COP26: ‘We hope for stricter obligations under the principle of common but differentiated responsibility’

Charles WanguhuIn the run-up to the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26), which will take place in Glasgow, UK between 31 October and 12 November 2021, CIVICUS is interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about the environmental challenges they face in their contexts, the actions they are undertaking to tackle them and their expectations for the upcoming summit.

CIVICUS speaks with Charles Wanguhu, a social activist and coordinator of the Kenya Civil Society Platform on Oil and Gas, a forum in which participating civil society organisations (CSOs) share information, plan and strategise together to conduct joint advocacy, engage with government agencies, companies and the media, and inform and sensitise the public.

What's the key environmental issue in your country that you're working on?

The Kenya Civil Society Platform on Oil and Gas is a not-for-profit members’ organisation working towards a sustainable oil and gas sector in Kenya and just energy transitions. With the discovery of oil in Kenya’s Turkana County, our work includes advocating for policy and legal frameworks that ensure environmental justice and climate considerations in developing Kenya’s oil. We do this through policy and regulation reviews and by building the capacity of local communities to participate effectively in environmental and social impact assessment (ESIA) processes to ensure that their environment is safeguarded. 

We also directly participate in the review of ESIAs, in which we agitate for climate change considerations and environmental protection at the project level. For instance, as Kenya’s Turkana Oil Project is expected to proceed to the production phase, we have participated in the project’s stakeholder consultation forums, where we have raised the need for the project’s ESIA to incorporate climate change impact assessments. We have also been advocating for transparency in the sector through disclosure of petroleum agreements and licences to enable the public to understand the environmental and climate change obligations of oil companies, allowing for increased accountability by the state and these companies.

Have you faced backlash for the work you do?

Shrinking civic space remains a challenge in our operating environment. Civil society groups face backlash from government when they speak out about topical issues. These restrictions mostly take the form of refusal of permits for protests or for holding meetings related to projects of concern. In some instances, government agencies such as the Non-Governmental Organisations Coordination Board and Kenya’s revenue authority have been used to target CSOs.

We also face restrictions from corporate entities, including the deliberate exclusion of CSOs from public participation events. Our members who have expressed concerns or are seen to be vocal about issues related to the extraction of oil and gas resources have found themselves not invited to participate or not allowed to give comments at public hearings.

How do you connect with the broader international climate movement?

We are developing a pan-African just transition programme that will involve working with other regional and international groups to ensure that the global energy transition is just for Africa and is reflective of the impacts of the climate crisis on Africa.

What hopes, if any, do you have for COP26, and how useful generally do you find such international processes?

Inclusion of climate change considerations at the project level already has a legal hook in Kenya through the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Paris Agreement and Kenya’s Climate Change Act of 2016. The delayed implementation of the Act has been a challenge, but we are aware of various draft regulations on climate change that are currently under review for eventual enactment.

Regarding just energy transition, we are hoping for stricter obligations complying with the principle of common but differentiated responsibility, which acknowledges that diverse countries have different responsibilities and capacities to address cross-border issues such as climate change. This would ensure that Africa is not left behind in the transition, or even worse, that the transition does not happen at Africa’s expense.

International processes have been useful to the extent that they have partly facilitated the domestication of climate change legal and policy frameworks, but we certainly hope for an increased commitment by states.

What one change would you like to see to help address the climate crisis?

We would like to see an increase in the speed of the implementation of climate change legal frameworks and obligations both locally and internationally. Further, we would like to see the developed countries of the global north commit to and meet their pledges on climate finance made under the Paris Agreement. This will come in handy to finance just energy transitions in Africa.

Civic space in Kenya is rated ‘obstructedby the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Kenya Civil Society Platform on Oil and Gas through its website, and follow @KCSPOG and @CharlesWanguhu on Twitter.

 

COP26: ‘We need a power shift to communities, especially to women, in managing climate resources’

Nyangori OhenjoIn the run-up to the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26), which will take place in Glasgow, UK between 31 October and 12 November 2021, CIVICUS is interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about the environmental challenges they face in their contexts, the actions they are undertaking to tackle them and their expectations for the upcoming summit.

CIVICUS speaks with Nyang'ori Ohenjo, Chief Executive Officer at Centre for Minority Rights Development (CEMIRIDE), a Kenyan civil society organisation that advocates for the recognition of minorities and Indigenous peoples in political, legal and social processes and works to empower communities to obtain sustainable livelihoods.

What's the key climate issue in your country that you’re working on?

We focus on the worsening effects of climate change, especially on the most vulnerable, such as Indigenous peoples. Despite a myriad of climate programmes, Kenya is not achieving the desired goals. For instance, increased droughts are currently being experienced in the north of the country, with the usual dire consequences, and the president has already declared this year’s drought a national disaster.

The overarching challenge is that policy frameworks do not connect with the agenda of Indigenous communities, including pastoralists, forest dwellers and fisher communities, which leaves them and their mainstay economic systems vulnerable and does not bring solutions that enhance their resilience. Programmes and policies often ignore cultural elements.

Pastoralists, for instance, diversify herds in sex, age and species to spread risks and maximise available pastures. Herd size is balanced against family size, and herd composition is aimed at responding to family needs. Herds are sometimes split as a coping strategy, particularly in times of drought, and to allow an innovative use of available resources. Through mutual support systems, pastoralists take care of each other so they can recover quickly from disaster. Each pastoralist group has a different way of supporting its members, including by finding various ways of earning cash and diversifying livelihoods. However, food aid and handouts have become the policy norm in times of crisis such as the current drought, which makes no economic sense for anyone, least of all the pastoralists.

Fifty years of a food aid-approach has not provided a sustainable solution, hence the need for a serious policy shift from disaster response, which is reactive, to preparedness, which is proactive. This means putting basic resources in place before crisis hits, including cash if necessary, to get communities through tough times while focusing on long-term investment and development to build communities’ resilience to absorb future shocks.

How do you connect with the broader international climate movement?

We engage through various partnerships with numerous global civil society networks, notably CIVICUS, and Kenyan development organisations, grassroots organisations and groups demanding climate action, as well as with academic institutions, United Nations’ agencies and regional and international human rights institutions. The main objective of these engagements is to ensure that the voices of the Indigenous communities of Kenya are heard within the climate change movement and able to influence the international conversations.

The participation of Indigenous peoples in the international climate movement, and Indigenous peoples being part of a conversation that, in a gender-responsive manner, recognises their rights and values their traditional knowledge as well as their innovative practices for climate resilience, are critical in designing and implementing responsive climate policy and action.

At the national level, through the Climate Change Directorate, a department of the Kenyan Ministry of Environment and Forestry, and the Climate Smart Agriculture Multistakeholder Platform, CEMIRIDE has taken part in the process of shaping the Kenyan government’s position towards COP26 and within the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform (LCIPP).

How are Indigenous communities engaging with the Kenyan government?

The Ending Drought Emergencies initiative, which ends in 2022, showed success in climate policy development but made little progress in addressing the problem of drought. There is also the National Climate Change Action Plan (2018-2022), which provides for effective engagement and inclusion of marginalised Indigenous communities, but again, has resulted in very little progress in actually ensuring the structured engagement and involvement of these communities in the implementation and monitoring of the National Action Plan.

The government is also implementing the Kenya Climate Smart Agriculture Project, of which climate mitigation is a key component. Its implementation, however, also lacks structured engagement with Indigenous communities, who therefore have very minimal presence and input into its design and rollout.

What hopes, if any, do you have for COP26 to make progress on these issues, and how useful generally do you find such international processes?

International processes like COP26 are important for creating visibility for Indigenous peoples in climate change conversations. While it took a long time for governments, especially in Africa, to recognise the role and need for the voice of Indigenous peoples at the international climate change decision-making table, it is now appreciated that Indigenous peoples can actually influence the direction of these processes. Specifically, the LCIPP was established to promote the exchange of experiences and best practices, build capacity for stakeholder engagement in all process related to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and harness the power of diverse knowledge systems and innovations in designing and implementing climate policy and action.

CEMIRIDE hopes that the voices of Indigenous peoples will take centre stage and that governments will commit to local solutions that they can be held accountable for rather than make broad global promises that are never fulfilled and they can never be held accountable for. We especially hope that governments will commit to supporting and facilitating the operationalisation of an Indigenous communities’ national engagement framework on climate change actions.

What one change would you like to see – in the world or in your community – to help address the climate crisis?

We wish to see a real power shift to communities, and especially to women, in managing climate resources. Indigenous peoples are a unique constituency not only because of the impacts that climate change is having on them but also because of the role they play in ensuring the success of intervention measures and because of the perspectives and experiences they bring on board through their Indigenous and local knowledge. No one knows their community better than the people who live in it and depend on its resources.

Marginalised Indigenous communities have long developed distinct knowledge and expertise to preserve and conserve the natural environments from which they obtain their livelihoods, and around which have developed their social, cultural, and religious systems and structures. Their direct management of climate resources, therefore, will enable them to positively influence the development, revision, adoption, and implementation of policy and regulations addressing climate change, with a specific emphasis on improving their resilience to climate change impacts.

Civic space in Kenya is rated ‘obstructedby the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Centre for Minority Rights Development through its website, and follow @CEMIRIDE_KE on Twitter. 

 

COP26: ‘My hope lies in the people coming together to demand justice’

Mitzi Jonelle TanIn the run-up to the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26), which will take place in Glasgow, UK between 31 October and 12 November 2021, CIVICUS is interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about the environmental challenges they face in their contexts, the actions they are undertaking to tackle them and their expectations for the upcoming summit.

CIVICUS speaks with Mitzi Jonelle Tan, a young climate justice activist based in Metro Manila, Philippines, who organises with Youth Advocates for Climate Action Philippines and is active in Fridays for Future International.

What’s the key climate issue in your community?

The Philippines is plagued by several impacts from climate change, from droughts that are getting longer and warmer to typhoons that are getting more frequent and more intense. Aside from these climate impacts – that we have not been able to adapt to and leave us with no support when it comes to dealing with the loss and damages – we also face numerous environmentally destructive projects, often undertaken by foreign multinational companies, that our government is allowing and even encouraging.

Youth Advocates for Climate Action Philippines, the Fridays for Future of the Philippines, advocates for climate justice and to make sure that voices of people from the most affected communities are heard, amplified and given space. I first became an activist in 2017 after working with Indigenous leaders of the Philippines, which made me understand that they only way to achieve a more just and greener society is through collective action leading to system change.

Have you faced backlash for the work you do?

Yes, just like anyone who speaks up against injustice and inaction, our government through its paid trolls red-tags and terror-tags activists – it basically calls us terrorists for demanding accountability and pushing for change. There is a fear that comes along with being a climate activist in the Philippines, which has been characterised as the most dangerous country in Asia for environmental defenders and activists for eight years in a row. It’s not just the fear of the climate impacts, it’s also the fear of police and state forces coming to get us and making us disappear. 

How do you engage with the broader international climate movement?

I organise a lot with the international community, especially through Fridays for Future – MAPA (Most Affected Peoples and Areas), one of the global south groups of Fridays for Future. We do it by having conversations, learning from each other and creating strategies together, all while having fun. It’s important for the global youth movement to connect with one another, unite and show solidarity in order to truly address the global issue of the climate crisis.

What hopes, if any, do you have for COP26 to make progress on your issue, and how useful generally do you find such international processes?

My hope doesn’t lie with the so-called leaders and politicians who have continued business as usual for decades for the profit of the few, usually for the global north. My hope lies in the people: activists and civil society coming together to demand justice and to really expose how this profit-oriented system that brought us to this crisis is not the one that we need to bring us out of it. I think COP26 is a crucial moment and this international process has to be useful because we’ve already had 24 too many. These problems should have been solved at the very first COP, and one way or another we have to make sure that this COP is useful and brings meaningful change, not just more empty promises.

What one change would you like to see – in the world or in your community – to help address the climate crisis?

The one change I ask for is a big one: system change. We need to change our system from one that prioritises the overexploitation of the global south and marginalised peoples for the profit of the global north and the privileged few. The way we view development, it shouldn’t be based on GDP and everlasting growth, but rather on the quality of people’s lives. This is doable – but only if we address the climate crisis and all the other socio-economic injustices at its roots.

Civic space in the Philippines is rated as ‘repressedby the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Youth Advocates for Climate Action Philippines through its website or  Facebook page, and follow @mitzijonelle on Twitter and Instagram. 

 

COP26: ‘Marginalised communities should be at the centre of climate action’

In the run-up to the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26), which will take place in Glasgow, UK between 31 October and 12 November 2021, CIVICUS is interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about the environmental challenges they face in their contexts, the actions they are undertaking to tackle them and their expectations for the upcoming summit.

CIVICUS speaks with Jessica Dercontée, co-organiser of the Collective Against Environmental Racism (CAER), a civil society group in Denmark that works to bring racial discrimination and injustice into the Danish climate conversation, calling public attention to environmental racism.

Jessica’s activism and academic engagement focus on climate governance and explore the embedded social and climate injustices pertaining to class, gender, race and politics. She is a project coordinator working in international development projects in the Danish Student Union and the Danish Refugee Council Youth and is currently a research assistant at the consultancy firm In Futurum.

Jessica Dercontee

What are the aims of CAER? 

We are a collective consisting of women and non-binary people of colour who work within the intersection of environmentalism, anti-racism and climate justice. CAER seeks to mobilise and amplify the voices of those who are most affected by environmental racism, including Black, Indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC) in the global south as well as in the global north. Our collective was formed to shed light on and critique the current discussions, representations and differentiating effects of the climate and environmental crisis.

What’s the key climate or environmental issue that you’re working on? 

CAER focuses on the political ecology and neo-colonialism of the mainstream Danish environmental and climate debates. The mainstream Danish public debates on the climate crisis focus on the detrimental impacts that our consumer culture and lifestyles have on the planet’s biosystems, with less attention on the people this affects and the unending desire of big corporations for profit and utility maximisation. While we agree on the urgency of these issues, our collective believes that the debate in Denmark should move beyond the need of governments and various other stakeholders to find big technological solutions to mitigate the climate crisis. The current public debate is too simplistic, apolitical and technical, focused on the search for green solutions. 

CAER highlights the different power dynamics that exist within our current systems, as well as how the present-day practices and ways of thinking perpetuate systems of colonialism and global oppression while being heavily entrenched in capitalism. We do this through workshops, articles, awareness-raising on social media and collaborations with marginalised individuals or groups from the global south. 

An example of how we provide a different perspective on the green transition is through the scrutiny of the way big corporations in Denmark cause environmental degradation and land grabbing in the global south. The Danish wind energy company Vestas has an ongoing case against Indigenous peoples in Mexico, who have accused the corporation of causing negative impacts on Indigenous livelihoods, while also linking it to significant human rights violations towards local protesters and civil society activists who have been subjected to intimidation and death threats for calling out abuses. The governments of both countries have reached agreements that they claimed were mutually beneficial, as they were expected to bring economic growth and development to Mexico as well as helping Denmark green its economy. However, the ensuing land grabbing has further disenfranchised communities in the global south, continuing the cycle of dependence on aid and regurgitating neo-colonial forms of control and exploitation of Indigenous land and peoples.

Another example that is much closer to Denmark is the environmental racism that permeates Denmark’s relations with its former colony and presently Danish Commonwealth nation, Greenland. Due to Denmark’s control over Greenland’s natural resources, people in Greenland are excluded from important decisions on the future of the Arctic, which can be viewed as having large racialised impacts on conservation, environmental politics and consumerism.

CAER’s main aim has been to provide a safe space for BIPOC, including queer and trans BIPOC, who want to mobilise within environmentalism and anti-racism spaces in Denmark. It is often felt that the Danish climate movement has been exclusionary and discriminatory towards BIPOC. We hope to push Danish public discourse beyond using and presenting marginalised communities as case studies, and towards bringing them to the centre of climate action as the legitimate solution providers and active decision-makers.

Have you faced backlash for the work you do?

We have been met with genuine excitement from other organisations and actors who are willing to change their organisational structures and make them more inclusive and capable of finding solutions to the crisis we are in. While we have not experienced any direct backlash as a result of our work or its focus on race and discriminatory environmental policy, we find that society is not equipped to handle the various lived realities of people on the ground, which are different from the very homogenised narrative of the Danish experience. In Denmark laws and policies have been viewed as inclusive, building on the image of our model as progressive, a welfare state that protects all. Thus, it makes it harder for institutions and individuals to understand that their own position of privilege is dependent on the exploitation and oppression of other social groups, throughout history and in the present day.

How do you connect with the broader international climate movement?

We connect with the international climate movement in our aim to decolonise climate activism structures. More so, we actively seek collaborations, and this is reflected in the examples we choose to showcase in our projects and the voices that we amplify. We try to give power and create spaces where marginalised people can tell their own stories and bring forward their knowledge and solutions to the climate crisis. Further, by building and sharing knowledge from as many perspectives and as many global south scholars as possible, we seek to balance the ethnocentric knowledge exchange that pervades climate governance, climate action and environmentalism.

What hopes, if any, do you have for COP26 to make progress on climate issues?

We in CAER hope that although the current setting of COP26 has the major limitation of lacking diverse representation, there will still be room for the vital knowledge of the global south and a diverse set of voices involved in policymaking to make the next round of goals as nuanced and intersectional as possible.

What one change would you like to see to help address the climate crisis? 

We hope that in the close future our movement against environmental racism will grow, and that this development will bridge the gap between the mainstream Danish climate movement and the anti-racist movement so as to mitigate the climate crisis in a manner that is much more inclusive and open towards diversity, and a plurality of knowledge, and across different sectors and institutions in Denmark, as well as the rest of world.

Civic space in Denmark is rated ‘open’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Collective Against Environmental Racism through its Instagram account or by email to .

 

INDIGENOUS PEOPLES: ‘Canadians stand in solidarity with us and want to see change’

TeresaEdwardsCIVICUS speaks with Teresa Edwards, Executive Director and In-House Legal Counsel of the Legacy of Hope Foundation (LHF), about reactions to recently evidence of atrocities committed against Canada’s Indigenous peoples in the context of the country’s longstanding Residential School System, and about civil society efforts to obtain truth, justice and reparations. The LHF is a national Indigenous not-for-profit, charitable organisation that seeks to educate the public, create awareness, foster empathy and inspire action around the issues of inequality, racism and human rights violations committed against Canada’s Indigenous Peoples.

 

What has changed for Indigenous Peoples in Canada since the authorities started to acknowledge the existence of children’s graves in residential schools?

As Indigenous Peoples, we have always known about these atrocities happening from Survivors, our families, our communities for generations. We had also raised these issues with the authorities for years with little to no response.

Since the children’s remains began to be unearthed in May, and Canadians are realising because of the undeniable, irrefutable DNA evidence being uncovered around the schools, we have had an outpouring of support that we could have never imagined. We have been contacted by individuals, families, foundations, elementary and high school students, teachers’ unions and many other unions, small, medium and large businesses, policing and correctional officers, parishioners, and the list goes on – all asking what they can do to help, or contribute to Reconciliation in some way.

The staff of the Legacy of Hope Foundation have been working tirelessly since May to deliver on our usual projects, exhibitions and curriculum while responding to the thousands of inquiries we receive each day, and it has not let up. We have hired more staff and casual workers so that we can try to ensure that we don’t miss an opportunity to produce more educational resources, exhibitions, curricula, workshops and other opportunities to engage with the public. It has been incredibly encouraging to see that Canadians have so much heart now that they are learning about Canada’s real history!

What actions have Indigenous civil society groups taken to raise the profile of issues of abuse and exclusion, including around Canada Day and in the election campaign?

Indigenous groups have tried to raise awareness for decades about the many injustices impacting on all of our Nations, as well as about the particular issues for each territory, with very little uptake by most mainstream media or governments. When the stories about the children’s remains hit social media and smaller media outlets, the larger media outlets then began to cover more about what has been happening. With each new uncovering at a new location at a residential school, more and more Canadians began to ask questions, seek answers and reach out to Indigenous Peoples across Canada. With the pressure mounting, Canadians have looked to the government to respond.

On 1 July, hundreds of thousands of Canadian allies walked with Indigenous Peoples across Canada for a day of reflection, sending the government the message that Canadians stand in solidarity with us and want to see change.

As for the election campaign, we are not a political organisation, but I can say that we did see Indigenous rights considered by some parties more than others. Regardless of who is in power, we are always willing and wanting to work with them toward Reconciliation efforts.

What difference have recent acts of recognition and apology – such as the apology by the Catholic bishops and the observance of the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation in September – made, and what further steps are still needed?

We are encouraged by the Catholic bishops’ apology and commitment to raising funds for Survivors resources and the organisations that serve them. However, we look forward to having the Pope come to Canada to apologise as well and committing to actions to support Reconciliation efforts too.

What are the key challenges that Indigenous Peoples encounter in Canada and what are the barriers to realising Indigenous Peoples’ rights?

There are several, and they vary from coast to coast, but there are many basic human rights that need to be addressed: access to clean running water in every Indigenous community within a country as wealthy as Canada, the need for equitable funding for education for Indigenous children, the need for equitable funding for medical services for Indigenous Peoples, being able to live free from violence or worry of being killed just because you are Indigenous, being able to exercise treaty rights, addressing high rates of poverty and access to economic development are only a few.

We have had seven generations of discrimination and injustice. It is my hope that working with Canadians we can improve things for the next seven generations so when our ancestors look back at what actions we took in our lifetime, they will see that we were working together to create a brighter future.

What actions are needed to advance Indigenous Peoples’ rights, and what support is needed to enable those actions?

Having Indigenous history taught in all schools from kindergarten to grade 12 in an age-appropriate way, as we do for all the other atrocities that have happened throughout history, would be a concrete way to influence the future generations who will be our teachers, doctors, politicians, judges and decision-makers, because that would have a significant impact on how Indigenous Peoples are treated going forward. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission already outlined very clearly 94 Calls to Action that would significantly advance Indigenous Peoples’ rights. Now we just need to continue to implement them.

Civic space in Canada is rated ‘open’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Legacy of Hope Foundation through its website or Facebook page, and follow @legacyhopefound on Twitter.

 

USA: ‘Extremist politicians have been hellbent on stigmatising and banning abortion for decades’

CarolineDubleCIVICUS speaks with Caroline Duble, Political Director of Avow – Unapologetic Abortion Advocacy, about the current backlash against women’s rights in the USA, and in Texas in particular, as well as the activist responses. Avow is a civil society organisation that works to secure unrestricted abortion access for every Texan, following the vision of a society in which every person is trusted, thriving and free to pursue the life they want.

How did we get to the point where abortion has been almost completely banned in Texas? 

For people just now hearing about this cruel ban, which prohibits abortions as early as six weeks into pregnancy, it can be hard to believe that something so extreme could ever be passed into law. But as Texans who have been long fighting for abortion access, we know that extremist politicians have been hellbent on stigmatising and banning abortion for decades. This is clear if you look at the full timeline of medically unnecessary restrictions on abortion procedures that were passed in Texas since the 1973 Supreme Court ruling on Roe v. Wade, which determined that the Constitution of the United States protects a pregnant woman’s freedom to choose to have an abortion without excessive government interference. They have been relentless, deceitful and cruel in their attempts to push care out of the reach of Texans who need it. 

How is this different from previous, less successful attempts to ban abortion in other states? 

Unlike bans in other states, which are enforced by state officials, this bill – known as Senate Bill 8, or SB8 – gives the public unprecedented authority to enforce the ban. It allows anyone – including anti-abortion activists who have no connection to the patient – to act as vigilante bounty hunters and to take to court doctors, health centres and anyone who helps another person access abortion, with the incentive that they will collect US$10,000 for each abortion. In other words, Texas is trying to evade judicial scrutiny and accountability in the courts by encouraging private citizens to do the dirty work for them. But SB8’s legal manoeuvring does not change the fact that banning abortion at six weeks is unconstitutional, and even more importantly, it is unjust and wrong.

What have been the immediate consequences of the ban, and how are people protesting?

SB8 is working as intended. Since the law went into effect on 1 September, it has decimated our already vulnerable care infrastructure and has left Texans who need access to care and support services scared to reach out for help, and advocates afraid to help them. Under this law, Texans are being denied the abortions they want and need. Many people are trying to scrape together thousands of dollars to travel out of state, take time off work and arrange childcare and transportation.

Many Texans are self-managing their abortions, which can be extremely safe but only if the pregnant person has access to information and resources. And tragically, countless Texans are being forced to carry pregnancies against their will. Of course, this is falling hardest on Black, Latinx and Indigenous people, undocumented people and low-income Texans, who are facing the most severe barriers to accessing care out of state and disproportionate harm from this law.

People are protesting by funding abortion. Texas abortion funds have collectively raised well over US$3 million since 1 September, and those funds will largely be used to get people out of state. People are also literally protesting! Check out #BansOffOurBodies to see protest footage from around the country, and particularly the marches for reproductive rights that took place on 2 October. And of course, people are learning about self-managed abortion, because abortion bans don’t curve the need for abortions.

What tactics is Avow using in its work to prevent regression and expand sexual and reproductive rights? 

Avow will continue to fight unapologetically for unrestricted abortion access for all Texans, for any reason. Abortion is essential healthcare, and it should be readily accessible to anyone in our state who needs or wants one. We’re leading this movement and changing the culture with an unapologetic abortion-forward mindset, through community-building, education and political advocacy.

We work to portray abortion in a positive light because abortion is safe, common and normal, although you wouldn’t know that because abortion stigma keeps people from sharing their stories. We are committed to changing the conversation about abortion to reflect that reality. For too long, anti-abortion extremists have dictated how we’re allowed to talk about abortion; by spreading lies and medical inaccuracies they have controlled the narrative so much that even abortion rights supporters don’t feel comfortable saying the word and prefer to use euphemisms such as ‘women’s rights’, ‘reproductive health’ and ‘choice’. This has allowed stigma to permeate abortion care and ultimately shame people who have had abortions, and feeds into a narrative about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ abortions. But we refuse to judge a person’s reason for getting an abortion, and instead support them once they have made their decision. 

Looking ahead to the 2022 midterm elections, Avow is preparing to hold anti-abortion legislators accountable through digital ads, on the ground organising and voter mobilisation. We are also pushing the federal government to do more to protect abortion rights by passing the Women’s Health Protection Act, which seeks to establish a statutory right for healthcare providers to provide abortion care, and a corresponding right for their patients to receive that care, free from medically unnecessary restriction. We are also calling on them to repeal the racist Hyde Amendment, a 1980 legislative provision barring the use of federal funds to pay for abortion. We will also continue our work to bust abortion stigma by helping people talk about abortion openly and what access means to them.

What are the prospects of the ban being overturned?

It is deeply concerning that the Supreme Court did not block this law before even having a hearing. For nearly 50 years the Supreme Court has affirmed that the Constitution guarantees the right to an abortion, but in Texas we are now living under a different reality. Many people assume the Supreme Court is an objective legal body, but justices are appointed by presidents, and presidents have political agendas. The Supreme Court’s refusal to block SB8 from going into effect is simply more evidence of what we’ve known for years: the courts will not save us. It is necessary to pass federal legislation to secure unrestricted abortion access and funding for everyone in this country. 

With that being said, we are grateful that the Department of Justice (DOJ) is taking legal action to fight SB8. The DOJ is requesting a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction in a federal court based in Austin, capital of Texas. If granted, this restraining order would stop the State of Texas, including private parties who would bring suits under the law, from implementing or enforcing SB8. This is a necessary first step in what we expect will be a long court battle to stop this law. A restraining order should absolutely be granted because the law is clearly unconstitutional and because Texans need access to abortion care while the law makes its way through the court system.

What kind of support do abortion rights groups in the USA need from their peers around the world?

The best thing that folks outside of Texas can do for us is support us by contributing to Texas abortion funds and political advocacy organisations, and by uplifting our message. Also, look more closely at how abortion bans and stigma impact on your own community. Instead of boycotting Texas businesses, pass local ordinances that provide practical support funding for people in your region seeking abortions.

Civic space in USA is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Avow through its website, Facebook or Instagram page, and follow @avowtexas and @CarolineDuble on Twitter. 

 

MIGRATION: ‘The spread of COVID-19 is no excuse to confront vulnerable people with more violence’

CIVICUS speaks with Maddalena Avon, project coordinator at the Centre for Peace Studies (CPS) about the situation of migrants and refugees in Europe under the pandemic and the ways in which civil society is responding to increasing border pushbacks from hostile European governments.

CPS is a civil society organisation (CSO) that promotes non-violence and social change through education, research, advocacy, campaigning and activism. Founded in 1996, it works in three areas: asylum, integration and human security; peace education and non-violence affirmation; and combating inequalities. CPS is an active member of the Border Violence Monitoring Network, an independent network of CSOs based mostly in the Balkans and Greece, monitoring human rights violations at the external borders of the European Union and advocating to stop the violence against people on the move.

Maddalena Avon

What have been the key trends in migration in Europe, and specifically in the Balkans, under the pandemic?

The landscape of asylum access has changed drastically since pandemic restrictions came into force. The Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN) had already reported on asylum as an eroded set of rights, but due process for international protection claims has been further challenged in recent months under the health emergency.

Firstly, persistent pushbacks from borders continue to deny people access to claim international protection, with states performing collective expulsion. Secondly, government decisions to pause or close asylum offices with no effective alternative or remedy have placed refugees and other migrants in an effective limbo and at risk of pushback. Accordingly, the development of COVID-19 measures has allowed countries such as Croatia, Greece and Hungary to further restrict internationally mandated access to protection.

In the midst of the escalating COVID-19 outbreak, the European Union (EU) launched its Joint Action Plan for Human Rights. However, the intention of this communication exhibits acute divergence from the reality on the ground. Most notably, violations of fundamental rights continue by EU member states and non-EU countries that have various EU agreements on migration, asylum and border security, alongside funded camp systems. Rather than assisting vulnerable communities in this precarious period, policy and guidance have allowed the strengthening of borders across a majority of member states to erode further the rights to asylum, due process and humane treatment.

According to a recent report by the BVMN, in March and April 2020 Slovenia saw a decrease in the number of irregular border crossings compared to the first two months of 2021 and the same period in 2019, and this was reflected in the much lower number of people detained at police stations due to irregular border crossings. The trend of collective expulsions to Croatia, however, remained consistently high. In early 2020, during the COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent restrictions, Slovenia continued to systematically deny asylum rights and used its readmission agreement with Croatia – which allows it to hand people over to the Croatian police if there is proof that they illegally crossed the border within the last 48 hours – to deport large numbers of people, although the readmission agreement does not apply if the person has asked for asylum or is a potential asylum seeker. It has continued to do so despite full knowledge of the high risk of torture and further illegal pushback to Bosnia and Herzegovina.

In Croatia, as elsewhere, the pandemic has changed many things, but some aspects, such as its pushback regime, have unfortunately stayed the same. The only difference is that these violent collective expulsions now attract less attention, as all eyes are on the pandemic and human rights monitors have not been allowed in the field due to health restrictions. Pushbacks and violence at borders have persisted: in one case out of the hundreds documented by the BVMN, a group including a severely injured person and a minor was beaten with batons by Croatian officers, who also burnt their clothes, and the group was pushed back into Bosnia and Herzegovina.

A relatively new development in pushback practices is the tagging of groups with orange spray paint, as reported by No Name Kitchen, a grassroots organisation and member of the BVMN that provides direct assistance to people on the move in border towns along the Balkan Route. Chain pushbacks from Slovenia via Croatia, with migrants being sent back the same way they came, have also continued.

Reports of increased brutality during pushbacks are worrying due to the increased autonomy that state authorities have gained under the pandemic. Pushbacks are illegal and the spread of COVID-19 is no excuse to confront vulnerable people with even more violence.

How are the CPS and the BVMN responding to these trends?

The value of the work done by the BVMN lies in the interconnection of a variety of methods: field work, including trustful contact with people in border areas, testimony collection and advocacy work with clear demands being presented to institutions to hold them accountable for certain actions. Legal work is also essential, when people who have survived human rights violations want to seek justice. Each of the BVMN’s partners has its own strength in one or more of these working methods, and our collective strength is to combine all of them with a comprehensive approach.

Within the network, CPS conducts research that feeds into our awareness-raising and advocacy efforts on access to the asylum system, protection of refugees’ human rights, illegal conduct of the police, the criminalisation of solidarity and integration, with a focus on employment and education.

On integration, two of our big successes has been the Danube Compass, a web tool including all information relevant to the integration of refugees and migrants into Croatian society, and our non-formal education programme for asylum seekers, Let’s Talk about Society, which introduces our new community members to Croatian society and institutions, informs them of their rights and encourages their active participation in society.

Within the network, CPS is a strong legal actor, as we have so far filed 12 criminal complaints against unknown perpetrators in police uniforms. Through strategic litigation, we prevented an extradition and succeeded in filing two lawsuits against the Republic of Croatia at the European Court of Human Rights. As a result of our advocacy, several EU and international institutions, including the United Nations Refugee Agency, started questioning and condemning the practices of the Croatian authorities.

As a consequence of our public exposure of illegal practices towards refugees, we experienced a lot of pressure, and were banned from entering and working in asylum centres. This made our work more difficult but has not compromised our autonomy.

Do you see any progress in holding Frontex, the European border agency, accountable for its failure to protect human rights?

Frontex has faced severe allegations of human rights violations coming from different actors and institutions, and civil society has come together around multiple campaigns and actions on the matter, including #DefundFrontex. Supported by 22 CSOs and networks, including the BVMN, this campaign calls for the agency to be defunded and its budget redirected towards building a government-led and funded European civil sea rescue programme.

The main challenge is that Frontex operates in a grey legal zone and is perceived to have no responsibility for its actions – responsibility always lies with the member state in which Frontex operates. The agency’s rules are made in a way that allows for it to be largely unaccountable. However, we are seeing small steps towards a change in that regard, for example with the active engagement of the European Ombudsman.

How can civil society put pressure on the EU so that its commitment to human rights extends to migrants and refugees, and how can it encourage member states to respect their rights?

One of the ways that BVMN members found to bring together multiple strengths and be louder on key demands is the building of transborder networks. We believe that the active involvement of civil society in each border area, country and village can make a real difference on the public’s influence. Being loud on the rights of refugees and migrants is extremely important. It’s also important to connect a variety of struggles that are highly interconnected and take place across borders, such as struggles on climate change and women’s rights.

Civic space in Croatia is rated ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Centre for Peace Studies through its website or Facebook page, and follow @CMSZagreb on Twitter.
Get in touch with the Border Violence Monitoring Network through its website or Facebook page, and follow @Border_Violence on Twitter. 

 

COP26: ‘A key priority is to address vulnerability at the community level’

Mubiru HuzaifahIn the run-up to the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26), which will take place in Glasgow, UK between 31 October and 12 November 2021, CIVICUS is interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about the environmental challenges they face in their contexts, the actions they are undertaking to tackle them and their expectations for the upcoming summit.

CIVICUS speaks with Mubiru Huzaifah of Uganda’s Ecological Christian Organisation (ECO), a civil society organisation working for sustainable livelihoods for marginalised, under-served and vulnerable groups in Uganda. ECO’s current initiatives focus on natural resource governance, climate change resilience and adaptation, and ecosystems management and restoration.

 

What's the key climate issue in your country that you're working on?

The issue that most worries us is the high vulnerability levels that climate change is causing in human systems. The long-term change of climatic elements from previously accepted means is causing environmental and human systems to change. According to state of environment reports issued by the Ugandan National Environmental Management Authority, the main issues related to the changing climate include industrial pollution, widespread bush burning, the inefficient use of fuel and poorly planned transport networks, all of which result in high emission levels.

Are there any government initiatives on climate change mitigation?

There is a mitigation project being implemented under the Ministry of Water and Environment – Farm Income Enhancement and Forest Conservation – which gives out free seedlings to be planted to enhance the absorption capacity of the soil. There is the Sawlog Production Grant Scheme, aimed at increasing the incomes of rural people through commercial tree planting by local communities as well as medium and large-scale businesses, which at the same time helps to mitigate climate change effects through intensive reforestation. There are also several solar projects in the Mayuge, Soroti and Tororo districts, which have increased the country’s solar production, and a wetland project – supported by the Green Climate Fund – supporting wetlands conservation and addressing wetland degradation.

Other relevant interventions include the implementation of gravity water flow schemes to enable water supply without use of energy sources; the development of highways with water drainage channels and solar lights and congestion-free road networks that will enable the smooth flow of traffic and cut down on emissions from automobiles; and the adoption of electric or emissions-free motorcycles to further reduce emissions from fossil energy sources, which the Ministry of Energy is working on alongside the private sector.

What kind of work does ECO do on these issues?

ECO’s work is aimed at enhancing the resilience of communities to the impacts of climate change, strengthening disaster risk reduction, enhancing good governance and management of natural resources, especially in the extractives sector, and promoting ecosystems management and restoration.

For instance, as part of a project aimed at promoting and supporting community-conserved areas in the Lake Victoria Basin, we have provided support for legal fishing practices, promoted and provided training on sustainable farming promotion and supported good local resource governance practices. Another project is aimed at increasing transparency, social inclusion, accountability and responsiveness among those responsible for mining in the Karamoja region.

In these and in many other projects we are working on, we always seek drive to change by putting people at risk at the centre and building on local and traditional resources and knowledge. We try to link the humanitarian and development domains by focusing on livelihoods. We work to ensure adaptive planning, trying to link local realities with global processes and integrate disciplines and approaches to encompass different risks. We partner with communities, civil society organisations, government agencies, universities and research institutes, the private sector and the media.

How do you connect with the broader international climate movement?

We connect with the global climate movement through the Climate Action Network-Uganda, which encompasses over 200 national CSOs. We currently chair this. This allows us to participate in COP meetings as observers.

We also participate in the pre-COP consultative meetings organised by the Ugandan government in preparation for international climate change negotiations. In these meetings, we help assess progress in dealing with climate change and complying with our nationally determined contributions.

We turn our lessons learned into advocacy actions that can be adapted for international climate change forums. Some local problems can feed into the national agenda, be turned into policy actions and go on to influence international policy actions.

What hopes, if any, do you have for COP26 to make progress on climate change mitigation efforts?

We hope that COP26 will come up with a new marketing platform for emission trading to replace the Clean Development Mechanism, which allowed countries with an emission-reduction or emission-limitation commitment under the Kyoto Protocol to implement emission-reduction projects in developing countries. We also hope it will result in the commitment of more funds to accelerate the scaling up of renewable energies.

These international processes are relevant as long as they contribute towards the financing of climate mitigation efforts and produce novel funding strategies, such as the Green Climate Fund and the Adaptation Fund, and its pilot programme to foster innovation in adaptation practices in vulnerable countries. Coming from a developing country, I believe that it is critical to increase adaptation funding immediately, since the disruptive impacts of climate change on human systems are already apparent.

What one change would you like to see – in the world or in your community – to help address the climate crisis?

A key priority is to address vulnerability at the community level. Our vision is that of a community with enhanced adaptive capacity to address climate change impacts and its subsequent effects. This can be done by increasing access to working technologies and providing mitigation and adaptation funding through community structures.

Civic space in Uganda is rated as ‘repressedby the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Ecological Christian Organisation through its website or Facebook page, and follow @EcoChristianOrg on Twitter.

 

MEXICO: ‘Alliances, public debate & diversification of voices are indispensable in the struggle to expand rights’

CIVICUS speaks with Verónica Esparza and Rebeca Lorea, respectively lawyer and researcher and Public Policy Advocacy Coordinator at Information Group on Reproductive Choice (GIRE, Grupo de Información en Reproducción Elegida), about the significance of recent Supreme Court rulings on abortion rights, and sexual and reproductive rights in Mexico. GIRE is a feminist and human rights organisation that has been active for almost 30 years to ensure that women and others with the capacity to bear children can exercise their reproductive rights.

Veronica Esparza y Rebeca Lorea From left to right: Verónica Esparza & Rebeca Lorea

What is the situation of sexual and reproductive rights in Mexico?

Currently, women and other people with the capacity to bear children do not find optimal conditions in Mexico to decide about their reproductive life: there are a high number of pregnant girls and adolescents, affected by a serious context of sexual violence that the state continues to fail to remedy; obstacles to access services such as emergency contraception and abortion in cases of rape; the criminalisation of women and other pregnant people who have abortions; daily obstetric violence during pregnancy, childbirth and postpartum; and women who die in childbirth from preventable causes.

The structural failures of the health system are compounded by the fact that the majority of people in Mexico are employed in the informal sector, which limits their access to social security and therefore to benefits such as maternity leave and childcare. Women, who continue to play the biggest role in household and care work, bear the brunt of this lack of access to services, which particularly affects those who experience multiple discriminations, such as girls and adolescents, Indigenous women and people with disabilities.

What does GIRE understand reproductive justice to mean, and how do you work to advance it?

GIRE understands reproductive justice as the set of social, political and economic factors that give women and others who can get pregnant power and self-determination over their reproductive life. To achieve this, it is essential for the state to guarantee these people’s human rights, taking into account the discrimination and structural inequalities that affect their health, rights and control over their lives, and for it to generate optimal conditions for autonomous decision-making.

It is no longer sufficient to understand reproductive rights in terms of legally defined individual freedoms, while ignoring the barriers that limit the effective access of certain populations to these rights. Reproductive justice is a more inclusive analytical framework because it links reproductive rights to the social, political and economic inequalities that affect people’s ability to access reproductive health services and effectively exercise their reproductive rights.

GIRE has worked for almost 30 years to defend and promote reproductive justice in Mexico, making visible the normative and structural obstacles that women and others with the capacity to bear children face in fully exercising their human rights, and promoting change through a comprehensive strategy that includes legal support, communications, the demand for comprehensive reparation for violations of reproductive rights, including non-repetition guarantees at both the federal and local levels, and the collection of data to feed into our work.

Our priority issues are contraception, abortion, obstetric violence, maternal death, assisted reproduction and work-life balance. While we focus on sex and gender discrimination faced by women and girls in Mexico, our quest for reproductive justice recognises that these variables intersect with other forms of discrimination, such as class, age, disability and ethnicity. In addition, we recognise that the discrimination faced by women and others with reproductive capacity affects not only them, but also their communities, and particularly their families.

What is the significance of the two recent Supreme Court rulings on reproductive rights?

In the struggle for legal, safe and free abortion in Mexico, the National Supreme Court of Justice (SCJN) has played a fundamental role. Since 2007 it has issued several rulings recognising access to abortion as a human rights matter.

In April 2018, the SCJN granted amparos – constitutional protection lawsuits – to two young female rape victims in cases that GIRE had brought forward. The two women had been denied abortions by public health services in Morelos and Oaxaca despite the fact that this is a right for victims of sexual violence. The Court stated that this denial constituted a violation of the women’s human rights and that health authorities are obliged to respond immediately and efficiently to these requests, so as not to allow the consequences of the rape to continue over time. This implies that health authorities cannot implement internal mechanisms or policies that hinder or delay the realisation of this right. With these rulings, the SCJN reaffirmed the legal obligation of health service providers to guarantee access to abortion in cases of rape.

On 15 May 2019, in another case promoted by GIRE, the SCJN granted an amparo to a woman who had been denied an abortion despite the fact that continuing her pregnancy could cause her serious health complications. With this ruling, the SCJN recognised that the right to health includes access to abortion and ruled on the particular reproductive health service needs of women, highlighting the serious consequences of denial of termination of pregnancy for health reasons.

On 7 July 2021, the First Chamber of the SCJN ruled on another case joined by GIRE, of a young woman with cerebral palsy and severe limitations on her ability to carry out tasks essential to daily life, which were aggravated by a precarious economic environment. As a result of a seizure, her family had taken her to a hospital in Chiapas, where they were informed that she was 23 weeks pregnant. The pregnancy had been the result of rape when she was 17 years old. A request was made to terminate the pregnancy, but the hospital director rejected the request on the grounds that the 90-day gestation deadline established by the state penal code had passed. The SCJN pointed out that this time limit ignored the nature of sexual aggression and its consequences on women’s health, and reflected a total disregard for the human dignity and autonomy of a woman whose pregnancy, far from the result of a free and consensual decision, was the result of an arbitrary and violent act.

Finally, in September 2021, the Plenary of the SCJN analysed two pieces of legislation that had a negative impact on the right to choose by women and others with the capacity to become pregnant. First, it analysed an action of unconstitutionality (148/2017) on the criminal legislation of the state of Coahuila, which the Attorney General’s Office had considered to be in violation of women’s human rights for classifying abortion as a crime.

In a landmark ruling, on 7 September the SCJN unanimously decided that the absolute criminalisation of abortion is unconstitutional; it became the first constitutional court in the region to issue such ruling. The SCJN pointed out that, although the product of pregnancy deserves protection that increases as the pregnancy progresses, this protection cannot disregard the rights of women and other pregnant persons to reproductive freedom, enshrined in article 4 of the Constitution. In other words, it ruled the absolute criminalisation of abortion to be unconstitutional.

This ruling had several implications. Firstly, the Congress of the state of Coahuila will have to reform its criminal legislation to decriminalise consensual abortion. Secondly, it establishes a precedent, meaning that the central arguments of the ruling must now be applied by all judges in Mexico, both federal and local. From now on, when deciding future cases, they will have to consider as unconstitutional the criminal laws of all the federal entities that criminalise abortion in an absolute manner. In addition, the congresses of the states where voluntary abortion is still restricted and punished now have a set of criteria endorsed by the SCJN to act to decriminalise it.

In the same week, the Court also analysed actions of unconstitutionality (106 and 107/2018) on the recognition of the ‘right to life from conception’ established in the Constitution of Sinaloa. These actions had been promoted by a legislative minority and the National Human Rights Commission. Unanimously, the SCJN considered that the states do not have the competence to define the origin of human life and the concepts of personhood and right-holding status, which is the exclusive domain of the National Constitution. Furthermore, it considered that personhood cannot be granted to an embryo or foetus and then be used as the basis for the adoption of measures restricting the reproductive autonomy of women and other pregnant persons; this is unconstitutional.

Based on precedents set by both the Supreme Court and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the SCJN established that the main efforts of the state to protect life in gestation as a constitutionally valuable good should be directed towards effectively protecting the rights of women and other pregnant persons, guaranteeing the rights of those continuing pregnancies they desire, providing the necessary conditions for dignified births, without obstetric violence, and eradicating the causes that provoke maternal deaths.

What are the prospects for achieving legal, safe and free abortion in all of Mexico in the near future?

In Mexico as in the region, there have been several successes over the past decade in the struggle for access to legal, safe and free abortion, although many barriers and challenges persist.

In our country strong stigma still prevails around abortion, based on the idea of motherhood as women’s inevitable fate. This idea continues to permeate all state institutions and laws, and forms the basis for not only the social but also the legal criminalisation of abortion, which particularly affects women and other pregnant persons living in situations of violence, economic marginalisation and lack of access to reproductive information. It also sends the strong message that the state plays a role in reproductive decisions that should belong to the private sphere.

In most of Mexico, as in Latin America, voluntary abortion is still considered a crime. For decades, feminist activists, collectives and organisations have pushed for the repeal of these laws, pointing out that consensual abortion is part of the reproductive life of women and others with the capacity to bear children, and that criminalisation does not inhibit its practice but rather means that in certain contexts it will be carried out in an unsafe manner.

From the 1970s onwards, Mexican feminists have raised the issue of access to abortion as a matter of social justice and public health and as a democratic aspiration. Despite the forcefulness of their arguments, it took 35 years to achieve – and only in Mexico City – the decriminalisation of abortion during the first trimester of pregnancy. That victory was replicated more than a decade later in three states: Oaxaca, Hidalgo and Veracruz.

In the short term, achieving decriminalisation at the national level is complicated because each of the 32 federal entities has its own penal code, so it would still be necessary for each state to reform its penal and health legislation to stop considering abortion as a crime and then recognise it as a health service and provide public institutions with the human and financial resources to ensure access.

In practice, in recent years both the narrative and the reality of abortion in Mexico have changed due to the increasing prevalence of abortion pills. A few decades ago, clandestine abortion – that is, abortion performed outside the law – was considered to be synonymous with unsafe abortion, but this is no longer the case. Now there are safe abortion support networks, and in contexts of legal restriction, during the first weeks of pregnancy women and others with the capacity to gestate are able to have an abortion with pills at home, without the need to resort to a health institution.

The victory of the Argentinian women’s movement in December 2020 has shown that alliances, public debate and the diversification of voices are indispensable in the struggle to expand rights. The exponential increase in safe abortion initiatives is an expression of the achievements of the women’s movement’s struggle for human rights and reproductive justice. The Green Wave, the movement whose distinctive colour became synonymous with the struggle for abortion rights in Argentina, has spread in Mexico and although access to legal, safe and free abortion throughout the country is still a long way off, in recent years the issue has started to be discussed in various legislative bodies, even in states with highly restrictive legal frameworks.

What kind of additional support would Mexican civil society need from its peers in the region and globally to achieve its goals?

Social support for the causes we feminist human rights organisations defend is indispensable to obtain achievements such as the SCJN ruling of 7 September 2021. The dissemination of our work and the amplification of our voices is also extremely valuable. Local, national and regional networking to share experiences and good practices has also proven to be a tool from which we all benefit. Similarly, connections with other struggles through reflecting about their intersections can strengthen human rights movements.

Civic space in Mexico is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with GIRE through its website or Facebook page, and follow @gire_mx on Twitter. 

 

COP26: ‘We hope that at COP26 words will translate into commitments that will change behaviours’

In the run-up to the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26), which will take place in Glasgow, UK between 31 October and 12 November 2021, CIVICUS is interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about the environmental challenges they face in their contexts, the actions they are undertaking to tackle them and their expectations for the upcoming summit.

CIVICUS speaks with Theophile Hatagekimana, Executive Secretary of Rwanda Environment Awareness Organisation (REAO), a Rwandan civil society organisation that works to create awareness about climate change and environmental issues and to promote sound environmental management policies.

Theophile Hategekimana

What’s the key environmental issue in your community that you’re working on?

We work on climate change resilience and mitigation with respect for human rights. In recent years we have started collaborating with government efforts to reduce the amount of fuel used for cooking at the household level. We have joined forces with the Rwandan government in this and other initiatives because they are being very proactive in the area of climate change mitigation.

Within this project, we teach vulnerable people, including young women, poor women, adolescent single mothers, and victims of sexual abuse, how to use improved cooking methods such as stoves instead of firewood, which not only saves trees and reduces their exposure to toxic emissions in their homes, but also saves them a lot of time. We encourage them to allocate the time saved in the process to self-development activities including education and social interaction, as well as to engage in income-generating activities.

We also plant trees to restore forests and we plant and distribute agroforestry trees, which make the soil more resilient and able to tackle extreme climatic events such as drought and torrential rain, as well as providing food, forage, industrial raw materials, lumber, fuel, and mulch, helping diversify diets and income. One of our projects focuses on purchasing seeds and planting them in schools, within the framework of a programme that includes ecological literacy, the demonstration of environmental principles by developing green practices on a day-to-day basis, and the development of environmental ethics.

Though it might seem that we work only on environment protection, we are in fact very concerned with the human rights dimension of environmental protection, so we oppose the practice of displacing people without proper compensation. We raise awareness among the public about their rights as provided in law and support them to claim them when necessary. A case in point is that of the Batwa Indigenous people who are often expelled from their land, so we provide them the tools so that they will know their rights as provided in international and Rwandan law.

How do you connect with the broader international climate movement?

Many activists, including myself, maintain personal connections with international organisations and peers around the world. But also at the organisational level, we try to connect with other groups that have a similar mission to ours and take part in climate and environmental networks and coalitions. REAO is a member of the Rwanda Climate Change and Development Network, a national association of environment defenders’ organisations. At the international level, we network with other organisations that work on climate change protection and mitigation, and we have worked in partnership with the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the United Nations Development Programme, among others.

What hopes, if any, do you have for COP26 to make any progress in climate change mitigation?

We welcome all international efforts aimed at making coordinated decisions to protect the environment and improve the wellbeing of communities, and we are hopeful that COP26 will result in the adoption of concrete measures to address climate change and environmental degradation. At the discursive level, of course, all that national leaders say on the global stage is exactly what we want to hear; none of it goes against our mission, vision and values. We hope that at COP26 those words will translate into commitments that will result in positive change in their countries’ behaviour on climate issues.

What one change would you like to see – in the world or in your community – to help address the climate crisis?

On the global level, we want to see action by the countries that are the biggest polluters aimed at reducing it substantially. Countries like China, India, the USA and others should take clear decisions and act on climate change issues or we will all face the consequences of their inaction. We hope that big polluters will pay for climate solutions and the bill will be settled.

At the local level, we hope to see the living conditions of less advantaged communities improve and adapt to climate change with the support of government policies and funding.

Civic space in Rwanda is rated asrepressedby the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Rwanda Environment Awareness Organisation through its website and Facebook page. 

 

EL SALVADOR: ‘The president’s aim is to concentrate power’

CIVICUS speaks with Eduardo Escobar, executive director of Acción Ciudadana, an organisation that promotes transparency, accountability and the fight against corruption in El Salvador, about the political situation since President Nayib Bukele’s party won the February 2021 legislative election.

Eduardo Escobar

Do you think that democracy and the rule of law are being eroded in El Salvador?

We should first ask ourselves whether El Salvador ever had a full democracy with the rule of law. If we reduce democracy to its electoral dimension, we could say that the will of the people has been respected and elections have become the only road to power. Despite some irregularities, we have had democracy in that sense. Since 2009, some progress was also made in terms of the balance of powers: we got an independent Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court, an independent Institute for Access to Public Information (IAIP) and a prosecutor’s office that was striving to do its job.

Thus, when Nayib Bukele became president in 2019, there was a functioning electoral democracy, with some important advances being made in the republican dimension and the rule of law. President Bukele interrupted this process, constantly attacking the freedom of expression, the freedom of the press and the freedom of association. In the context of the pandemic, the government illegitimately and unconstitutionally violated the freedom of movement. What little progress had been made was completely lost.

After the legislative elections held on 28 February 2021, which Bukele won by a wide margin, legal certainty ceased to exist. As soon as the new legislative assembly formed in early May, it dismissed the judges of the Constitutional Chamber and the head of the attorney general’s office. We had come to trust that the Constitutional Chamber would protect us from arbitrariness, but that certainty vanished in an instant. Shortly afterwards, the new Constitutional Chamber enabled the president’s immediate re-election for a second term, so far prohibited by the Salvadoran Constitution.

Have the opposition or civil society been able to do anything about recent changes?

The opposition was not smart. Until May 2021 it held an absolute majority in the legislative assembly but failed to take advantage of it. Opposition parties didn’t think they needed to hurry because they never thought they would lose. Now they have become irrelevant. Their presence is merely testimonial because the president’s party, Nuevas Ideas, and its allies have a supermajority. The opposition is limited to making statements and peddling proposals that everyone knows will not prosper.

Most of civil society has been closed off from participating in the legislative process. It is not that in the past every civil society proposal was approved – in fact, they were often not even discussed – but there were certain thematic areas where civil society participation was vital to pass a law. That is over: now only pro-government organisations are invited and admitted to committee sessions. Independent civil society has little influence over public policy because the government does not understand its role and is unwilling to integrate its input into decision-making. Thus, it has been reduced to a voice of denunciation with no power to reverse illegal or unconstitutional decisions, as there are no independent institutions left to react to its demands.

President Bukele campaigned on an anti-corruption programme. Has there been any progress in this regard?

The instrumentalisation of the issue of corruption was one of the bases of Bukele’s victory; his campaign slogan was ‘give back what you stole’. The issue of corruption is broad and complex, but that slogan was clear and precise, and appealed to many people. But it was only a campaign strategy.

Once in power, he deactivated all existing anti-corruption mechanisms, disregarding IAIP resolutions, preventing audits by the Court of Auditors of government ministries, denying the prosecutor’s office access to public bodies involved in corruption cases, and finally removing the prosecutor and imposing one of his unconditional supporters, who even has legal complaints filed against him. We have no way of knowing the government’s expenditure, particularly those related to the pandemic. The administration has been so opaque that we don’t even have reliable data on how many people were infected with COVID-19, how many were hospitalised and how many died. The government does not provide information, it hides it. And when there are revelations or allegations of corruption, it attacks and defames the whistle-blower.

How has this situation affected Acción Ciudadana’s work?

Acción Ciudadana promotes political reform, transparency, accountability, citizen participation and the fight against corruption and impunity. Hence, much of the work we do is monitoring: we monitor political financing, internal political party elections and electoral propaganda; the work of the attorney general’s office, transparency in public administration and obstacles to access information; and the functioning of institutional mechanisms for the prevention, detection and punishment of corruption.

To do our investigations we need access to public information, but the avenues of access are being closed. For example, the law establishes that information on travel by public officials must be public; however, the government has decided that this information is to be kept confidential for seven years. In this particular case there has been some pressure in the media and on social media, and the government changed its criteria and now withholds this information for up to 30 days after each trip, supposedly to protect the security of the concerned official. This is still illegal.

When we are denied information that should be public, we can no longer turn to the bodies that safeguard access to information because they are either co-opted or frightened. For example, some political parties – starting with the ruling party – do not hand over their financial information to us. We have repeatedly denounced this to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal for almost three years, but the Tribunal does not accept our complaints. So when a party does not provide us with information, we no longer appeal to the Tribunal, and when faced with an unconstitutional law, we no longer appeal to the Constitutional Chamber.

We have also lost much of our advocacy capacity. Normally our monitoring would lead to legal complaints and criminal investigations. But nowadays the most we can do is publish the results of our investigations in some media outlets and offer them to the public. We can no longer feed them into institutional processes. For example, we found that in the 2019 presidential campaign a company donated US$1 million to the Grand Alliance for National Unity, Bukele’s electoral coalition, and in 2020 the government awarded that company a public-private partnership contract to manage and expand the airport. We see this as a case of conflict of interest, but we cannot take the issue to the prosecutor’s office or the Court of Auditors and ask them to investigate.

President Bukele seems difficult to classify ideologically. What is his programme?

If I had to classify the president’s party, I would say that it is a catch-all party, without an ideologically defined political project. Until he was expelled in 2017, Bukele belonged to the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, and he portrayed himself as a revolutionary leftist who embraced Hugo Chávez and spoke of social justice. Then, as president-elect, he gave a speech at the Heritage Foundation, one of the most conservative think tanks in the USA, and he couldn’t have sounded more neoliberal. He has always claimed that the issues that need solutions were not a matter of ideology, and Nuevas Ideas was set up with the logic that everyone could fit in it, regardless of whether they were on the left or on the right. And that’s how it has been; there’s a bit of everything in there.

Bukele does not have an ideological programme; his aim is to concentrate power. He can take right-wing or left-wing measures, but not because he has one ideology or the other, but because it happens to be what benefits him the most. For example, most of the pension system in El Salvador is private and he will probably nationalise it, not because he believes that this essential public service should be managed by the state, but because the Pension Fund moves millions of dollars, and the government wants to get its hands on it because it is short of resources, in debt and without further sources of funding, since the possibility of an agreement with the International Monetary Fund has just collapsed. Of course, privatisation is being presented as an act of justice towards pensioners, who receive miserable pensions. Based on this measure, an outside observer might think that his is a leftist government, but this is not an ideological measure, but rather one made out of convenience. The government is driven by the pursuit of political and economic gain, which is why it often appears erratic or improvised. There is no vision to guide the government’s planning.

What are the causes of the protests currently faced by the government?

The protests that began in early September erupted in reaction to the adoption of bitcoin as an official currency alongside the US dollar. Many people who support and value Bukele have opposed this measure, because they thought it could adversely affect them. This is the first government measure that has been widely rejected, and I think it was not only because of opposition to the cryptocurrency, but also because of the way decisions are being made, in the absence of sufficient information, debate and participation. Bukele made the announcement of this measure at an event in Miami on a Saturday, and the following Monday the bill was submitted to Congress. By Tuesday it had been passed. Everything was resolved in three or four days, amid total secrecy.

Unfortunately, the reaction on this issue has been an exception, possibly because it is a subject that many people don’t understand much about, which causes fear. Generally speaking, most people applaud the president, his handling of the pandemic and his Territorial Control Plan, which is a strategy for militarising citizen security. This is because the narrative constructed by the government has been successful. For example, when the judges of the Constitutional Chamber were dismissed – a manoeuvre that civil society denounced as a coup d’état – the government said that the corrupt had been thrown out and many people believed it. There were people who came out to protest, not only from organised civil society, but also citizens in general, but they were a minority. It is difficult to counter the official narrative.

What support does Salvadoran civil society need to be able to play its full role?

It is quite complicated. Journalists manage to get information leaked to them and get their stories out, but we are not journalists. To get the information we need to play our accountability role we look for it on institutional portals and make information requests. Any effort to get public institutions to disclose information a bit more would help us.

We also need support in terms of personal and digital security, as well as in the area of communications, because evidently civil society has not been able to communicate our messages adequately and we have not been able to build an alternative narrative to the official one.

Civic space in El Salvador is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Acción Ciudadana through its Facebook page and follow @CiudadanaAccio1 and @esec76 on Twitter. 

 

COP26: ‘In response to pressure from below, COP26 should develop interventions for just climate action’

In the run-up to the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26), which will take place in Glasgow, UK between 31 October and 12 November 2021, CIVICUS is interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about the environmental challenges they face in their contexts, the actions they are undertaking to tackle them and their expectations for the upcoming summit.

CIVICUS speaks with Caroline Owashaba, team leader at Action for Youth Development Uganda and volunteer coordinator of the Girls Not Brides Uganda Alliance.

Caroline Owashaba

What is the key environmental issue in your country that you are working on?

A key issue in Uganda is the use of large quantities of single-use plastic bags, which have extreme environmental effects. Plastic bags take many years to decompose; they release toxic substances into the soil and, if burned, into the air; they block drains and may cause flooding; and they kill animals that eat them confusing them for food or that get entangled in them.

A measure to ban the manufacture, sale and use of plastic bags was passed back in 2018, but manufacturers lobbied hard to get more time before the ban went into effect, and as a result its enforcement has been slow and largely ineffective. So earlier in 2021, the government decided to enforce new measures to that effect, alongside a bigger package of environmental measures. 

While the government works to enforce the ban on single-use plastic bags, we are working on an initiative to produce alternative, eco-friendly and biodegradable materials. This is quite urgent, because right now, if the ban on plastic bags was actually enforced, the supply of biodegradable packaging options would by no means be enough.

Action for Youth Development Uganda (ACOYDE) is implementing a project named CHACHA (Children for Alternative Change), which uses banana fibre to produce a variety of useful items, such as door and table mats, pillows, interior decorative items and, of course, bags. The waste generated from the banana fibre extraction and the manufacture of these items is recycled to produce high-quality charcoal briquettes that are used as a heat source by young people and women involved in the project in both their homes and workplaces, reducing consumption of fuel while increasing their household income. 

The whole community takes part in the production process, because they are the major suppliers of banana stems. And the project enables young people, and especially young women, to earn a living for their families. There are possibilities for its expansion, as the emergence of eco-hotels has created an increased demand for eco-friendly products 

How do you engage with the broader international climate movement?

We have engaged with the international movement through regional climate change exchanges such as Africa Climate Change Week and as part of the Climate Smart Agriculture Youth Network. We also follow the discussions of the Least Developed Countries (LDC) Group on adaptation, mitigation and financing.

It has also worked the other way around: ACOYDE has supported efforts to domesticate the international climate framework and fed into the National Climate Change Bill, which was passed in April 2021. The new bill gave the force of law to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Paris Agreement, to which Uganda is a signatory. We then worked to localise the bill. It is key for it to be effectively implemented at a local level because it will help us overcome the climate change injustices in our communities.

We also connect with the broader climate movement from a gender perspective. I am personally interested in the intersections between gender and climate change. In previous COPs, I was able to contribute to the Gender Action Plan (GAP) that has guided and influenced issues of women and youth in UNFCCC negotiation processes. I participated in GAP progress discussions on gender balance, coherence, gender-responsive implementation, monitoring, and reporting. I have also been active in the Uganda National Gender Working Group and other national climate change processes to ensure the domestication of global standards of gender and financing consistent with the Paris Agreement, including by reporting on the implementation of the GAP provisions in Uganda.

What hopes, if any, do you have for COP26?

COP26 should offer spaces to take gender issues to the global level and provide further opportunities for discussion. It should increase women’s participation, undertake gender mainstreaming and ensure GAPs are implemented. It should help amplify the voices of women in climate change negotiations. Women are doing much of the heavy lifting at the grassroots level, but they get too little in return, not just because too little goes to their pockets but also because they continue to be underrepresented and therefore their voices go unheard.

International forums such as COP26 should provide spaces for grassroots participation and, in response to those pressures from below, COP26 should develop strong interventions for just climate action that are respectful of human rights, including Indigenous people’s rights and the promotion of gender equality. 

Civic space in Uganda is rated as ‘repressedby the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Action for Youth Development Uganda through its website and Facebook page.

 

PAPUA NEW GUINEA: ‘The mining company must address its human rights and environmental legacy’

Keren AdamsCIVICUS speaks with Keren Adams, Legal Director of the Human Rights Law Centre (HRLC), about the victory recently obtained in holding the British-Australian mining company Rio Tinto accountable for the multiple human rights violations caused by its operations in Bougainville, Papua New Guinea. Established in 2006, the HRLC is an Australian civil society organisation that uses strategic legal action, policy solutions and advocacy to support people and communities to eliminate inequality and injustice and build a fairer, more compassionate Australia.

What tactics does the HRLC use to hold corporations accountable? 

The HRLC uses a mixture of strategic litigation, high-impact media work, campaigning and shareholder engagement to hold corporations accountable for the human rights consequences of their actions. We work in partnership with affected communities and workers to seek justice and remedy for corporate human rights abuses. We also advocate to improve regulation and oversight over the activities of Australian companies to ensure they uphold their obligation to respect human rights, wherever they operate.

What were the impacts of the Rio Tinto operations on Bougainville Island, and how did the HRLC support the struggle of local communities for justice and accountability?

Rio Tinto’s former Panguna mine on Bougainville left a massive legacy of environmental and social devastation on the island. Panguna had been one of the world’s largest copper and gold mines. During its operation, between 1972 and 1989, over a billion tonnes of waste from the mine were dumped directly into the Kawerong river downstream. The environmental destruction this caused, and its associated social consequences, led to a local uprising that forcibly closed the mine in 1989 and triggered a 10-year civil war on the island. In 2016, Rio Tinto divested from the mine and walked away without accepting any responsibility for this legacy.

As a result, communities all along the Jaba-Kawerong river valley continue to live surrounded by vast mounds of tailings – mine waste – left over from the mine’s operation. Their water sources are heavily polluted with copper and with every rainfall, huge volumes of tailings erode into the rivers, flooding farms and forests downstream with polluted mud, displacing villagers and destroying peoples’ livelihoods. Many people in the area live with serious health problems, including skin diseases and gastrointestinal and respiratory infections, which local health workers attribute to their exposure to pollution. An estimated 14,000 people live downstream of the mine.

In 2020, the HRLC assisted 156 local residents from several villages downstream of the mine to file a human rights complaint against the company with the Australian government, alleging serious breaches of the company’s human rights and environmental obligations. In response to the complaint, Rio Tinto agreed to re-engage with the communities about these issues and in July 2021 committed to funding an independent environmental and human rights impact assessment of the mine to identify impacts and risks posed by the mine and develop recommendations for what needs to be done to address them.

What do you hope will be the outcome of the process once the impact assessment is complete?

The communities we are working with called for Rio Tinto to fund the impact assessment as a first critical step towards addressing the massive and ongoing environmental and human rights problems being caused by the mine. But it is only the first step. They hope and expect that once the impact assessment is complete, Rio Tinto will contribute to a substantial, independently managed fund to help address the harms caused by the mine and assist long-term rehabilitation efforts.

These communities urgently need access to clean water for drinking and bathing. They need solutions to stop the vast mounds of tailings eroding into the rivers and flooding their villages, farms and fishing areas. They need their children to be able to walk to school without having to wade through treacherous areas of quicksand created by the mine waste. These are just some examples of what remediation means in real terms for the people living with these impacts.

What challenges lay ahead in achieving rightful compensation and long-term rehabilitation?

The extent of the environmental destruction at Panguna and the myriad health and social problems caused by the mine, left unaddressed for over 30 years, mean that substantial resources and a long-term commitment will be needed to find solutions and undertake proper rehabilitation of the site.

So far, Rio Tinto has only committed to funding the independent assessment of the mine. While we see this as an important development, it remains to be seen how serious the company is about addressing its legacy on the island and providing remedy in accordance with its human rights and environmental obligations. We will be continuing to work with local communities and other stakeholders like the Autonomous Bougainville Government to ensure that they do so.

Civic space in Papua New Guinea is rated as ‘obstructedby the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Human Rights Law Centre through its website or Facebook page, and follow @rightsagenda on Twitter. 

 

INNOVATION: ‘Conventional human rights structures and practices may no longer be optimal or sufficient’

Ed RekoshCIVICUS speaks with Edwin Rekosh, co-founder and managing partner of Rights CoLab, about the effects on civil society of the emergence of digital infrastructures and the importance of innovation and digital rights. Rights CoLab is a multinational collaborative organisation that seeks to develop bold strategies to advance human rights across the fields of civil society, technology, business and finance. 

What does Rights CoLab do?

Rights CoLab generates experimental and collaborative strategies to address current challenges to human rights from a systemic perspective. In particular, we investigate and facilitate new ways of organising civic engagement and leveraging markets to bring about transformational change.

We see opportunity to support civic engagement by building on trends outside the traditional philanthropic space. For example, we are interested in organisational models coming out of social enterprise, where there may be commercial revenue to sustain operations. We are also interested in the use of technology to reduce costs and achieve civil society goals without a formal organisational structure, through running a website or an app for instance. In addition, we are exploring generational change in the way younger people view their careers, with increasing numbers of young people seeking a work life that blends non-profit and for-profit career goals. We believe it’s imperative to develop more effective ways to collaborate, especially across borders, professional perspectives and fields of expertise.

Among the challenges we seek to address is a resurgence of authoritarianism and populist politics, which has reinforced an emphasis on national sovereignty and the demonisation of local civil society organisations (CSOs) as perceived agents of antagonistic foreign values and interests. We also seek to address shifting geopolitical realities that are undermining the human rights infrastructure built in the last half century as well as the long-term legacies of colonial power dynamics. And we aim to develop new approaches to reining in the negative human rights impact of increasing corporate power, particularly in ways that have been aggravated by the pandemic.

What was the inspiration behind the foundation of Rights CoLab?

The decision to establish Rights CoLab was premised on the understanding that the human rights field has reached a mature stage, filled with challenges that raise questions about structures and practices that have become conventional, but may no longer be optimal or sufficient.

I was a human rights lawyer who had transitioned from legal practice in a large law firm to working for a human rights organisation in Washington, DC. The experience I had managing a project in Romania in the early 1990s completely transformed how I viewed human rights and my role as an American lawyer. I started working hand in hand with locally based CSOs, playing a key role as a behind-the-scenes supporter and connector of civil society, linking CSOs to each other and to resources, and supporting the implementation of other solidarity-based strategies.

Soon after, I founded and then served as president of PILnet, a global network for public interest and private sector lawyers within the civil society space. Around the time I decided to leave that role, I was becoming focused on the closing space for civil society that I saw happening around me, particularly affecting work we were doing in Russia and China. I wound up reconnecting with Paul Rissman and Joanne Bauer, the two other co-founders of Rights CoLab, and we began comparing notes about our respective concerns and ideas about the future of human rights. The three of us set up Rights CoLab as a way to continue the conversation, looking at current challenges in human rights from three very different perspectives. We wanted to create a space where we could continue that dialogue and bring in others to foster experimentation with new approaches.

How much has the civil society arena changed in recent years due to the emergence of digital infrastructures?

It has changed dramatically. One key consequence of the emergent digital infrastructure is that the public sphere has expanded in myriad ways. The role of the media is less constrained by borders and there is much less intermediation through editorial control. That represents both opportunity and threat for human rights. Individuals and groups can influence public discourse with fewer barriers to entry, but on the other hand, the public sphere is no longer regulated by governments in predictable ways, which erodes traditional means of accountability and makes it difficult to ensure a fair playing field for the marketplace of ideas. Digital technology also allows for solidarity across borders in ways that are much less constrained by some of the practical limitations of the past. In short, although new threats to human rights stem from the emergence of digital infrastructures, digital tools also offer opportunity.

How crucial are digital rights and infrastructures to the work of civil society?

In a lot of ways, digital rights are secondary to the structures, practices and values of civil society. Civil society is inherently derived from respect for human dignity, the creative spirit of human endeavour and the politics of solidarity. The modes in which people organise with each other in order to engage with the world around them depends primarily on socially oriented values, skills and practices. Digital technology can only provide tools, which do not inherently possess any of those characteristics. In that sense, digital technology is neither necessary to civil society organising, nor is it sufficient. Nevertheless, digital technologies can enhance civil society organising, both by exploiting some of the new opportunities inherent in the emerging digital infrastructure as well as by assuring the digital rights we need in order to avoid negative human rights consequences from the emergent digital infrastructure. 

We are making efforts to identify civil society approaches that can help address these issues. One example is Chequeado, an Argentine non-profit media outlet that is dedicated to verification of public discourse, countering disinformation and promoting access to information in Latin American societies. Chequeado, which exists as a tech platform and app, was able to adapt rapidly to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic by developing a fact-checker dashboard to dispel misinformation on the origins, transmission and treatment of COVID-19 and combat misinformation that leads to ethnic discrimination and growing mistrust in science. Therefore, while understanding the potential uses of digital technology is essential, so is keeping the focus on elements that have little to do with technology per se, such as values, solidarity and principle-based norms and institutions.

How does Rights CoLab promote innovation in civil society?

We pursue civil society innovation in several dimensions: how civil society groups organise themselves, including their basic structures and revenue models; how they use technology; and changes needed by the international civil society ecosystem to mitigate the negative effects of counter-productive power dynamics that stem from colonialism.

For the first two dimensions, we have partnered with other resource hubs to co-create a geo-located map of case studies illustrating innovation in organisational forms and revenue models. We have developed a typology for this growing database of examples that emphasises alternatives to the traditional model for locally based civil society groups – in other words, alternatives to cross-border charitable funding. With our partners, we are also developing training methodologies and communication strategies that aim to facilitate further experimentation and wider adoption of alternative models for structuring and financing civil society activities.

Our effort to improve the international civil society ecosystem relies on a systems-change project that we have launched under the name RINGO (Reimagining the International NGO). A key focus of the RINGO project is the intermediation between the large international CSOs and more local civic spaces. The hypothesis is that international CSOs can be a barrier or an enabler to a stronger local civil society, and the way it’s organised now – with dominant roles concentrated in the global north and west – needs a rethink.

RINGO involves a Social Lab with 50 participants representing a wide range of sizes and types of CSOs, coming from a diversity of geographies. Over the course of a two-year process, the Social Lab will generate prototypes that can be tried out with the intention of radically transforming the sector and how we organise civil society at the global level. We hope to extract valuable lessons from the prototypes that can be replicated or reformulated and scaled. There are already many good practices, but there are also systemic dysfunctionalities that remain unaddressed. So we are looking for new, more transformational practices, processes and structures. While we don’t seek utopia, we do seek systemic change. Hence the inquiry process with the Social Lab is vital as we dig deep into the root issues that paralyse the system, moving beyond palliative, superficially appealing practices.

Get in touch with Rights CoLab through its website and follow @rightscolab and @EdRekosh on Twitter.

 

TANZANIA: ‘What is needed is a new constitution reflecting the will of the people’

CIVICUS speaks about the prospects for democratic change under a new president in Tanzania with Maria Sarungi Tsehai, a communications expert and founder of Change Tanzania. Change Tanzania is a social movement that began on social media as an informal group of people focused on bringing positive, sustainable change to Tanzania.

Maria Sarungi Tsehai

What is the current state of civic space – the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly, and expression – in Tanzania?

Civic space continues to be restricted, as the legal framework has not changed. Amendments have been proposed to the 2020 Electronic and Postal Communications (Online Content) Regulations, which have led to the severe restriction of online freedom of expression and digital media freedoms. However, these amendments are limited good news, as critical issues such as the criminalisation of what is perceived as ‘fake news’ or misinformation remain and the authorities have retained ultimate arbitrary power to take action and have so-called ‘prohibited content’ removed within two hours. The list of prohibited content, which is open to interpretation and has been used to restrict media freedom and the freedom of expression in the past, remains.

Regarding the freedom of peaceful assembly, restrictions have become harsher, to the extent that internal political party meetings are now banned and have been disrupted by riot-geared police, as witnessed recently in the case of a number of meetings and convenings held by the main opposition party, the Party for Democracy and Progress – better known as CHADEMA for its acronym in Swahili – as well as in the case of the National Convention for Construction and Reform, another opposition party, whose internal council meeting was broken up by the police on 28 August 2021.

Those who continued to gather in defiance have been illegally detained and kept incommunicado. In some cases, this has involved dozens of people, while recently in Mwanza, in northern Tanzania, it has affected close to 100 CHADEMA supporters. The chairman of CHADEMA, Freeman Mbowe, was recently abducted by masked security forces and held incommunicado for days before being charged with terrorism – all because he defied police calls and flew to Mwanza to be part of a symposium on constitutional reforms.

President Samia Suluhu Hassan has accused citizens leading movements for constitutional reform of fostering foreign interests and seeking to destabilise the country for personal gain, therefore designating their actions as ‘sedition’.

When CHADEMA supporters assembled outside the court building the day Freeman Mbowe was due to appear in court, they received rough treatment from the police and were picked off the streets and detained just for standing silently with banners and wearing opposition t-shirts. Many women have been detained in such a way and denied their basic rights to food, water and sanitary pads while in illegal detention. One female CHADEMA leader, Neema Mwakipesile, was detained for over 14 days, and was initially denied any access to a lawyer or contact with family members.

The government has also frequently instrumentalised the COVID-19 pandemic to limit political gatherings. Specifically, any gathering deemed to be critical of the government is restricted using COVID-19 regulations, while mass gathering in stadiums for sports and entertainment are still allowed.

As for restrictions on the freedom of expression, harsh reprisals against those speaking up have not been limited to opposition members and critics but have recently started to target dissenting voices within the ruling Party of the Revolution (Chama Cha Mapinduzi, CCM). On 31 August 2021, a CCM member of parliament, Jerry Silaa Ukonga, was suspended because during a meeting with his constituents he said that parliamentarians should pay income taxes. His suspension will deter other lawmakers from speaking up any matter that may be deemed critical of the government, as the parliamentary leadership is an extension of the executive rather than an independent pillar of government.

Has the new government under President Suluhu – who came to power following the death of President John Magufuli – taken any steps to improve the conditions for civil society and the expression of dissent?

First of all, calling it a ‘new government’ is a misnomer, because it is basically the same government, in which the former vice president became president and a little cabinet reshuffle took place, but most key positions were retained by the same group of people. There was some hope around the new minister responsible for foreign affairs, but for civil society not much has changed, as the mechanisms for the oversight of civil society organisations (CSOs) and the legal framework have remained in place.

In fact, a by-law has been recently introduced whereby CSOs are not allowed to give out joint statements without previously developing a memorandum of understanding that needs to be submitted and registered with the NGO Registrar. So it’s the same laws and the same people who continue to be a threat to any open dissent. This continuity is visible in the government’s response to Tanzania’s Universal Periodic Review examination at the United Nations Human Rights Council, which hardly seems to have addressed any area of concern.

The only visible difference under the new president has been the government’s admission of the existence of the COVID-19 pandemic. The new president has introduced and encouraged COVID-19 preventative measures and Tanzania officially joined the COVAX initiative, as a result of which it has received vaccines.

However, there has been no change regarding the key people overseeing health policies, and as a result trust in the government is low. The mixed messaging has led to apathy and disbelief; therefore, vaccine uptake is slow and even precautions are not enforced genuinely and systematically. Additionally, COVID-19 data has not been released in a regular and systematic manner. The government randomly releases ad hoc and aggregate numbers that are impossible to assess. There are evidently a lot of COVID-19-related deaths that go undocumented.

Do you think the fact that the country has its first female president will make a difference for women’s rights?

So far, nothing has changed. In fact, President Suluhu has fronted herself as a patriarchy enabler, both in rhetoric and appointments. She has adopted approaches similar to those used by previous governments to target opposition and dissent. She has even refused to lift a ban on pregnant schoolgirls from re-entering formal education after delivery.

For real change to happen, a shift in fundamental structures needs to take place, starting with constitutional and legal reforms to enable political competition and allow access for more female decision-makers who are not dependent on patronage by the male-dominated leadership of the CCM. But President Suluhu is ignoring calls for constitutional reform. 

What would the government need to do so that Tanzania becomes more open and democratic?

Unfortunately, the government led by the CCM, which is in power as a result of an openly rigged election that was accompanied by one of the most violent post-election repression episodes, is not capable of driving any democratic reform. What is needed is a new constitution reflecting the will of the people. A good place to start would be the ‘Warioba draft’ – named after the chairperson of the Constitutional Review Commission, retired judge Joseph Warioba - that was published in 2013 and ditched at the last minute by CCM in October 2014, during its failed attempt to pass a new constitution through a constituent assembly.

The process has to be revived and it has to be multi-party and involve the citizenry more broadly. But President Suluhu seems unwilling to do this, and in some cases, as in that of Freeman Mbowe, she has shown outright hostility towards the opposition. If its only goal is to cling to power, the government will not work on any real reforms. The sooner this becomes clear to everyone, the better.

Besides writing a new constitution, the government would also need to improve accountability, especially by following up on the Controller and Auditor General’s (CAG) Annual Report. The first thing that President Suluhu did when she was sworn in was to ask the CAG to submit its report and promised that measures would be taken against those civil servants who were involved in wrongdoing. She also ordered a CAG special audit of the Central Bank for the first quarter of 2021. But the report was never published, and only a press statement was released which said that everything was in order. Regarding accountability and transparency, rejoining the Open Government Partnership would be a good starting point. The government should also introduce police and prison reforms and make new appointments for positions including judges, the Inspector General of Police, the Attorney General, the Chief Justice, and other positions to improve justice and social services.

How can global civil society support civil society in Tanzania?

The main focus should be on high-level, intense pressure on the government of Tanzania to engage with the opposition and credible civil society representatives and citizen groups in ushering in constitutional reforms so that by 2025 we will have laid down the foundations for free and fair elections. Otherwise, the next elections may put Tanzania on a very dangerous path in many regards.

Global civil society needs to make sure that Tanzania is held accountable and that in all discussions fundamental structural and legal framework reforms are emphasised. It should make sure not to succumb to nice promising rhetoric and superficial cosmetic changes because allowing the government to get away with such flimsy actions will have very grave consequences.

Those funding projects in Tanzania need to consider funding social movements and more loose coalitions of citizens and groups rather than small circles of civil society actors that embrace a top-down approach. This will have significant impacts on building a society conducive to the greater good and serving the wider population.

Civic space in Tanzania is rated asrepressedby the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Change Tanzania through its Facebook page and follow @ChangeTanzania and @MariaSTsehai on Twitter. 

 

JAMAICA: ‘After 20 years of advocacy, now there is sustained public conversation around LGBTQI+ rights’

Karen Lloyd

CIVICUS speaks with Karen Lloyd, Associate Director of J-FLAG, about the situation of LGBTQI+ rights in Jamaica and the significance of a recent report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) that held the Jamaican government responsible for violating rights. J-FLAG is a human rights and social justice organisation that advocates for the rights, livelihood and wellbeing of LGBTQI+ people in Jamaica.

What is the current situation of LGBTQI+ people in Jamaica?

Gender and sexuality-based discrimination continue to be of concern and impacts on people in many ways, including their right to work, education, health, life and equality before the law. The law does not protect people from discrimination on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity, and same-sex intimacy is criminalised.

In April 2011, the Jamaican government passed the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms, but calls to include sexual orientation and gender identity as grounds for non-discrimination went unheard. The 2012 National Survey on Attitudes and Perceptions towards Same-Sex Relations, commissioned by J-FLAG, found that one in five Jamaicans respected LGBTQI+ people and supported the inclusion of sexual orientation as a ground for non-discrimination. In addition, about one-third of the population believed the government was not doing enough to protect LGBTQI+ people from violence and discrimination.

Members of the Jamaican LGBTQI+ community are routinely deprived of their human rights and suffer from widespread discrimination, exclusion, violent attacks, police abuse, joblessness and a distinct lack of legal protection, among other issues. Many LGBTQI+ Jamaicans live in fear because of discriminatory policies, laws and attitudes and the lack of political will to protect their human rights. Since 2009, over 600 cases of abuse and violence have been reported to J-FLAG, and the National Survey carried out in 2015 revealed a 12 per cent rate of tolerance toward LGBTQI+ people among the public.

A 2016 report found that out of 316 LGBTQI+ Jamaicans, 32 per cent had reported being threatened with physical violence over the previous five years and 12 per cent had reported being attacked; 23.7 per cent reported being threatened with sexual violence and 19 per cent being sexually assaulted. However, 41 per cent had not reported these incidents because they did not think the police would do anything, and 30 per cent thought the matter was too minor. One in four feared a homophobic reaction from the police and one out of five felt too embarrassed and did not want anyone to know.

This reality is compounded by homophobia and transphobia as well as by laws criminalising same-sex intimacy between men, weak and largely inaccessible anti-discrimination legislation, weak protections against sexual and domestic violence and lack of legal recognition of same-sex relationships.

In February 2021, the IACHR issued a report on LGBTQI+ rights in Jamaica. What was the significance of this?

Several sections of the Offences Against the Person Act (OAPA) of 1864 prohibit sexual activities between men. Section 76 criminalises buggery, section 77 criminalises any attempt to commit buggery and section 79 criminalises acts of gross indecency, which can include kissing, hand holding and other acts of male-to-male intimacy. Men convicted of buggery face a maximum of 10 years of hard labour. This and other laws relating to sexual offences that precede the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms are protected from rights-based challenges.

In the cases examined by the IACHR, the petitioners – Mr Gareth Henry, who is gay and Ms Simone Edwards, who is a lesbian – alleged that Jamaica was in violation of its obligation under the American Convention on Human Rights by continuing to criminalise private consensual sexual activity between adult males and by protecting these laws from being challenged. They claimed that this perpetuates Jamaica’s culture of violent homophobia and encourages the state and the general population to persecute not only male homosexuals, but also the broader LGBTQI+ community. They said they had both been victims of homophobic attacks. 

The report by the IACHR concluded that the Jamaican government was responsible for these violations of their rights. The last we heard about it, the Attorney General’s department had acknowledged the decision and was preparing a response. For civil society, it reinforced ongoing calls for amendments to the OAPA and became part of existing engagement with policymakers to have it changed. Advocacy efforts with legislators have continued to be difficult, however, because they are unwilling to be publicly associated with a call for repeal due to potential backlash by religious extremist groups and some members of the public.

How is J-FLAG working to try to improve the situation?

J-FLAG is the foremost human rights and social justice organisation in Jamaica advocating for the rights, livelihood and wellbeing of LGBTQI+ people in Jamaica. Our work seeks to build a Jamaican society that respects and protects the rights of everyone. Our board and staff are committed to promoting social change, empowering the LGBTQI+ community and building tolerance for and acceptance of LGBTQI+ people. We promote the values of all-inclusivity, diversity, equality, fairness and love. These values are at the heart of all we do, as we seek to become effective agents of social change.

To achieve our goals, we work on four main areas. First, we seek to improve the provision of non-discriminatory health services, engage key stakeholders and employees to address employment-related discrimination, and provide LGBTQI+ young people with a dedicated organisation that focuses on issues that directly affect their life outcomes.

Second, we seek to increase participation in policy development and review processes by empowering young LGBTQI+ people and youth leaders and increasing collaboration among the LGBTQI+ young people involved in mainstream youth organisations.

Third, we create service packages for LGBTQI+ Jamaicans aimed at increasing their access to information and counselling, reducing homelessness, increasing access to non-discriminatory social services, and increasing access to safe entertainment and networking.

Fourth, we advocate for the human rights of LGBTQI+ people by legitimising the needs of the community, sensitising the population and parliamentarians around human rights, stigma and discrimination, increasing the capacity of LGBTQI+ leaders, civil society organisations (CSOs) and other stakeholders and duty-bearers to be better equipped to respond to the needs of LGBTQI+ people, and increasing the visibility of the experiences and the issues affecting them. 

What have been some of your achievements and lessons learned so far?

Our achievements over the past decade included the training of over 700 healthcare workers, in partnership with the Ministry of Health and Wellness, on how to treat LGBTQI+ clients; successful mass media campaigns such as We Are Jamaicans, #iChooseLove and #OutLoudJA, which sought to raise awareness about LGBTQI+ people among the general population; Our public Pride celebrations; four national surveys on attitudes and perceptions of the public on LGBTQI+ people and issues; the provision of capacity building for CSOs and youth leaders; and numerous research and publications on LGBTQI+ issues.

Since our inaugural Pride event in 2015, Jamaica has held annual celebrations during the ‘Emancipendence’ period – the holidays celebrating both the end of slavery and independence from British colonial rule. The first thing to note is that Jamaica Pride has been conceptualised and implemented through a culturally appropriate lens; for example, it does not include a parade and instead takes the form of a diverse set of events and activities that are important to Jamaicans, including a sports day, church service, trade show, concert, party events and a day of service. At our inaugural Pride in 2015, the keynote speaker at our opening ceremony was the Mayor of Kingston, Dr. Angela Brown-Burke, which meant to signal that the community had allies among policymakers and parliamentarians.

Another success has been having mainstream dancehall artistes such as Tanya Stephens, D’Angel, Jada Kingdom, Tifa, Ishawna, Yanique Curvy Diva and Stacious perform at Pride events. This focused national attention on our celebrations and signalled a positive shift regarding cultural spaces that had been highly contested.

For the first time this year, J-FLAG did not host all the Pride events itself; instead, it provided financial and logistical support for members of the community to spearhead their own events. Dubbed #PrideShare, the initiative featured events led by community members, including arts events and a lip-sync battle, whose success indicated that our efforts are a step in the right direction.

After 20 years of advocacy, now there is sustained public conversation around LGBTQI+ rights, increasing public tolerance and a growing willingness among parliamentarians, policymakers and key decision-makers to engage with the local LGBTQI+ community, including steps in working with LGBTQI+ rights organisations and advocates to improve the lives of members of the community. Notably, J-FLAG has built and sustained a significant partnership with the Ministry of Health that has led to the training and sensitisation of over 500 healthcare workers to fight stigma and discrimination in the health sector.

Notwithstanding these gains, the movement has been dogged by sluggish law and policy reform, limited availability of spaces for community mobilisation and engagement, limited financial support to address homelessness and displacement, and low engagement of LGBTQI+ people living in rural areas. J-FLAG in particular has outlined the need for greater support in strengthening community systems as a means of scaling up advocacy efforts and ensuring wider reach and greater impact.

How can international civil society best support the struggle of LGBQTI+ people in Jamaica and more generally in the Caribbean?

International civil society can support the local and regional movement in many ways, including by giving us a seat at the table during global conversations, and understanding that we are the experts on what is happening in our societies. Where possible, it should also support our resourcing efforts with international donors. It can also help by sharing best practices and relevant research and raising awareness about the issues we face in Jamaica and the Caribbean among wider audiences.

Civic space in Jamaica is rated as ‘narrowedby the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with J-FLAG through its website or its Facebook page, and follow @EqualityJa on Twitter.

 

 

UNITED KINGDOM: ‘The government is set on hiding from accountability and scrutiny’

CIVICUS speaks to Sam Grant, Head of Policy and Campaigns for Liberty, a UK civil society organisation, about the introduction of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill and its impacts on the right to protest. Founded in 1934 in response to brutal police attempts to stop peaceful protests, Liberty is the UK’s largest civil liberties organisation, with more than 10,500 members and supporters, campaigning for everyone in the UK to be treated fairly and with dignity and respect.

Sam Grant Interview

What prompted the UK government to introduce the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill? What are civil society’s major concerns about it?

The current government is set on hiding from accountability and scrutiny wherever it can, whether that’s by making it harder for people seeking justice to take them to court, sidelining elected parliamentarians through secondary legislation or introducing voter ID laws. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is another iteration of this attempt by the government to shield itself from being held accountable, this time by making it harder for people to protest.

Civil society has three main concerns with this bill. Firstly, it represents a crackdown on protest rights. It gives the police greater powers to dictate where, when and how people can protest, it ramps up sentencing and will funnel protesters into the criminal justice system. The cumulative effect of these measures – which target the tools that make protest rights meaningful – constitute an attack on a fundamental building block of our democracy.

Secondly, Liberty and, more generally, UK civil society sees this Bill as an outright attack on the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller nomadic way of life in the UK. The impact these new powers will have on an already marginalised community in this country could be catastrophic.

Finally, Liberty is raising the alarm about the impact on over-policed communities who will be exposed to profiling and disproportionate police powers through the expansion of stop-and-search powers and data-sharing agreements between the police and public bodies.

The bill has already passed through the House of Commons and will start moving through the House of Lords in early September 2021. If the Lords make any amendments, these will need to be approved by the House of Commons in a so-called ping-pong process, until agreement is reached. If it becomes law, this bill will dramatically reshape protest rights in this country, tipping the balance of power further in favour of the government and the police and vastly impacting on marginalised and over-policed communities such as Gypsy and Traveller communities and people of colour.

What is civil society doing to try to prevent the passing of the bill?

The breadth of the coalition working against the bill is growing every day, ranging from environmental, human rights, racial justice and criminal justice groups to Gypsy, Roma and Traveller community groups.

A total of 245 organisations joined together to condemn the bill, over 700 academics called for it to be dropped, three United Nations Special Rapporteurs and Europe’s top human rights official warned it threatened our rights and over 600,000 people signed a petition to call for it to be scrapped.

Organisations continue to work together to show the disastrous impact this bill will have and the importance of our protest rights.

What are civil society’s other concerns about restrictions to civil liberties in the UK?

We are worried about other restrictions because this bill is part of a wider trend of this government trying to evade accountability and attack our rights. Going hand in hand with the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill are attempts to restrict judicial review, which would make it harder to challenge government actions in court, plans to weaken the Human Rights Act, which is our central human rights piece of legislation, and plans to bring in a voter ID, which could prevent millions of people from marginalised communities voting.

How have UK authorities responded to recent protests?

We are seeing an increasingly hostile atmosphere for protest rights in the UK. In recent years, the police have targeted some protesters with facial recognition surveillance technology. People belonging to certain protest groups, including environmental rights groups such as Extinction Rebellion, have been considered extremists and added to counter-terror lists. People arrested at protests have faced the possibility of hugely disproportionate prison sentences that go far beyond fair consequences for their actions.

During the pandemic, police forces have wrongly claimed that COVID-19 regulations placed a blanket ban on all protests and have arrested and fined hundreds of people for demonstrating against injustice. They have even arrested legal observers who act as independent witnesses to police behaviour at protests to help ensure people’s rights are respected.

What can international civil society do to support civil society in the UK?

It is always important to share solidarity where possible. International civil society can support us by raising concerns through appropriate avenues and speaking up about the impact this bill could have even beyond the UK. We’ll be working closely with CIVICUS to identify these opportunities.

Civic space in the United Kingdom is rated ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

Get in touch with Liberty through its website or its Facebook or Instagram pages, and follow @libertyhq on Twitter.

 

 

COLOMBIA: ‘Young people experience a feeling of wanting to change everything’

CIVICUS speaks about the protests that began in Colombia in April 2021, triggered by proposed tax increases, with a young social and human rights activist who chose to remain anonymous for security reasons. The interviewee belongs to a network of youth organisations and young activists that promotes solidarity, organisation and the struggle of excluded groups and that works in the capital, Bogotá, and in the city of Medellín.

What were the causes of the protests, and what are protesters’ demands?

The tax reform was just the straw that broke the camel’s back, as it added to a host of problems. In the assemblies in which we participated, hundreds of demands, and demands of all kinds, were collected, from filling holes in neighbourhood streets to overthrowing the government led by President Iván Duque and seeking justice for the so-called ‘false positives’, that is, cases of civilians killed by the military and presented as casualties of the armed conflict. What young people are experiencing is a feeling of wanting to change everything, of not wanting to continue living as before.

But despite the diversity of demands, there are some that unite young people from the lower classes the most. I think that, in economic matters, young people from the lower classes are demanding employment and opportunities to get ahead, and in political matters these young people, particularly those who were on the protest frontlines, are demanding dignity, to not be humiliated anymore. Nothing unites these young people more than their deep hatred of the police, as the main representative of the outrages and humiliations they experience on a daily basis. They feel like outcasts with no economic future, with no hope of getting a job beyond the daily grind to survive, rejected by society and persecuted like criminals by the police just because they are young and poor.

Students – also young people but more intellectual, some from the middle class – were also a significant force in the protests, but tended to emphasise demands against political repression and human rights violations, the issue of the ‘false positives’, the assassinations of social leaders and the criminalisation of protest.

How do these protests differ from those of previous years, and are there any lines of continuity with them?

Basically, motives are the same as those of the 2019 and 2020 protests. In the 2019 protests, the crisis of unemployment and hunger weighed more heavily, while in the 2020 protests, the issue of repression, not wanting to continue to be humiliated and killed, became more important. Those that broke out in April 2021 combined the motives of the two previous waves, because not only had neither of the two problems been tackled at the root, but not even palliatives had been offered; on the contrary, the economic crisis worsened and political repression continued.

Perhaps one difference is that the latest protests have received greater international attention, which reflects the strength with which the Colombian people took to the streets. The protest had broad legitimacy among social groups that do not usually mobilise. The economic and political crisis and suffocation was such that groups such as medium-size and even large business owners supported the protests. The massive character of the protests also forced everyone, from artists to congresspeople, to take sides.

There were Colombians abroad who protested in their respective countries, speaking up about what their relatives back home were telling them. Some may think that this increased international attention was due to the repression, but I tend to believe that what magnified the message was the size of the middle-class groups that mobilised. Repression has been very present in previous cycles as well as in the face of protests by groups of peasants. I think what was decisive in this case was the diversity of social strata that supported the protest.

How has the government reacted to the protests?

Generally speaking, it reacted first by violently repressing them, then by delegitimising them by using the media to attack some groups, and in particular young people, and finally by trying to divide them in order to demobilise some social groups and isolate young people from the lower classes. For the latter, the government engaged in several negotiations with a self-proclaimed National Strike Committee, and also carried out negotiations at the local level to try to contain or calm down some social groups.

Particularly at the local level, even in localities with so-called centrist and independent governments, the government set up dialogue roundtables that do not solve anything, where demands are listened to but nothing specific is offered in response to those demands. Many local governments washed their hands of the repression, blaming it on the central government alone, but they did everything in their power to demobilise the protests, sending representatives to calm down protesters and promising people that if they stopped protesting they would listen to their demands, something they had not done during the whole previous year.

Violence by some groups seems to have become a problem. How did activists and civil society organisations deal with this?

Violence has often been a spontaneous reaction to repression. Confronting the young person who is throwing a rock with judgement and scolding serves no purpose except to radicalise them further and earn their distrust. In order to change this violence, we must begin by understanding it and distinguishing it from the violence that comes from the state, rather than putting them on the same level. This is not to say that violence is desirable; indeed, it diverts the initiative of many young people. But getting between them and the Immediate Response Command (Comando de Atención Inmediata) – the police unit that operates in urban perimeters – to try and stop them ends up having more of a reverse psychological effect than a deterrence or educational one.

In my experience, civil society organisations that do not reach out to these young people and offer them alternative spaces for politicisation and awareness-raising end up isolating them and losing the ability to influence them. Our organisation has dealt with this through the strategy of avoiding negative judgement and, instead, approaching them with understanding and trying to create alternative spaces for political participation and the organisation of young people.

What roles has your organisation played in the protests?

Our organisation played an active role: we organised the participation in the protests of young people and families in the neighbourhoods where we carry out community work and promoted a solidarity campaign with protesters to collect economic support and other resources, such as first aid, support through community kitchens and human rights advocacy, to help various protest points in the cities of Bogotá and Medellín.

In Bogotá, we provided support to find information on missing persons and participated in solidarity campaigns with people who had been injured. In Medellín we established community kitchens and repaired roofs and other damage caused by protests in neighbourhoods close to the major protest hotspots in the city. Finally, throughout the protests we developed awareness-raising activities and promoted the involvement of young protesters in more lasting processes of social and community building.

What impacts do you think this cycle of protests and repression will have on the upcoming elections?

In my opinion, the protests increased the political capital of the former mayor of Bogotá and former presidential candidate for the left, Gustavo Petro. The government did not give any real response to protesters’ demands and people are still looking for alternatives, and – although our organisation has no interest in campaigning for him or intention to do so – I think Petro is the only available option. In the next elections I would expect a higher rate of youth participation, and I would not be surprised at all if Petro wins.

Civic space in Colombia is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

 

ECUADOR: ‘Women’s rights have experienced an emergency situation since well before the pandemic’

CIVICUS speaks with Virginia Gómez de la Torre, president of Fundación Desafío, about the progress made and the challenges remaining in the area of sexual and reproductive rights in Ecuador. Virginia tells us about the significance of the breakthrough that took place in April 2021, when abortion was decriminalised in cases of rape. Active since 2000, Fundación Desafío is a feminist coalition dedicated to the defence and promotion of women’s sexual and reproductive rights and the right to a life free of violence in Ecuador.

Virginia Gomez de la Torre

What are the challenges for women’s rights in Ecuador?

Women’s rights in Ecuador continue to be a challenge because in every area there are unresolved issues due to discrimination, exclusion and sexist violence. In terms of access to work and opportunities for economic and personal development, for example, women have suffered disproportionately from the pandemic and the slowdown in activity; the elimination of small businesses and the reduction of opportunities for informal sales hit them hardest, and it has been difficult for many to regain those spaces.

Inequalities affect women from different social groups in different ways. Ecuador has a large Indigenous population and there is a large female peasant force, but women do not own land. There is a lot of discrimination, and Indigenous and Afro-descendant people have much more difficulty accessing opportunities. Indigenous and Black peasant and internal migrant women are more vulnerable because they suffer the violence of a system that devalues Indigenous and peasant lives.

In Ecuador there is also a large presence of women in a situation of mobility, mostly young women of reproductive age. They arrive without papers and enter through unauthorised migratory passages, which exposes them to situations of trafficking, sexual exploitation and rape, as well as xenophobic violence. In this sense, women’s rights have experienced an emergency situation since well before the pandemic.

All these exclusions are accompanied by violence, and Ecuador has yet to develop a strategy to confront this violence. Although psychological violence remains the most prevalent, all forms of violence have increased. For instance, obstetric violence – that is, the actions or omissions by health personnel that violate women’s rights during pregnancy or childbirth – is extremely high, affecting 42 per cent of women, and is much more prevalent in rural areas and among certain ethnic groups. The state makes little effort and does not give priority to the issue of femicide; last year we had 118 cases. This year we have already had 131, including violent deaths of women related to gang or criminal vendettas. Violence against women is a very serious problem in Ecuador, and as long as it does not deal with it, the government will be noncompliant with the rights enshrined in the constitution.

The Ecuadorian state should issue protection and restraining orders and investigate femicides. It should also combat the violence that is present in all areas of daily life, and which manifests itself very strongly in the form of sexual violence, as well as other forms of violence such as political violence.

This is the context for sexual and reproductive rights. Only on 28 April 2021 was abortion decriminalised in cases of rape. The fact that is something so basic and so long fought for shows the extent to which the Ecuadorian state is tied to the interests of economic power groups that are strongly linked to religious power groups. Every year, between 2,000 and 3,000 girls become pregnant in Ecuador. In 2019 there were 4,000 under the age of 14, and under the pandemic there were about 3,000; according to the Criminal Code, these pregnancies are the result of rape.

What was the process that led to the legalisation of abortion in cases of rape?

Until April 2021, abortion was only permitted when a woman’s life or health was in danger or if the pregnancy was the result of rape of an intellectually disabled woman. In response to several unconstitutionality lawsuits filed by women’s rights organisations, the Constitutional Court of Ecuador decriminalised abortion for all cases of rape.

This has been a struggle of many years. Women’s rights organisations have been defending therapeutic abortion and abortion in cases of rape since 2008, when the new constitution was drafted and when anti-rights groups tried to repeal therapeutic abortion. They wanted to deprive Ecuadorian women of access to abortion under any circumstances.

Within this framework, the proposal to legalise abortion in cases of rape was brought forward in 2012, when a new Criminal Code was drafted. In 2013, then-President Rafael Correa – the most powerful of anti-rights activists – excluded this possibility. He threatened to resign and used the typical cliché that the constitution guarantees and protects life from the moment of conception.

In 2019, the issue of the decriminalisation of abortion in cases of rape was raised again as a result of a legislative initiative coming from the Public Defender’s Office. The National Women’s Coalition of Ecuador (CNME) and Fundación Desafío once again worked for decriminalisation in cases of rape. But at the last minute, during legislative negotiations, the issue was used as a bargaining chip, and we lost the vote. We had the 70 votes needed to pass a motion in the Assembly, but several Assembly members from parties that had pledged their support ultimately voted against it. We got 65 votes against 59 for the anti-rights side. We lost and the process took another course, that of the Constitutional Court.

Two months before the vote, Fundación Desafío and CNME had already filed a complaint of unconstitutionality and a complaint of non-compliance with the Constitutional Court, because women of this country have no confidence that the powerful will look after our interests. In December 2019 these two lawsuits were admitted and in November 2020 other women’s organisations joined in, as well as the Ombudsman’s Office.

Following the Constitutional Court’s ruling, the determination of time limits remains an immense challenge. We proposed that there should be no time limit, but some doctors and health professionals are already putting them into the bill, so this is something we are going to have to fight for in the Assembly.

What roles has Fundación Desafío played in the process?

In addition to filing the claims of unconstitutionality and non-compliance, we have played a leadership role in legislative lobbying. This work was in addition to the contribution of many other organisations that worked with the population, holding workshops, organising networks to accompany women undergoing abortions and opening up spaces that give women the possibility to decide, even if in a context of illegality.

In the legislative processes of 2013 and 2019 we did all kinds of things. We ran communication campaigns, we produced short videos with people who have great public visibility, we worked in networks and we presented our research. We played a day-to-day role in the Assembly’s Justice Committee, which worked on the two reports that were later passed on to the plenary. We channelled the presence of Human Rights Watch, which from a comparative law perspective urged the Assembly to move forward on legalisation, and of several women who gave their testimonies, including a woman who had been raped and another woman who worked in the area of violence against children. We also campaigned for the passage of the Health Code, which included several articles on sexual and reproductive rights. Following eight years of debates, the Health Code was passed by the Assembly in August 2020, but it was fully vetoed the following month by then-President Lenín Moreno.

Lastly, we supported the constitution of the Ecuadorian Faith Network, formed by progressive evangelical Christians. This group made public presentations and statements. The trade union movement and the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador were also in favour of the process. All this documentation was submitted first to the Assembly and then to the Constitutional Court.

What impact do you think this legal change will have?

For those of us who have devoted our lives to this and will continue to do so, this change has a great symbolic impact, even though it is a small step. Obviously, the legalisation of abortion in cases of rape is something huge for raped girls, of whom there are many in Ecuador, and more generally for the women who can now end a pregnancy that is the result of a crime, if they choose to do so. And although no progress has been made in recognising the right of all women to decide about their own bodies in any circumstance, symbolically it is a huge step forward because it demystifies abortion and the possibility of making decisions about the course of a pregnancy in cases of rape. It is now legal to make decisions about the body of a pregnant woman who has been raped; the state has given its approval and for the first time has put the victim at the centre of the debate. So why shouldn’t women who have not been raped be able to make similar decisions about their bodies? I think these are the shifts that are implicitly taking place.

The next step in the very short term will be to also decriminalise abortion in cases of lethal foetal malformation. The scenario of total decriminalisation needs to be raised in the Assembly, as has happened in other countries. The Assembly may say no, but that is the way forward and someone needs to do it.

Civic space in Ecuador is rated as ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Fundación Desafío through its website or Facebook page, and follow @DesafioDerechos on Twitter.

 

COLOMBIA: ‘Those who demonstrate put their integrity and their lives at risk’

CIVICUS speaks about recent protests in Colombia with a group of members of the Committee for Solidarity with Political Prisoners Foundation (FCSPP) and the Defend Freedom: Everyone’s Business Campaign, who responded collectively to our questions. FCSPP is an organisation that promotes respect and enforcement of the human rights of all people in Colombia, with a focus on the rights to life, liberty, physical and moral integrity, dignified treatment, fair and impartial trial and other rights of persons deprived of their liberty, prosecuted for political crimes and tried for participating in protests. The Defend Freedom Campaign is a network of social, student, cultural, community and human rights organisations working to denounce arbitrary detentions, judicial persecution and the criminalisation of social protest in Colombia.

What are the main causes of recent protests in Colombia?

From our perspective, the reasons behind the protests in Colombia are diverse. In addition to tax injustice, reflected in the proposal submitted by the national government to collect more taxes, the government's poor handling of the health crisis and the economic, ecological and socio-environmental crises exacerbated by the pandemic is also a cause. In the context of the pandemic, a key demand was related to the inefficient management of the Colombian health system and the need for a reform focused on protecting those working in the health sector and providing comprehensive and preventive care to the general population. The inefficient management of the public pension system and the lack of public policies to promote equitable access by Colombia’s young people to free, quality education and quality employment also came to the fore.

In addition to the socio-ecological injustices caused by a mining and energy policy promoting predatory extractive megaprojects, the lack of commitment by the national government to sign the Escazú Agreement on environmental rights has been accompanied by an unabated wave of murders and other attacks against social, community, environmental, territorial, community and human rights leaders. This violence is perpetuated by the impunity guaranteed by the judicial system to those within the security forces and more generally the state apparatus responsible for human rights violations.

The protests have also highlighted the absence of guarantees for the exercise of the right to social protest, which instead of being protected is being stigmatised and attacked by the state.

How do these protests connect to those that took place in previous years?

The current protests are in direct continuity with the protests of 2020, given that the pandemic resulted in an extended hiatus during which social protest was prevented from taking place physically. During this period, however, the structural issues that motivate social protests were not forgotten, let alone did they disappear, but on the contrary they often deepened and worsened.

How have the authorities responded to the protests?

The National Police have responded with a violent, disproportionate and often unlawful reaction against protesters. According to data collected by the Defend Freedom Campaign, between 28 April and 21 July 2021 this violence resulted in 87 deaths of civilians in the context of protests, 28 of them attributable to the security forces, seven to unidentified civilians and 46 to unidentified perpetrators. During this time, 1,905 people were injured as a result of the disproportionate actions of the National Police, the Mobile Anti-Riot Squads (ESMAD) and unidentified civilians. In addition, 326 human rights defenders were attacked in the context of their work accompanying social protests, 106 were victims of gender-based violence and 3,365 people were detained, many of them arbitrarily, resulting in 1,603 complaints of abuse of power and police violence. These figures are evidence of the unwillingness of the authorities to engage in dialogue and of the way in which the right to social protest is being violated in Colombia. Those who demonstrate put their integrity and their lives at risk.

Rights violations not only occur during protest itself, but are also compounded when it comes to the institutions that are supposed to pay attention, gather data and follow up on violations. We have documented cases of injured people who have not been attended to in hospitals and medical centres. Likewise, the records of missing persons kept by the Ombudsman’s Office and the Prosecutor's Office diverge widely; as of 5 June, the Ombudsman’s Office recorded 89 people missing in the context of the protests, while the Prosecutor’s Office recorded 129. This shows a lack of clarity and coordination between the state institutions that should play a key role in documenting, attending to and providing efficient and timely follow-up to human rights violations.

What were the effects of repression on protesters?

After the media publicised some cases, especially of killings and sexual violence allegedly committed by the security forces, citizens continued to demonstrate in acts of solidarity and collective memory. Further, with the aim of coordinating actions, informing citizens, debating and establishing clear common demands, three National Popular Assemblies were held, two in person – one in Bogotá, from 6 to 8 June, and another in Cali, from 17 to 20 July – and a third virtually, on 15 August. All of them were widely attended by popular organisations and social movements. Discussions were also held in localities, municipalities and cities to build an understanding of interests, needs and proposals. This demonstrated the willingness of citizens who had been protesting to engage in permanent dialogue with government bodies to put forward their demands.

How was it possible to sustain mobilisation for several months, and are protests expected to continue?

In some territories, protesters found a series of conditions that allowed them to meet peacefully and originate new organisational processes through the exercise of their right to the freedom of association. These processes were based on previously established relationships of solidarity, not only among organisations but also within less formal civil society, which mobilised in peaceful marches and by donating non-perishable goods, basic medical supplies, items for protection and other forms of support to the young people who mobilised on what is now known as ‘the frontlines’.

The mobilisation was sustained thanks to new and creative forms of organisation that helped distribute roles in the midst of intense days of police repression, with some people in charge of holding up defensive barriers with improvised or relatively elaborate shields, others in charge of returning teargas canisters and mitigating deterrence tools used by the police, others in charge of providing medical, psychosocial, emotional and legal first aid to those who needed it, and others playing care roles, providing food and hydration to protesters. The result was the emergence of spaces such as ‘Puerto Resistencia’ (Resistance Port) in Cali and ‘Espacio Humanitario al Calor de la Olla’ (Humanitarian Space at the Heat of the Pot) in Bogotá, which were replicated at other resistance hotspots around the country. These spaces bring together inter-organisational and inter-generational networks which, through dialogue and assembly meetings, build consensus and prioritise actions adaptable to each territory’s context.

It is to be expected that the protests will continue, given that they have not only arisen from historic centres of protests, such as workers’ confederations and teachers’ unions, but there are also now multiple protest hubs in cities and highways around the country where people mobilise a diverse range of organised, organising and unorganised citizens with different motivations and people take to the streets due to a variety of situations. Commemorative dates are coming that will surely generate mobilisation, perhaps not on a daily basis as happened between April and July, but with actions that will keep alive the demands made visible both by the National Roundtables of the National Strike Committee and by other spaces promoted by civil society at the local and municipal levels.

How have attacks by armed civilian groups affected demonstrations?

The Campaign has documented multiple situations in which armed civilians attacked protesters, mainly in the departments of Cundinamarca, Risaralda, Norte de Santander, Tolima and Valle del Cauca, and the city of Bogotá. Several of the aggressions recorded were committed by civilians accompanied by members of the security forces, who did not take any action to stop them but rather supported them. Many of these civilians call themselves ‘defenders of private property’.

A clear example of this, taken from the records of the Campaign’s Information System of Aggressions against Social Protest (SIAP), occurred in Cali on the afternoon of 9 May, when agents of the National Police, together with several civilians mobilised in pick-up trucks, attacked the Indigenous Guard, a civil resistance group mobilised in defence of the territory and the life plan of the Indigenous communities. The attack left 10 people injured, one of them in serious condition with a double bullet wound to the stomach. Another case recorded by SIAP occurred in Cali on 6 May; on this occasion, armed persons in civilian clothes got out of a truck and shot at protesters. As a result of citizens’ demands that the army stop them, the interior of the truck was searched and a police jacket was found, and when its number plates were checked, the vehicle was identified as police property.

In other cases, armed civilians act without police being present. It is important to mention the presence of paramilitary groups: in places where mobilisation increased, graffiti and pamphlets from paramilitary groups such as the Black Eagles and the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia were found, aimed at intimidating the population to dissuade people from participating in protests.

How has the government responded to the recommendations issued by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR)?

In public statements referring to the IACHR recommendations, President Iván Duque once again stigmatised the exercise of the right to social protest and highlighted the effects of protest roadblocks on the rights to free movement and work. The government invoked the constitution to reject the proposal to separate the National Police from the Ministry of Defence and was defensive about the possibility of creating a mechanism to monitor human rights.

Despite the recommendations, human rights violations continued unabated. As of 7 July 2021, the day the IACHR recommendations were made public, the Campaign registered 152 detentions, most of them arbitrary, 92 people injured by the actions of ESMAD, the National Police and armed civilians, four cases of gender-based violence, 29 attacks on human rights defenders, 72 complaints of police abuse and violence, and 29 raids. This occurred despite the fact that mobilisations had decreased in intensity and frequency; a large part of these violations happened on a single day, 20 July. But a change in repressive strategy was observed, as the number of raids increased dramatically.

How can international civil society support Colombian civil society?

International civil society can support us through campaigns such as SOS Colombia, but on a more permanent basis, and not limited to peak moments of repression. They could also help us by assisting the countries that act as guarantors of Colombia’s 2016 Peace Accord in doing an exhaustive review of the execution of peacebuilding resources, and by supporting those organisations that have denounced police and state abuses through investigative, communicative and political advocacy strategies in international human rights forums and advocacy spaces, thus giving more visibility to the social, humanitarian and ecological crisis facing Colombia.

Civic space in Colombia is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

Get in touch with the Committee for Solidarity with Political Prisoners through its website or Facebook page, and follow @CSPP_ on Twitter. Contact the Defend Freedom Campaign through its website or Facebook page, and follow @DefenderLiberta on Twitter.

 

HONDURAS: ‘The ruling of the Inter-American Court marks a before and after for LGBTQI+ people’

CIVICUS speaks with Indyra Mendoza, founder and general coordinator of Red Lésbica Cattrachas (Cattrachas Lesbian Network), a lesbian feminist organisation dedicated to defending the human rights of LGBTQI+ people in Honduras. In March 2021 the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR) made a ruling in the case of Vicky Hernández. Vicky, a trans woman, and human rights defender, was murdered between the night of 28 June and the early morning of 29 June 2009, in the city of San Pedro Sula, Honduras, while a curfew was in force following a coup. Her killing came in a context of enormous discrimination and violence, including by the security forces, against LGBTQI+ people.

Indyra Mendoza

What was the process that resulted in the IACtHR ruling? What was the role of Cattrachas?

Cattrachas Lesbian Network’s Violence Observatory recorded Vicky’s case and immediately identified it as a potential strategic litigation case, as it was one of the first murders of an LGBTQI+ person following the coup d’état.

Even before the coup, Cattrachas had identified a pattern of non-lethal violence against transgender women by police officers. And while we had already recorded 20 violent deaths of LGBTQI+ people between 1998 and 2008, the killings of transgender women increased after the 2009 coup. The Observatory recorded a total of 15 violent deaths of transgender women, most of which occurred during curfews or states of exception decreed illegally by the government, when state security forces were in absolute control of the streets.

In Vicky’s case, Cattrachas learned that no autopsy had been performed, so we contacted her family and found out that very few investigative steps had been taken. On 23 December 2012, Cattrachas filed the initial petition for Vicky’s murder with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, a USA-based human rights organisation, later joined in. The Commission issued its merits report, which established that human rights violations had taken place, on 7 December 2018 and sent the case to the IACtHR on 30 April 2019. The public hearing was held on 11 and 12 November 2020. 

Finally, on 26 March 2021, the IACtHR issued a ruling declaring the State of Honduras responsible for the violation of Vicky’s rights to life, personal integrity, equality and non-discrimination, recognition of legal personality, personal liberty, privacy, freedom of expression and name. It also ruled that the State of Honduras failed to comply with the obligation established in article 7.a of the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment, and Eradication of Violence against Women, also known as the Convention of Belém Do Pará. Additionally, the IACtHR established that Vicky’s death was not investigated with due diligence, and therefore condemned Honduras for the violation of due process, judicial protection and the obligation established in article 7.b of the Convention. Finally, the Court declared that the right to personal integrity of Vicky’s relatives had also been violated. The ruling was notified on 28 June 2021, 12 years after the coup d’état and the transfemicide of Vicky Hernández.

The resolution of this case was exceptional. What was the reason for this exception?

Its resolution was exceptional because of the multiple intersectionalities of violence present in Vicky’s life. Vicky was a young Honduran transgender woman and human rights defender, a sex worker living with HIV, with limited economic resources, and at some point in her life, precarious employment had forced her to emigrate. Vicky’s is the first case of lethal violence against an LGBTQI+ person that occurred at the intersection of two relevant contexts: the 2009 coup d’état and the context of structural violence that LGBTQI+ people, and particularly transgender women, face in Honduras.

The case allowed the Court to reiterate standards on the right to gender identity, equality, and non-discrimination, and to insist that, in contexts of historical violence, subordination, and discrimination, in this case against transgender people, international commitments impose a reinforced responsibility on the state. Furthermore, through an evolutionary interpretation, the Court established that transgender women are women, and are therefore protected by the Convention of Belém Do Pará.

What is the significance of this ruling for LGBTQI+ people in Honduras?

The ruling in Vicky’s case marks a before and after, as it establishes guarantees of non-repetition that must be turned into public policy in favour of LGBTQI+ people.

The measures set by the ruling include the establishment of an educational scholarship for transgender persons, which will bear the name of Vicky Hernández, the implementation of education, awareness-raising and training plan for the Honduran security forces, the adoption of protocols for the diagnosis, data collection, monitoring and investigation of cases of violence against LGBTQI+ people, and the adoption of a procedure to recognise gender identity in identity papers and public records. This procedure should be guided by the standards of Advisory Opinion 24/17, which implies that it should not require any law, should be expeditious, should not require pathologising tests, should not require a historical record of changes, and should be, as far as possible, free of charge.

More than a decade after the murder of Vicky Hernández, what is the situation of LGBTQI+ people in Honduras?

LGBTQI+ people in Honduras face constitutional and legal limitations based on sexual orientation, gender expression and gender identity that prohibit us from accessing equal marriage as well as the recognition of marriage celebrated abroad, de facto union, adoption, intimate visits in prisons, change of name based on gender identity and blood donation. Specifically, in relation to changing names, the IACtHR ruling in Vicky’s case mandates the state to establish an adequate and effective procedure to recognise the identity of transgender people.

Honduras is the country with the highest rate of violent deaths of LGBTQI+ people in Latin America and the Caribbean. Since the transfemicide of Vicky, to date 388 LGBTQI+ people have been murdered in Honduras and one person is missing; 221 of those people are gay, 112 are transgender and 46 are lesbian. Only 83 cases have been prosecuted, resulting in 11 acquittals and 34 convictions, which reflects a 91 percent impunity rate.

In sum, LGBTQI+ people face not only major legal obstacles but also a very high level of lethal violence and lack of access to justice.

Civic space in Honduras is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

Get in touch with Cattrachas through its website or Facebook page, and follow @CATTRACHAS on Twitter. 

 

ZAMBIA: ‘Electoral practices seen so far do not indicate good lessons for the region’

McDonald ChipenziCIVICUS speaks to McDonald Chipenzi, Executive Director of the Governance, Elections, Advocacy, Research Services (GEARS) Initiative and Chair of the NGO Council in Zambia, about the state of civic space ahead of the crucial general election being held on 12 August 2021.

What is the state of civic space and media freedoms ahead of the elections?

The civic and media space in Zambia remains fragile and has been shrinking due to legal restrictions. This has now been compounded by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and newly crafted rules and guidelines that have heightened restrictions on citizens’ freedom of movement and freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression. This has led to ineffective citizens’ participation in national affairs.

COVID-19 rules and guidelines have compounded the already delicate and restricted state of the civic, media and political space in Zambia. These restrictions are the result of the selective application of archaic legislation such as the Public Order Act of 1955 and newly enacted laws such as the Cyber Security and Cyber Crimes Act of 2021, which is aimed at intercepting, monitoring and interfering with citizens’ conversations, correspondence and communications, even without a court order or warrant. This new law, viewed as aimed at shrinking virtual civic space, has instilled fear in citizens, deterring them from effectively engaging online. As a result, many have opted to remain silent or opted out of online platforms such as WhatsApp and Facebook.

The media space also remains intimidated, harassed and cowed as a result of restrictive laws and the actions of ruling elites. The closure of Prime TV, a private television station, in March 2021, sent a chilling wave through the media community. Most of them now fear hosting critical voices and opposition leaders. They fear losing government advertising and other business opportunities. Those associated with the powers that be also distance themselves from those media houses giving platforms to critical voices.

What are the main concerns of civil society in the lead up to the elections?

Civil society’s main concern is the security of all stakeholders, as the police are not committed to providing security to all. The police have been reluctant to deal with the violence perpetuated by ruling party elites and have even been instrumental in it. The fear is that on election day, when some parties feel that they are losing in some polling stations, they may engage in disruptive activities to push for a re-vote, which may give them advantages. Another concern is the possibility of a shutdown of internet, mobile services and social media, especially after the vote, to try to black out results.

A third concern is the COVID-19 pandemic, which was seen to have the potential to be spread by political parties had they held rallies. According to the Ministry of Health and the Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ), rallies were seen as potential superspreading events for COVID-19, and therefore they recommended a ban. This mostly affected the opposition while ruling party officials were busy campaigning in the name of launching and inspecting developmental projects.

Note that ECZ constituted a task force on COVID-19 to develop guidelines that was dominated by government institutions. Out of 14 institutions represented, nine were in government with only three spaces for the media, and two for civil society organisations in gender and water and sanitation. To prevent violence and keep violence under control if it happens, civil society is engaging with the police, encouraging them to be more professional and ethical, and with political parties to provide leadership to their cadres. 

Regarding the possibility of a media and internet shutdown, civil society organisations have sent petitions to the President of the Republic to refrain from shutting down the internet or social media during and after the elections. For the purpose of this election, the GEARS Initiative developed what it termed as the “Ing’ombe Ilede strategy” to allow for the collection of election results in an event of an internet shutdown. A common place has been designated for constituency and provincial coordinators involved in the election to share their documents without needing to meet with each other. This strategy is borrowed from the old trade tactics at a place called Ing’ombe Ilede in the Gwembe Valley of Southern Province in Zambia. We feel this strategy will help navigate the possible internet shutdown, which the government has already signalled.

How is polarisation increasing ahead of the election, and what are the election’s likely impacts on social and political division?

The election has polarised the country as politicians from the ruling party are now using regionalism and tribalism to win votes from their perceived strongholds. The impact of this will be deep divisions after elections, especially if the ruling party now wins the elections as it will marginalise those they feel did not support them during the elections. Already, the groups or regions perceived as strongholds for the biggest opposition party have been marginalised and discriminated against in terms of development and economic opportunities, including political positions in government.

Employment and trading opportunities are also a preserve of those perceived to support the ruling party. Markets and bus stations are all in hands of ruling party supporters and not the councils. This has shrunk the civic space for many citizens who survive through trading in markets and bus stations as it has led to them adopting what they have termed the ‘watermelon strategy’, symbolic of a watermelon fruit which is green on the outside (the colour of the ruling party) and red on the inside (the colour of the opposition) in order to survive at these markets, bus stops, stations and taxi ranks. This situation may be escalated should the ruling party retain power.

What is the state of the economy and how will this influence the choices of voters?

The state of the Zambian economy is not pleasing but biting to many ordinary people. The local currency, the kwacha, has continued to depreciate against major convertible currencies. The cost of living has quadrupled and the cost of essential commodities is skyrocketing. The poor are barely managing to live while the ruling political elites are sleeping on top of money due to excessive corruption and abuse of state resources in the absence of controls and accountability. The poor eat in order to live rather than live in order to eat. This will have effect in the peri-urban areas of major cities like Lusaka and the Copperbelt towns.

The rural population, on the other hand, may not be as badly affected by the state of the economy as most of them had harvested good crops during the past rainy seasons and further benefited from a scheme involving social cash transfers targeted at older and vulnerable people, which has now been converted into a campaign tool. In addition, rural voters tend to be conservative and vote for the traditional political parties preferred by their forefathers.

Zambia has been known as a bastion of democracy in the region. What impact will this election have on democracy both in Zambia and the region?

This election is key to the unfolding of a unique trend in the region on how elections can and will be handled. If it is handled very poorly and it results in chaos, it has potential to influence the region in a negative way, as the leaders of most Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries tend to copy from each other. This being one of the few elections held in the region during the COVID-19 pandemic after Malawi’s landmark election, Zambia has an opportunity to show the region that it remains the bastion of democracy in SADC.

However, the practices seen so far do not indicate good lessons for the region. For instance, the cancellation of rallies and other campaign activities, mainly targeted against the opposition while the ruling party and public officials continue to run their campaigns, is a very bad lesson for democracy, fair competition and credible elections. The selective application of the electoral code of conduct by the electoral manager is also a very bad example for the region. Therefore, the region will have to cherry-pick the good lessons from the bad ones. However, most electoral institutions and political leaders are more inclined to cherry-pick the bad lessons and leave the good ones aside, since bad electoral practices benefit incumbents.

What can regional and global civil society groups do to support Zambian civil society during this period of elections and after?

Regional and global civil society have a larger role to play to ensure that peace prevails in Zambia and targeted intimidation and harassment of the civil society movement does not occur after elections. There is a need to keep a watchful eye over the post-election events, especially regarding manoeuvres to shrink civic space. With the election a few days away, on 9 August the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Amos Malupenga, issued a statement warning citizens that the government might shut down the internet ahead of the election, a direct threat to the enjoyment of citizens’ online freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression during and after the elections.

The army and other defence forces besides the police have been deployed on the streets around the country on pretext of quelling any possible political and electoral violence, which can potentially be abused and undermine physical civic space. Therefore, physical and online civic and political space will constantly be under threat from the establishment during and after the elections, as it has been before.

Civil society and critical media outlets are potential targets of post-election intimidation and harassment, hence the need for global and regional civil society to support civil society in Zambia with strategies to counter the reprisals that may be imposed on them by the state machinery after the elections. If the current government wins, its categorisation, marginalisation and discrimination of civil society organisations according to their real or perceived party affiliation will get worse after the elections.

There will be need for solidarity strategies and legal funds to help those who may be incriminated and litigated against using archaic laws. There is need to continue challenging the existence of the Cyber Security and Cyber Crimes Law, the Public Order Act and the NGO Act. To this end, regional and global civil society needs to support, defend, promote and protect the civic and media space in Zambia before, during and after the elections.

Civic space in Zambia is rated as ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

Get in touch with GEARS through its Facebook page and follow @GearsZambia on Twitter.

 

MYANMAR: “Nearly everyone detained tells us they were beaten”

CIVICUS speaks to Manny Maung, Myanmar researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW), about the human rights situation in Myanmar. Manny was previously a journalist and spent many years living and working in Myanmar,

Myanmar remains on the CIVICUS Monitor Watchlist as a country that has seen a recent and rapid decline in civic freedoms. The Myanmar military seized power in a coup on 1 February 2021, arrested the civilian leaders of the national and state governments and launched a brutal crackdown against the protest movement. More than six months on, the assault on civic space persists. Thousands have been arbitrarily arrested and detained. Many face baseless charges and there have been reports of torture and ill-treatment during interrogation, and of deaths in custody.

Manny Maung

What is the situation of civic freedoms in Myanmar more than five months after the coup?

Since the military coup on 1 February, we’ve seen a rapid deterioration of the situation. Thousands have been arbitrarily detained and hundreds have been killed, while many more are in hiding and trying to evade arrest. HRW has determined that the military has committed abuses that amount to crimes against humanity against its population, so quite clearly the situation for civil society is extremely dangerous as civic freedoms have become non-existent.

Is the civil disobedience movement (CDM) still active despite the repression?

Protests are still being held daily, although they are smaller and more ad hoc. Flash strikes are popping up all over Myanmar, not just in major cities. But these demonstrations are now slightly muted, not just due to the violent crackdowns by the security forces, but also because of the devastating third wave of COVID-19 infections. Hundreds of arrest warrants have been issued for protest leaders, including against almost 600 medical doctors who participated in or led the CDM earlier on. Journalists, lawyers and civil society leaders have all been targeted and so has anyone who is deemed to be a protest or strike leader. In some cases, if the authorities can’t find the individual who they are targeting for arrest, they arrest their family members as a form of collective punishment.

What is the situation of protesters that have been arrested and detained?

Nearly everyone we speak to who was detained or rounded up during widespread crackdowns on protests tells us they were beaten when they were arrested or being held in military interrogation centres. One teenager described to me how he was beaten so hard with a rifle butt that he passed out in between beatings. He also described how he was forced into a pit and buried up to his neck while blindfolded, all because the authorities suspected him of being a protest leader. Others have described severe beatings while being handcuffed to a chair, being denied food and water and deprived of sleep, and experiencing sexual violence or the threat of rape.

Many protesters who are still detained have not had serious trials. Some have been charged and convicted, but that’s a small number compared to the thousands who are waiting to have their cases move forward. Many detainees who have since been released from prison tell us they had minimal contact, if any, with their lawyers. But the lawyers who represent them also face risks. At least six lawyers defending political prisoners have been arrested, three of them while representing a client in a trial proceeding.

How has the disruption of internet and television services affected the CDM?

Bans on satellite television have added to the restrictions on access to information. The junta claimed that ‘illegal organisations and news organisations’ were broadcasting programmes via satellite that threatened state security. But the bans appear primarily targeted at foreign news channels that broadcast via satellite into Myanmar, including two independent Myanmar-language broadcasters, Democratic Voice of Burma and Mizzima, both of which had their media licences revoked by the junta in March. Internet shutdowns have also made it difficult for people to access information and communicate with each other in real time.

Blanket internet shutdowns are a form of collective punishment. They hinder access to information and communications that’s needed for daily life but especially during crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic. The restrictions also provide cover for human rights abuses and complicate efforts to document violations.

Why has violence in the ethnic areas increased, and who is being targeted?

The coup sparked renewed fighting in some parts of the country between ethnic armed groups and the military. Rakhine State appears to be the exception, as the Arakan Army has negotiated a ceasefire there, and protests against the military have not been as vocal or widespread. Other ethnic armed groups such as the Kachin Independence Army and the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) have welcomed resistance to the military and are providing safe haven to those fleeing from the military in the territories they control. Renewed clashes between the military and the KNLA have resulted in a number of human rights violations on civilians and have displaced thousands on the Thai-Myanmar border.

What do you think of the response by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to the situation in Myanmar so far?

ASEAN has attempted to follow diplomatic channels, but this is not a situation where it’s business as usual. The military has seized power and has been committing crimes against its own people – a civilian population that has already voted for its preferred government. After months of futile negotiations, ASEAN should be prepared to impose penalties on Myanmar. As independent nations, ASEAN member states should act together and impose targeted sanctions on Myanmar to ensure the military no longer acts with total impunity.

The reaction by General Min Aung Hlaing, who has made himself the Prime Minister, to the five-point consensus plan proposed by ASEAN shows his utter disdain for regional diplomacy and makes it apparent that he will only respond to tough acts – such as cutting off his and the military’s access to foreign revenue through smart sanctions.

What can the international community do to support civil society and push for a return to democratic rule?

HRW recommends that the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) refers the situation in Myanmar to the International Criminal Court. The UNSC and influential countries such as the USA, the UK, Australia, Japan, India, Thailand and the European Union should apply coordinated sanctions to pressure the junta. The UNSC should also pass a resolution to ban the sales of weapons to Myanmar.

As for international civil society organisations, they should continue to advocate on behalf of civil society members who are currently in hiding or being held in arbitrary detention. This means continuing to push for recognition of the severity of the political and humanitarian crisis in Myanmar and pushing for governments to act in favour of the people of Myanmar.

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

Follow @mannymaung on Twitter.

 

MALAYSIA: ‘The government should have assisted refugees under the pandemic’

Htoon Htoon OoCIVICUS speaks to Htoon Htoon Oo, a refugee and activist from Myanmar, currently based in Malaysia. In 2007, he was a chemistry student in East Yangon University and an activist who took part in what was described as the Saffron Revolution, a series of protests unleashed by a hike in fuel prices, which were harshly repressed. He was also active during Myanmar’s transition from a military dictatorship to a quasi-civilian government in 2010.

Aware of being under state surveillance and fearing that his family members and loved ones would experience reprisals and harassment due to his activism, he fled Myanmar in 2011 and has lived as a refugee in Malaysia ever since.

 

What is the situation of refugees in Malaysia?

The life of Myanmar refugees in Malaysia continues to be difficult, as it involves various struggles and suffering. We often feel helpless, hopeless, and unprotected. As of May 2021, there were an estimated 179,570 refugees and asylum seekers registered with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in Malaysia. The majority – a total of 154,840 – were from Myanmar, including 102,950 Rohingya people, 22,490 ethnic Chins, and 29,400 from other ethnic groups fleeing persecution or conflict-affected areas.

Malaysia has not yet ratified the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. The absence of a legal framework for recognising refugees and asylum seekers has created problematic and exploitative conditions for refugees and asylum seekers because we lack formal rights to work, we do not have legal status, we do not benefit from any legal protection and we continue to remain at risk of arrest, detention, and refoulement.

We also have limited civic freedoms. Although there are many different organisations of refugees from various backgrounds, when it comes to expressing our concerns and organising our struggles, the reality is that we are not able to do it freely. There is common fear among refugees regarding the consequences of speaking up about our struggle, expressing our concerns, and claiming our rights.

For example, under the Peaceful Assembly Act, Section 4(a), the right to assemble peacefully is reserved exclusively for Malaysian citizens. Moreover, there are many laws in Malaysia that create a chilling effect for refugees who want to speak up, such as the Immigration Act, which criminalises undocumented migrants as well as refugees, given that we are not recognised by law. The Immigration Act also exposes refugees to severe forms of punishment, such as caning. The lack of recognition of refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia exposes us to arrest, imprisonment, and various abuses.

What additional challenges have refugees faced under the pandemic?

Since the COVID-19 pandemic broke out in Malaysia in March 2020, refugees have faced several issues and struggles. The lockdown, known as the Movement Control Order (MCO), which was applied to the whole nation, has had a huge impact on refugees.

Refugees cannot work under Malaysian law, but some do seek informal work to survive. Under the pandemic, we have seen cases of employers forcing refugees to work for salaries below the normal wage or to take unpaid leave or resign just because of their refugee status. Many refugees lost their jobs due to the pandemic. There is nothing to protect us from these abuses.

We also fear for our safety during the pandemic because there have been several cases of refugees being targeted by the police and immigration officers due to a lack of clear policies and awareness among law enforcement officials on what a refugee is. Some refugees were fined by the police, and some were even detained at police stations for several days.

Some people also label us as illegal immigrants even if we hold complete and authentic UNHCR refugee cards or documents.

Most of the refugees who face these struggles are also dealing with depression and are mentally exhausted through thinking of ways just to survive and remain safe.

Have refugees received any support from the Malaysian government or the UNHCR during the pandemic?

Refugees have received no support from the Malaysian government; rather we experienced more raids and increasing restrictions. This is the opposite of what should have happened: they should have provided us with access to information on COVID-19 treatment and testing and there should have been other support programmes for refugees during the pandemic.

Instead, in May 2020, Malaysia’s immigration department and police force carried out immigration raids in Kuala Lumpur. While those registered with the UNHCR were largely spared arrest, unregistered asylum seekers were swept up along with undocumented migrant workers. Some were also stuck in areas under strict lockdown surrounded by barbed wire, with residents forbidden from leaving their homes, which made it very difficult. Many of us have not recovered from this.

There has also been a wave of online hate speech towards refugees, and particularly towards Rohingya people, during the pandemic, accompanied by government announcements and policies that are hostile towards migrants and refugees.

The UNHCR sent direct messages to refugees whose documents expired informing them that they would remain valid until the UNHCR could resume its normal operations, which were disrupted by the pandemic. This, however, made no difference to law enforcement, and many people have been fined and arrested.

What is the status of refugees regarding access to the COVID-19 vaccine?

The Malaysian government has encouraged refugees to come forward to register for vaccination but has not provided clear information, and the existing systems are not accessible for refugees.

For example, there is a requirement for specific documents to register for vaccines. The system requires refugees and asylum seekers to input an ID card or passport number, two documents that we do not have access to.

The system should be more inclusive of all persons living in Malaysia, including refugees, asylum seekers, and undocumented migrants because vaccinations should be the first barrier against the creation of COVID-19 clusters. Arresting us will only make things worse because fatal clusters are known to have been formed in detention centres. The criminalisation of immigration is at the root of this problem.

What are the demands of refugee communities towards the Malaysian government and the international community?

We would like the Malaysian government to raise public awareness on the status of refugees as refugees, rather than as illegal immigrants, ‘risk’ groups or criminals. There has been a negative perception of refugees as only benefiting from society and not contributing to it, which is false.

In reality, we want to contribute to Malaysia in every way that we can. We urge the Malaysian government to give refugees legal access to work and to acknowledge their legal status. We are currently unable to find formal work, and lack of recognition exposes us to exploitation. We hope the government will raise awareness of the true reasons why refugees are here.

I hope that the government can work hand in hand with the UNHCR and civil society to settle refugee issues in more appropriate and effective ways and not deport any Myanmar detainees back to Myanmar, which is currently under a military regime. Instead, we should find solutions such as a resettlement programme. There should also be clear policies and information on vaccines accessible to all refugees.

Civic space in Malaysia is rated as ‘obstructedby the CIVICUS Monitor.

 

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 in Indonesia is rated as ‘obstructedby the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with KontraS through its website and follow @KontraS on Twitter. 

 

MYANMAR: “The military turned medical workers from heroes to criminals overnight”

Nay Lin Tun May

CIVICUS speaks to Nay Lin Tun, a medical doctor who regularly volunteers with rescue teams in emergency areas in the city of Yangon, Myanmar. Since the military seized power through a coup on 1 February 2021, the army has launched a brutal crackdown against the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), a protest movement that spread across the country. Medical workers have played a key role in the movement.

Ever since the coup, Nay Lin Tun has been on the frontline treating protesters injured by the security forces. He previously worked in Rakhine State providing mobile community-based medical care to Rohingya people and other internally displaced populations in conflict-affected areas. He was also involved in the Goalkeepers Youth Action Accelerator campaign dedicated to accelerating progress towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

What has the situation been since the coup? How has the medical system been affected?

Since the military coup occurred on 1 February, our lives entered darkness: internet access, the freedom of expression, the freedom of speech and all our basic human rights have been denied. I cannot believe that such a military coup can still happen in the 21st century. We live in a cycle of fear every day and are afraid of getting arrested or killed for no reason.

People were already in a stage of desperation before the coup, due to the social and economic hardships associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. They were hoping that their business would recover and grow when COVID-19 infection figures fell in Myanmar. Now, all these plans are gone. People have said they would rather die fighting for a democratic future than live under a military junta.

Almost all government departments and ministries are shut down because the CDM is boycotting all services linked to the military and promoting labour strikes and walkouts by civil servants and other workers. Health systems have all collapsed.

Worryingly, COVID-19 prevention and control mechanisms have also stopped since the coup, as has the vaccination campaign. The authorities bought 30 million COVID-19 vaccine doses from the Indian government, which were shipped in January and April 2021. But there are lots of data discrepancies between those who have received the first dose and those who have received the second: 1.54 million people have received the COVID-19 vaccine once but only 0.34 million have been vaccinated for a second time. This shows the failure of the vaccination programme. In addition, the COVID-19 surveillance system has been slow and has low testing capacities. This puts many people at risk in case a third or fourth wave of COVID-19 hits Myanmar.

How are medical workers responding to the pandemic and the coup?

Myanmar healthcare professionals have shown their strength and commitment, and have been hailed as COVID-19 heroes, since the beginning of the 2020 COVID-19 outbreak. At that time, there were not enough resources to treat those infected and cases began rising; deaths reached a total of 3,209 (according to the Ministry of Health and Sports (MOHS) website, COVID-19 Dashboard data updated on 4 May 2021). But, due to our admirable health heroes and good leadership, the slope of COVID-19 infections declined in late 2020 and people in Myanmar began to receive vaccines in the last week of January 2021. Myanmar was the third country to have a COVID-19 vaccination programme in the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) region, right after more developed countries such as Indonesia and Singapore.

But all these positive developments have been destroyed overnight. On 1 February, all elected government officials, including State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, were detained. People have not been willing to accept this takeover by an abusive military junta and are showing their anger on the streets. The military forces have brutally cracked down on the protests with lethal weapons and real bullets. This has led to 769 people being killed as of 4 May, according to data from the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP). Due to the military coup, government workers left their jobs to join the CDM. It was medical workers from the MOHS who initiated this movement, and they were followed by those in other departments and ministries.

Therefore, the military has targeted government staff involved in the CDM protest movement and those who support them. They have tried to arrest them using a new provision in the Penal Code, Section 505A, that can be used to punish comments regarding the illegitimacy of the coup or the military government, among other violations. These are punishable with up to three years in prison.

By doing so, the military turned medical workers from heroes to criminals overnight. The military spokesperson for the Tatmadaw Information Team, Brigadier-General Zaw Min Tun, has even accused government doctors who withdrew their services after joining the CDM of murdering people in cold blood.

In reality, CDM doctors are helping the public in various ways, including by providing free treatment at private hospitals and charity clinics, making home visits and providing telephone counselling. Due to the military coup, people have faced numerous challenges and insecurity both day and night. Curfews are in place from 8 pm to 6 am in all states and regions except Rakhine State. In addition, the internet is blocked for those accessing it via SIM cards and Wi-Fi services; as a result, most people lack internet access and the flow of information is restricted. All these conditions have had a major impact on people’s ability to reach out to healthcare services on time.

What risks do medical workers face for speaking out?

Currently, all the medical doctors who help anti-coup protesters risk arrest and those who joined the CDM are on an arrest list. Up to now, according to AAPP data, more than 4,700 people, including elected leaders, election commissioners, anti-regime protesters, teachers, doctors, journalists, writers, artists and civilians, have been arrested since the coup. Therefore, if we speak out, we face a high risk of arrest anytime, any day in any place.

According to the latest information, not even free charity clinics are now allowed to accept CDM doctors or admit wounded patients for treatment. The military is also acting against private hospitals, which are forced to shut down, and have their doctors arrested if they accept CDM doctors’ consultations.

Have you witnessed military violence against civilians?

On the evening of 9 April, reports began emerging that security forces had killed scores of people in the city of Bago, about 80 kilometres north-east of Yangon, after unleashing heavy weapons and grenades to disperse protesters occupying barricades. Before launching the operation in Bago, the armed forces had blocked the roads, preventing ambulances from picking up the wounded, many of whom were eventually dumped in a monastery compound.

At least 80 people were killed in Bago that day, but the final death toll will probably never be known. Something else we will likely never know is how many of the wounded died because they did not receive treatment. I arrived in Bago three days later to help treat the wounded. It was a difficult task. Many injured protesters were in hiding, for fear they would be arrested if they sought treatment. We were also told that volunteer medical workers had been detained by the security forces.

As a frontline medical volunteer, I have regularly witnessed the brutality of the junta’s operations to disperse protesters. The first time was during a protest near Thanlyin Technological University in the outer south-eastern Yangon Region on 9 March. Troops had occupied the campus, and students were protesting peacefully to demand that they leave. The security forces suddenly opened fire with live rounds, leaving several people injured. We began treating some of the injured in a safe house not far from the site of the protest, but then soldiers arrived nearby, and we had to quickly evacuate the patients to another safe house. Thankfully, we managed to get them to a safe location and continued treating them.

How can the international community support medical workers?

Attacks on health facilities and personnel must be documented by national and international bodies. We are lucky that the World Health Organization has a surveillance system on attacks on healthcare facilities and personnel, which are recorded daily. From 1 February to 30 April, there were at least 158 attacks on healthcare facilities, vehicles, staff and supplies, as well as against patients, resulting in 11 deaths and 51 injuries. These facts help people understand the scope of the problem and can guide the design of interventions to prevent and respond to the attacks. But in Myanmar, there isn’t a leading organisation that can take action to prevent attacks and violence against healthcare personnel. Therefore, we need international pressure on Myanmar authorities and need international humanitarian organisations to address this issue seriously. 

The international community should stand together with us in condemning the attacks on healthcare facilities and workers and unite with Myanmar healthcare workers in speaking out forcefully against all acts of discrimination, intimidation and violence against healthcare workers and facilities. Support to frontline medical workers in the form of medicines and other emergency aid would also be welcome.

What is your hope for Myanmar?

I wish for a day when all our healthcare workers receive full respect in accordance with our professional role. In other countries, medical professionals also held protests against their government, but their governments engaged with them and worked out agreements to end the protests because medical workers deal with millions of patients and in a democracy, their protests could have an impact on elected officials. Therefore, doctors’ strikes in other countries did not last long.

It is the opposite in Myanmar. The military has unleashed a brutal crackdown on striking doctors and has arrested health workers. Doctors who are involved in the CDM can be sentenced to up to three years of imprisonment. CDM doctors have also been arrested at their homes and even in their clinics while providing treatment to patients. Therefore, it will be a very meaningful day for all our medical workers in Myanmar when we get full respect for our work.

We also aspire to have a professional body that can protect all healthcare workers from attacks. The Myanmar Medical Association and Medical Council have silently witnessed the arrest of our brothers and sisters in the medical sector. We should receive full protection from a strong medical association.

Last but not least, according to medical ethics reflected in the Hippocratic Oath, we have a full duty of care for the safety of patients that require treatment. Treatment of needy patients in an emergency should not be seen as a crime. But our medical teams are targeted for arrest for providing medical assistance. We wish one day all our medical workers will have freedom of care with no limitation.

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

 

PHILIPPINES: ‘The charges against me are part of the government’s efforts at silencing its critics’

CIVICUS speaks with the chairperson of human rights group Karapatan, Elisa ‘Tita’ Lubi, who currently faces fabricated charges of attempted murder. She was accused alongside Karapatan Southern Mindanao Region’s Secretary General Jayvee Apia for allegedly committing these crimes during an armed encounter between members of the armed opposition group New People’s Army and the military in May 2018. The case was only filed in June 2020, two years after the alleged encounter.

Karapatan is a national alliance of civil society organisations (CSOs) and activists working to promote and protect human rights in the Philippines. Established in 1995, Karapatan has 16 regional chapters and includes more than 40 member organisations. Karapatan staff and members have been vilified by the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte for their activism and have repeatedly faced trumped up charges.

 

 

What is your background and experience as an activist?

After martial law was declared by President Ferdinand Marcos in 1972, I decided not only to support the student activists but to spend part of my time, which used to be totally consumed by the corporate world, helping and learning about real life from farmers and fisherfolk. After my third arrest and detention, I became active in the women’s movement since it was Gabriela, a national alliance of women’s organisations, which successfully campaigned in the Philippines and internationally for my release. I also used what skills I had developed, as a young human resources management and development manager in a US corporation and a multinational conglomerate, to design and pioneer a Basic NGO Management Course to help non-government and people’s organisations better run their projects, programmes and operations.

Eventually I became active in Selda, an organisation of former political detainees, and helped in the formation of Karapatan. I became the Founding Vice Chairperson of the Gabriela Women’s Party, which won in the party list elections in its first try. It was then one of the only two women’s political parties in the world.

So as an activist, I worked in the people’s movement, the women’s movement, the struggle for human rights and in the electoral arena. Eventually, I started focusing more on the defence and advancement of human and people’s rights, with specific attention to the plight of political prisoners and campaigning for their release, having been one myself. I was arrested and detained twice under Marcos’s martial law and once under the Corazon Aquino presidency (1986-1992).

I am now the National Chairperson of Karapatan, an alliance of organisations and individuals advocating and fighting for human and people’s rights. Its major responsibilities include monitoring and reporting of the overall human rights situation in the Philippines, so since 2007 we have regularly published a Year-End Report on the human rights situation in the country.

We have documented and reported cases of violations of human and people’s rights in our  quarterly human rights Monitor. We also coordinate the Quick Reaction Team machinery composed of paralegals from affected regions and sectors, human rights lawyers, medical professionals when needed and volunteer human rights advocates; such teams immediately verify the report of a rights violation, search for the victims in military camps, detention centres and police stations, get in touch with the victim’s family and visit and investigate the scene of a violation.

We also expose cases, especially the grossest ones, of human rights violations nationally and internationally through newspapers, radio, television and social media. We aim to engender widespread protest and strengthen political pressure on the Filipino government to prevent further human rights violations. We oppose and campaign against repressive laws, bills, directives, government policies and programmes that imperil political, civil, economic, social and cultural rights. We are part of the Free Political Prisoners campaign and we gather political and material support for them.

Finally, we help in the provision of legal and medical services to political detainees, support their struggle for prison reform and help them meet their daily basic needs, which are not sufficiently provided by prison administrations, and initiate or join fact-finding and solidarity missions to document and assist victims and their families.

What harassment have you have faced over the years?

It is a long story of harassment, arrest, detention and ‘red tagging’ – a practice where people are slurred as communists and terrorists. Since 2016, when President Duterte took power, the government has committed widespread and systematic human rights violations, including the killing of human rights defenders. The government’s anti-insurgency campaign has failed to distinguish between armed combatants and civilians and there have been harassment and attacks against activists who are singled out and accused of supporting the communist insurgency. In my first arrest during Marcos’s martial law years, two of my companions, student activists from the state university, were shot dead.

Under the post-Marcos administration of President Aquino, some changes occurred but they were superficial and not at all the fundamental changes we were working for. I was once more arrested for violating the Anti-Subversion Law and was incarcerated first in a police station and then transferred to a city jail. But before that, I was sexually molested while undergoing tactical interrogation. I was released after more than six months when the case was dismissed for lack of evidence. By the way, the 100-plus city jail women detainees elected me Mayora, some sort of president of the detained.

Then came President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who invoked a national emergency. In 2006, a rebellion case was slapped on six progressive party-list representatives sitting in the Philippines Congress and about 40 other critics of the government. The legislators became known as the Batasan Six; I was one of the other 40. The case was later dismissed by the Supreme Court, with the following admonition: “(We) cannot emphasise too strongly that prosecutors should not allow and should avoid giving the impression that their noble office is being used or prostituted, wittingly or unwittingly, for political ends.”

What have you and Karapatan been accused of more recently, under the Duterte administration?

In 2018, a petition was filed by the Justice Department for the proscription as terrorist organisations of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and the New People’s Army (NPA), which have led a longstanding national liberation movement in the Philippines. Appended to the petition was a list of more than 650 names that included those of social activists, human rights defenders, peace advocates and other government critics. My lawyer and I filed a motion to have my name stricken off the petition. Pushed by the strong protest against the clear military move to silence dissent and the freedom of expression, the government submitted an amended petition that dropped the list of names, retaining only two.

As a reaction to the unrelenting work of Karapatan to defend rights and expose the dismal human rights record of the Duterte government, not only in the country but also in the international community, including in the United Nations (UN), Karapatan has been subjected to constant and vicious harassment, intimidation, red-tagging, demonisation and vilification. 

To protect itself, Karapatan filed a petition for legal protection under the privilege of the writ of amparo and habeas data, along with two other organisations, Gabriela and Rural Missionaries of the Philippines. In retaliation, Duterte’s National Security Adviser charged officers of the three organisations with perjury. The leaders of these organisations, including me as Karapatan’s chairperson, are all on provisional liberty after posting bail. Hearings on the case are proceeding during the pandemic.

The latest in the series of attempts at political repression against us is the filing of an attempted murder charge against my colleague Jay Apiag, me and three others. Two years after the supposed incident, a soldier of the Philippines Army allegedly identified us as part of an NPA unit that staged an ambush. On 29 March 2021, my lawyers and I filed an urgent omnibus motion for reinvestigation and to defer implementation of the warrant of arrest. It is still pending in court.

I have also shared evidence with the courts confirming my presence in Metro Manila preceding, during and following the alleged incident. In addition, it is also implausible that I was engaged in armed combat as I am 76 and suffer from hypertension and arthritis.

Why do you think the authorities are coming after you and Karapatan?

Those moves are part of the Duterte government and its military and police arms’ efforts at silencing its critics, whom they brand as ‘enemies of the state’. They are part of Duterte’s attempt at building a tyrannical rule patterned after his idol, the dictator Marcos. 

Its counter-insurgency operational plan, Oplan Kapanatagan, aims to stem the continuing growth of the liberation movement in the country led by the CPP, the NPA and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP). The Duterte government, with retired generals appointed to various cabinet positions, cannot understand that unless the basic problems of Filipino society are solved, even step by step, the people’s movement will persist.  

What Duterte and his militarist henchmen have done instead is to merge as targets of attacks the armed and underground movements and the open and legal democratic people’s movement. So now, Karapatan and social activists and rights advocates like myself are in the bullseye of Duterte’s guns, so to speak.

What is the overall situation for human rights defenders?

The Philippines is one of the countries where social activists, human rights defenders and peace advocates live most dangerously. Recently, the Supreme Court was forced to issue a statement against attacks on lawyers, as 61 lawyers have been killed under Duterte’s presidency. The Duterte government’s intolerance of criticism was manifested by its red-tagging of film stars and beauty queens, university bodies and even organisers of community food schemes who were simply expressing their views. Six NDFP peace consultants have been summarily executed under Duterte. Four were shot dead, one was stabbed several times and one was garrotted.

Very recently, the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) ordered the profiling of the organisers of the Maginhawa Community Pantry, a civil society initiative that solicits donations and distributes foodstuffs under the motto ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs’. Community pantries are mushrooming all over due to the government’s inability to alleviate impoverishment under the pandemic. Many are protesting against the red-tagging of the community pantry organisers, made worse by the NTF-ELCAC spokesperson, a retired military general, who likened the woman initiator of the public initiative to Satan.

What needs to change for the rule of law and human rights to be respected and for democracy to flourish?

First, and in general terms, the Duterte government should stop using the law to break the law. Specifically, it should repeal the Anti-Terrorism Law, which allows the warrantless arrest, prolonged detention and freezing of bank accounts of individuals based on mere suspicion of being terrorists. It should abolish the NTF-ELCAC, which leads inter-agency actions with impunity, including but not limited to extrajudicial killings, massacres, enforced disappearances, simultaneous raids and arrests, filing of trumped-up charges and red-tagging. It has billions in public funds, which could very well be allocated to COVID-19 testing, vaccination and food assistance to families affected by the pandemic.

The police should stop killing suspected drug users and pushers during its anti-drug operations, mostly conducted in urban poor communities. The judiciary should also categorically instruct its prosecutors and judges to desist from filing charges in court and issuing search and arrest warrants with insufficient evidence or with hardly a preliminary investigation. The military and police should be prevented from exerting pressure on or threatening officers of the courts.

The Duterte government should go back to peace negotiations. Headway has been achieved in the draft Comprehensive Agreement on Social and Economic Rights, specifically on agrarian reform and rural development and national industrialisation and economic development. There is a possibility of an Interim Peace Agreement and a coordinated ceasefire. The NDFP is willing to continue peace talks to address the root causes of the armed conflict. It is the Duterte government that is refusing to sit down and talk once more.

Next year, 2022, is a national election year. There should be major electoral reforms to prevent fraud through electronic cheating and the rampant use of ‘guns, goons and gold’ to maintain the corrupt politicians entrenched in power. There should be a stop to political dynasties, including that of President Duterte, whose daughter is mayor of Davao City and is perceived to have started campaigning for the presidency in 2022 despite continued denial. One Duterte son is a congressman, while another is a vice mayor. Electoral reforms and people’s action should ensure that the candidates with the people’s interests at heart get a fighting chance and those whom the people vote for actually win.

What can the international community and CSOs do to support you and other activists facing judicial harassment?

One way is to join and support the Stop the Killings in the Philippines international campaign. Another is to join and support the international campaign to investigate the human rights situation in the Philippines.

Still another is to support advocacy with the UN Human Rights Council and UN Special Procedures being undertaken by Philippine human rights defenders and peace advocates to address the real situation of human and people’s rights and the implementation of international humanitarian law in the Philippines.

And finally, the international community and CSOs can push for and support the resumption of peace talks between the government and the NDFP, and urge the government to stop the attacks on NDFP peace consultants and honour whatever peace agreement has been reached between the government and the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Mindanao.

Civic space in the Philippines is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Follow Karapatan through its website or follow @karapatan on Twitter.

 

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 the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Legal Prosperity Foundation through its Facebook page and follow lpf_kg on Instagram.

 

BANGLADESH: “To address rape we need a thorough reform of the legal system”

CIVICUS speaks to Aparajita Sangita, a Bangladeshi human rights activist and an international award-winning independent filmmaker. Aparajita has worked on several films on discrimination against women and women’s rights and has been involved in various social activities including street children’s education and food banking. In response to her activism, she has been harassed by the police. She was also sued for harassment under the draconian Digital Security Act for her online activism. The case was withdrawn in the wake of widespread protests on the streets and online.

Aparajita Sangita

What triggered the recent anti-rape protests in Bangladesh?

On the evening of 5 January 2020, a student at Dhaka University (DU) was raped after getting off a university bus in the Kurmitola area of the capital, Dhaka. DU students were disturbed by this incident, which led to protests and the organisation of several other events.

Despite widespread protests against the rape, sexual violence against women persisted and even increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.

On 25 September, a woman who was visiting MC College in Sylhet with her husband was raped in a hostel on campus by political activists linked to the ruling party. As protests erupted over this, a video of a woman being abused in Begumganj, Noakhali on 4 October went viral on social media. The video clip showed a group of men entering the woman’s house, stripping her naked and physically assaulting her, while capturing it all on video.

These incidents are just a few of the numerous cases of rape and sexual violence against women that have been circulating on social media in Bangladesh. The perpetrators of this violence include fathers, close relatives, law enforcement officials, public representatives, political leaders and religious actors.

All of this led to the mass anti-rape protests of October 2020, when people from all over the country came together to protest against violence against women. The anti-rape protest movement started in Shahbag, known as the ‘Movement Square of Bangladesh’, but soon spread to every city, even villages, across Bangladesh. This includes Bogra, Brahminbaria, Champainababganj, Chandpur, Dhamirhat (Nowgaon), Faridpur, Gafargaon (Mymensingh), Gopalganj, Jaipurhat, Kurigram, Manikganj, Noakhali, Panchgarh, Rajshahi, Satkhira and Syedpur (Nilphamari).

People from different walks of life, including members of political parties, writers, cultural activists, online activists, national cricket team players, women’s rights activists and journalists, converged in the anti-rape protest movement. For the first time in Bangladesh, women marched against rape in the middle of the night. In Dhaka, they marched from Shahbag to Parliament House, carrying torches and shouting slogans.

What were protesters’ main demands?

The anti-rape protest movement raised nine demands to stop rape and sexual violence. They included the introduction of exemplary punishment for those involved in rape and violence against women across Bangladesh and the immediate removal of the home minister who had failed to deliver justice.

Protesters also demanded an end to all sexual and social abuse of tribal women; the establishment of a committee to prevent sexual harassment of women in all government and private organisations as well as in educational institutions, following High Court orders; and the full implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). They also urged the abolition of laws and practices that create inequality towards women.

Other calls included putting a stop to the mental harassment of victims during investigations and ensuring their legal and social security, the inclusion of crime and gender experts in Women and Children Repression Prevention Tribunals, and the establishment of more tribunals to ensure the quick processing of cases.

Finally, they urged the amendment of Section 155(4) and other relevant sections of the Evidence Act to end the admissibility of character evidence of complainants in rape trials and the elimination from textbooks of all materials deemed defamatory of women or depicting them as inferior.

How did the authorities respond to the protests?

On 6 October, protesters marched from Shahbag to the Prime Minister’s Office with black flags but were stopped by the police at the Hotel Intercontinental Junction. Several leaders and activists of a left-wing student body were injured by the police.

In addition, a section of a statement issued by the police headquarters on 10 October attempted to vilify the protesters. It stated that “vested quarters” were trying to use the protest “to serve their interests” by undermining law and order and “creating social chaos.” The police warned protesters to avoid any “anti-state activities” and announced that the police were committed to ensuring internal peace and order at all costs. This statement caused panic among protesters, who feared a crackdown.

Besides facing police repression, several women activists, including the leader of the Left Students’ Association, who participated in the anti-rape movement, were threatened with rape over the phone and on Facebook Messenger. Some of the activists were also threatened with criminal cases.

What has happened to the movement since? Has the campaign stopped?

After the protests against rape and sexual assault spread across the country, the Women and Children Repression Prevention Law was amended. The death sentence was imposed as the most severe punishment for rape. Previously, the maximum punishment for rape in Bangladesh was life imprisonment. The death penalty was only applied in cases of gang rape, or rape that resulted in the victim’s death.

Following this the protests halted, as many thought that the death penalty would see a reduction in rape crimes. However, many women’s rights campaigners insist the death penalty is not the answer and demand a thorough reform of the legal system and more education to address what they say is an epidemic of violence against women in Bangladesh.

What can the international community support the movement?

In the wake of the various cases of sexual violence and rape committed against women, we have seen an important protest movement emerge within the country. However, some protesters and activists have faced threats when they have raised their voices. The solidarity of the international community is essential for those protesting against human rights violations and making fair claims.

Bangladesh is an extremely patriarchal society, and there have been numerous attempts to restrict women’s lives and voices for years. Rape is an expression of this environment. It is a fundamental right for a woman to live in safety and it is the responsibility of all citizens, as well as the international community, to ensure this right.

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

 

MIGRANTS’ RIGHTS: ‘Europe instrumentalises human suffering to deter migration’

CIVICUS speaks about the situation of migrants and refugees in Greece with Maya Thomas-Davis, an Advocacy and Communications Officer at the Legal Centre Lesvos AMKE, a Greek civil society organisation that provides free legal information and assistance to migrants who arrive by sea to Lesvos, where the Centre is based. The Legal Centre also documents violations of migrants’ rights, advocates for safe and legal migration routes and engages in advocacy and strategic litigation to hold the Greek government, member states of the European Union (EU) and European institutions accountable for their treatment of migrants.

Maya Thomas Davis

Photo: Legal Centre Lesvos @Instagram

What kind of work does the Legal Centre Lesvos do, and how have you managed under the pandemic?

The Legal Centre Lesvos (LCL) is a civil non-profit legal and political organisation based on principles of solidarity, not charity. Since August 2016, it has provided access to legal information, assistance and representation to migrants arriving by sea on the Greek island of Lesvos. LCL also works towards collective justice and structural change as part of movements resisting Europe’s border imperialism on many fronts, including through advocacy and strategic litigation. LCL was founded following the March 2016 EU-Turkey statement, an agreement of questionable legality through which the European Union turned people seeking freedom, safety and dignity into commodities and bargaining chips: agreeing to pay 6 billion euros to Erdogan’s authoritarian regime in exchange for Turkey acting as a border guard to fortress Europe. This ‘deal’ transformed the island of Lesvos into a site of indefinite imprisonment for migrants. LCL provides access to legal information and assistance in solidarity with migrants trapped here, without losing sight of the fact that migration to Europe is intimately connected with the continent’s imperialist past and present and the interests of global capitalism; that the brutal violations witnessed here are always political choices; and that the people most affected are the most important political actors in challenging and resisting this.

LCL has an open-door policy, meaning that nobody is turned away or refused legal information or assistance because their case is not ‘strong’ enough, or is unsuitable for strategic litigation. We maintain this position because we believe that, as a bare minimum, everyone has the right to understand the legal framework they are subject to, particularly in the context of asylum law, where consequences can be a matter of life or death.

To facilitate access to information, prior to the introduction of COVID-19 restrictions LCL had been running regular group information sessions about asylum procedures, in multiple languages. This is certainly one aspect of our work where the pandemic has created difficulties. In Lesvos lockdown measures have been in place since March 2020, varying in degrees of intensity. Group information sessions have been impossible due to limitations on office capacity mandated by restrictions. We have managed to keep the open-door policy in place with strict appointment schedules, with many of us working from home at least some of the time, and we are trying to continue to facilitate broader access to information through other means, such as through updates in multiple languages on our website and social media.

How did the situation of migrants and refugees evolve in 2020 as a result of the pandemic? 

The Greek state’s unlawful suspension of the right to asylum on 1 March 2020 and its violent border fortification – with the EU praising Greece as Europe’s ‘shield’ and The European Border and Coast Guard Agency, also known as Frontex, providing increased material support – coincided with the escalation of the COVID-19 pandemic in Europe. Although the EU has been perpetrating violence against migrants at its borders for many years, including through pushbacks, it seems Greek and EU officials believed the pandemic would provide the perfect cover to escalate their attack on migrants in the Aegean, with complete impunity.

Since March 2020, the official number of arrivals by sea to Greece has drastically dropped by a reported 85 per cent as compared to 2019. In the same timeframe, numerous reports and investigations have revealed a systematic practice of collective expulsions on the part of Greek authorities, carried out through a consistent modus operandi, with Frontex’s documented complicity. In every account shared with LCL by pushback survivors, Greek authorities have summarily expelled migrants from Greek territory without registering arrival or facilitating access to asylum procedures. Whether in the middle of the sea or following a landing on an Aegean island, Greek authorities forcibly transfer migrants towards Turkish waters before abandoning them at sea on motorless, unseaworthy dinghies or life rafts, with absolute disregard for whether they live or die. Despite numerous reports, statements, investigations and denunciations of this ongoing attack against migrants, pushbacks at the Aegean Sea border continue with impunity, functioning as an unofficial implementation of the EU-Turkey deal’s objectives while the Turkish border remains officially closed.

Meanwhile in Lesvos, pandemic-related restrictions have only compounded the situation of police violence, discrimination and effective mass detention for migrants. COVID-19-related restrictions, including curfews and the requirement to carry a justification for movement, have been applied in an unjustifiably discriminatory manner. Recently, on 15 February 2021, for example, the curfew for the general population of Lesvos was lifted from 6pm to 9pm, yet for migrants living in the camp a separate regime of restrictions remains in place: people are subject to a more stringent curfew starting at 5pm and only one family member can leave the camp once a week except for medical or legal appointments. Even with written justification, permission to leave the camp is often arbitrarily denied. The police disproportionately target racialised people in checking documents and justifications for movement as well as in imposing fines.

Meanwhile changes in the operations of the Regional Asylum Office and the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) in Lesvos, which had been conducting remote interviews with applicants for international protection, have led to further procedural violations. These include obstacles in access to legal aid at first instance and to file appeals within deadlines due to pandemic-related movement restrictions and restricted access to EASO offices; failure to ensure the requisite confidentiality of interviews due to remote interviews via telephone or video being held in inadequate facilities; and inability to comprehensively present grounds for applications due to practical and technical disruptions of asylum interviews.

As for the sanitary situation, the state has systematically failed to evacuate individuals at risk from overcrowded, unsanitary camps in Lesvos, where distancing measures are impossible. Like the previous Moria camp, which burned down in September 2020, the new reception and identification centre in Mavrovouni/Karatepe – widely known as ‘Moria 2.0’ – is not fit for human habitation. As if conditions of inadequate shelter, healthcare, privacy, food, electricity, running water, hot showers, toilets and other hygiene facilities were not bad enough, since 1926 and until its hasty transformation into a camp in September 2020, the site of Moria 2.0 had been a military firing range, and the Greek government has admitted that a high concentration of lead has been found in samples taken from the site. Lead poisoning causes organ damage, cancer and developmental harm in foetuses and children. There is no level of lead exposure known to be without harmful effects. In such conditions, the Greek state’s failure to transfer people who are disproportionately exposed to danger and death in the inhumane conditions of Moria 2.0 to appropriate living conditions amounts to an attack on migrants’ lives.

Which would you say are main rights violations that migrants and refugees face in Lesvos?

That hundreds of people have been, and continue to be, forcibly transferred then abandoned in the middle of the sea by Greek authorities without means to call for rescue, on unseaworthy, motorless dinghies and life rafts, constitutes a spectacular form of state violence against migrants. Beyond rights violations, LCL’s position is that the constituent elements of the consistent modus operandi of collective expulsions in the Aegean, along with the widespread and systematic nature of this attack, amount to crimes against humanity. The practice of systematic pushbacks with impunity reveals the extent to which fortress Europe treats migrants’ lives as disposable, in a manner that has historically accompanied the commission of atrocity crimes.

The same disregard for migrants’ lives is inherent in the conditions in camps and detention centres people are forced to endure in Lesvos, which are violations of the right to freedom from inhumane and degrading treatment and torture, the rights to liberty and security, to private and family life, to effective remedy, to freedom from discrimination and to life. It is inherent in people being forced to wait in limbo for years, cut off from family, friends, community and purpose, without being able to move forwards or backwards. It is inherent in the EU increasingly prioritising and funding mass effective detention of migrants, through ‘hotspot’ systems, accelerated border procedures, forcible deportations, border militarisation and border externalisation through deals of questionable legality with third countries and by making aid and other financial packages conditional on border fortification.

While the violence of pushbacks in the Aegean is scandalous and should be treated as such, it is by no means an aberration from the logic of Europe’s border regime, which instrumentalises human suffering for the purpose of deterring migration, at any cost. Even if due process and reception standards mandated by the Common European Asylum System were complied with in Lesvos, many people would still be excluded, and the system would remain violent and fundamentally insufficient to secure the conditions of human flourishing that everyone deserves. For this reason, while the LCL will continue to document, denounce and seek redress for the systematic rights violations in Lesvos, we are conscious that we must simultaneously organise for systemic change: Europe’s human rights framework cannot fail people it was never designed to protect.

What is your position regarding refugee protests over living conditions in camps and blockages of asylum requests?

LCL has always acted and organised in solidarity with migrant-led resistance. Over the years this has taken many forms, including protests, hunger strikes, collective publications, assemblies and occupations. The state has responded with attempts to collectively punish organised resistance by migrants in Lesvos. A case in point is that of the Moria 35 a few years ago. But there are many more recent examples of this. Of course, such resistance can be understood as an exercise of human rights such as the rights to the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression, and as a legal organisation, this is always one way of viewing and supporting this kind of action. However, in Lesvos – where rights are systematically violated with complete impunity, where conditions of misery are deliberately imposed, where the situation always seems to get progressively worse just when it already seemed as bad as could be imagined – organised resistance is also in many ways often the only remaining option.

What kind of support would you need from international civil society to continue doing your work?

Over the past year, the Greek state brought in new legislation on the registration of civil society organisations, introducing onerous, complex registration and certification requirements that present unnecessary, disproportionate barriers for organisations working in solidarity with migrants in Greece. This will certainly make the work of LCL harder as, of course, it is designed to. The Expert Council on NGO Law of the Conference of INGOs of the Council of Europe has already expressed its concerns on these new requirements, and further challenges to these measures would be a welcome form of support from international civil society.

In general, international support and solidarity is needed in the struggle against the increasingly hostile environment for migrants and those working in solidarity with migrants in Greece. Far-right disinformation campaigns making allegations of criminality against migrants and migrant solidarity organisations are increasingly reflected in Greek state practice, such as in the Greek police’s identification of four human rights and migrant solidarity groups in an investigation that accuses them of espionage, forming and membership of a criminal organisation; the Greek state’s systematic prosecution of migrants for facilitation of illegal entry/exit; its perverse decision to prosecute the father of a six-year-old child who tragically drowned in a shipwreck near Samos in November 2020 for endangering his son’s life; and its decision to bring criminal charges against a woman who set herself on fire in desperation in Moria 2.0 in February 2021. Such measures to frame migrants and those who act in solidarity with them as criminals and threats to the nation is a deliberate and effective tactic to obscure the fact that it is states that possess the monopoly on violence and to distract from their systematic violations of migrants’ rights. 

More broadly, it is clear from the legislative proposals contained in the ‘new’ EU migration and asylum pact that the EU will attempt to roll out the model that has been tested in the laboratory of Lesvos and the other Greek ‘hotspot’ islands, across Europe’s external borders – including detention on arrival; accelerated border procedures in detention based on nationality and asylum recognition rates; deportation sponsorship as a form of ‘solidarity’ between member states; and expanded use of migrants’ personal and biometric data. A new ‘controlled’ camp is set to be constructed in Lesvos this year, in a location that is a known forest fire danger zone and is intentionally remote. Internationalist solidarity will always be our best weapon to organise resistance from below to all these measures.

Civic space in Greece is rated ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Legal Centre Lesvos through its website or Facebook page, and follow @lesboslegal on Twitter and @legalcentrelesvos on Instagram

 

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

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

 

SLOVENIA: ‘The government has taken advantage of the pandemic to restrict protest’

CIVICUS speaks about the recent right-wing shift in Slovenia with Brankica Petković, a researcher and project manager at the Peace Institute in Ljubljana. Founded in 1991, the Peace Institute-Institute for Contemporary Social and Political Studies is an independent, non-profit research institution that uses research and advocacy to promote the principles and practices of an open society, critical thought, equality, responsibility, solidarity, human rights and the rule of law. It works in partnership with other organisations and citizens at the local, regional and international levels.

 

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.

 

ECOCIDE: ‘Perpetrators of environmental destruction should be prosecuted just like war criminals are’

CIVICUS speaks with Jojo Mehta, co-founder and Executive Director of Stop Ecocide International and Chair of the Stop Ecocide Foundation. The Stop Ecocide campaign seeks to establish ecocide as an international crime. To that end, the Netherlands-based Stop Ecocide Foundation works with international criminal lawyers, researchers and diplomats to develop an up-to-date, clear and legally robust definition of ecocide and advocate for states to propose an amendment to international criminal law.

 

GREECE: ‘We need a change in narratives as well as in policies towards migration’

CIVICUS speaks about the situation of migrants and refugees in Greece and the role of civil society in policymaking with Lefteris Papagiannakis, Head of Advocacy, Policy and Research at Solidarity Now and former Vice Mayor on Migrant and Refugee Affairs for the Municipality of Athens. Solidarity Now is a civil society organisation (CSO) that works with vulnerable groups, with a focus on migrants and refugee communities in Greece in order to help them achieve dignity and a better future.

 

UNITED NATIONS: ‘The existing human rights system must be criticised, while still being defended’

CIVICUS speaks with Brian Schapira, Director of Institutional Relations at the Center for Latin America´s Opening and Development (Centro para la Apertura y el Desarrollo de América Latina, CADAL), a foundation based in Argentina that works to defend and promote human rights. With a focus on supporting those who suffer severe restrictions to their civil and political liberties, CADAL promotes international democratic solidarity in collaboration with activists and civil society organisations (CSOs) around the world.

 

ETHIOPIA: ‘The June 2021 election is between democratic life and death’

CIVICUS speaks to Mesud Gebeyehu about the political conflict in the Tigray Region of Ethiopia and the highly contested upcoming Ethiopian national election, scheduled to take place in June 2021 amidst an ongoing pandemic and a continuing state of emergency. Mesud is Executive Director of the Consortium of Ethiopian Human Rights Organisations (CEHRO) and vice-chair of the Executive Committee of CIVICUS’s Affinity Group of National Associations. Mesud is also Executive Committee member of the Ethiopian CSOs Council, a statutory body established to coordinate the self-regulation of civil society organisations (CSOs) in Ethiopia.

 

MYANMAR: “If this coup is not overturned, there will be many more political prisoners”

CIVICUS speaks about the recent military coup in Myanmar with Bo Kyi, a former political prisoner and co-founder of the Assistance Association of Political Prisoners (AAPP). Founded in 2000 by former political prisoners living in exile on the Thai-Myanmar border, AAPP has its headquarters in Mae Sot, Thailand and two offices in Myanmar that opened in 2012. AAPP advocates for the release of political prisoners and the improvement of their lives after their release, with programmes aimed at ensuring access to education, vocational training, mental health counselling and healthcare.

 

ANGOLA: “The ruling party sees local elections as a threat”

View the original interview in Portuguese here

Pascoal Baptistiny 1CIVICUS speaks about the situation in Angola with Pascoal Baptistiny, Executive Director of MBAKITA  – Kubango Agricultural Benevolent Mission, Inclusion, Technologies and the Environment, a civil society organisation based in the Cuando Cubango province in southern Angola. Founded in 2002, MBAKITA defends the rights of Indigenous peoples and traditional communities, denounces the discrimination they suffer and the expropriation of their lands, and promotes a more just, democratic, participatory, tolerant, supportive, healthy and humane society.

What is the state of civic space in Angola, and what are the main constraints faced by Angolan activists?

The repression of civic space in Angola is one of the biggest challenges facing Angolan civil society today. Activists suffer arbitrary and illegal arrests, torture and ill-treatment, abductions, killings, harassment and disappearances by government forces, police and state intelligence services. This repression has made many Angolans careful about what they say in public. The few organisations that defend human rights in Angola often do so at great risk to the activists involved and their families.

Could you tell us about the restrictions you and your colleagues faced in 2020?

In 2020, my MBAKITA colleagues and I faced obstacles aimed at preventing, minimising, disrupting and reversing the impact of our organisation’s legitimate activities that focused on criticising, denouncing and opposing rights violations and ineffective government positions, policies and actions.

The various forms of restriction we experienced included arbitrary restrictions and the interruption of demonstrations and meetings; surveillance; threats, intimidation, reprisals and punishments; physical assaults; smear campaigns portraying MBAKITA members as ‘enemies of the state’ and mercenaries serving foreign interests; judicial harassment; exorbitant fines for the purchase of means of transport; burglary of our offices and theft of computer equipment; search and seizure of property; destruction of vehicles; the deprivation of employment and income; and travel bans.

In addition, 15 activists were arbitrarily detained and ill-treated during the COVID-19 prevention campaign. On 1 May my residence was invaded, and its guards were teargassed. On 16 November, two female activists were raped. Fatalities for the year included three of our activists and one protester.

What kind of work does MBAKITA do? Why do you think it has been targeted?

MBAKITA is an organisation that defends and promotes human rights. We work to promote, protect and disseminate universally recognised human rights and freedoms, and especially the rights to the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression, the freedom of the press, the right to self-determination by Indigenous peoples, the rights to land, adequate food, clean water and the environment, and the fight against torture and ill-treatment.

We challenge violations of the civil, political, economic, social, cultural and environmental rights of Indigenous and migrant people, ethnic and linguistic minorities, LGBTQI+ people and people with disabilities.

My organisation uses peaceful and non-violent means in its activities. However, we have faced incalculable risks as a result of our human rights work in the southern provinces of Angola.

MBAKITA has been systematically attacked for several reasons. First, because in 2018 we denounced the death of four children during Operation Transparency, an action against diamond trafficking and undocumented migrants carried out by the Angolan police and armed forces in the municipality of Mavinga, in the Cuando Cubango province. Second, because in 2019 we denounced the diversion of funds intended to support drought victims in Angola’s southern provinces by provincial governments. Third, because in April 2019, two activists of the organisation denounced the illegal appropriation of land by political businesspeople – generals, legislators and governors – in territories belonging to the San and Kuepe Indigenous minorities and used for hunting, fishing and gathering wild fruits, which make up the diet of these groups. Fourth, because in February 2020 MBAKITA denounced the diversion of funds designated for the purchase of biosecurity products for the prevention of COVID-19 and the diversion of food destined for the Basic Food Basket Assistance Programme for Vulnerable Groups. Fifth, because we participated in and conducted an awareness-raising campaign on COVID-19, which included the distribution of biosecurity materials purchased with MISEREOR-Germany funds. And finally, because we participated in all demonstrations held by Angolan civil society, including the most recent one on 9 January 2021, focused on the fight against corruption and the demand for local elections, under the slogan ‘Local elections now, 45 years in power is too long!’ and for the fulfilment of various electoral promises, including those of 500,000 jobs, the reduction of the cost of living for families and the socio-economic inclusion of Indigenous minorities.

Why were the elections scheduled for 2020 cancelled?

For one thing, because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But aside from this deadly pandemic, the government was never interested in holding local elections in 2020. The ruling party, the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), sees local elections as a threat to central power and fears losing its grip on power. It fears introducing an element of voter control over local government, that is, citizen participation and control over the management of public funds. The government thinks that the people will wake up to the idea of the democratic state and the rule of law, and that many people will become aware of their rights and duties. This would run counter to the MPLA’s intention, which is to perpetuate itself in power.

The promise of local democracy in Angola has been a failure. Three years into his term in office, President João Lourenço has failed to deliver even 10 per cent of his electoral promises, leaving 90 per cent of Angolans in a state of total scepticism.

In Angola, the party that has been in power for more than 45 years does not tolerate free people. Today, human rights defenders lose their jobs, are unable to feed their children, lose their careers and even their lives if they dare to be free, to desire democracy and to exercise their freedom.

What are the prospects that the situation will change in the near future?

For the situation to change, civil society has a lot of work to do. The most important and urgent actions are acquiring training in individual, institutional and digital security, learning English, obtaining observer status with the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, observing and participating in demonstrations and other public events, advocating and lobbying for the legalisation of human rights organisations, conducting prison visits, including interviews with prisoners and gathering evidence of torture, ill-treatment and imprisonment conditions, observing trials of activists in the lower courts, fundraising for the sustainability of human rights defenders’ activities, and monitoring the 2021 local elections and the 2022 general elections.

What kind of support do Angolan activists need from international civil society to be able to continue their work?

Needs are enormous and varied. Activists urgently need protection and security, including training in risk analysis, security planning and international and regional human rights protection mechanisms, as well as skills in investigating, litigating, documenting, petitioning and reporting human rights violations. Specifically, MBAKITA would like to receive technical assistance to assess what security arrangements could be put in place to increase the physical protection of the organisation’s office and my residence, as well as financial support for the purchase of such arrangements, such as a security system or a video surveillance camera.

Assaulted activists, and especially the 15 MBAKITA activists who have been direct victims of repression and torture at the hands of government forces, also need post-traumatic psychological assistance. Financial assistance would help us pay the fees of the lawyers who worked for the release of six activists who were imprisoned between August and November 2020. It would also help us replace stolen work equipment, without which our ability to work has been reduced, including two vehicles, computers, memory cards, a digital camera and a camcorder.

In the case of activists threatened with arbitrary detention, kidnapping or assassination, who have no choice but to leave the country or their region of origin quickly, we need support for transportation and provisional accommodation. Our activists would also benefit from exchanges of experience, knowledge and good practice, opportunities to strengthen their knowledge of digital security, training in journalistic and audio-visual techniques and the acquisition of English language skills.

Finally, the operation of organisations and their sustainability would be helped by obtaining support for the installation of internet services and the creation of secure websites, the acquisition of financial management software and resources to recruit permanent staff, so that staff members are able to support their families and fully dedicate themselves to the defence of human rights.

Civic space in Angola is rated ‘repressed’ by the here.
Get in touch with MBAKITA through its Facebook page.

 

 

COSTA RICA: ‘The protests highlighted unresolved structural problems’

CIVICUS speaks about the recent protests in Costa Rica with Carlos Berríos Solórzano, co-founder of Asociación Agentes de Cambio-Nicaragua (Association Agents of Change – Nicaragua) and member of Red Previos (Central American Youth Network). Along with others from Central America, he has recently founded the Centre for a Culture of Peace in Central America. Originally from Nicaragua, Carlos is a youth activist and a human rights defender. He has participated in research projects on migration, youth political participation, regional integration and human rights, and is currently studying towards a master’s degree in Political Science at the University of Costa Rica.

Carlos Berrios

What triggered the wave of protests of late September 2020?

The main causes of the protests that began on 30 September 2020 were linked to the announcement by the government of President Carlos Alvarado, made public on 17 September, that it would request financing from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for US$1.75 billion to address the post-COVID-19 economic recovery and invest in the public sector. Costa Rica had not requested IMF financing for almost 20 years. The proposal would eventually entail a tax increase in a country where the cost of living is already high. In fact, recent public finance legislation had introduced a tax increase that made already high taxes even heavier.

In addition to an increase in income and property taxes, the proposed agreement with the IMF included new taxes on banking transactions and global income. It also proposed merging some public institutions and selling others, such as the Costa Rican International Bank and the National Spirits Factory.

The government announced its proposal unilaterally, without any consultation whatsoever, when a negotiation of such dimensions and with such implications by far exceeds the sphere of the economy and should be subjected to political negotiations with the participation of all major social forces. The consequences of reaching an agreement with the IMF must be subjected to public debate, which in this case initially did not take place.

Who came out to protest and what did they demand?

Mainly trade unions, working class people and public servants, as well as social and student movements, came out to protest. Their main demand was that the government suspend its proposal to request IMF financing and abandon the idea of privatising public companies and increasing the tax burden.

While the protests had a citizen component, it was its sectoral component that came to the fore both in terms of street presence and influence on the public agenda. Trade union organisations were faster than others to identify the impact of a financing agreement with the IMF on their agendas and their struggles.

Civil society denounced the executive’s intentions, warned of the consequences, worked to educate the public and to open debate, and supported mobilisation.

How did the government respond to the protests?

The government responded somewhat within the framework of international standards for the dispersal of mass demonstrations; in fact, many police officers were injured as a result of aggressions by protesters who closed roads in key places, including the main border crossings with Panama. As days passed, tensions escalated, vehicles were set on fire and sticks and teargas were used in clashes between protesters and police. The security forces responded in a fairly proportionate manner to violent demonstrations, so this was not a case of disproportionate use of force by the authorities.

To neutralise the situation in the face of unrelenting protests, the government first announced on 4 October that it would back down on its proposal, but demanded that protesters cease their blockades in order to engage in dialogue with them. The protesters, for their part, set conditions for lifting the blockades. Specifically, they demanded that the government commit in writing to not resorting to the IMF for the rest of its term in office and that it rule out selling state assets and raising taxes. Demonstrations continued, and in response to them the government made public its negotiating strategy with the IMF and opened its proposal to comments from all sectors. On 11 October, the government announced a national and local ‘social dialogue’, in which 25 representatives from various sections of society – business, labour, women, churches, university students, farmers and others – would submit their own proposals for resolving the economic crisis deepened by the COVID-19 pandemic. The question posed was very specific: “How can we achieve a permanent improvement of at least 2.5 percentage points of the GDP in the central government’s primary deficit and a short-term decrease in the amount of public debt (of about 8 percentage points of GDP), through a mix of revenue, expenditure and public debt management actions, in order to prevent the state from defaulting?”

Were any of the protesters’ demands met?

Despite the intense process of dialogue with various sectors and the valuable contributions brought into this process, substantive demands have not been met, although according to the government they are being considered within the institutional framework in order to give them the attention they deserve.

The protests resumed precisely because the dialogue process showed no results and the authorities demonstrated little political will in terms of compliance. This was reflected in the announcement that the government would move forward with its funding request.

Indeed, following the dialogue process, the executive remained firm in its proposal to request IMF financing. In retrospect, in view of these results, civil society assessed that the call for social dialogue had been nothing more than a demobilisation strategy.

Costa Rica is often presented as a model case of stability, order, social equality and democratic culture. How true is this?

While it is true that Costa Rica enjoys a robust institutional framework compared to its Central American neighbours, which has resulted in economic and social stability, it also continues to fail to address deep social inequalities in the country’s most vulnerable areas. Social problems are neglected because of a lack of political will and the existence of levels of corruption that, while not scandalous by international standards, permeate the country’s political and economic structures and allow the political class and the economic elite to collude and share the spoils of the state.

The protests highlighted unresolved structural problems in Costa Rica. They brought together unsatisfied immediate demands and structural problems related to the distribution of wealth, tax evasion by big business and the control of the economic elites over the state apparatus, which materialises in the social inequality of migrants, Indigenous peoples, Afro-descendants and rural people.

Civic space in Costa Rica is rated as ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Follow @CBerrios26 on Twitter.

 

 

NAMIBIA: ‘Protests against gender-based violence were triggered by collective hope’

CIVICUS speaks to Bertha Tobias about the recent protests against femicide and gender-based violence (GBV) in Namibia. Bertha is a youth leader and an international award-winning debater. A graduate of the United World College Changshu China, she is currently pursuing her post-secondary education at Claremont Mckenna College in California. She was the recipient of a Go Make A Difference award, which supports the implementation of community development projects, and has been an active participant in women´s rights protests in Namibia.

Bertha Tobias

Can you tell us of how the #ShutItAllDown protests against GBV started and how you got involved?

I got involved in the fight against GBV after news emerged that human remains had been discovered in a coastal town in Namibia. The remains were suspected to be those of Shannon Wasserfall, a young woman in her 20s who had gone missing in April 2020. This particular incident set off mass reactions. The release of the headline on the Twitter account of one of the major national news outlets spurred a lot of young people to action, to mobilise and organise ourselves to take to the streets. It injected urgency into the conversation around GBV and femicide in Namibia.

This was not isolated case, as young Namibian women continuously go missing. But when this case emerged, it revived the national conversation. Somebody on Twitter rightfully stated that something needed to happen, something needed to change, and I responded to this and got involved from the beginning because this is something I care about deeply, as I strongly believe that women matter equally and fully.

Together with other young people, we sent out emails, garnered the support we needed, and organised ourselves within less than 24 hours, mostly and primarily through social media. We made a flyer which was circulated widely, and people showed up to the protest. Young people took ownership and that was how it started. This was an example of both the power of the internet and the power of young people.

If I remember correctly, on the first day of the protests, a newspaper reported that slightly over 800 people attended the protest, and all subsequent protests had hundreds of people. Both young women and men were involved: the protests were led predominantly by women, but young men were present in considerable numbers. What is important to note regarding the demographics of the protests is that it was mostly young people. It was young people attending meetings with officials, drafting petitions and speaking to the media. And it was young women who were at the forefront, with young men providing support.

We believe that if young women in Namibia cannot walk to the shops to buy a carton of milk without fearing for their lives, then something is terribly wrong with us as a nation. The philosophy of #ShutItAllDown is quite radical: it means that everything needs to be brought to a standstill until we can re-evaluate what it is about Namibian systems of safety that is not working for Namibian women. Until we have answers to those questions, we do not believe it is right, healthy or in the best interest of anyone to continue doing business as usual. We don’t want economic activity of any sort to continue as usual if young women do not feel safe.

From your perspective, what made #ShutItAllDown different from previous women’s rights protests in Namibia?

There have been other protests for women’s rights in the past. In fact, earlier in 2020 we had a pro-choice protest that focused specifically on women’s sexual and reproductive health rights and advocated for the legalisation of abortion and the recognition of women’s bodily agency and autonomy. Under Namibia’s Abortion and Sterilisation Act of 1975, abortions are illegal except in cases involving incest, rape, or where the mother’s or child’s life is in danger.

There are feminist movements in Namibia that are active and work consistently; however, something practical we had to acknowledge is that a lot of feminist movements are led by young people who also have other obligations, such as full-time jobs. Civil society organisations also face challenges, particularly in terms of resources and institutional support.

The previous protest that took place in early 2020 was significant in paving the way and establishing an important foundation for #ShutItAllDown to have the collective confidence to go forth. Feminist organisers were at hand and were active in amplifying the voice of #ShutItAllDown. They were very present in terms of disseminating information, and they were crucial in mobilising their people to show up to the protests and keep the momentum going. Feminist organisers in Namibia do a lot of work behind the scenes but their work can only get so far because of insufficient resources. Hence, a lot of our petition demands were aimed at government and other institutions that do have the resources that we need to institute the changes that we seek.

The difference between #ShutItAllDown and previous protests is the fact that now the young people of Namibia are becoming increasingly involved in political affairs and are becoming vocal about holding government and other institutions accountable to their mandate and fulfilling their work and obligations towards the citizenry.

Additionally, the movement was able to grow more organically because social media are increasingly being used as a tool to have exchanges and push for accountability. Namibia has a fairly young population with tremendous digital abilities. The flexibility and capacity for self-organisation of young people eventually pushed us all to do something.

What were the demands of the #ShutItAllDown movement? What response did they obtain?

The biggest demand we had for the government of Namibia was the declaration of a state of emergency in respect to femicide and sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), simply because we believed the problem we are facing warranted this kind of action. We wanted this to be a message that femicide is a national crisis and that beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, women always, every single day, are fearful for their lives. We also demanded an immediate consultation with SGBV experts and for the Ministry of Justice to begin implementing a sexual offenders’ registry and sexual offences courts.

Several demands focused on accelerating existing methods to curb SGBV. New demands were also addressed to various ministries and other stakeholders, such as for 24/7 patrols around neighbourhoods, remote mobile GBV services and the implementation of school and university curricula to sensitise young people on SGBV.

Our petition recognised that there is violence both inside and outside the home. But it is our understanding that curbing violence inside the home is more difficult due to the years and generations of grassroots work that is necessary to undo normalised gendered abuse. We may not be alive to witness the fruits of this effort, simply due to how long it may take to transform a society and its culture, to overturn and collectively interrogate the traditional principles in which abusive norms are rooted.

Unfortunately, we did not obtain the declaration of the state of emergency for which we were hoping. But other demands, such as strengthening security through patrolling, implementing school curricula and establishing task forces or committees to revive efforts to curb SGBV were positively responded to. Another petition demand that was important and received a positive response was training for police officers to be more sympathetic and empathetic when dealing with cases and reports of GBV. We know that the reception that survivors get at police stations and the lack of attention and urgency with which their cases are handled is one of the major reasons why women do not report sexual violence.

Were other relevant issues brought to the forefront as a result of the #ShutItAllDown movement?

Yes, LGBTQI+ advocates and community members were consequential in mobilising people for the protest and amplifying the voices of the #ShutItAllDown movement. For me, it was important to see queer women and other LGBTQI+ individuals navigating a violently homophobic and transphobic society, protesting and highlighting the significance of intersectionality and collective advocacy. Out-Right Namibia, a leading LGBTQI+ human rights organisation in Namibia, used its momentum to propel #ShutItAllDown and create a strong, well-connected network for advocating for our collective rights as Black and/or queer women.

The #ShutItAllDown protests also brought to the forefront the illegality of abortion in Namibia and our reproductive health rights. We intensified our conversations about the issue of reproductive health rights of women in general. These were some of the vital issues that were highlighted by #ShutItAllDown, which made it apparent how much work still needs to be done so that the rights of all women are recognised and respected.

Is there room for intergenerational activism within the #ShutItAllDown movement?

Intergenerational activism has proved to be interesting territory, mostly because of the fiery and passionate nature of young people. A lot of the impact of the activism exhibited in the #ShutItAllDown protests relies on disruption and general inconvenience to spur the most indifferent of people to action. I believe that disruption creates important conversations. Our hope is for our actions to cause somebody who is unfamiliar with what we are doing to start asking themselves why we care so much about the safety of women, so much so that we are sitting in the middle of the road or shutting down a mall, and try to understand what is happening and what it is that we are doing. These questions would start a conversation and fuel important discussions on an urgent national ill in which women are dying. 

But many older people tend to question the disruptive tactics used by younger people. And another limitation that we have experienced recognises that disruptive tactics imply personal liability. As young people, we put a lot less at risk in terms of employability and general respectability. Many older people do agree with the causes we are mobilising for, but they generally don’t take the risk of standing side by side with us, or at least not explicitly. There are political and practical factors that limit even the degree to which they can publicly voice their support.

How do you see the future of the #ShutItAllDown movement?

The beauty of organic and spontaneous movements, as well as with movements that do not have a leader, is that anyone can wake up and decide to start #ShutItAllDown in their respective town, because the movement is leaderless and faceless. Right now, there haven’t been any protests since October 2020, but that does not mean that there won’t be any more protests in the future. GBV is an ongoing issue and unfortunately, a case that reignites the protest can surface anywhere, anytime.

Civic space in Namibia is rated ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS MonitorFollow @BerthaJTobias on Twitter and bertha_tobias on Instagram.

 

 

PERU: ‘Constitutional debate has taken on new relevance as a result of the protests’

Rafael BarrioCIVICUS speaks about recent protests in Peru with Rafael Barrio de Mendoza, a researcher on processes of territorial transformation from Grupo Propuesta Ciudadana, a consortium of 10 civil society organisations with a presence in 16 regions of Peru. Propuesta Ciudadana seeks to contribute to the formulation of policy proposals for an inclusive state and the adequate management of public resources. It promotes a vision of territorial governance that starts with the identification of and respect for diversity and in which democratic development is a key component.

What triggered the protests that broke out in Peru in November 2020?

The immediate cause was the decision by a parliamentary majority to force out President Martín Vizcarra, using a mechanism that had been scarcely used in the past and whose content and process involve a wide margin of discretion. The publication of accusations against Vizcarra was carried out in a sequence that proved to be planned, and a feeling prevailed that they were instrumentalised by the so-called ‘vacating coalition’. Although there is some controversy regarding the quality of the evidence brought forward about the crimes Vizcarra is accused of, allegedly committed during his term as governor of the Moquegua region five years ago, a consensus formed in public opinion that these accusations could have been credibly pursued after the end of his presidential term, given that general elections had already been called for April 2021.

But from a more structural point of view, the political crisis was the expression of the maturing of a crisis of political representation, which made it apparent that there were few organic links between politicians and citizens’ sensibilities and that we have a precarious and cartelised system of political representation, in which a myriad of illegal, informal and oligopolistic interests have resisted successive generations of reforms – educational, judicial, fiscal and political, among others – aimed at regulating them. Revelations of corruption involving much of the political establishment, including the Lava Jato/Odebrecht case and the White Collars case, which uncovered a widespread network of corruption within the judicial system, resulted in a consensus that the management of public affairs had irremediably deteriorated. At the same time, the relative effectiveness of the fiscal measures taken against the political leaders involved in these cases fuelled the prospect of a cleansing of the political class and the possibility of cultivating a transition to a better system of representation. To a certain extent, the populist link that Vizcarra established with this sensitivity – sealed with the constitutional dissolution of the previous Congress, in which former President Alberto Fujimori’s party had a majority – was the factor that sustained his government, which lacked parliamentary, business, media, or trade union support. Vizcarra’s removal was experienced as the comeback of a constellation of interests that had experienced a setback as a consequence of prosecutors’ work and recent education, political and judicial reforms.

How would you describe the institutional conflict that resulted in the removal and replacement of the president?

Institutional conflict arose due to the precarious character of a political system that included a new Congress with multiple caucuses but none of them of the president’s party and a president who enjoyed popular support but lacked institutional backing, and whose legitimacy was therefore sustained on his versatile management of public debate through a combination of political gestures, the recruitment of competent technicians in key positions and a calculated exercise of antagonism with Congress on key issues such as education, political and judicial reforms.

The majority coalition in Congress broadly took up the agenda and represented the interests of the former so-called ‘Fujiaprist’ majority – described in reference to the tacit alliance between the Aprista party and the political movement founded by former President Fujimori – on top of which it added new populist demands that put at risk the budgetary and macroeconomic management that enjoyed technocratic consensus. In this context, certain people who had survived the dissolution of the previous Congress managed to reposition themselves in the new one and conduct, alongside some media outlets, a campaign seeking to undermine Vizcarra’s popularity by levelling accusations of corruption in unclear cases. These were the dynamics that fed the institutional conflict.

For its part, civil society provided a unified response to the president’s removal and the new regime that resulted from it. Their response ranged from expressing concern and demanding accountability to openly condemning the establishment of the new administration. The mass protests and repression they faced fuelled this shift in most of civil society. Many civil society organisations played an active role in framing the conflict, producing a narrative for international audiences and putting pressure on the state actors with whom they interact.

Who mobilised, and what did they demand?

At first, demonstrators protested against the removal of President Vizcarra and against the inauguration of the president of Congress, Manuel Merino, as the new president. A subsequent survey by Ipsos showed that just over three quarters of the population agreed with the protest against President Vizcarra’s removal and that at least two million people mobilised in one way or another or took an active part in the protests.

The demonstrations were led mostly by young people, between 16 and 30 years old, who did most of the organising and produced the protest’s repertoires and tactics. The generalised mood of weariness was embodied by the so-called ‘bicentennial generation’, born after the end of the Fujimori regime, who are digital natives and, for the most part, disaffected with conventional politics. This is also a mesocratic generation – both in the traditional segments of the middle class and in the popular sectors – that is embedded in virtual communities mediated by digital platforms. This partly explains the speed with which organisational forms emerged that were efficient enough to produce repertoires, coordinate actions, document protests and shift public opinion. The mediation of social media and the use of micro money transfer applications led to a decentralised organisation of the protests, with multiple demonstrations taking place in different locations, a variety of converging calls and a diversity of repertoires and channels for the rapid transfer of resources.

The youth-led mobilisation was fed by a middle class willing to assume the cost of demonstrating. Around this nucleus coalesced, both sociologically and territorially, other segments of the population, more or less used to conventional protest strategies or simply distant from all public participation.

The protests began on 9 November, followed by daily demonstrations, and reached their peak on 14 November, when the Second National March took place. The so-called 14N mass mobilisation was fuelled by the sudden awakening of a fed-up feeling that ran through society and was particularly intense among young people. Hence its exceptional character in terms of its scope, magnitude, level of organisation and the rapid adoption of a non-partisan citizen identity, which could only be partly explained by the existing support for Vizcarra, as it far exceeded it.

14N culminated with the death of two young protesters who were hit by lead bullets. Merino had taken over on 10 November and formed a radically conservative government. The nature of his cabinet quickly revealed itself through the authorisation of severe repression of the protest, particularly in the capital, Lima. After the first days of police violence, the president of the Council of Ministers congratulated and guaranteed protection to the police squads involved. The deaths that took place on 14N resulted in overwhelming citizen pressure, triggering a cascade of disaffection among the few political supporters sustaining the regime. As a result, by midday on 15 November Merino had resigned.

The space generated by the mobilisation was populated by a number of heterogeneous demands, ranging from the reinstatement of Vizcarra to the demand for constitutional change to pave the way out of neoliberalism, including citizen-based proposals focused on the defence of democracy, the continuity of reforms, the injustice of the repression, and the insensitivity of the political class regarding the pandemic health emergency. Ferment for these demands continues to exist and it remains to be seen how they end up taking shape in the electoral scenario of 2021.

 

How did these protests differ from others in the past? Were there any changes related to the context of the pandemic?

In previous urban mobilisations, the coordination mechanisms provided by social media had already been tested, but these demonstrations had been led by conventional groups, such as social movements, political parties and trade unions. On this occasion, new activist groups were formed, including to deactivate teargas projectiles and to provide medical relief, which are similar to mobilisation techniques tested in other scenarios, such as the Hong Kong protests and the Black Lives Matter protests in the USA. This speaks of the emergence of global protest learning spaces.

In part, it was the health emergency that conditioned the composition of the protests, which were mostly made up of young people, while also encouraging the dissemination of new repertoires, such as ‘cacerolazos’ (pot banging), ‘bocinazos’ (horn blowing) and digital activism among those more reluctant to take to the streets. At the same time, the massive character of the protests can be explained by the fact that health indicators at the time suggested the end of the first wave of COVID-19 infections, and by the fact that the Black Lives Matter marches had not been linked to any relevant outbreaks, which encouraged a sense of safety among protesters.

Why did protesters demand constitutional reform, and what kind of constitutional reform do they want?

Proposals of constitutional change were among the demands of the mobilisation, but they were not its main demands. They did however gain new impetus in public debate. The history of these demands can be traced in two ways. Constitutional change through a constituent assembly has been one of the key demands of the left since the end of the Fujimori regime, which ruled from 1990 to 2001. Right after its fall, a congress was convened with a constituent mandate, but it was unable to produce a new constitution; since then this aspiration has come to live in the progressive camp, while it has lost popularity among more moderate and right-wing groups. The left often presents the mythical 1979 Constitution as an alternative, proposes new texts inspired by the Bolivian and Ecuadorian processes, and points to the illegitimate character of the current constitution, born after a coup d’état. The sustained economic growth of the post-Fujimori decades and a number of reforms of some constitutional mechanisms conferred legitimacy on the constitution, but many of the institutions and principles it enshrines have been rendered obsolete by the sociological and economic changes they helped bring about.

The second source of the demand for constitutional change is more organic and follows the realisation of the limits of the market model, apparent above all in the persistent lack of social protection, precarious and informal work and abuses by oligopoly interests in service provision, as well as in the crisis of the system of political representation. Vizcarra inaugurated a reformist stance in judicial and political matters, as well in the legal frameworks governing extractive industries and the pension system. He also continued with education reform. His reformist spirit – viewed by moderate groups as a path to a ‘responsible’ transition – was attacked by the political forces representing the sectors that had been affected by the reforms, creating a space in which reform aspirations can be promoted in the language of constitutional change.

Even so, this debate has taken on new relevance as a result of the 14N protests. However, the terms of the conversation and the content of the most significant changes are not yet clear, and neither is the existence of mature political actors capable of interpreting and implementing them. Danger lies in the possibility that, in a context of high uncertainty, the process may end up being defined by those whose motivations are foreign to the spirit of change.

Civic space in Peru is rated as ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Propuesta Ciudadana through its website or Facebook page, and follow @prop_ciudadana and @BarrioZevallos on Twitter.

 

 

#UN75: ‘Moving forward, the UN should continue to provide access through accessible virtual platforms’

Laura Obrien

Following the 75th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations (UN), CIVICUS is having conversations with civil society activists, advocates and practitioners about the roles the UN has played so far, the successes it has achieved and the challenges ahead. CIVICUS speaks to Laura O’Brien, UN Advocacy Officer at Access Now, a civil society organisation that works to defend and extend the digital rights of users at risk around the world. Through direct technical support, comprehensive policy engagement, global advocacy, grassroots grant-making, legal interventions and convenings such as RightsCon, Access Now fights for human rights in the digital age.

To what extent is the UN’s founding Charter fit for the internet era?

For years civil society has encouraged the UN to modernise its operations to maintain its relevance in the digital age. In 2020, the UN met this harsh reality. The international organisation was forced to take the majority of its operations online, all the while trying meaningfully to reach the global community and advance international cooperation amid a global health crisis, systemic racism, climate change and rising authoritarianism. Commemorating the UN’s 75th anniversary by revisiting its founding Charter – a document centred on inherent human dignity – could not have been more crucial.

The UN Charter was drafted long before the internet even existed. Nonetheless, its global outlook remains consistent with the universal nature of the internet, which at its best enables borderless knowledge societies grounded in fundamental human rights, while also amplifying the need to reduce risks, not solely through sovereign means, but also through international cooperation. Guided by the principles of the UN Charter, the Declaration on the Commemoration of the 75th Anniversary of the United Nations rightfully commits to improving digital cooperation worldwide. Through this formal commitment, the UN finally paid heed to the transformative impact digital technologies have on our daily lives, paving a path – or, as better captured by the UN Secretary-General, a ‘roadmap’ – to steer us through the promises and perils of the digital age.

While world leaders recognised the need to listen to ‘the people’ – as captured in the preamble of the UN Charter – civil society continues to remind those leaders to listen more actively. With missions rooted in extending and defending the fundamental human rights of all individuals, civil society remains an essential force to advance stakeholder accountability and ensure transparency in often opaque multilateral processes.

What challenges have you faced in your interactions with the UN system, and how did you manage them?

I stepped into my public-facing role as UN Advocacy Officer at Access Now a few months before the COVID-19 lockdown here in New York. As such, I was a new voice navigating the challenges civil society was facing at that time: how do we ensure that civil society partners, in all their diversity, are meaningfully involved in UN discussions as the UN transitions its operations online? At that time, we feared that the exceptional measures used to fight the pandemic could be cited to restrict civil society access and opportunities for participation within UN fora. So we mobilised. Several civil society organisations, CIVICUS included, worked together to provide principles and recommendations to the UN to ensure civil society inclusion in UN discussions during the pandemic and beyond. This helped us work together to present a united position on the importance of multi-stakeholder engagement and to remind the UN to put adequate protections in place to ensure accessible online platforms and sufficient safeguards to protect the security of those participating virtually.

What things are currently not working and would need to change? In what ways is civil society working towards that kind of change?

2020 was a humbling year of critical self-reflection both on an individual and collective level. Now, more than ever, the world is realising that the state-centric model will not propel us into a hopeful future. Problems in one part of the world have consequences worldwide. The decisions we make now, particularly regarding digital technologies, will impact on future generations to come. As the world recovers from the events of 2020, we need world leaders to build off the lessons learned and continue to engage in critical reflection. Solving global challenges requires interdisciplinary action that respects and protects rights-holders who come from diverse and intersectional backgrounds. We simply cannot continue to operate or tackle these issues top-down. Indeed, threats like disinformation often originate at the top.

Civil society worldwide is mobilising to spearhead global campaigns to raise awareness of the issues we face today, and their impact on future generations, while advocating for accountability across national, regional and international forums. From condemning internet shutdowns – #KeepItOn – to questioning the implementation of digital identity programmes worldwide – #WhyID – we are working to report, monitor and measure, and provide rights-respecting policy recommendations based on our diverse interactions with those most at risk.

Looking more broadly at the global multilateral system today, what do you think are its main weaknesses, and what lessons can be drawn from the COVID-19 pandemic?

The global multilateral system needs to stop operating and addressing global issues in silos. This requires not only better networked multilateralism – across the UN system in both New York and Geneva, and including regional organisations and financial institutions, among others – but also that global issues be addressed from a more interdisciplinary perspective. For instance, research suggests that over 90 per cent of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are connected to international human rights and labour. Protecting human rights is therefore necessary to reach the SDGs. Why then do international actors continue to raise the SDGs only in tandem with discussions around development and not human rights?

Many lessons can be drawn from the pandemic to advance more inclusive international cooperation. In 2020 the UN was made acutely aware of the benefits of internet connectivity, reaching more diverse voices worldwide. People normally unable physically to access UN platforms based in Geneva and New York – due to a myriad of barriers – were now able to contribute meaningfully to UN discussions online. Yet simultaneously, online operations also made the UN formally acknowledge the severe impact for the approximately 4 billion people who continue to remain disconnected from the internet. Those individuals may suffer network discrimination, experience various barriers due to digital divides and inadequate digital literacy resources, or remain disconnected through targeted internet shutdowns.

Moving forward, the UN should continue to provide access to UN discussions through accessible virtual platforms. Just as the UN is built to facilitate state-to-state interactions, the world would benefit from similarly secure and open venues for civil society to connect. Unfortunately, too many communities remain marginalised and vulnerable. People often face reprisals for raising their voices and telling their stories across borders. We strive to create this open civil forum at RightsCon – the world’s leading summit on human rights in the digital age – and similar events. In July 2020, RightsCon Online brought together 7,681 participants from 157 countries across the world in a virtual summit. The organisers overcame affordability and access barriers by launching a Connectivity Fund to provide direct financial support for participants to connect and engage online. These convenings should be considered integral to internet governance, but also to achieving the three pillars of the UN – development, human rights and peace and security – in the digital age. When carried out inclusively and securely, online participation presents an opportunity to widen the number and diversity of those engaging with the platform and removes barriers and resource constraints linked to travel. 

Overall, the international community must lean into the lessons of 2020. We must work in solidarity to advance open, inclusive and meaningful international cooperation in order to achieve a prosperous future for all.

Get in touch with Access Now through its webpage or Facebook profile, and follow @accessnow and @lo_brie on Twitter.

 

GUATEMALA: ‘The protests were a reflection of both social organisation and citizen autonomy’

Sandra MoraenCIVICUS speaks about recent protests in Guatemala with Sandra Morán Reyes, an advocate of women’s and LGBTQI+ rights. With a long history of participation in social movements, Sandra was one of the co-founders of the first Guatemalan lesbian group and the organiser of the first pride march in Guatemala, held in 1998 in Guatemala City. In 2015, she was elected as a national congressional representative, becoming the first gay congresswoman and politician to be elected to popular office in the history of her country. From that position, she promoted various initiatives to advance the rights of women and sexual minorities.

What was the background to the November 2020 protests and how did they begin?

A new government was inaugurated in January 2020, and soon after that we found ourselves locked up because of the pandemic. But by May or June some of our colleagues started to take to the streets again, partly to criticise the government’s attitude towards the needs of the population as the effects of the crisis generated by the pandemic began to be clearly seen. Suddenly white flags started to appear on the streets, on house doors and in the hands of people and families walking the streets or sitting in doorways. With the white flag people indicated that they did not have enough to eat, and solidarity actions began to take place, for instance in the form of soup kitchens, which did not previously exist in Guatemala. There was a great movement of solidarity among people. While organisations were busy attending to their own members, citizens made great efforts to provide person-to-person support. It became common for people to go out into the streets to give a little of what they had to those who needed it most. This was then repeated regarding those who were affected when hurricanes hit and lost everything.

At the state level, a lot of resources were approved to alleviate the effects of the pandemic, but these resources did not reach the people and the needs of the population remained unmet, so the question that people began to ask was, ‘where is the money?’

From 2017 onwards, we started denouncing what we called the ‘corrupt pact’ that brought together public officials, businesspeople and even church representatives in defence of their own interests. In 2015, after six months of sustained mass demonstrations, the president and vice president ended up in prison, but the governments that succeeded them ended up reaffirming the same old system. The government of President Jimmy Morales unilaterally ended the agreement with the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, and the current government led by President Alejandro Giammattei, following on from its predecessor, has made progress in controlling the judiciary, Congress and all state institutions in order to sustain corruption as a form of government.

The effects of the lack of attention to the impacts of the pandemic and of hurricanes Eta and Iota, which struck in October and November 2020, were compounded by attacks on the officials of the Public Prosecutor’s Office who continue to fight against corruption. Discontent continued to accumulate until the early hours of November 2020 when Congress approved the national budget for 2021. It was a very high budget – the highest in the country's history – and it included obvious pockets of corruption, especially in the area of infrastructure contracts, which is where the bulk of corruption takes place, but paid no attention to health and education, in the context of a pandemic. Budget cuts even affected the national nutrition programme, in a country that has a huge problem of child malnutrition. That was the last straw. People who are not normally prone to protest – a professional chef, an artist, many well-known people in different fields – started writing on social media and expressing anger against this decision. That’s how the first demonstration was organised, and suddenly we were about 25,000 people out there, in the middle of a pandemic.

By that time all restrictions on movement and gatherings had been lifted, but the pandemic was still ongoing and the risk of contagion was still there. No one foresaw such a massive protest, and yet it happened. The demonstrations were initially peaceful, but already during the second one there was violence and repression. A small group set fire to the Congress building, an event that is still under investigation. This was used to justify the repression: teargas, beatings, arrests and detentions, something that had not happened for a long time. In another demonstration, people set fire to a bus. From our perspective, these acts of violence were instigated to justify the need for more police control over demonstrations and ultimately the repression of protests.

Was the call for mobilisation made exclusively through social media? Who mobilised?

There were a series of calls through social media that appealed above all to the middle classes, but social movements and Indigenous authorities also made their calls. Indigenous authorities have played an increasingly important role in recent years, and in the context of this crisis they published a statement in which they proposed a governing council of the four main groups of peoples who make up Guatemala - Maya, Xinka, Garífuna and Mestizo - to pave the way for a Constituent Assembly. They have been visiting territories and working to form alliances, and this was the first time that they have made steps towards the national government, as for now they have only had authority within their territories. The role they have played is important because the oligarchy has always been afraid of an Indigenous uprising; that fear is what moves them, just as they were moved by the fact that in 2019 the candidate for president of the People's Liberation Movement, a party founded by the Peasant Development Committee (CODECA), came in fourth place. A Mayan woman, a peasant, with little schooling, came in fourth place, and they found that very upsetting.

Four main actors mobilised: Indigenous peoples, women, young people and what are called ‘communities in resistance’ – local communities, generally led by women, who are resisting extractive mega-projects in their territories. The latest demonstrations also evidenced the results of the newly achieved unity of the university student movement: from 2015 onwards, students from the public university of San Carlos de Guatemala marched together with those from the two private universities, Universidad Rafael Landívar, of middle-class students, and Universidad del Valle, which caters to the upper class. The motto under which the public university used to march, ‘USAC is the people’, turned into ‘We are the People’ as a result of this convergence. This was a historical event that marked the return of organised university students to popular struggles.

The role of young people can also be seen within the feminist movement, as there are many young feminist movements. In particular, the Women in Movement collective, a very important expression of university-based feminists, stands out. Sexual diversity organisations have also been present, and have been very active in denouncing femicides and murders of LGBTQI+ people.

These groups were joined by a middle class made impoverished by the severe impact of the pandemic. There were many middle-class people, many white-collar workers and professionals, in the demonstrations. Many people who did not belong to any Indigenous, student or women’s organisation or collective went out on their own, moved by the feeling of being fed up. Thus, the November 2020 protests were a reflection of both social organisation and citizen autonomy.

What did the mobilised citizenry demand?

Despite the fact that several sectors mobilised and many demands accumulated, there was an order to the protests’ petition list. Although each sector had its own demands, they all rallied around a few major ones. The key demand was that the president should veto the budget, since what triggered the mobilisation was the impudence of a Congress that made a budget that was clearly not to the benefit of the citizens of Guatemala but to their own, to feed corruption. The demonstrations were an immediate success in that regard, since a few days after the Congress building was burned, Congress backed down and annulled the budget it had previously approved. Along with the withdrawal of the budget, the protesters’ demand was the drafting of a new budget that would respond to the needs of the population, but this demand is still pending.

Following the repression of the protests, the resignation of the Minister of the Interior became a key demand, but this did not happen and this public official remains in office. The president’s resignation was also demanded but did not take place.

Finally, the demand for a new constitution, which has been on the agenda of social movements for several years, was raised again. In 2015, during the big demonstrations that led to the resignation of the entire government, social movements assessed that corruption was not only the fault of some individuals, as we had a corrupt system and therefore a change of system was needed. Indigenous and peasant organisations have their proposal for constitutional change, based on their demand of recognition of Indigenous peoples and the establishment of a plurinational state that would give them autonomy and decision-making power.

Other groups have more embryonic proposals. I was a member of Congress until January 2020, and when I was still in Congress I worked with women’s organisations, thinking that this situation could arise and we had to be ready. We started the Movement of Women with Constituent Power to develop a proposal for a new constitution from the perspective of women in all our diversity.

What are the main changes you propose?

We have a constitution that was drafted in 1985 and it has an important human rights component; it includes the office of the Ombudsman, which at the time was an innovation. But human rights are approached from an individual perspective; collective rights and peoples’ rights are absent, as are the rights of women and LGBTQI+ people. And so are the most advanced innovations in constitutional matters, such as the rights of nature. Ours is a political proposal for the emancipation of peoples, women and sexual diversity. It is based on the idea of an economy for life, which puts the community at the centre, and on a feminist economy that reorganises work and care tasks.

Do you think the protests will continue?

Yes, the protests will continue. With the year-end celebrations came demobilisation, but in recent days it has become public that CODECA has decided to take to the streets again. CODECA is an organisation that normally goes out alone, it doesn’t coordinate with other social movements, but it has a great capacity for mobilisation. If they go back on the streets, they will open a new phase of demonstrations.

Right now, the Minister of Finance is drawing up a new budget, which in a month’s time will have to be discussed again in Congress. It remains to be seen not only how much will be invested in health, education and economic revival, but also what they think ‘economic revival’ actually means. Until now the emphasis has always been on international private investment, which only generates opportunities for greater exploitation and mega-projects. A bill has been proposed to promote family farming; there is no way it can be passed. So the demands of rural populations, peasants and Indigenous peoples are going to continue to be expressed on the streets.

For the time being, this is a sectoral call, not a broad call to citizens. But it will not take much to revive citizen protest, since after the November demonstrations the president made a series of promises that he has not kept. The first anniversary of his government was 14 January 2021 and the levels of support it receives are extremely low. Congress also has little legitimacy, given the number of representatives who are part of the ‘corrupt pact’, which is large enough to hold an ordinary majority to pass legislation.

However, people may be afraid of mobilising because we are at a peak in COVID-19 infections. And another obstacle to the continuity of the protests is the absence of a unified leadership and the fact that coordination is quite limited.

Civic space in Guatemala is rated as ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Follow @sandramorangt on Twitter.

 

 

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

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

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

Pakou Hang

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Civic space in the USA is rated as ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Vote Run Lead through its website or Facebook page, and follow @VoteRunLead on Twitter.

 

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

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

Yael Bromberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Civic space in the USA is rated as ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Andrew Goodman Foundation through its website or Facebook page, and follow @AndrewGoodmanF and @YaelBromberg on Twitter.

 

 

#BEIJING25: ‘All efforts towards gender equality must be built upon intersectionality and power-shifting’

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

 

RUSSIA: ‘Human rights activism can be expected to increase in reaction to repression’

CIVICUS speaks with Leonid Drabkin, a coordinator with OVD-Info, an independent human rights civil society organisation (CSO) that documents and helps the victims of political persecution in Russia. Through a hotline and other sources, OVD-Info collects information about detentions at public rallies and other cases of political persecution, publishes the news and coordinates legal assistance to detainees.

 

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

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

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

 Mohammed Ndifuna

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How can international civil society help Ugandan civil society?

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

Civic space in Uganda is rated repressed by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Justice Access Point through its website or Facebook page, and follow @JusticessP on Twitter.

 

SOUTH KOREA: ‘North Korean defectors and activists face increasing pressure to stay silent’

Ethan Hee Seok ShinCIVICUS speaks with Ethan Hee-Seok Shin, a legal analyst with the Transitional Justice Working Group (TJWG), a Seoul-based civil society organisation (CSO) founded by human rights advocates and researchers from five countries. Founded in 2014, it is the first Korea-based CSO focused on transitional justice mechanisms in the world’s most repressive regimes, including North Korea. TJWG aims to develop practical methods for addressing massive human rights violations and advocating justice for victims in pre and post-transition societies. Ethan works on TJWG’s Central Repository project, which uses a secure platform to document and publicise cases of enforced disappearances in North Korea. He uses legislative and legal action to raise awareness about North Korean human rights issues.

 

Can you tell us about the work being done by South Korean civil society groups about the human rights situation in North Korea?

There is a rather broad range of CSOs working on North Korean human rights issues. TJWG has been working to prepare the ground for transitional justice in North Korea, in line with its core mission of human rights documentation.

TJWG’s flagship project has resulted in a series of reports mapping public executions in North Korea, based on interviews with escapees living in South Korea. We record the geospatial information of killing sites, burial sites and record storage places, including courts and security service facilities, by asking our interviewees to spot the locations on Google Earth. The report’s first edition was released in July 2017 and was based on 375 interviews, and its second edition was launched in June 2019 after conducting 610 interviews.

We are also currently in the process of creating an online database of abductions and enforced disappearances in and by North Korea, called FOOTPRINTS. This uses Uwazi, a free, open-source solution for organising, analysing and publishing documents, developed by HURIDOCS, a CSO. When launched to the public, FOOTPRINTS will provide an easily accessible and searchable platform to track individuals taken and lost in North Korea.

Other than documentation and reporting work, we have been active in international and domestic advocacy. Jointly with other human rights CSOs, TJWG drafted and submitted an open letter urging the European Union to strengthen the language and recommendations in the annual human rights resolutions adopted by the United Nations’ (UN) General Assembly and Human Rights Council on North Korea. We have also made case submissions to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances and other UN human rights experts.

In July 2020, the South Korean government revoked the registration of two CSOs and issued a notice of administrative review and inspections of ‘defector-run’ groups working on human rights in North Korea. Why are these groups being targeted?

The direct catalyst was the June 2020 provocations by North Korea. On 4 June, Kim Yo-Jong, sister of supreme leader Kim Jong-Un and the first vice department director of the Workers’ Party of Korea’s Central Committee, criticised the ‘anti-DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea] leaflets’ flown to North Korea by ‘North Korean escapees’ and threatened the cessation of Mount Kumgang tourism, the complete demolition of the Kaesong industrial region, the closure of the inter-Korean liaison office, or the termination of the 9/19 military agreement (the 2018 agreement to create demilitarised buffer zones) unless the South Korean authorities took ‘due measures’.

Just four hours after Kim Yo-Jong’s early morning bombshell, the South Korean Ministry of Unification (MOU) announced that it would prepare legislation banning the distribution of leaflets to North Korea. This was a complete reversal of the government’s longstanding position, which consistently avoided such legislation for fear of infringing upon the freedom of expression.

On 10 June 2020, the MOU announced that it would file criminal charges against Park Sang-Hak and Park Jung-Oh, two defectors from North Korea, for violating article 13 of the Inter-Korean Exchange and Cooperation Act, which requires prior approval of any inter-Korean exchange of goods, and would revoke the incorporation of their organisations, Fighters For Free North Korea (FFNK) and KuenSaem, for sending leaflets in air balloons and rice-filled PET bottles on sea currents to North Korea, as they did on 31 May 2020.

While the North Korean government eventually toned down its rhetoric, the South Korean government began to take actions against North Korean human rights and escapee groups, viewed as a hindrance to inter-Korean peace.

On 29 June 2020 the MOU held a hearing and on 17 July it announced the revocation of the legal incorporation of FFNK and KuenSaem for contravening incorporation conditions by grossly impeding the government’s reunification policy, dispersing leaflets and items to North Korea beyond the stated goals of their incorporation and fomenting tension in the Korean peninsula under article 38 of the Civil Code, a relic from the authoritarian era. 

The MOU also launched ‘business inspections’ of other North Korean human rights and escapee settlement support groups among the over 400 associations incorporated by MOU’s permission, possibly with a view to revoking their incorporation. On 15 July 2020, the Association of North Korean Defectors received a notice from the MOU that it would be inspected for the first time since its incorporation in 2010. The following day, MOU authorities informed journalists that they would first conduct business inspections on 25 incorporated North Korean human rights and escapee settlement support groups, 13 of them headed by North Korean defectors, with more to be inspected in the future. While acknowledging that the leaflet issue triggered the inspections, the MOU added that the business inspections would not be limited to those involved in the leaflet campaign.

How many groups have been reviewed or inspected after the announcements were made?

Because of the international and domestic uproar caused by the obviously discriminatory nature of the inspections targeting North Korean human rights and escapee groups, the MOU has somewhat toned down its approach, and has belatedly begun to argue that it is focusing on all CSOs registered under the MOU.

On 6 October 2020, the MOU told reporters that it had decided to inspect 109 out of 433 CSOs for failing to submit annual reports or for submitting insufficient documentation. According to the information provided, 13 of the 109 groups to be inspected are headed by North Korean escapees; 22 (16 working on North Korean human rights and escapee settlement, five working in the social and cultural fields and one working in the field of unification policy) have already been inspected and none has revealed any serious grounds for revocation of registration; and the MOU intends to complete the inspection for the remaining 87 CSOs by the end of 2020.

In any case, the government appears to have already succeeded in its goal of sending a clear signal to North Korea that it is ready to accommodate its demands in return for closer ties, even if it means sacrificing some fundamental principles of liberal democracy. The government has also sent a clear signal to North Korean human rights and escapee groups with the intended chilling effect.

How has civil society responded to these moves by the government?

Civil society in South Korea is unfortunately as polarised as the country’s politics. The ruling progressives view the conservatives as illegitimate heirs to the collaborators of Japanese colonial rule between 1910 and 1945, and post-independence authoritarian rule up to 1987. The previous progressive president, Roh Moo-Hyun, who served from 2003 to 2008, killed himself in 2009 during a corruption probe, widely seen as politically motivated, under his conservative successor. The incumbent Moon Jae-In was elected president in 2017, riding a wave of public disgust at his right-wing predecessor’s impeachment for corruption and abuse of power.

Most CSOs are dominated by progressives who are politically aligned with the current Moon government. The progressives are relatively supportive of the human rights agenda but are generally silent when it comes to North Korean human rights because of their attachment to inter-Korean rapprochement. The same people who talk loudly about Japanese ‘comfort women’ – women forced into sexual slavery by Imperial Japan before and during the Second World War – or authoritarian-era outrages readily gloss over present North Korean atrocities in the name of national reconciliation.

Most North Korean human rights groups are formed around North Korean escapees and the Christian churches of the political right that passionately characterise leftists as North Korean stooges. Many are also generally hostile to contemporary human rights issues such as LGBTQI+ rights, which is rather ironic as Australian judge Michael Kirby, the principal author of the 2014 UN report that authoritatively condemned the grave human rights violations in North Korea as crimes against humanity, is gay.

The largely progressive mainstream CSOs have not been on the receiving end of persecution by the government led by President Moon; on the contrary, prominent civil society figures have even been appointed or elected to various offices or given generous grants. Some do privately express their dismay and concern at the government’s illiberal tendencies, but few are ready to publicly raise the issue because of the deep political polarisation.

Is the space for civil society – structured by the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression – becoming more restrictive in South Korea under the current administration?

The Moon government has displayed worryingly illiberal tendencies in its handling of groups that it views as standing in its way, such as North Korean human rights and escapee groups, who have faced increasing pressure to stay silent and cease their advocacy. 

President Moon has reopened a dialogue with the North Korean government to establish peaceful relations, neutralise the North’s nuclear threat and pave the way for family reunification, along with other estimable goals.

However, along with US President Donald Trump, President Moon has employed a diplomatic strategy that downplays human rights concerns. Notably, neither the 2018 Panmunjom Declaration between North and South Korea nor the Joint Statement issued after the 2018 Trump-Kim summit in Singapore make any mention of the North’s egregious human rights abuses.

In the weeks before President Moon met North Korean leader Kim in Panmunjom, there were reports that North Korean defector-activists were being prevented from carrying out their activism. In October 2018, South Korea acquiesced to North Korea’s demand to exclude a defector journalist from covering a meeting in North Korea. On 7 July 2019, there was an extraordinary rendition of two defectors, fishers who were allegedly fugitive murderers, to North Korea five days after their arrival without any semblance of due process.

The Moon government has resorted to illiberal tactics on other perceived opponents as well. A man who put up a poster mocking President Moon as ‘Xi Jinping’s loyal dog’ (referring to the Chinese president) at the campus of Dankook University on 24 November 2019 was prosecuted and fined by court on 23 June 2020 for ‘intruding in a building’ under article 319 (1) of the Penal Code, even though the university authorities made clear that they did not wish to press charges against him for exercising his freedom of expression. Many criticised the criminal prosecution and conviction as a throwback to the old military days.

The government has also moved to exercise ever more control over state prosecutors. The Minister of Justice, Choo Mi-ae, has attacked prosecutors who dared to investigate charges of corruption and abuse of power against the government, claiming a conspiracy to undermine President Moon.

Another worrying trend is the populist tactic by ruling party politicians, notably lawmaker Lee Jae-jung, of using the internet to whip up supporters to engage in cyberbullying against reporters.

What can the international community do to support the groups being targeted?

In April 2020 the ruling party won the parliamentary elections by a landslide, taking 180 of 300 seats, thanks to its relative success in containing the COVID-19 pandemic. The opposition is in disarray. All this has emboldened rather than humbled the government, and its illiberal tendencies are likely to continue. Due to the severe political polarisation, ruling party politicians and their supporters are not likely to pay much heed to domestic criticism.

The voice of the international community will therefore be crucial. It is much more difficult for the government to counter concerns raised by international CSOs as politically motivated attacks. A joint statement or an open letter spearheaded by CIVICUS would be helpful in forcefully delivering the message that human rights in North Korea are of genuine concern for the international community.

Furthermore, South Korea will soon be submitting its fifth periodic report to the UN Human Rights Committee in accordance with the list of issues prior to reporting (LOIPR). Because North Korea-related issues and concerns are not included in the LOIPR, it would be extremely helpful if international CSOs joined forces to include them in the oral discussion with the members of the Human Rights Committee and in their concluding observations.

In the shorter run, country visits to South Korea by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association, and the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders would be excellent opportunities to internationalise the issue and put pressure on our government.

Even progressives may support a reform of the outdated law on CSO registration, for instance, as a matter of self-interest, if not of principle, in case of change of government.

Civic space in South Korea is rated ‘narrowedby the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Transitional Justice Working Group through its website or Facebook page, and follow @TJWGSeoul on Twitter.

 

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