Dua welfare organization
    Al Falah Organization Islampur Swat
    Alberta Council for Global 
    Cooperation
    Alfalah Tanzeem Swat
    Alimentos de México a Compartir, A. C.
    Alkhidmat Foundation GB
    Allai Developement Organization
    American Civil Liberties Union 
    (ACLU)
    Amnesty International
    Amnistia Inernacional, Portugal
    Animis Philanthropic Ventures Inc.
    Arab Youth Platform for Sustainable Development - League of Arab States
    ARCADIA - Romanian Association for International Cooperation and 
    Development
    Argentine Network for International Cooperation - RACI
    ARTICLE 19
    Asia Dalit Rights Forum
    Asia Development Alliance
    Asia-Pacific Human Rights Information Center
    Asian Solidarity Economy Council (ASEC)
    Asociación de Organismos No Gubernamentales (ASONOG)
    Asociación Mexicana de Amigos Metabólicos, A.C. A.C.
    Asociación Nacional de Síndrome de Williams AC
    Association femmes leadership et développement durable 
    Association for Farmers Rights Defense, AFRD
    Association for Human Rights in Ethiopia
    Association For Promotion Sustainable Development
    Association Nationale des Partenaires Migrants
    Associations 21
    Augustinians International (Curia Generalizia Agostiniana)
    Avoid Accident
    Awaz Foundation Pakistan
    AwazCDS-Pakistan
    Azat Foundation
    Baghbaan 
    Bai Indigenous Womens Network in the Philippines
    Bangladesh Indigenous Women's Network
    Bangladesh Nari Progati Shangha (BNPS)
    Bangladesh NGOs Network for Radio & Communication
    Biosauenergie
    Bond
    Born Free Foundation
    Bright Star Development Society Balochistan (BSDSB)
    British Columbia Council For International Cooperation
    Brooke
    Bulgarian Platform for International Development (BPID)
    Burundi Child Rights Coalition (BCRC)
    CAFSO-WRAG for Development
    Canadian Council for International Co-operation 
    Cancer Aid Society
    Caribbean Coalition for Development and the Reduction of Armed Violence (CDRAV)
    Caucus of Development NGO Networks (CODE-NGO) 
    Center for Civil Liberties
    Center for Environmental Concerns - Philippines
    Center for National and International Studies
    Centre for Environmental Justice
    Centre for Human Rights and Development 
    Centre for Research and Advocacy, Manipur
    Centre for Social Equity and Inclusion (CSEI)
    Centre for the Development of Democracy and Human Rights
    Centro de Arte y Cultura Popular Tonalteca A.C.
    Centro de Justicia y Paz - Cepaz
    Centros de cuidado, Atencion y educación integral coralitos AC
    ChildHelp Sierra Leone
    Christian Blind Mission
    Church of Sweden
    Church Women United Washington DC Unit
    Civic Initiatives
    CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation
    Civil Society Coalition on Sustainable Development
    Civil Society SDGs Campaign/GCAP Zambia
    CIVILIS Derechos Humanos
    COAST Trust
    Colectivo Ollin, Alternativas para la Comunicaciòn, la Sexualidad y el Desarrollo Comunitario AC
    Colectivo pro Inclusión e Igualdad Jalisco, A. C.
    Colores del Rincón A.C. - MY World México 
    Commons Cluster of the UN NGO Major Group
    Commons for EcoJustice
    Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI)
    Commonwealth Medical Trust
    Community Advancement through Research & Development CARD 
    Community Initiatives for development in Pakistan
    Comunidad de Organizaciones Solidarias
    Concord Italia
    CONCORD Sweden
    Congrégation des soeurs de Notre Dame de Charité du Bon Pasteur
    Congregation of Notre Dame de Montreal
    Congregation of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd
    Congregation of the Mission
    Consorcio para el Diálogo Parlamentario y la Equidad Oaxaca A.C:
    Cooperation for Peace and Development (CPD)
    CoopeSoliDar R.L
    Coordinación de ONG y Cooperativas CONGCOOP
    Council for NGOs in Malawi - CONGOMA
    Council for Participatory Development
    Crispin Swedi Bilombele
    CRV & Co
    D.C. Unit Church Women United
    Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation
    Dalit NGO Federation, Nepal
    Dalit Youth Alliance (DYA)
    DanChurchAid
    Danish United Nations Association
    Dawn Development Organization
    Debasis Chowdhury Rana
    DefendDefenders (East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project)
    Dehi Ijtimai Tarqyati Social Workers Council (DITSWC)
    Dehi Taraqiati Tanzeem (DTT) BILLITANG KOHAT KPK
    Derecho, Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (DAR)
    Desértica, Soluciones Endovasculares A.C.
    Despertares Derechos Humanos
    Development Dynamics 
    DHEWA (development for health education work & awareness) Welfare Society Chakwal Bheen
    Dillu Prasad Ghimire
    District Development Association
    District Development Association Tharparkar (DDAT)
    Dóchas
    Dominican Leadership Conference
    Dosse SOSSOUGA
    Dr. Tristaca McCray
    DSW (Deutsche Stiftung Weltbevölkerung)
    DUF - The Danish Youth Council 
    Earth Community
    East Timor and Indonesia Action Network (ETAN)
    Ecumenical Institute for Labor Education and Research
    Edmund Rice International
    EMPOWER INDIA
    Empresa marhnos®
    Environmental Partnership Council
    EOS - Association for Studies, Cooperation and Development
    Equality Bahamas
    Equality For All Development Organisation 
    Estonian Roundtable for Development Cooperation
    Ethiopian Human Rights Council 
    European Youth Forum
    Fagaras Research Institute
    Federation of Environmental and Ecological Diversity for Agricultural Revampment and Human Rights
    Feminist Dalit Organizations (FEDO)
    FIAN Sri Lanka
    Finnish Development NGOs Fingo
    Fixing The World
    FKM BKA YWU
    FOKUS - Forum for Women and Development
    Fondazione Proclade Internazionale - onlus
    Food Security Network-PRAN
    Foreign Spouses Support Group and Malaysian Campaign for Equal Citizenship
    Former Commissioner, National Human Rights Commission Nepal
    Forum for Women in Democracy
    Forum of women's NGOs of Kyrgyzstan
    Forum Syd
    Forus 
    Foundation for Older Persons' Development (FOPDEV)
    Foundation For Sustainable Development and Climate Action (FSDCA)
    Freshwater Action Network Mexico (FANMex)
    Friends of Angola
    FUNDACIÓN CONSTRUIR
    Fundación Dibujando un Mañana
    Fundación Heinrich Böll - Ciudad de México, México y el Caribe
    Fundación Mexicana de Medicina Paliativa y Alivio del Dolor en Cáncer A.C.
    Fundación Mexicana para la Planeación Familiar, A. C. MEXFAM
    FUNDACIÓN MÉXICO MOTIVACTE A.C
    Fundación MYWM- MY World México
    Fundación Sanders AC 
    FUNDACION SERENDIPIA A.C.
    Fundamedios
    Gals Forum International 
    Gatef orginzation
    Generacion2030
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  • KYRGYZSTAN: ‘The citizens' choice in the referendum will be decisive for our future’

    Ulugbek AzimovCIVICUS and the International Partnership for Human Rights speak to Ulugbek Azimov, legal expert at the Legal Prosperity Foundation, about the protests that took place in Kyrgyzstan in October 2020 and subsequent political developments. The Legal Prosperity Foundation (previously the Youth Human Rights Group) is an independent civil society organisation that has worked to promote human rights and democratic principles in Kyrgyzstan since 1995. The organisation carries out educational programmes, conducts human rights monitoring, interacts with international human rights mechanisms and promotes respect for human rights in the context of legal reforms.

    Kyrgyzstan is often referred to as Central Asia’s only democracy. How close to truth is this depiction?

    It is true that in the early 1990s, that is, in the first years of independence, democracy sprouted and began developing in Kyrgyzstan. Compared to other countries in the region, Kyrgyzstan was characterised by a higher level of citizen participation, a more developed civil society and more favourable conditions for the functioning and participation of political parties in the political process. For this reason, Kyrgyzstan was called an ‘island of democracy’ in Central Asia.

    However, during the 30 years since independence, Kyrgyzstan has faced serious challenges. Attempts by former presidents to preserve and strengthen their hold on power by putting pressure on the opposition, persecuting independent media and journalists, restricting the freedom of expression, using public resources in their favour, bribing voters and falsifying the results of elections have resulted in major political upheavals on several occasions. In the past 15 years, the government has been overthrown three times during the so-called Tulip, April and October revolutions, in 2005, 2010 and 2020, respectively, with two former presidents being forced to flee the country, and the third forced to resign ahead of time.

    Each upheaval has, unfortunately, been followed by developments undermining previous democratic gains. It is therefore not surprising that Freedom House has consistently rated Kyrgyzstan as only ‘partially free’ in its annual Freedom in the World survey. Moreover, in the most recent survey published this year, Kyrgyzstan’s rating deteriorated to that of ‘not free’ because of the fall-out of the October 2020 parliamentary elections, which were marred by serious violations. Thus, Kyrgyzstan is now in the same category in which other Central Asian countries have been for many years. 

    Were pandemic-related restrictions imposed in the run-up to the 2020 elections?

    In response to the rapid increase in COVID-19 cases in the spring of 2020, the Kyrgyzstani authorities adopted emergency measures and introduced a lockdown in the capital, Bishkek, and in several other regions of the country, which led to restrictions on the right to the freedom of movement and other, related rights. All public events, including rallies, were banned.

    Measures taken in the context of the pandemic also gave rise to concerns about restrictions on the freedom of expression and access to information. The authorities seriously tightened the screws on critical voices in response to widespread criticism of those in power, including then-President Sooronbai Jeenbekov, for their failure to fight the pandemic effectively. Law enforcement authorities tracked down inconvenient bloggers and social media commentators, visited them in their homes and held ‘prophylactic’ discussions with them. In some cases, social media users were detained for allegedly posting false information about the pandemic and forced to apologise publicly under threat of prosecution.

    The law on ‘manipulation of information’, which parliament passed in June 2020, is of particular concern. Although the initiators of the law claimed that it was solely intended to address the problem of fake online accounts, it was clear from the start that this was an attempt by the authorities to introduce internet censorship and close down objectionable sites on the eve of the elections. Following an avalanche of criticism from the media community and human rights defenders, then-President Jeenbekov declined to sign the law and returned it to parliament for revision in August 2020. Since then, the law has remained with parliament. 

    What triggered the post-election demonstrations in October 2020? Who protested, and why?

    The main reason for the October 2020 protests, which again led to a change in power, was people’s dissatisfaction with the official results of the parliamentary elections held on 4 October. 

    Out of the 16 parties running for seats in parliament, only five passed the seven per cent electoral threshold required to get into parliament. Although then-President Jeenbekov publicly stated that he did not support any party, the one that received most votes – Birimdik (Unity) – was associated with him since his brother and other people from the ruling elite were running on its ticket. The party that ended up second, Mekenim Kyrgyzstan (Motherland Kyrgyzstan), was also viewed as pro-government and was associated with the family of former high-ranking customs service official Raiymbek Matraimov, who was implicated in a high-profile media investigation into corruption published in November 2019. Jeenbekov’s government ignored the findings of this investigation and failed to initiate a criminal case against Matraimov, despite public calls to this end.

    It was predictable that Birimdik and Mekenim Kyrgyzstan would fare well in the elections given the use of public resources and reported vote-buying in favour of their candidates. These two parties, which took part in parliamentary elections for the first time, received almost half of the votes and therefore an absolute majority of the seats in parliament. The methods used by the two winning parties to secure control over parliament caused indignation among other political parties that participated in the elections, their voters and even apolitical people.

    The elections took place against the backdrop of growing discontent with the social and economic difficulties caused by the pandemic, as well as growing anti-government sentiments among the population.

    The ‘dirty’ elections, characterised by an unprecedented scale of violations, became a catalyst for subsequent events. Protests began immediately after the announcement of the preliminary results on the evening of election day, 4 October, and continued throughout the next day. Young people played a decisive role in them: most of those who took to the streets to protest and gathered in the central square of the capital were young people. Unfortunately, most of those who were injured, as well as the protester who died during the October events, were young people too.

    What was the government’s reaction to the protests?

    The authorities had the opportunity to take control of the situation and resolve it peacefully, but they did not take it. Only in the evening of 5 October did then-President Jeenbekov announce that he would meet with the leaders of the different parties that competed in the elections. He set up a meeting for the morning of 6 October, but this turned out to be too late, as in the night of 5 October the peaceful protests devolved into clashes between protesters and law enforcement officials in Bishkek, ending with the seizure of the White House (the seat of the president and parliament) and other public buildings by protesters. During the clashes, law enforcement authorities used rubber bullets, stun grenades and teargas against the protesters. As a result of the clashes, a 19-year-old young man was killed and more than 1,000 people needed medical attention, including protesters and law enforcement officials, with over 600 police officers injured. During the unrest, police cars, ambulances, surveillance cameras and other property were also damaged, to an estimated value of over 17 million Som (approx. US$200,000).

    Did the snap presidential elections held in January 2021 solve the problems raised by the protests?

    The main demand of the protesters was to cancel the results of the October 2020 parliamentary elections and hold new, fair elections. This demand was partly satisfied on 6 October 2020, when the Central Election Commission (CEC) declared the election results invalid. However, up to now, no date has been fixed for the new parliamentary elections. The CEC initially scheduled them for 20 December 2020 but parliament responded by promptly adopting a law that suspended the elections pending a revision of the constitution and extended the terms in office of the members of the outgoing parliament until 1 June 2021.

    In its assessment of this law, the Venice Commission – an advisory body of the Council of Europe, composed of independent constitutional law experts – concluded that during the current transitional period parliament should exercise limited functions and refrain from approving extraordinary measures, such as constitutional reforms. However, the outgoing parliament has continued its work as usual and approved the holding of a constitutional referendum in April 2021. Newly elected President Sadyr Japarov has suggested holding new parliamentary elections in the autumn of 2021, which would mean that members of the outgoing parliament would continue in their positions even after 1 June 2021.

    In accordance with other demands of the protesters, the country’s electoral legislation was amended in October 2020 to reduce the electoral threshold from seven to three percentage points for parties to gain representation in parliament and to reduce the electoral fee from 5 to 1 million Som (approx. US$12,000). These amendments were made to facilitate the participation of a larger number of parties, including newer ones, and to promote pluralism and competition.

    The protesters also expressed resentment about the inadequate measures taken to fight corruption. They demanded that the authorities bring to justice corrupt officials, particularly Matraimov, and return stolen property to the state. Speaking in front of the protesters before he became president, Japarov promised that Matraimov would be arrested and punished.

    To be fair, Japarov kept his word. After Japarov rose to power in October 2020, Matraimov was arrested in connection with an investigation into corruption schemes within the customs service, pleaded guilty and agreed to compensate the damage by paying back more than 2 billion Som (approx. US$24 million). A local court subsequently convicted him, but handed him a mitigated sentence in the form of a fine of 260,000 Som (approx. US$3,000) and lifted freezing orders on his property, since he had cooperated with the investigation. This extremely lenient sentence caused public outrage. On 18 February 2021, Matraimov was arrested again on new charges of money laundering, but after a few days he was transferred from the pre-trial detention facility where he was being held to a private clinic to undergo treatment for health problems. After that, many labelled the anti-corruption measures of the current authorities as ‘populist’.

    In January 2021 Kyrgyz citizens also voted in a constitutional referendum. What were its results, and what consequences will they have for the quality of democracy?

    According to the results of the referendum, which took place on the same day as the presidential election in January 2021, 84 per cent of voters supported a transition from a parliamentary to a presidential system of government.

    Based on comparative experience, many lawyers and civil society activists do not view this change as negative per se, provided that a well-functioning system of checks and balances is put in place. However, they are seriously concerned that the authorities are attempting to push through the transition at an unjustifiably quick pace using questionable approaches and methods that do not correspond to generally accepted principles and established legal rules and procedures.

    The first draft constitution providing for a presidential system of governance, put forward in November 2020, was dubbed a ‘khanstitution’ in reference to the historic autocratic rulers of Central Asia. Critics accused Japarov, who has advocated for this change since taking office in October 2020, of trying to usurp power.

    The draft constitution granted the president practically unlimited powers, while reducing the status and powers of parliament to a minimum, thereby jeopardising checks and balances and creating the risk of presidential abuse of power. It also provided for a complicated impeachment procedure that would be impossible to implement in practice. Moreover, while it did not mention the principle of the rule of law even once, the text repeatedly referred to moral values and principles. Many provisions of the current constitution that guarantee human rights and freedoms were excluded.

    Because of harsh criticism, the authorities were forced to abandon their initial plans to submit the draft constitution to referendum on the same day as the presidential election in January 2021 and agreed to organise a broader discussion. To this end, a so-called constitutional conference was convened and its members worked for two and a half months, in spite of facing accusations that their activities were illegitimate. At the beginning of February 2021, the constitutional conference submitted its suggestions to parliament.

    It should be acknowledged that as a result of the discussion and proposals submitted by the constitutional conference, parts of the draft constitution were improved. For example, the reference to the principle of the rule of law was restored, and significant amendments were made to the sections on human rights and freedoms, including with respect to protecting the freedom of expression, the role of independent media and the right to access information. But it remained practically unchanged with respect to the provisions that set out unlimited powers for the president.

    In March 2021, parliament adopted a law on holding a referendum on the revised draft constitution, setting the date for 11 April 2021. This sparked a new wave of indignation among politicians, lawyers and civil society activists, who pointed out that this was against the established procedure for constitutional change and warned again that the concentration of power in the hands of the president might result in authoritarian rule. Their concerns were echoed in a joint opinion of the Venice Commission and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, issued in March 2021 at the request of the Ombudsman of Kyrgyzstan.

    The draft constitution has two other problematic provisions. One allows for restrictions to be imposed on any events that contradict ‘moral and ethical values’ or ‘the public consciousness of the people of the Kyrgyz Republic’. These concepts are not defined or regulated, so they might be interpreted differently in different cases, creating the risk of overly broad and subjective interpretation and arbitrary application. This, in turn, might lead to excessive restrictions on human rights and freedoms, including the rights to the freedoms of peaceful assembly and expression.

    The other provision requires political parties, trade unions and other public associations to ensure the transparency of their financial and economic activities. Against the background of recent attempts to step up control over civil society organisations (CSOs), there are concerns that it might be used to put pressure on them. On the same day that parliament voted in favour of holding a referendum on the draft constitution, some legislators accused CSOs of allegedly undermining ‘traditional values’ and posing a threat to the state. 

    Civil society activists continue to call on the current parliament, which in their eyes has lost its legitimacy, to dissolve and on the president to call new elections promptly. Activists are holding an ongoing rally to this end and, if their demands are not met, they plan to turn to the courts on the grounds of the usurpation of power.

    The president, however, has rejected all concerns voiced about the constitutional reform. He has assured that Kyrgyzstan will remain a democratic country, that the freedom of expression and the personal safety of journalists will be respected, and that there will be no further political persecution. 

    The citizens of Kyrgyzstan must make their choice. The upcoming referendum on the current draft constitution may become another turning point in the history of Kyrgyzstan, and the choice made by citizens will be decisive for the future development towards stability and prosperity.

    Civic space in Kyrgyzstan is rated as ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with the Legal Prosperity Foundation through itsFacebook page and followlpf_kg on Instagram.