UGANDA: ‘The UN human rights office was instrumental in addressing human rights concerns in the conflict and post-conflict period’

RobertKirengaCIVICUS speaks about the closure of the United Nations (UN) office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Uganda with Robert Kirenga, Executive Director of the National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders-Uganda (NCHRD-U).

Founded in 2013, NCHRD-U is a civil society organisation (CSO) that coordinates Ugandan human rights defenders (HRDs) to work collectively to safeguard their work and protect their safety.

What work did the UN human rights office in Uganda do?

The UN human rights office in Uganda had a great impact on human rights over its 18 years. Initially, when Uganda was still plagued by a civil war that lasted almost 20 years, this office was instrumental in addressing human rights concerns in the conflict and post-conflict period. The UN set up sub-regional offices to monitor, document and report on the human rights situation and build state and non-state capacities in the field of human rights protection and promotion.

The UN office cooperated well with law enforcement agencies, the Uganda Human Rights Commission (UHRC), which is the national human rights institution, and CSOs. By supporting or holding joint activities aimed at defending human rights, the UN contributed to the visibility of various national institutions. It provided civic education materials to enhance the capacities of HRDs to understand, appreciate and apply treaty and charter-based mechanisms for upholding human rights in Uganda. Sometimes the UN provided funding for initiatives commemorating international human rights events, including Human Rights Defenders Day on 9 December, Human Rights Day on 10 December, International Day for Persons with Disabilities on 3 December and the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture on 26 June, among others.

Why is the UN office closing, and what’s been the reaction of Ugandan human rights organisations?

The UN human rights office is closing because the Ugandan government decided not to renew or extend its mandate, stating it believes it has fulfilled its role. Reactions to this decision have been mixed, with some feeling it was premature, as the office had still significant work to do, particularly since it was providing crucial support to the severely underfunded UHRC.

The closure of the office also had a significant impact on its employees and service providers, as it resulted in job losses and affected the income of landlords and other service suppliers. Many CSOs that had joint programmes with the UN office are experiencing a serious gap in their operations.

Some believed the local capacities the UN had developed over time were sufficient for local institutions to take on the responsibility of protecting and promoting human rights in Uganda, while others argued that the office had become compromised by the condition that whatever it did had to be in a joint venture with the UHRC. This led some to perceive the office as weak and ineffective when it came to reporting on and condemning significant human rights abuses during the 2021 general election, which included extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances and torture.

How do you assess the work of the UHRC?

The UHRC has made efforts despite being underfunded. Its robust legal and policy gives it the authority to carry out its mandate impartially, so what it truly needs are human and financial resources so it can execute the full range of its duties. In can be independent if it’s adequately resourced and its members are guaranteed the security of tenure.

For a long time, the UHRC was hampered by lack of leadership due to the executive’s delays in appointing its members. There’s a public perception that appointees serve the interests of the appointing authority rather than the country, as the appointment process lacks public involvement and rigorous scrutiny. The appointment procedure must be reformed to become more transparent and participatory, embedding scrutiny at every stage, from nominations to parliamentary vetting.

The UHRC has also faced criticism for not fully exercising its powers, including the ability to summon state officials accused of serious human rights violations to hold them accountable and use quasi-judicial powers such as the power to release unlawfully detained people.

What work does NCHRD-U do?

Our mission as a coalition of HRDs is to safeguard the rights of HRDs and advance their work in a secure environment by collaborating with national, regional and international like-minded organisations. We pursue this mission in three key programme areas: capacity building, emergency support and protection, and advocacy.

In our capacity-building programme, we focus on enhancing the capabilities of HRDs to maintain their personal security, including digital safety. Our emergency support and protection initiative provides assistance from various security angles to HRDs under threat. Our advocacy efforts focus on improving the working conditions for HRDs by advocating for conducive laws and policies that protect human rights activism within local jurisdictions.

We also serve as the coordinating body for UN Charter and treaty-based mechanisms in Uganda. In this capacity, we bring together Ugandan CSOs to prepare and compile shadow reports for the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review process and human rights treaty bodies.

What human rights violations are experienced by LGBTQI+ people in Uganda?

LGBTQI+ people face human rights violations and abuse from a homophobic and intolerant society. They are often victims of discrimination in employment, are forcibly evicted by landlords and subjected to humiliation, derogatory name-calling, arrests, physical assaults and, in extreme cases, homicide. LGBTQI+ people can’t register organisations to advance their rights and can’t exercise their freedom of expression due to the fear of being identified, so they’re denied basic human rights. Communities are hostile to LGBTQI+ people. In essence, they do not enjoy the same freedoms and rights as others in society.

As for the Anti-Homosexuality Act of 2023, there appears to be some confusion and a lack of clarity around the fact that it criminalises homosexual acts, not the fact of being homosexual. But there are mixed signals regarding who can be prosecuted under the act and what charges they can face. The law was enacted in May 2023 and is in effect. The best that civil society could do was file a petition at the Constitutional Court questioning its constitutionality, and we are currently awaiting a hearing date.

What are conditions for human rights organisations in Uganda?

We face a number of challenges ranging from accessibility of financial resources to a restrictive legal environment that imposes redundant documentation and information requirements from different statutory bodies that often overlap and are very costly, cumbersome and time-consuming.

Moreover, we confront threats of closure, non-renewal of operating licences, illegal freezing of organisational accounts and intimidation, mainly from overzealous state officials, including arrests and assaults, particularly when attempting to exercise the right to protest.

Ability to operate in this challenging context varies among organisations. Some adopt a cautious approach and practise self-censorship, while others have become even more resilient and continue to pursue their agendas while challenging the status quo through legal avenues. While not many independent CSOs have had to shut down or relocate, the inability to mobilise resources and the long suspension and eventual winding up of the Democratic Governance Facility, a donor vehicle that supported CSOs, have heavily contributed to the crisis we are currently facing.

Some resources and funding continue to flow into human rights organisations from foreign missions accredited in Uganda and international organisations and foundations headquartered outside the country. However, there is a pressing need for solidarity with human rights CSOs facing challenges related to obtaining operating licences and funding constraints. Such international support is crucial to keep them afloat so they can continue their vital work.

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

Get in touch with NCHRD-U through its website or its Facebook page, and follow @NCHRD_UG and @BRKirenga on Twitter.

THE NETHERLANDS: ‘Restrictions on the right to protest should be the exception rather than the rule’

SiegerSloot MarjoleinKuijersCIVICUS speaks with Sieger Sloot, an actor and climate activist from a Dutch branch of Extinction Rebellion (XR), and Marjolein Kuijers, policy officer on the right to protest at the Dutch section of Amnesty International, about the government’s reaction to climate protests in the run-up to parliamentary elections in the Netherlands in November.

XR is a global decentralised network of climate activists working to compel governments to address climate change and prevent biodiversity loss and ecological collapse through the use of non-violent civil disobedience tactics.

How have relationships between the Dutch government and climate activists changed in recent months?

Sieger Our government has not initiated any communication with us. While we have had limited interaction with the municipality of The Hague regarding our protests, our demands have never been addressed. In fact, it seems that authorities are responding to our actions with increasing force and more assertive rhetoric.

In August, seven out of the eight XR activists who had been arrested on charges of sedition were found guilty. Their convictions were based on the accusation that they had encouraged others to participate in a protest. The court in The Hague sentenced five of them to 30 hours of community service and the remaining two to 60 hours of community service.

On 9 September, around 25,000 people marched with us along the A12 highway in The Hague, calling for an end to government subsidies for the fossil fuel industry. During the demonstration, police used water cannon to disperse protesters. The police detained a total of 2,400 people, including minors.

What happened in a recent dialogue with the authorities on the right to protest?

Marjolein: On 7 September there was a roundtable on the right to protest held by the Committee on Internal Affairs with the participation of civil society activists and experts. Some local authorities were also present: the mayors of The Hague and Utrecht, two major cities, Amsterdam’s chief public prosecutor and its police chief, and a former police officer with extensive experience in the field of assemblies. Topics included the importance and scope of the right to protest, measures required to safeguard this right and an examination of whether it is currently under attack. The need to revise the Public Assemblies Act was also discussed.

Protesters voiced concerns about feeling distrusted by the authorities and noted unwillingness to listen to their experiences and lack of transparency in the decision-making process regarding the right to peaceful assembly. Authorities responded by raising concern over protesters crossing the line with civil disobedience actions and stated that it would be desirable to develop additional regulations and further guidelines on the scope of the right to protest and whether protection under this right applies to certain actions, even though experts emphasised that the existing legislation is suitable and functional. Instead of adding provisions to existing legislation, Amnesty Netherlands and others have argued that some provisions, like the one enabling local authorities to ban a protest based solely on a lack of formal notification, should be eliminated as they permit undue restrictions. Interestingly, local authorities suggested that protesters should challenge restrictive decisions before a court, letting judges determine their legitimacy. However, this approach poses yet another barrier to the exercise of the human right to protest.

The government’s reasonings clearly illustrate why the right to protest is under attack in the Netherlands. It is a fundamental right that should be protected, respected and fulfilled. The authorities should take the peacefulness of protesters as a starting point and facilitate protests as much as possible. Restrictions should be the exception rather than the rule. Amnesty Netherlands, as well as others, has emphasised that the authorities should shift their perspective away from viewing assemblies and protesters as potential risks to be contained, and instead recognise them as concerned citizens expressing their opinions. The authorities should take the first steps to rebuild trust between them and protesters, starting by engaging in open dialogue more.

The fact that these issues were discussed among such a diverse group of participants, including protesters, local authorities and experts, holds significant importance. Hopefully, this dialogue will contribute to a better understanding of the scope and significance of the right to protest. This roundtable was the first step leading up to a parliamentary discussion that will take place later this year.

What are your next steps?

Sieger: We will continue to hold protests until the government of the Netherlands stops using public funds to subsidise the oil and gas industry. A recent study conducted by the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations, in collaboration with the Dutch branch of Friends of the Earth and Oil Change International, revealed that every year the Dutch government provides around €37.5 billion (US$39.9 billion) in subsidies to industries reliant on fossil fuels. The report identifies 31 government subsidies, primarily in the form of tax breaks, that make it cheaper for companies to produce and consume fossil fuels, including oil, gas and coal. The largest share of these subsidies, amounting to €6.7 billion (US$7.1 billion), is directed towards the Dutch shipping industry.

For the record, every time we block a road in The Hague, our crowd more than doubles in size the next time. I anticipate this trend to continue in the future as more and more people are joining our cause.

Is climate change a campaign issue in the run-up to parliamentary elections?

Sieger: Our call to cease all fossil fuel subsidies immediately has garnered support from several Dutch political parties, finding its place in their election campaigns. The European Union’s climate chief Frans Timmermans resigned from this position to lead the centre-left coalition of the Labour Party and the Green Left in the elections.

However, some right-wing parties don’t even mention the climate crisis in their programmes. So who wins matters. It will carry significant weight in determining the future course of our country.


How have farmers’ protests impacted on Dutch politics?

Sieger: Farmers have organised, protested and formed a political party to oppose the government’s plans to cut livestock numbers or close farms in return for money aimed at cutting nitrogen emissions as ordered by a 2019 Supreme Court ruling. The farmers’ protests have influenced the government’s negotiations with agricultural organisations, which however concluded without any tangible results, requiring the new government to start them all over again. Meanwhile, many farmers are starting to recognise the challenges of sustaining their struggle.

The outcome of the elections will play a pivotal role, but in any case it’s clear that emissions must be reduced, meaning a compromise has to be reached.

What international support do Dutch climate activists need?

Sieger: Coverage by international media outlets, as well as influential individuals mentioning our protests online help us a lot. We appreciate that civil society organisations are advocating to safeguard our right to protest, and we welcome any assistance from international organisations such as the United Nations.

Civic space in the Netherlands is rated ‘open’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

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

Get in touch with Amnesty Netherlands through its website or Facebook page, and follow @amnestynl on Twitter.

MEXICO: ‘The decriminalisation of abortion is a huge collective achievement for the feminist movement’

AdrianaJimenezCIVICUS speaks with Alba Adriana Jiménez Patlán, director of the Network for Sexual and Reproductive Rights in Mexico (ddeser), about the historic ruling of the Mexican Supreme Court decriminalising abortion at the federal level.

Ddeser is a citizen network of women and young activists that disseminates information and defends, demands and monitors respect for sexual and reproductive rights in Mexico.

What is the current state of abortion rights in Mexico?

There are many shades of grey. To date, voluntary termination of pregnancy up to the 12th week of gestation, without the need to provide reasons, is legal in 12 of Mexico's 32 states. It is therefore necessary both to continue to push for decriminalisation in the 20 remaining states and to enable access to abortion services throughout Mexico. To really work for women, laws have to be implemented. Decriminalisation is a great first step, but it is still important to act to counter the denial of effective access to services.

What impact will the recent Supreme Court ruling have?

The ruling issued by the Supreme Court on 30 August, in response to an amparo appeal – a writ for protection of rights – filed by a civil society organisation (CSO), is very important. In the past, when cases like this came before the Court, we were always silenced with the excuse that states are sovereign to make decisions on these issues. But the Supreme Court has changed a lot in the last decade, and the decriminalisation of abortion through the courts in the state of Coahuila, and then in Aguascalientes, opened the way for the decriminalisation of abortion at the federal level.

As a result of this ruling, the women who have abortions and those who accompany them will no longer be criminalised throughout Mexico. Accompaniment is central to the work of civil society, and includes the provision of information, as well as reviewing and monitoring access to abortion-related services.

While the Supreme Court ruling does not resolve the issue of access to abortion services, which is often denied in states where abortion had already been decriminalised, it serves as a reminder that both the Mexican Institute of Social Security and the Institute of Security and Social Services for State Workers must provide the service without restrictions. Those of us who do accompaniment work have an essential role to play in verifying that when women turn to public health institutions they are actually taken care of.

Do you view this court ruling as a victory for the Mexican women's movement?

The decriminalisation of abortion is a huge collective achievement for the Mexican feminist movement, which operates in a highly networked way in multiple areas and ranges from those of us who provide information and create spaces for debate to the lawyers who draft bills in favour of women's rights.

But we must remember that legal, free and safe abortion is not a recent demand. It did not begin with the green tide, the regional movement that started in Argentina and gained momentum in the mid-2010s. It is an issue that the feminist movement has been pushing for since at least the 1970s, when feminists in academia and trade unions advocated for the decriminalisation of abortion and teachers and nurses demanded comprehensive sex education for public school students. Numerous activists and organisations preceded us in this struggle and paved the way for us to finally achieve the goal of free, safe and legal abortion.

Advocacy and community work have made the difference in this struggle. As an organisation we have contributed by providing information on the grounds for legal abortion and linking institutions so that other specialised organisations can train doctors and nurses to ensure the service is provided.

How does your organisation work to promote abortion rights?

We are present in 12 states across Mexico, and we are mainly involved in information distribution and networking. We provide information to women in parks, schools, streets and door-to-door, in Indigenous communities, rural areas and urban peripheries. We let women know that abortion exists and is an option. We also promote women's networks across the country to facilitate access to safe medication abortion.

We network with healthcare providers and other CSOs, such as Ipas and the Public Policy Advocacy Coordinator at Information Group on Reproductive Choice, to increase the impact of our work for Mexican women's rights.

Are you experiencing anti-rights backlash?

The situation varies from state to state. One state we need to pay special attention to is Aguascalientes, a highly conservative state that has a very conservative governor who may try to deny access to services.

Efforts by conservative forces to limit abortion rights and comprehensive sex education could result in regression. We must understand that the personal really is political, and that the enjoyment of the basic right to make decisions about our own bodies and lives depends on our political choices. Many people, especially young people, think that politics is not important, but the decision on whether to leave government offices and legislative seats in the hands of the far right has huge impacts on all aspects of our lives.

How do you connect with women's movements in other countries in the region?

Our movement is part of a broader movement that encompasses all of Latin America and the Caribbean. The green tide has been an inspiration for the whole region, and has reached the USA. The tide has already become a tsunami that won’t stop, and we feel deeply identified with it.

This regional dimension also involves a lot of work, because we do everything in our power to contribute to progress in other countries in the region. For example, decriminalisation initiatives have been submitted in Brazil and there we have been signing letters, sending videos and making statements. In Argentina we did the same things: some of us travelled there to talk to legislators about the Mexican reality regarding abortion. One of our major points of reference was and still is Colombia. Sixteen years ago we went to Colombia to see how abortion services were provided so they could be replicated in Mexico City.

We are deeply engaged with what is happening with our colleagues in Central America, where abortion is extremely criminalised. We worked intensely to achieve the decriminalisation of abortion and effective access to this right in Mexico and across the region.

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

Get in touch with ddser through its website.

ECUADOR: ‘Indigenous peoples are the forgotten ones of public policies’

FaustoSantiCIVICUS discusses Indigenous peoples' environmental activism and civil society's hopes for the upcoming COP28 climate summit with Fausto Daniel Santi Gualina, a leader of the Indigenous Sarayaku people of the Ecuadorian Amazon.

What does it mean to be part of the Sarayaku community?

The native Sarayaku people are part of the Kichwa nation of Pastaza province, in the Bobonaza river basin. According to our history, we are descendants of the Tayakkuna, who navigated the courses of the Bobonaza, Marañón and Pastaza rivers, naming each of the places and territories we inhabit today.

According to the prophecy of our wise elders, the Sarayaku people are a people of struggle who will never surrender to anyone. Sarayaku are the ‘people of noon’, like the flower that blooms at noon. We feel strong, generous and peaceful, and are the holders of a lot of wisdom about nature. We have been pioneers in the defence and vindication of collective, territorial and nature rights. We are currently working in unity to achieve true territorial governance – the planning, administration, conservation and use of territory – implementing life plans with self-determination and inhabiting the territory together and in harmony with human, spiritual and non-human beings.

What inspired you to become a community leader?

I come from a humble family with a great culture of work and leadership, which instilled in me the importance of studying. I got a degree from Cuenca State University and did two specialisations: one in climate change and cities, and the other in leadership, governance and public administration.

From a very young age, I held positions such as class president and student council president. I was the first person to hold the position of Youth Leader with the Organisation of Indigenous Peoples of Pastaza, my province. All these experiences shaped me to become a leader of my people, Sarayaku, on several occasions. I have taken part in Indigenous peoples’ struggles both by supporting the Sarayaku vs. Ecuador case – over the exploitation of Indigenous land by an oil company – before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and by participating in national-level Indigenous mobilisations.

I was coordinator of several projects, such as one on territorial governance in the communities of the Bobonaza river basin and another on free, prior and informed consultation with the Sarayaku people. Later I took on public positions such as president of the board of the Indigenous Fund of Ecuador and advisor to the Andean Parliament, and I participated in several international events on climate change, an issue that cuts across our community.

What environmental problems does your community currently face?

The environmental concerns of our people currently focus on deforestation and extractive activities such as mining and oil activity. For more than 50 years, private interests have been polluting land and aquatic ecosystems. This has had enormous socio-environmental consequences, including drought, disease, poverty and social conflict.

For some time now we have been living in conflict with an oil company that invaded our territory. We experience threats and harassment from both the company and the state. Every day more and more of our leaders and social activists are being threatened. Many have been kidnapped and some have been killed. But none of this silences or stops us, as we fight to save our territories, our living space.

We also face the problem of the lack of recognition of the territorial rights of Indigenous peoples by the state of Ecuador. Since the Sarayaku people were officially organised 45 years ago we have engaged with the state by bringing forward proposals on issues such as territorial legalisation, bilingual education, intercultural health and the recognition of collective rights in the Ecuadorian constitution. All the achievements we have made have been the result of the tireless struggle of our comrades.

But our rulers decide on extractivist public policies according to their own interests. The participation of Indigenous peoples in conservation funds is nil. Indigenous peoples are the forgotten ones of public policies.

What priority issues do you expect to see addressed at the COP28 climate summit?

One priority issue is financing. It is essential to work on financing through climate funds that are exclusive to Indigenous peoples, something that has been lacking until now.

It is also important to recognise integral territorial rights – the right of Indigenous peoples to their living spaces, as these maintain biodiversity intact and are carbon sinks: they contribute to tackling the climate crisis in a natural way. These territories must be recognised and declared free of all extractive activities in perpetuity.

There should be participation by Indigenous peoples in official negotiations, and it would be good to have regional roundtables to discuss what is specific to each region.

We are facing an unprecedented climate crisis. Only with the participation of all those working at local, regional, national and international levels will it be possible to establish and sustain serious commitments. This is why the participation of civil society in COP28 is so important. I really hope that the host government of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has the will to welcome civil society. Otherwise it would be a setback and would only cause delays in the implementation of global commitments on climate change.

What are your expectations regarding the outcomes?

I don't have high expectations. We are dealing with a host that has given enormous space to those with economic power. The UAE is an oil country and the president of this COP is the CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, one of the largest in the world. All this puts the outcomes at risk.

I think COPs are being used as a stage to show that oil companies are committed to managing the climate crisis, when in fact we all know this is not the case. It’s simple: if the production of fossil resources is not reduced, it won’t be possible to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the climate crisis will continue its catastrophic and irreversible course.

Indigenous peoples, with or without the recognition and support of states, have been contributing to the response to the climate crisis. We will continue to do so, but for our work to have real impact we need a global coalition of Indigenous peoples and civil society to form. We must develop our own COPs to show our commitment and present the initiatives we work on pragmatically every single day. We are the hope of the world.

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

SPAIN: ‘Explicit manifestations of gender-based violence are just the tip of the iceberg’

IsabelAbellaCIVICUS speaks with Isabel Abella Ruiz de Mendoza about the systemic macho violence faced by women in sport, evidenced in a recent case of abuse of power by the highest authority of the Spanish football federation.

Isabel is a sportswoman and is responsible for the equality and children and adolescents in two handball clubs. She is a founding partner and director of Abella Legal, a law firm, and an equality consultant specialising in the field of work and sport. From 2018 to 2013 she led the Basque Service against sexual harassment and gender-based harassment in sport in the Basque Country.

What were the public reactions to the non-consensual public kissing of female player Jenni Hermoso by the president of the football federation?

The non-consensual kiss that Luis Rubiales, president of the Royal Spanish Football Federation, gave Jenni Hermoso during the celebration of the Spanish team’s victory in the Women’s World Cup was just one of the visible, and still normalised, faces of macho violence.

In the typology of manifestations of male violence that women face on a daily basis in the workplace, or as in this case in sport, this is violence of a sexual nature. However, it is important to bear in mind that behind this expression of violence, there are likely other forms of psychological, economic and social violence, both against her and against her close environment, as well as against many people who have supported her, even in the virtual realm.

In the face of this, public opinion has been divided. There are those of us who believe we have a responsibility to work for equality in sport and to eradicate all expressions of sexist violence. However, others have trivialised, minimised, denied, ignored and ridiculed this episode. This diversity of reactions reflects various levels of feminist awareness among people.

Why did the sporting authorities take so long to condemn the episode?

What training in equality do the people leading these organisations have? Being a highly masculinised sector, how many have become aware of and developed critical thinking against hegemonic masculinity and its practices? How many have listened to the players and professional women in the sector? How many have renounced their privileges? How many have committed themselves to a personal project of transformation? What instruments to tackle and eradicate discrimination against women in football have they designed and implemented? What effective measures have they adopted?

All these questions could bring us closer to the causes of the timing of the reactions and the measures taken.

Do you think that this incident is indicative of deeper problems?

Indeed, a non-consensual kiss is a visible and explicit manifestation of male violence, a part of what is known as the tip of the iceberg, and hides the structural discrimination that women face in all areas of life, including sport and work.

This event is not a one-off event. Discrimination and sexist violence against women in sport are present in all disciplines and in all areas of sport and work.

We owe a big thankyou to the players of the national team because they are succeeding in prying open big cracks in the machismo of sport. Their struggle is yet another example of the long way we still have to go to achieve a fair and discrimination-free sport.

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

Get in touch with Abella Legal through its website and follow @AbellaLegal on Twitter and Instagram.

SPAIN: ‘Women are no longer willing to tolerate disrespect or abuse of power’

EleonoraGiovioCIVICUS speaks with Eleonora Giovio, sports editor of the Spanish newspaper El País, about the systemic abuses faced by women in sport, evidenced in a recent case of abuse of power by the highest authority in the Spanish football federation.

What were the public reactions to the non-consensual public kissing of a female player by the president of the football federation?

The first reaction to the non-consensual kiss that Luis Rubiales, president of the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF), gave to the player Jenni Hermoso during the celebration of the Spanish team’s victory in the Women’s World Cup was of astonishment, followed by strong condemnation on social media.

The worst thing for me was that the same night, and after Hermoso had recorded a video in the dressing room in which she said she didn’t like being kissed, Rubiales went on a radio programme joking about it with the presenter. They took it as a joke, they laughed at women, Rubiales said he was not up to this ‘bullshit’ and that the people who had been bothered by the kiss were ‘dumb asses’. He downplayed his macho and inappropriate behaviour. He obviously saw no abuse of power, and he insulted all of us who had found the kiss unacceptable.

As a result of these statements, rejection on social media became stronger, as well as more widespread, because the event was televised live all over the world. The radio host apologised the next day because, he said, he was unaware of the legal aspects of the question and had not realised this could be a crime.

Public condemnation was widespread and politicians quickly joined in. The tsunami was finally unleashed when team captain Alexia Putellas, who had kept a low profile and stayed out of the spotlight all year, tweeted her famous #seacabó (#ItsOver) hashtag in solidarity with her teammate Hermoso. From then on it was unstoppable.

However, very few players in the men’s squad spoke out. I didn’t expect otherwise because I know how sexist and misogynist the world of football is. Another example of this is the case of Dani Alves, a player currently in custody on sexual abuse charges. When the situation came to light, the reaction of the FC Barcelona coach was to say he felt sorry for him. They never put themselves in the place of the victim.

Another case in which silence was thunderous was when WhatsApp messages from a coach of the Rayo Vallecano women’s team came to light in which he encouraged gang rape as a way to unite the team, and nobody in the world of football spoke out to say that this was intolerable and shameful.

There are obviously some who think we women are overreacting. But the reality is that we are no longer willing to tolerate disrespect or abuse of power. There is no turning back now.

Why did the sport’s governing bodies take so long to condemn the incident? What would have been the appropriate response?

The RFEF not only took too long to condemn the incident, but initially forced Hermoso to make a video with Rubiales to give a false image of unity and calm. Hermoso refused and the Federation issued a statement attributing phrases to her that she says she didn’t say. This is very serious and the Public Prosecutor’s Office has filed a complaint for coercion in addition to sexual assault.

Notably, it was FIFA that, despite its long history of corruption scandals, disqualified Rubiales. While the Spanish government was very emphatic, the RFEF is a private body. Mechanisms for disqualifying a federation president are very complicated, and on top of that the Administrative Court of Sport found Rubiales’ misconduct to be ‘serious’, but not ‘very serious’.

The RFEF is a tremendously macho structure. Its members are men from territorial federations who support and cover for each other. Federations are a territory not just of men but mostly of macho men. Many of them have been in office for many, many years. Profound restructuring is needed. In Spain there are only two women heading federations and only 14 per cent of federations’ executive positions are in the hands of women. At this rate, substantial change will take several decades.

Although it is very difficult to withdraw sponsorships, as contracts must be fulfilled, I found it ugly that sponsors did not condemn a gesture that was not only out of place but also a crime. The only sponsor to issue a condemnatory statement was the airline Iberia. Iberdrola, an electricity company and the one that has invested the most in football and women’s sport, issued a statement only after I published an article on the El País website. The rest remained silent. I think they should have been firmer in their condemnation, particularly in the context of the unanimous rejection throughout Spain.

Do these things happen frequently in sport?

I think sport is not free from abuses of power, psychological abuse and sexual abuse. These happen in society, in the church, in entertainment, everywhere. There is no reason to expect sport to be free of abuse. However, it is particularly difficult to bring this to light because of the deeply rooted idea that sport provides a positive environment and is good for the development of boys and girls, fostering coexistence and instilling values of effort and sacrifice. Nobody wants to expose its darker side.

Hopefully the case of Jenni Hermoso will serve as an opportunity to undertake a profound restructuring, starting with football but including other sports federations. It is a good time to begin to change the dynamics of power and ways of working, reform structures and include more women, of which there are many who are very well prepared. Abusive behaviour and power dynamics that subordinate women must cease to be considered normal. I have the feeling that in 15 or 20 years’ time we will remember this as the moment when change began.

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

Read Eleonora’s articles in and follow @elegiovio on Twitter.

GABON: ‘Under the old regime civil society was not taken into account’

PepecyOgouliguendeCIVICUS discusses the military coup in Gabon with Pepecy Ogouliguende, expert in human rights, governance, gender and peace mediation and founder and president of Malachie.

Malachie is a Gabonese civil society organisation that combats poverty and promotes sustainable development and gender equality. It is active in a areas that include biodiversity protection, aid in the event of natural disasters, medical support, particularly for people living with HIV/AIDS, and human rights education, especially for the most vulnerable groups in society.

What’s your opinion on Gabon’s recent general election and subsequent military coup?

At around 3am on 30 August 2023, the Gabonese Electoral Commission announced the results of the presidential election, with incumbent Ali Bongo as the winner. A few minutes later, the military announced they had seized power. It is important to stress that this was not a coup d’état, but a seizure of power by the military. This distinction is justified by the fact that it took place without bloodshed.

The election was marred by irregularities and the announcement of the results would have led to protests, albeit legitimate, but which would have ended in violence. I would therefore like to salute the bravery of the defence and security forces.

The military then dissolved all governing institutions and set up a Transition Committee for the Restoration of Institutions (CTRI).

Was your organisation able to observe the election?

No, my organisation was unable to observe the election for the simple reason that no international or national observers were admitted. The election was conducted in total secrecy. Like all Gabonese people, I saw that the announced results did not correspond with the results at the ballot box.

The seizure of power by the defence and security forces in this particular context of public distrust of the authorities and deep suspicion of the election results is rather akin to a patriotic act.

Why has military intervention taken place now, after so many years of Bongo family rule?

Our defence and security forces, along with the public, have observed numerous irregularities and dysfunctions in the state apparatus in recent years. They therefore decided to put an end to this regime, which no longer corresponded to the aspirations of the Gabonese people.

The military saw an opportunity in the 26 August election to end the current system by assuming their responsibilities to save the nation and the rule of law. The aim of this seizure of power is to ‘restore the dignity of the Gabonese people’. As the CTRI spokesperson put it, ‘we are finally on the road to happiness’.

What’s your perspective on international criticism of the coup?

The international community simply acted by the book without first analysing the context. Gabon’s is a very special case.

Celebrations on the streets of Gabon’s main cities showed the extent to which the old regime was no longer wanted, just tolerated. These scenes of popular jubilation, which contrast with the international community’s condemnation, should be a wake-up call to the international community, inviting it to review its approach, which is more focused on safeguarding stability at all costs, often to the detriment of real social progress, development or economic growth – in short, at the expense of the wellbeing of the majority.

All those in the international community who spoke up condemned the ‘coup d’état’ and assured us that they were following developments in Gabon with interest, while reiterating their attachment to respect for institutions. Reactions from international organisations were very strong: the United Nations condemned the coup and the African Union (AU) and the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) suspended Gabon because they directly associated this ‘coup d’état’ with those that had previously taken place elsewhere in the region.

The USA has distanced itself somewhat by stating that it will work with its partners and the people to support the democratic process underway. This is where we look to the rest of the international community to help us work towards building strong institutions.

We salute those states that have clearly understood the need for this change. We condemn AU and ECCAS sanctions. The international community should support states in respecting their laws and constitutions and ensuring that democracy and human rights are respected.

Do you think this coup is part of a regional trend?

First and foremost, it should be reminded that in the case of Gabon, this was a military takeover and not a coup d’état in the strict sense of the term. It was in fact the result of bad governance and failure to take account of the needs of the population, particularly social needs, but also of the thirst for change. It can have regional impacts in the sense that most African populations are experiencing the same difficulties – youth unemployment, poverty, lack of access to healthcare – and aspire to major change. When people don’t feel taken into account by policymakers, they become frustrated.

We don’t rule out the possibility that this will have an impact on our neighbours. It is not too late for the regimes in power in Central Africa to seize this opportunity to rethink the way they serve their people.

What were conditions like for civil society under Bongo family rule? Do you think there is any chance the situation will now improve?

In Gabon, the operation of organisations and associations is governed by law 35/62, which guarantees freedom of association. That said, under the old regime civil society was not taken into account. It was only partly involved in the management of public affairs.

Some leaders, particularly trade union leaders, could be arrested or intimidated if the regime felt they were being overzealous. Several Gabonese civil society leaders denounced arbitrary arrests linked to their opinions and positions.

Like the Gabonese people, civil society is delighted at the change. Civil society as a whole is committed to taking an active part in the actions and reforms carried out by the authorities during the transition, to promote respect for human rights, equity and social justice, the preservation of peace and good governance.

The CTRI has just authorised the release of some of Gabon’s leading trade unionists and prisoners of conscience. In view of the first decisions taken by the CTRI, the best is yet to come. I can safely say that the Gabon of tomorrow will be better. Today there is a glimmer of hope.

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

Get in touch with Malachie through its website or its Facebook page.

The opinions expressed in this interview are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIVICUS.

BAHRAIN: ‘Had there been civic freedoms, the authorities would have known of the deep suffering at Jau Prison’

JawadFairoozCIVICUS speaks about the situation of political prisoners on hunger strike in Bahrain with Jawad Fairooz, founder and director of Salam for Democracy and Human Rights (Salam DHR).

Founded in 2012, Salam DHR is a human rights civil society organisation (CSO) registered in France, Switzerland and the UK. It undertakes research and advocacy for the advancement of democracy and human rights, mainly in relation to Bahrain, but also in the wider Gulf and Middle East and North Africa regions.

Maryam al-Khawaja, daughter of imprisoned human rights defender Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, intends to return to Bahrain imminently to ensure her father gets medical treatment and press for his immediate and unconditional release. Yet she, too, faces possible arrest. What’s your assessment of the situation?

Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, 62, a dual Danish-Bahraini citizen, is the co-founder of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and has a long history of activism. He was arrested by the government of Bahrain in 2004, 2007 and again amid mass unrest in April 2011. After this he faced a grossly unfair trial before a military court, including on charges of ‘seeking to overthrow the government’. He was tortured in pretrial custody and since his arbitrary imprisonment he has been repeatedly denied access to adequate healthcare.

On 9 August he joined some 800 other hunger strikers. They called for an end to lockdown policies that require them to spend up to 23 hours of the day in their cells, the suspension of solitary confinement, the opportunity for collective or congregational prayer in Jau Prison’s mosque, face-to-face meeting rights with family members without a glass screen and access to healthcare commensurate with that available to the public, among other improvements in prison conditions.

On 13 September the mass hunger strike ended with the authorities reportedly meeting many of these demands. This came as Bahrain’s Crown Prince visited Washington, DC, where he met with senior members of the Biden administration: the problem had to go away.

Maryam nevertheless intends to travel and she has our full support. We continue to call for Abdulhadi’s immediate and unconditional release. The Danish and European Union (EU) authorities must do more.

What is at the core of this problem is the absence of civic space in Bahrain. If there was space for independent civil society, then CSOs would have effectively alerted the authorities to prison conditions and they could have addressed the situation. An independent civic space makes it possible to find a balance in government conduct.

What does this mean for Maryam al-Khawaja and our courageous colleagues travelling with her? It means they should be allowed to enter Bahrain and make their demands. The government should engage with them in a spirit of transparency. The absolute worst that could happen is for dissent to be tolerated just a little bit more. While this seems unlikely to happen, it is what the government should do. We wish them all Godspeed.

How is it possible to conduct human rights activism in such a closed environment? How does Salam DHR do it?

Bahrain has closed civic space. Government officials decide which CSOs can be registered and who can stand for their boards. They prevent people from engaging in public life who have no criminal records or public complaints but rather perhaps a past association with a political movement or party that was unfairly banned years ago.

The Bahraini constitution provides for freedoms and safeguards similar to many other states, but the reality is that the government continues to carry out arbitrary arrests and stage unfair trials for acts that are not internationally recognised as crimes. The authorities torture detainees and use the death penalty, despite domestic opposition and international condemnation. They have stripped hundreds, including myself, of citizenship, depriving us of even the right to have rights in our homeland. They use the digital space to monitor and punish dissent and to foment religious and sectarian strife.

Activists linked with Salam DHR cannot, in effect, exercise their right to peaceful assembly, let alone openly campaign for freedoms of association and expression, the release of prisoners unfairly tried and imprisoned or a moratorium on the death penalty. They would risk arrest if they did that.

Yet engaging in civic activism is not totally impossible, only very challenging. Alongside CIVICUS and other partners, Salam DHR engages with allies and like-minded activists as well as the few CSOs that openly but cautiously raise human rights concerns so that the wider Bahraini society hears our message. We echo and amplify their appeals.

We are a catalyst: we help Bahraini activists access platforms to reach domestic and international audiences and provide training and development opportunities such as internships. Alone and in partnership with others, we research, document and publicise developments, grounding our message in article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which states that every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity to take part in the conduct of public affairs.

How useful for advocacy purposes was the global event held by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) in Bahrain’s capital, Manama, in March 2023?

It was mixed: Danish parliamentarians and those from other countries addressed human rights issues and the absence of an independent civic space. The IPU’s human rights team raised concerns about freedom of expression and violations against Bahraini parliamentarians. But despite the IPU’s affiliated status with the United Nations (UN), the government still denied access to independent observers and human rights organisations, denying them either visas or access and turning at least one around at the airport. This was the authorities once again restricting civic space.

A few days before the IPU meeting officially began, Bahraini lawyer and activist Ebrahim Al-Mannai called for parliamentary reforms on social media. He and three others who shared his post were arrested for publishing material that could ‘disturb public order’.

At the event itself, the government appeared uninterested in seriously engaging with visiting parliamentarians on human rights issues, despite attempts from the Danish delegation and representatives from Finland, Iceland and Ireland. Our message is clear: open up civic space, free up CSOs and political parties and liberate discourse, otherwise the cycle of political unrest will continue.

Reports indicate that the mass hunger strike in Jau Prison has ended. What’s your assessment of this episode?

The painful August 2023 mass hunger strike was wholly avoidable. It happened mainly due to the government’s stubborn and short-sighted refusal to allow civic space to exist even to a minimum degree. Had there been freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly, they would have known of the deep suffering at Jau Prison. If you don’t let people say what they think, then public life can only lurch from crisis to crisis.

The hunger strike was the expression of the accumulation of a number of factors that have been present in Bahraini prisons for years and it was based on grievances that have been repeatedly expressed: prison conditions and ill treatment of prisoners amounting to torture. The abuses worsened and conditions deteriorated during the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2021, medical neglect resulted in the deaths of two prisoners, Hussein Barakat and Abbas Mallalah.

We appeal once more to the authorities to allow for the opening of civic space and provide a social vent to end the cycle of human rights crises we face.

Is the international community doing all it can to support the struggle for democracy and human rights in Bahrain?

International human rights organisations, UN treaty bodies and Special Procedures and partner states, for instance in the context of the UN Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review process of Bahrain, have all joined us in calling on the government of Bahrain to abide by its international human rights obligations, starting with the basic step of letting people have a voice in public life.

Today, 15 September, is International Day of Democracy, and we are joining the UN in calling on the government of Bahrain to empower the next generation by ensuring that their voices are included in the decisions that will have a profound impact on their world. In his address, UN Secretary-General António Guterres has warned that ‘walls are closing in on civic spaces’. Those walls are also the walls of Jau Prison, where it took 800 detainees’ unjust suffering for the government to even take notice.

But the UN has also let neighbouring United Arab Emirates, which is as closed as Bahrain, host the forthcoming COP28 climate change summit. Lack of civic space means there can be no activism for climate justice in Bahrain – for instance, no public demands for accountability can be expressed over costly and environmentally damaging land reclamation in Bahrain’s northeast, which has already eroded the livelihood of fishing communities. We need to be able to address these challenges openly, with a rights-based approach, to avoid a future calamity.

And powerful states that could be putting some pressure for change are avoiding the issue. Right now, Bahrain’s Crown Prince is wrapping up meetings with senior Biden administration officials, none of whom appear to have raised civic space concerns or addressed the needless suffering of 800 Bahraini prisoners. The UK has removed Bahrain from its list of ‘countries of concern’ at the same time as it trumpeted a billion-dollar Bahraini investment in the UK. In October the EU will recommence its cycle of so-called human rights dialogues.

The international community’s inexplicable complacency over the festering human rights quagmire in Bahrain will further embolden the government in crushing civic space. Many leaders miss the point when it comes to Bahrain and its Gulf neighbours: they appear to accept the facade of what is presented as pragmatic autocracy and appear to accept regional rulers’ colonial-mindset contention that democracy will destabilise the region.

Democracies have in fact produced the most stable, enduring and dynamic systems in the world. Human rights and democracy are essential for Bahrain and its neighbours because their deficits continue to be the primary cause of resentment and unrest. A security-based approach does not remedy these problems. Bahrain’s history has shown these methods to be a failure, as it has endured continuous waves of mass unrest followed by violent crackdowns.

Authoritarianism and the forms of violence it fosters are the real destabilising forces, a cycle that can only be broken through the recognition and enactment of democratic rights. The first step towards this goal is simply letting civic space exist.

Civic space in Bahrain is rated ‘closed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

Get in touch with Salam for Democracy and Human Rights through its website and follow @SALAM_DHR and @JawadFairooz on Twitter.

EGYPT: ‘Activists who work from abroad are being targeted through their families’


CIVICUS speaks about the ongoing repression of dissent in Egypt with Ahmed Attalla, Executive Director of the Egyptian Front for Human Rights (EFHR).

Founded in 2017 and registered in the Czech Republic, EFHR is a civil society organisation (CSO) that promotes human rights in Egypt, with a specific focus on criminal justice, through advocacy, research and legal support.

What are the conditions for civil society in Egypt?

Civic space in Egypt has remained highly restricted for the past decade, with the authorities consistently targeting civil society activists, journalists, political dissidents and human rights advocates.

The 2019 NGO law restricts the rights of CSOs. It mandates their registration and enables the government and security forces to interfere in their operations and order the cessation of activities deemed sensitive by the government, such as monitoring human rights conditions and denouncing violations. Organisations registered under this law may also face funding restrictions.

Some CSOs had to shut down because the authorities targeted them with counter-terrorist measures or prosecuted their directors in Case no. 173 of 2011, commonly known as the ‘Foreign Funding Case’. In some instances, the directors of these organisations were prohibited from leaving the country and their assets were frozen. Some courageous organisations have persisted in their work even in the face of attacks against their directors and staff.

In September 2021, the government launched the National Human Rights Strategy, a propaganda tool aimed at concealing the human rights crisis ahead of hosting the COP27 climate summit in 2022. As part of this initiative, it took steps to release some political prisoners and engaged in a national dialogue that contained a broader spectrum of political actors, including civil society representatives.

How has Egyptian civil society organised in the face of repression?

Civil society has adapted to the ongoing repression in various ways. Many CSOs have decided to limit their public engagement and abstain from taking to the streets or limit their work to the provision of legal aid while refraining from undertaking research and international advocacy, especially with international human rights mechanisms. Other organisations have been forced to relocate their operations abroad to safeguard their staff and ensure the continuity and integrity of their work, which has had the opposite effect of facilitating their advocacy efforts with international mechanisms and among European Union (EU) member states.

In response to the continuous pressure, many organisations have started collaborating more closely. In 2019, EFHR coauthored a joint report with eight other CSOs for the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council and participated in the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) session in which Egypt’s human rights record was examined. In 2023, we jointly submitted another report for Egypt’s UPR. We have also engaged in joint campaigns and participated in the formation of coalitions aimed at addressing specific challenges. Egyptian CSOs are increasingly recognising the importance of working together to amplify their impact and advocate for change.

How does EFHR work in such a repressive context?

When it was founded in 2017, EFHR was officially registered in the Czech Republic with affiliates in Egypt, where our team of researchers and lawyers provides crucial legal support by attending daily court hearings and working directly with victims of prosecution. We have successfully coordinated work between our overseas office and our colleagues based in Egypt. Our work focuses on issues that are ignored by the Egyptian authorities, including issues concerning criminal justice, detention conditions and gender-based violence.

We take various security measures to protect the identities of our staff. For instance, our research publications don’t include author names or contact details, and we maintain the anonymity of our legal team. These precautions give us some space to work and leverage our findings and expertise with international mechanisms, by engaging with UN Special Rapporteurs and working groups and collaborating with EU diplomats.

However, we have also faced some challenges. Three of our lawyers have been implicated in state security cases, facing accusations of affiliating with terrorist groups and potentially engaging in the use of force. We have managed to relocate other at-risk colleagues to ensure their safety. The same is happening to other Egyptian human rights organisations, whose members either managed to flee the country or were arrested and remained in prison for least two years.

How do you support Egyptian activists under threat?

We provide legal assistance to those who have been arrested or targeted by the authorities and take measures to ensure activists’ digital security and protect their anonymity, enabling them to continue their work. We collaborate with partners and foreign embassies to put pressure on the Egyptian government, but sometimes this doesn’t work.

Within Egypt, there are a few tools available to protect our colleagues at risk. Even political parties cannot protect their members in Egypt, so they also face regular detentions. Parties often attempt to exert pressure on the authorities to release arrested politicians but after releasing them the government arrests other members of the same organisations.

Are Egyptian activists safe in exile?

Activists who work from abroad are being targeted through their families. For example, the Egyptian-American human rights advocate Mohamed Soltan, who filed a case against former prime minister Hazem el-Beblawi, saw his five family members harassed and arrested as a result of his activism. A German resident, Alaa Eladly, was arrested upon landing in Cairo just because his daughter, Egyptian activist Fagr Eladly, criticised President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi president over human rights abuses at a 2015 press conference between the president and then German chancellor Angela Merkel . The father of Belgium-based journalist and human rights advocate Ahmed Gamal Ziada has recently been detained and accused of misuse of communication, spreading false news and joining a banned group. This strategy aims to silence activists and impose an even higher personal cost for doing their work.

What can the international community do to support Egyptian civil society?

To gain a comprehensive understanding of the situation in Egypt it is important to listen to the perspectives of local human rights defenders. Our international allies and partners must exert pressure on the Egyptian government to open civic space, stop targeting journalists, civil society activists and political figures and filing trumped up charges against them, and release all political prisoners detained for defending the fundamental rights to freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression.

EU member states must revise their terms of cooperation with Egypt to prioritise human rights. For instance, they should include human rights considerations as a conditionality for providing financial aid. It is imperative to strike a balance between the interests of governments and the demands of Egyptian civil society. It is also essential to sustain financial support for Egyptian CSOs, especially now that the economic crisis has also hit civil society.

Civic space in Egypt is rated ‘closed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

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

ZIMBABWE: ‘This so-called election was a circus and a waste of resources’

ObertMasaraureCIVICUS speaks about Zimbabwe’s August general election and its aftermath with Obert Masaraure, national president of Amalgamated Rural Teachers Union of Zimbabwe and spokesperson of the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, which brings together 84 Zimbabwean civil society organisations (CSOs).

What was at stake in this election?

This was an important election. We were expecting both a democratic and an economic breakthrough after years of dictatorship and economic stagnation. Millions of young people are dropping out of school, thousands are dying after failing to secure healthcare and millions are unemployed. We expected change to happen.

But we were disappointed. Civil society tried to engage with the electoral process and play a monitoring role but was criminalised. Those who were doing voter tabulation were arrested. After the Election Management Board barred civil society groups we had to monitor the electoral process clandestinely. In the run-up to the election we also did a lot of voter education. We managed to generate excitement among voters, but on voting day they were frustrated.

What’s your assessment of the credibility of the results?

According to the results announced by the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) on 26 August, President Emmerson Mnangagwa of the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) received 52.6 per cent of the vote, while the leading opposition candidate, Nelson Chamisa of Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC), received 44 per cent. But these results are not credible because the polls were held on a flawed electoral field and the ZEC failed to discharge its duty to run a reasonably free and fair election, as evidenced by multiple acts and omissions.

First, the ZEC didn’t supply ballot papers or the voter roll in time to many polling stations in the provinces of Bulawayo, Harare and Manicaland, which are traditional opposition strongholds. This was a clear attempt to suppress voters and help the incumbent stay in power.

The Electoral Act mandates ZEC to display the voter roll at all polling stations 48 hours before the polls open, but most polling stations only received it on election day. This had consequences for the opposition, because in urban areas, where the opposition is stronger, at least 180,000 voters couldn’t find their names at the designated polling stations on election day. Their names had been moved after a shambolic delimitation process but as voter rolls had been unavailable until the last minute, these voters were unable to locate their new polling stations.

According to a ZEC statement, only 23 per cent of polling stations opened on time in Harare, with 75 per cent doing so in Bulawayo and 85 per cent in Manicaland. Some polling stations in Harare were still waiting for ballot papers as late as 6pm, one hour before closing. In contrast, in the majority of the ruling party’s strongholds, typically in harder-to-reach areas, election materials were received early and all polling places were open at the scheduled time.

In urban areas there were waiting times of up to 12 hours. Many people were unable to vote within that period and voting had to be extended to 48 hours. In rural areas, where the ruling party is strongest, the maximum waiting period was 30 minutes. Additionally, an estimated 42,000 civil servants who were working as polling officials could not vote after the ZEC refused to facilitate their voting.

The overall impact of this was to disenfranchise millions of voters and suppress opposition voters while encouraging those of the ruling party.

There were also lots of fraudulent and deceptive practices. There were cases where local candidates were taken off the ballot, as happened to CCC’s Shepherd Sithole in ward 1 of Bulawayo. A shocking incident was also recorded in which party symbols for ZANU-PF and the CCC were switched, confusing voters and making it impossible to record their actual choice.

There were reports from at least 50 polling stations in rural areas that the supposedly indelible ink used could easily be washed away. This was suspected to be a deliberate attempt to allow rural voters to vote multiple times to inflate the results for ZANU-PF. The postal ballot mechanism also appeared to be abused for ballot stuffing, as at least 35 polling stations reported receiving more postal ballots than they had voters registered.

There were numerous instances of intimidation at polling stations. A ZANU-PF affiliate, Forever Associates Zimbabwe (FAZ), set up ‘exit survey tables’ in at least 1,340 polling stations. Individual voters were asked to declare who they had voted for and provide their personal details. FAZ also recorded the serial numbers of voters’ ballot papers and told voters they would be able to tell who they voted for. Needless to say, this intimidated voters who have experienced a long history of serious political violence.

This was a sham, not an election. It was a circus and a waste of resources that subverted the will of the people and illegally kept the incumbent in power.

What needs to happen next to bring about democracy in Zimbabwe?

The Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition has demanded the immediate announcement of a date for a fresh free, fair and credible election. We must put an end to the long history of disputed elections in Zimbabwe and usher in a legitimate government that can lift Zimbabwe up from the category of a pariah state, rebuild its economy and improve the lives of its people.

Zimbabwe needs an inclusive national dialogue to broker a political settlement leading to credible elections supervised by the Southern African Development Community and the African Union. Zimbabweans should play their role in exerting pressure on the government to force it to agree to dialogue.

Zimbabwean pro-democracy organisations must be strengthened through international support so that they can play their proper role in a transition to democracy. The international community is also invited to exert pressure so that the government agrees to engage in an inclusive national dialogue. And while it does not, the international community must isolate the country from the family of nations. A dictatorship does not deserve a seat on any international platform.

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

Get in touch with Obert Masaraure through its Facebook page and follow @omasaraure on Twitter

IRAN: ‘The severity of the crackdown only shows how scared the regime is of the protest movement’

SohrabRazaghiCIVICUS speaks with Sohrab Razaghi, executive director of Volunteer Activists (VA), about the situation in Iran on the anniversary of the anti-regime protests sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini at the hands of morality police.

VA is an independent civil society organisation (CSO) based in the Netherlands, whose primary aims are building capacity among activists and CSOs, facilitating information exchange among civil society activists, community peacebuilding and advocating for the expansion of democracy and human rights in Iran and more generally in the Middle East. VA is the successor of a pioneer Iranian CSO, the Iranian Civil Society, Training and Research Centre, founded in 2001 and based in Tehran until 2007.

What is the situation in Iran one year on from the start of the protest wave?

The situation in Iran is complex. While last year’s massive protests made people hope for change, the crackdown on the protests caused hopelessness. The authorities were mostly able to suppress the protests and regain control of the streets, forcing people back into their homes.

Moreover, while the ‘Women, Life, Freedom’ protest movement had an appealing chant and vision, it lacked a long-term plan that could lead to change. Over the past year, it has been unable to translate its slogan into a political programme and was therefore unable to mobilise other social and political forces around its goals.

But despite the authorities’ success in regaining control, we have continued to see acts of civil disobedience across Iran. Activists, artists and academics express themselves through social media and make public displays of protest not wearing hijab. The fact that the voices of protesters have not been silenced sustains hope for change.

A concerning development, however, is the increasing gap between established civil society and the protest movement. CSOs were hesitant to participate in the protests when they began, and this gap has only increased since. There is even a lack of a common vocabulary in calling for mobilisation and articulating demands. Established CSOs disagree with what they view as radical moves by the protest movement, as they have a more conservative view of society and the future. A possible explanation for this divergence may be the generation gap, as the protest movement is formed by much younger activists.

To reassert control, the authorities have imposed stricter control over media, universities, unions and other associations. In essence, civic space has shrunk dramatically over the past year, with the authorities purging most sectors of everyone who disagrees with them.

Internationally there was a huge wave of support for the protest movement from governments, civil society and media, particularly early on. This was extremely helpful for echoing the voices of Iranian protesters and pressuring the authorities to meet their demands. But as the authorities regained control of the streets, we have seen a change in the approach of western governments. They are returning to diplomacy and negotiations with Iran, slowly normalising their relations. This has boosted the Iranian regime’s confidence, re-legitimising it and giving it space to spread its propaganda.

What tactics has the government used to limit further mobilisation?

The number one tactic of the regime to crack down on protests has been to arrest protesters. Over the past year, thousands have been arrested, including over 20,000 who were arrested during the protests. Some have been given long jail sentences.

The second tactic has been the prevention of organising and networking. Even small communities have been actively prevented from getting together. Online networking has been limited by censorship, filtering and hacking. Leaders and activists trying to establish any form of group are arrested and their work is disrupted. They threaten activists with jail and even death. They also target their personal life by demanding that they be fired or suspended from work or university. Many teachers and professors who supported the protest movement have been fired and students expelled.

To reach those who may not have joined the protest yet, the authorities spread propaganda, fake news and conspiracy theories that delegitimise the protest movement. Some communities fear the protest movement as a result.

To prevent the development of a political alternative to the regime, the authorities have targeted the opposition within and outside Iran. Their main aim seems to be to sow division among opposition groups and force them to deal with issues internal to the opposition movement instead of focusing on developing an alternative coalition. Iranian cyber forces have supported these efforts through hacking and social media manipulation.

What forms has resistance taken in response?

Iranian activists have pursued two strategies in response. First, the protest movement sought to widen its scope to increase its resilience. By mobilising excluded ethnic groups such as Baloch and Kurdish people, the protest movement expanded to more cities and communities, making the crackdown more difficult. Second, the protest movement tried to stay on the streets for as long as possible, hoping to create division among crackdown forces.

Internationally, the movement’s main strategy was to try to isolate the regime by forcing the severance of as many diplomatic connections as possible. For example, it successfully advocated for Iran to be removed from the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women and it also sought to force the closure of Iranian embassies in western states.

How have Iranian organisations from the diaspora or in exile supported the protest movement in Iran?

We have observed two phases in the involvement of the diaspora and exiled Iranian organisations in the protest movement. In the first phase, they organised large-scale solidarity mobilisations and projects in support of the ‘Women, Life, Freedom’ protests in Iran. Over 80,000 Iranians from the diaspora participated in the solidarity protest in Berlin in Germany, for example.

After this initial phase, however, each political group in exile tried to present itself as the leader of the protest movement. This broke the solidarity and unity of the movement. Instead of fighting against the regime, some diaspora groups mostly fought each other. Independent activists and organisations in the diaspora that didn’t want to be caught in this fight decreased their involvement. For the protest movement to succeed, opposition groups and political movements need to get better at resolving their conflicts, reaching compromises and building a unified anti-regime coalition.

Has the crackdown intensified as the first anniversary approaches?

Civil society activists have continued to be arrested and organisations put under pressure and shut down. But as the first anniversary approaches, we are seeing repression increase, particularly in universities and among journalists. Universities have recently fired more lecturers and professors and expelled more students who participated in last year’s protests. Student associations have been shut down long ago and any form of student organising is banned.

Journalists are also being heavily repressed. The authorities are disrupting reporting and coverage of protest actions and calls for protests around 16 September. They are threatening and arresting journalists, prosecuting them and handing them heavy sentences.

Independent lawyers, who have been instrumental in supporting arrested and imprisoned activists, are also being threatened. Lawyers have played key roles in defending activists in court and spreading information about their trials, informing the public on the authorities’ repression. As a result, they are being threatened with losing their licences or being arrested.

Is Iran closer to change now than a year ago?

I think we are multiple steps closer to change than before. Iranians are less scared of the consequences of their activism. They dare to take action against the regime. The voice of protest is louder and the severity of the crackdown only shows how scared the regime is of the protest movement. The regime understands it won’t be easy to shut down this protest movement, which threatens the legitimacy and therefore the existence of the regime.

We also see a major lifestyle change. People on the streets are now dressed differently and are less afraid of showing their lifestyle in public. Although political change is minimal, cultural change following last year’s protests is clearly visible. This change shouldn’t be underestimated.

What needs to happen for political change to take place?

Iranians need to realise the power of being together. Change comes from power, and power comes from organising and acting together. To bring about change, we need social power and to create social power, organising is essential. By forming associations, organisations and networks, Iranians can demand and achieve change.

For this to happen, three types of changes are required. First is a change in attitude. Iranian activists need to think positively and constructively instead of negatively and destructively. Second is a change in behaviour. We will only achieve democracy if we also act democratically and use democratic tools. This means avoiding any form of violence and understanding that democracy does not rise from bloodshed and fire. Third is a change in context. It is key to empower society to say no and resist the regime.

The international community could support change by helping to increase the resilience of the social movement and its activists, both online and offline. The pursuit of meaningful and sustainable change is a marathon and it’s instrumental to echo the voices of activists and provide sustainable support. A coalition of international civil society organisations could help by providing strategic support to Iranian activists.

Civic space in Iran is rated ‘closed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

Get in touch with Volunteer Activists through its website.

GLOBAL: ‘With a wealth tax on the biggest fortunes, extreme poverty can be eradicated’

AdrienFabreCIVICUS speaks about climate change, global inequality and the need for redistribution with Adrien Fabre, a France-based climate economist and founder of Global Redistribution Advocates (GRA).

GRA is a civil society organisation (CSO) that promotes public debate about three global redistribution policies that enjoy wide public opinion support worldwide – a global wealth tax, a global climate plan and a global climate assembly – and advocates towards political parties in several countries to incorporate these into their agendas and programmes.

What inspired you to become a climate economist and found GRA?

I started my PhD in economics with the goal of understanding humanity’s problems and proposing solutions. I always wanted to give voice to every human, so I naturally specialised in running surveys. Then, in the context of the Yellow Vests protests that began in 2018, I surveyed French people about their attitudes towards climate policies. This sparked interest at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which called on me to conduct a similar survey in other countries. I seized the opportunity to ask people questions they had never been asked before, such as whether they supported a global tax on millionaires to finance low-income countries. I was amazed by the levels of support: more than 70 per cent in every country!

I ran complementary surveys in Europe and the USA. I tried asking questions differently and tested policies in which the respondents would lose money, but the results were the same: people in western countries were willing to lose a few dozen euros per month to end climate change and global poverty. Furthermore, the support is sincere: you can read this scientific article or my Twitter thread for details.

Now, if there is such strong support for global redistribution, why doesn’t anyone propose it or defend it in public debate? To advocate for global redistributive policies to transfer resources or power from high to low-income countries I launched GRA in April 2023.

What are your proposals?

We have three main proposals to promote wealth redistribution, environmental sustainability and global cooperation to address pressing global challenges. The first is a global wealth tax on individual wealth exceeding US$5 million, with half of the tax proceeds distributed to lower-income countries.

This tax would spare 99.9 per cent of the world’s population, who have wealth below US$5 million. And if the tax were just two per cent, it would collect one per cent of the world’s GDP, which is more than the GDP of all low-income countries, home to 700 million people, combined. Our proposed tax schedule is moderate: two per cent for fortunes above US$5 million, six per cent for those above US$100 million and 10 per cent for those above US$1 billion. A tax of two per cent is far lower than the interests, rents and dividends such a fortune generates.

Our second proposal is a global climate plan aimed at combatting climate change through a worldwide carbon emissions cap, implemented by a system of global emissions trading, and financing a global basic income.

This plan would enter into force as soon as signatory countries cover 60 per cent of global carbon emissions. Participating countries would enforce a cap on carbon emissions, decreasing each year and down to net zero emissions after three decades, in line with the temperature target. Each year, emissions permits would be auctioned to firms that extract fossil fuels or import them from non-participating countries, making polluters pay. To cover the cost of emissions permits, firms would increase fossil fuel prices, which would in turn encourage individuals and businesses to change their equipment or adjust their habits, eventually reducing carbon emissions. The revenues from carbon pricing would fund a global basic income estimated at US$50 per month for each person over 15.

This plan would bring a massive redistribution from countries with a carbon footprint higher than the global average – like OECD countries – to those with a lower-than-average carbon footprint, including most of Africa, South and Southeast Asia and Latin America. It includes mechanisms to encourage participation by all countries, such as a tariff on goods imported from non-participating countries in proportion to their carbon content, a provision allowing middle-income countries such as China to opt out from the mutualisation of revenues to guarantee that it would not lose from the plan while ensuring that it decarbonises with the same carbon price, and a provision facilitating the participation of subnational entities like California or the state of New York even if the federal level does not participate.

The wealth tax and the climate plan would each redistribute one per cent of the world’s GDP from high to low-income countries every year. Extreme poverty can be eradicated. The average income in a country like the Democratic Republic of the Congo would double following the transfers.

Our third proposition is that of a global climate assembly, comprised of representatives elected through proportional representation in participating nations, tasked with drafting a comprehensive treaty to address climate change globally. Before even the beginning of that experiment in democratic governance at the global scale, the assembly would bring a radical change, as the election campaign would foster a global public debate on climate justice.

Please check our website for details: each policy has its own advocacy campaign, with a fully-fledged policy proposal, a petition and a video.

Who are you targeting these proposals at, and how are you working to get the message across?

We are targeting our campaigns at policymakers, scholars, civil society and lay people. Many scholars have endorsed our proposals. GRA is a member of civil society networks in each of our policy domains, and we are hoping that key CSOs will endorse our proposals. We have already met with cabinet members of various governments, including Brazil, Colombia, France, Germany and South Africa, as well as many European Union (EU) politicians. And we are sending dozens of emails every day to get more meetings. Once we get a book on our climate plan and the scientific article finished and published, we will reach out to the public. We will publish an open letter in widely read newspapers, calling on world leaders to discuss global redistributive policies at the United Nations (UN), the G20 and climate summits.

Hopefully, we will get media attention and the movement will grow. It will help if well-known personalities, including celebrities, endorse our proposals. But it will take a social movement to make change happen, perhaps a global demonstration. Our hope is that a large coalition of political parties, CSOs and labour unions throughout the world endorse some common policies towards a sustainable and fair future – ours, or similar ones. This will likely strengthen the parties of the coalition and help them win elections. Our research shows that progressive candidates would gain votes if they endorsed global redistributive policies.

What are the prospects of these proposals being implemented in the near future?

Our proposals are getting more and more endorsements every day. The African Union just called for a global carbon price and will defend this idea in international negotiations.

But our proposal that receives the largest support is the global wealth tax. The next European Parliament elections will be held in June 2024, and left-wing parties will campaign on a European wealth tax. We have proposed that one-third of this European wealth tax would be allocated to lower-income countries outside Europe, and there are good chances that some parties will take this forward. A petition in favour of a wealth tax has recently been signed by 130 members of the European Parliament, and politicians from all parties on the left and centre endorse our proposal. However, a majority in the European Parliament would not suffice, as this proposal would require unanimity at the Council of the EU, that is, the approval of each EU government.

However, three things can help. First, Brazil will chair the G20 in 2024, and we hope that President Lula, along with other leaders, will put pressure on global north states for global redistribution. Second, it would help if US President Joe Biden included wealth taxes on the agenda of his re-election campaign. Third, the campaign for the 2024 European Parliament elections could create momentum for some countries to move forward, even if the EU does not.

I am optimistic that wealth taxes will be implemented – perhaps not in 2024, but within the next decade. However, I fear negotiations might end up being overseen by the OECD, resulting in a disappointing agreement, as happened on international corporate taxation. Negotiations on international taxation must be hosted by the UN, not the OECD. And regarding the content of the negotiations, we should be vigilant of three elements: the exemption threshold, which should not exceed US$5 million; the tax rates, which should be progressive and not too low; and the distribution of revenues, a substantial part of which must go to low-income countries.

Civil society mobilisation will be key to promoting the global wealth tax, making it a central campaign issue and turning it into effective international policy. You can help by signing our petitions, donating, or volunteering for GRA. GRA is also hiring, so feel free to contact us!

What are your hopes and expectations regarding the upcoming COP28 climate summit?

COPs sometimes bring good surprises. Last year, high-income countries finally accepted the principle of a fund to compensate vulnerable countries for the loss and damage from climate change, after 30 years of demands from the developing world.

But I don’t expect any good news this year, as the upcoming COP28 in Dubai is chaired by the CEO of the United Arab Emirates’ state oil company. More generally, I do not expect much from COPs because its decisions are made by consensus, so countries like Saudi Arabia can block any meaningful proposal. This is what led to the current system of nationally determined contributions: while all countries supposedly share the common goal of limiting global warming to ‘well below 2°C’, there are no binding commitments, no harmonised policies, no agreement on burden-sharing, and the sum of countries’ voluntary pledges is inconsistent with the common goal.

To break the deadlock, states with ambitious climate goals should start negotiations in parallel with the UN framework. I think the EU and China should start bilateral negotiations. If they put forward something like the global climate plan that we propose, countries that would benefit from it would surely accept it, and more than 60 per cent of global emissions would be covered. This would put enormous pressure on other countries to join, and particularly other OECD countries such as the USA.

Get in touch with Global Redistribution Advocates through its website or its Facebook page, and follow @GlobalRedistrib and @adrien_fabre on Twitter.

NAMIBIA: ‘We have seen some progress on LGBTQI+ rights, but there is a lot of work still to be done’

KevinWesselsCIVICUS speaks about recent moves to ban same-sex marriage in Namibia with Kevin Wessels, a young activist and a seasoned consultant and social entrepreneur working to advance human rights in Namibia.

Kevin works with several Namibian LGBTQI+ rights organisations, driven by a vision of a just society where everyone, including LGBTQI+ people, enjoys equal rights and opportunities. To that end, he connects with like-minded people and organisations in Namibia, across Africa and around the world.

Namibia has a reputation for being a democratic country with relatively open civic space. Do LGBTQI+ people enjoy the same freedoms as everyone else?

Despite Namibia being a democratic country where civic freedoms are mostly respected, the situation of LGBTQI+ people is mixed: it is better than in many other countries in the region, but legal and social discrimination persist. Namibia has seen some progress on LGBTQI+ rights, such as the recognition of gender identity.

Most recently, in May 2023, Namibia’s Supreme Court ruled that the government must recognise the unions of same-sex couples who married in countries where it was legal for them to do so, even though same-sex marriage remains illegal in Namibia itself. The ruling, which drew mixed reactions in a country that’s socially conservative, was in sharp contrast to developments in Uganda, where one of the world’s most draconian anti-LGBTQI+ laws has been passed.

But Namibian LGBTQI+ people continue to face numerous challenges, so there is a lot of work still to be done.

First and foremost, there is the matter of legal status: same-sex sexual activity remains prohibited under the common law, which Namibia inherited when it gained independence from South Africa in 1990. Although South Africa decriminalised same-sex sexual activity, Namibia has not.

The law criminalises acts of ‘sodomy’ and is applied only to men. While punishment for this offence is not clear, there is evidence of the law being enforced, with over 100 reported cases resulting in more than 50 arrests since 2003. However, consensual sodomy has seldom been prosecuted, so the provision appears to be largely obsolete. Nevertheless, its mere existence is a violation of human rights and underpins further acts of discrimination, and is inconsistent with Namibia’s constitution, which provides for equality and non-discrimination.

LGBTQI+ people in Namibia continue to face discrimination, harassment and stigma, both in society and in their families. This often results in challenges in accessing healthcare, education and employment opportunities.

Key issues on the Namibian LGBTQI+ rights movement’s agenda include decriminalisation of same-sex relations and the establishment of stronger legal protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, equal access to healthcare, including gender-affirming care, educational initiatives and awareness campaigns to increase understanding of LGBTQI+ issues and acceptance of LGBTQI+ people, and firm policies to address hate crimes and violence against LGBTQI+ people.

How are Namibian LGBTQI+ organisations working to promote LGBTQI+ rights?

There are several active LGBTQI+ advocacy groups in Namibia, including Equal Rights Namibia, Drag Night Namibia, Out-Right Namibia and the Namibian Transgender Movement, among others. I am directly associated with several of these. We focus on raising awareness, advocating for legal reforms and supporting LGBTQI+ people.

LGBTQI+ organisations seek to influence policymakers to achieve legal reforms and protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Some have pursued legal cases to challenge discriminatory practices and establish legal precedents for LGBTQI+ rights in Namibia.

LGBTQI+ groups also conduct educational campaigns and workshops to raise awareness and promote understanding of LGBTQI+ issues among society as a whole. They foster visibility and create community by holding parades and festivals during Pride Week celebrations. They provide support, counselling and resources to LGBTQI+ people facing discrimination, mental health challenges or other issues related to their identity. They create safe and inclusive spaces for LGBTQI+ people to connect and share experiences.

Building a supportive community is a fundamental aspect of this work, and so is the celebration of our achievements. LGBTQI+ organisations celebrate milestones and achievements in the fight for equal rights, such as our recent legal victory, successful awareness campaigns and the establishment of new support networks and safe spaces. We are most proud of the progress we have made in gaining legal and societal acceptance of LGBTQI+ rights and people.

Have you faced backlash for the work you do?

Yes, I have! People and organisations advocating for LGBTQI+ rights in Namibia, as in many parts of the world, often face backlash as a direct result of their advocacy work. This may come in various forms, including discrimination and social stigma, particularly within communities, harassment or threats to personal safety, legal challenges or restrictions and resistance from conservative anti-rights groups that may present legal challenges, disrupt activities, issue statements publicly questioning LGBTQI+ rights and stoke social opposition.

Despite these challenges, many LGBTQI+ activists and organisations in Namibia and around the world continue to work tirelessly to promote equal rights and acceptance for LGBTQI+ people. We exhibit resilience, determination and a commitment to creating a more inclusive and accepting society.

Do you see the anti-rights reaction in Namibia as part of a regional or global trend?

There are domestic, regional and global factors at play. While anti-LGBTQI+ groups across countries tend to raise the same themes and use a shared set of tactics, the level of opposition and the specific issues can differ according to the cultural, religious and political context. Some regions may experience more organised and coordinated anti-rights efforts, while others may face a less centralised opposition. Anti-rights groups often have international connections and support, sharing strategies and resources across borders, although the extent of this coordination can vary widely.

In other words, it’s important to recognise that LGBTQI+ rights movements and their opponents exist on a spectrum, and there is a diversity of views within societies. And while there may be pockets of strong opposition, there are also many people and organisations globally working to promote LGBTQI+ rights and equality. Efforts to advance LGBTQI+ rights often involve engaging in open dialogue, education and advocacy to address misconceptions and promote understanding among these different segments of society.

What triggered the recent initiative to ban same-sex marriage in Namibia? How have LGBTQI+ groups and other human rights organisations reacted, and what are the next steps in this struggle?

In July 2023, the National Council, Namibia’s upper house of parliament, passed a law banning same-sex marriage and punishing its supporters. The bill was aimed at countering the recent Supreme Court ruling that authorised the recognition of certain same-sex unions contracted abroad. Its proponents stated that its purpose was to ensure respect for the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman. The text of the bill defines marriage as a union between persons of opposite sexes and defines a spouse as ‘half of a legal union between two persons born genetically male and female’. It states that marriages concluded abroad between two persons of the same sex cannot be recognised in Namibia and makes the solemnisation, participation in, promotion or advertisement of such a marriage a criminal offence punishable with up to six years in prison and fines up to NAD 100,000 (approx. US$5,200).

This is the fastest a law has been passed in Namibia. It was adopted by the National Council without any opposition, and the National Assembly, parliament’s lower house, also quickly endorsed it. However, it still needs to be promulgated by the president to come into force. The LGBTQI+ community has condemned it as an unconstitutional attack on our rights, but there is nothing we can do to stop the president from signing it into law. We will have to contest it in court for it to be deemed unconstitutional.

What kind of support do Namibian LGBTQI+ organisations receive from international partners, and what further support is needed?

Namibian LGBTQI+ organisations are well connected with international movements for LGBTQI+ rights. We often participate in international conferences, workshops and events to share experiences, strategise together and exchange information, research and best practices to enhance advocacy efforts. Global spaces also give additional visibility to our efforts. As part of its awareness campaigns, for instance, Drag Night Namibia, one of the organisations I collaborate with, recently staged a performance in Berlin, Germany.

International movements help raise awareness about LGBTQI+ issues in countries where there may be limited local support. They show solidarity by condemning human rights violations. In this context, various Namibian LGBTQI+ organisations have condemned the Ugandan government’s laws and actions against LGBTQI+ people.

Additionally, international partners may from time to time provide financial support to Namibian LGBTQI+ organisations in the form of grants or donations to help us carry out our work effectively. But we still need a lot of further support, not just financial but also in terms of the provision of platforms for advocacy and visibility.

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

Get in touch with Kevin at and follow @wessels_nam on Twitter and wessels_official on Instagram.

GABON: ‘Civic space and the conditions for the exercise of human rights were difficult under the former regime’

GeorgesMpagaCIVICUS discusses the military coup in Gabon with Georges Mpaga, National Executive President of the Network of Free Civil Society Organisations of Gabon (ROLBG).

Over the past decade, ROLBG has focused on enforced disappearances, extrajudicial executions, torture and arbitrary detention. It advocates to improve civic space in Gabon and Central Africa and campaigns on inhumane detention conditions.

What’s your opinion on Gabon’s recent elections and subsequent military coup?

The 26 August elections were undoubtedly fraudulent, as were the previous ones. The regime led by predatory dictator Ali Bongo had banned international and domestic observer missions and international media. ROLBG was the only organisation that carried out citizen observation through the parallel vote tabulation system. Because of Bongo’s despotic will, the election was held under totally irregular conditions, in flagrant violation of international norms and standards. The vote count was held behind closed doors, in an opaque context that allowed for large-scale electoral fraud and falsified results.

On 30 August 2023, the salutary intervention of the defence and security forces put an end to this aberration. For me, as someone from civil society, what has just happened in Gabon is by no means a military coup; it is quite simply a military intervention led by patriots within the army, under the leadership of General Brice Clotaire Oligui Nguema, that put an end to a 56-year imposture, a predatory system and an infernal cycle of rigged elections often punctuated by massive human rights violations. This is our reading of the situation, and it is the general opinion of the Gabonese people, who have just been freed from a criminal dictatorship and oligarchy.

Why has military intervention taken place now, after so many years of Bongo family rule?

The military intervention on 30 August was justified as a response to the desire shown by the Bongo clan and its Gabonese Democratic Party to remain in power by will or by force, through fraudulent elections and police repression orchestrated by the defence and security forces, which were instrumentalised and took orders from the former president.

The Gabonese armed forces intervened to avert a bloodbath and replace the Bongo regime: an unrelenting regime that was ruthless towards the Gabonese people, tainted by clientelist relationships, shady business deals, predatory corruption and widespread violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms, all sanctioned by fraudulent elections.

In this sense, the coup in Gabon is not part of a regional trend, but the result of a purely internal process resulting from 56 years of dictatorship and its corollary of human rights violations and the destruction of the country’s economic and social fabric. However, the events underway in Gabon obviously have repercussions in the Central African region, home to some of the worst of Africa’s dictatorships.

What’s your perspective on international criticism of the coup?

Civil society welcomed the military intervention because it sounded the death knell for more than half a century of deceit and predation at the top of the state. Without this intervention, we would have witnessed an unprecedented tragedy.

The Gabonese army, under the leadership of the Committee for the Transition and Restoration of Institutions (CTRI), the military junta in power, allowed the country to escape a tragedy with incalculable consequences. Seen in this light, the military should be celebrated as heroes. As soon as he took power, General Oligui set about uniting a country that had been deeply divided and traumatised by such a long time of calamitous management by the Bongo family and the mafia interests around them.

The attitude of the international community is unacceptable to civil society, human rights defenders and the people of Gabon, who have long paid a heavy price. In 2016, when Bongo planned and carried out an electoral coup followed by atrocities against civilians who opposed the electoral masquerade, the international community remained silent, leaving Gabon’s civilians to face their executioner. In view of this, we categorically reject the declarations of the international community, in particular the Economic Community of Central African States and the African Union, two institutions that have encouraged the manipulation of constitutions and presidencies for life in Central Africa.

What were conditions like for civil society under Bongo family rule? Do you think there is any chance that the situation will now improve?

Civic space and the conditions for exercising democratic freedoms and human rights were difficult under the former regime. The rights of association, peaceful assembly and expression were flouted. Many civil society activists and human rights defenders, including myself, spent time in prison or were deprived of their fundamental rights.

With the establishment of the transitional regime, we are now seeing fundamental change towards an approach that is generally favourable to civil society. The new authorities are working in concert with all the nation’s driving forces, including civil society, which was received on 1 September by General Oligui and his CTRI peers, and I was the facilitator of that meeting. The transitional president, who was sworn in on 4 September, took to work to restore state institutions, human rights and democratic freedoms, and to respect Gabon’s national and international commitments. A strong signal was given on 5 September, with the gradual release of prisoners of conscience, including the leader of Gabon’s largest civil service union confederation, Jean Remi Yama, after 18 months of arbitrary detention.

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

Get in touch with Georges through his Facebook page and follow @gmpaga on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in this interview are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIVICUS.

VENEZUELA: ‘The Darién Gap is claiming many lives that governments cannot even quantify’

AnaMariaDiezCIVICUS speaks with Ana María Diez, president of Coalition for Venezuela, about the humanitarian crisis of Venezuelan migrants trying to reach the USA by land.

Coalition for Venezuela is a network of Venezuelan civil society organisations that promote and defend human rights, freedoms and democratic values, provide humanitarian assistance inside and outside Venezuela and promote the development of host countries of Venezuelan citizens.

What effects have recent changes in US immigration policy had on Venezuelan migration?

Changes in US migration policy have not had substantial positive effects. People are still placing their bets on going north and coyotes continue to take advantage of the people they smuggle across borders.

The new US policy has not been very successful in terms of stemming the tide of migration. There has been no effective communication to explain to migrants how humanitarian parole works. This is a temporary stay permit provided to Cuban, Haitian, Nicaraguan and Venezuelan nationals for urgent humanitarian or public benefit reasons, and offers a legal way to stay in the USA for at least one year without a visa.

Humanitarian parole has a number of strict requirements: one must be outside the USA, have a sponsor and a valid and unexpired passport, pass a series of US security checks, present a series of certificates, such as proof of vaccination, and prove reasons of either humanitarian urgency or significant public benefit. Hence it cannot be considered an alternative measure for people who decide to cross the Darién Gap, the dense rainforest area on the border between Colombia and Panama.

What is it like to go through the Darién Gap?

The Darién connects South and Central America and is an obligatory passage on the way north for those making the journey by land. It is therefore the main route for the most vulnerable Venezuelan migrants. It is possible to leave Colombia at many points, but all routes converge on the Darién, which migrants call ‘the jungle from hell’. All those who have crossed it say they underestimated the difficulty of going through the jungle.

A little over a month ago, I was at the San Vicente migration station in the Panamanian province of Darién. This is the first place people arrive after crossing, where they receive medical attention. Sometimes, out of groups of 10 people our teams spoke to, all 10 – men, women, children and older people – had been raped or sexually abused.

The children would arrive in a state of psychological shock: they would immediately start talking in unison about the dead bodies they had seen on the road. This marks them deeply. These children have had their childhoods twice interrupted: first by migration, and second by the violence they have witnessed or experienced in the process.

It is impossible to talk about the Darién without talking about trafficking networks, human smuggling, sexual abuse and children crossing unaccompanied, sometimes even for the second time. In migratory processes such as these, we are dealing with children, older people, entire families who even travel with their pets. Their vulnerability exposes them to all kinds of abuse. The Darién is claiming many lives that neither the Colombian nor Panamanian governments can quantify. Many bodies are not claimed by anyone.

What would be the consequences of the closure of the Darién Gap that Panama claims to be considering?

When I hear that Panama is thinking of closing the Darién crossing, what I really hear is Panama asking for help. Panama needs regional support to share the responsibility of dealing with this issue. These are not their migrants, but that should not be an excuse for not integrating many of them into their country. Panama simply wants the migration flow to disappear, which is not going to happen.

The closure of the Darién as such is not possible because it is not a clearly defined road but rather a series of 20 or so passes through a very extensive jungle. There is no way to close a jungle. It remains to be seen what kind of forceful measures, as the government has called them, Panama takes. But I don’t think they will have much effect, as people will continue to look for other routes into the jungle, as well as sea routes to get to Panama and continue their way north.

How are Venezuelan migrants treated in the USA?

When a city, state or country receives large migratory flows in a very short time, there tend to be spikes in xenophobia. This is happening in many places that have received large flows of Venezuelans and other migrants.

However, there is a contrast between government policies and the often receptive and fraternal attitudes of the American people. These have contrasted sharply with the policies adopted, for example, in the state of Florida, which is a state historically built and inhabited by immigrants and the children of immigrants.

Generally speaking, the American people, who have historically received immigrants from all over the world, are open to receiving Venezuelans under appropriate conditions so they can integrate into their country. What’s needed is for US policy to move in that direction, starting with the right to seek refuge while in US territory, which is one of the things that humanitarian parole doesn’t allow.

What does Coalition for Venezuela do, and what support does it need to keep doing it?

Coalition for Venezuela began five years ago with 31 organisations, and today it includes 98 legally constituted and federated organisations, led by Venezuelan migrants and refugees, and has a presence in 23 countries. Our network facilitates the sharing of knowledge, good practices and successful forms of intervention, and allows us to cover issues ranging from humanitarian assistance to the defence of civil and political rights.

Despite all this work, it is only now in 2023 that we have received our first funding. We need all the help we can get, especially to work on strengthening the capacities of our organisations. We also need help to go directly to the organisations in our network, specifically in Central America. In the area of humanitarian action there are many intermediaries, and organisations on the ground are the last link. Impact would be multiplied many times over if aid and funding were directed directly to community-based organisations.

Coalition for Venezuela does not limit its work to Venezuelans. We see the needs of people of other nationalities and assist them. We also work with networks of migrants and refugees from other parts of the world because we want to learn from other, longer-standing processes. For us this is a relatively new crisis. We Venezuelans were used to receiving migrants and exiles, people fleeing dictatorships. And now it is our turn to migrate: about 20 per cent of our population has left our country. We are working with others and learning from them, which makes us proud.

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

Get in touch with Coalition for Venezuela through its website, YouTube channel or Facebook and Instagram profiles, and follow @coalicionve on Twitter.

BANGLADESH: ‘The legal vulnerability of LGBTQI+ people leads to harassment and discrimination’

ShahanurIslamCIVICUS speaks about the state of civic space and the rights of excluded groups in Bangladesh with Shahanur Islam, founder secretary general of JusticeMakers Bangladesh (JMBD) and founder president of JMBD in France.

JMBD is a human rights organisation working against all forms of discrimination and impunity for violence against ethnic, religious, social and sexual minorities and victims of torture, extrajudicial killings, forced disappearance and organised violence, including women and children. It provides legal support to victims and advocates for justice and human rights through research, awareness-raising campaigns and collaboration with various stakeholders, including other civil society groups, government agencies and international organisations.

PHILIPPINES: ‘The government is headed by a former dictator’s son who reached power in a suspicious manner’

NymiaPimentelCIVICUS speaks with Nymia Pimentel-Simbulan about the human rights situation in the Philippines since the start of Ferdinand Marcos Junior’s government. Nymia is chairperson of the Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates (PAHRA) and Executive Director of the Philippine Human Rights Information Center (PhilRights).

Established in 1991, PhilRights serves as PAHRA’s research and information centre. Its vision is that of a society where each person can fully realise their potential, participate effectively in economic, political and cultural life and benefit from economic progress.

Has the relationship between government and civil society changed under the new government?

The relationship between state and civil society hasn’t changed under the new government – it hasn’t worsened, but it hasn’t improved either. However, since the government is now headed by the son of a former dictator who came to power in a suspicious manner, civil society organisations (CSOs) approach it with caution, scepticism and a lukewarm attitude.

Overall, conditions for civil society work have not improved, as numerous policies and programmes that restrict the activities and functioning of CSOs, particularly human rights organisations, remain in effect. For instance, the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 (Republic Act 11,497), which has the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) as its primary implementing entity, persists in its campaign to discredit human rights advocates through red-tagging – labelling people and groups as associated with communism. Threats, harassment and killings of human rights defenders (HRDs) – including civil society activists, environmentalists, human rights lawyers, trade unionists and Indigenous leaders – have continued. Journalists such as 2021 Nobel Peace Prize winner Maria Ressa have not been exempt from attacks either. Multiple trumped-up charges have been filed against her as part of the government’s sustained efforts to stifle dissent.

Has the government shifted its focus from the ‘war on drugs’ to other policy issues?

We have not seen any significant differences in priorities or approaches to economic, foreign relations, environmental and human rights issues between current president Ferdinando Marcos Junior and former president Rodrigo Duterte.

However, while the focus on the drug problem remains, there has been a discursive shift from Duterte’s punitive and violent approach to an anti-drug campaign emphasising prevention and rehabilitation. But this hasn’t translated into an end to extrajudicial killings, which continue unabated in impoverished urban areas that are known to be havens for drug-related activities. Dahas, a research group from the University of the Philippines, reported 342 instances of drug-related killings carried out by state and non-state groups and people during the first year of the new government. The targets of the anti-drug campaign continue to be minor drug users and low-level peddlers. As happened under the previous administration, prominent drug lords remain untouched.

Meanwhile, people’s quality of life continues to decline and food insecurity has worsened due to the impact of continuous increases in oil and fuel prices, pushing up the cost of essential commodities and services. Staples such as rice, sugar, onions and flour have become scarce in many Filipino households. The president has failed to take decisive action on the pressing food problem, even though he also serves as Secretary of Agriculture.

What support does the president enjoy?

According to a recent survey, the president enjoys substantial approval and trust ratings, standing at around 80 per cent. These scores are consistent across regions and socioeconomic groups.

I believe this phenomenon reflects how the government’s information and communication machinery has effectively crafted, packaged and disseminated Marcos Junior’s and his administration’s endeavours, policies and priorities, primarily featuring messages of unity and concern for the poor. Social media platforms such as Facebook, TikTok and YouTube have served as the main channels for conveying these messages, enabling the government to reach out to the majority of the population, who predominantly rely on social media as news sources.

How is Filipino civil society working to protect and promote human rights?

Filipino CSOs, including PhilRights, are actively involved in human rights education, research, documentation of rights violations and community mobilisation through grassroots organisations, schools, universities, factories and churches.

Civil society pursues five primary goals. We advocate for the adoption of the Human Rights Defenders Protection Bill and combat the vilification campaign against HRDs, including the red-tagging of civil society activists. We seek justice for victims of extrajudicial killings in the context of the ‘war on drugs’ through lobbying at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and International Criminal Court. We work to address economic concerns, including food insecurity, by trying to achieve reductions in the costs of basic goods and services, promoting decent employment opportunities and fair wages and providing adequate housing for urban poor residents. We engage in environmental protection efforts, which involve advocating for an end to large-scale mining activities like open-pit mining, particularly in Indigenous peoples’ communities.

How is the international community supporting this work?

Filipino civil society benefits from international solidarity coming from various government missions, human rights organisations and religious groups that support our lobbying efforts at the UNHRC. They release press statements, position papers and reports addressing human rights issues and concerns in the Philippines. They provide essential funding and material assistance to Filipino CSOs for our diverse human rights and development initiatives. Moreover, as leaders of civil society and HRDs, we are frequently invited to speak about the human rights situation in the Philippines to organisations and groups abroad, keeping them informed and keeping solidarity alive.

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

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

CHAD: ‘The government, local groups and society at large have all joined efforts to help refugees’

MonimHaroonCIVICUS speaks with Monim Haroon, Emergency Communications Manager at the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), about the situation of Sudanese migrants in Chad’s refugee camps and civil society’s work to support them.

Formally established in 1902, HIAS is the world’s oldest refugee agency. Originally set up by Jewish people to assist fellow Jews, it has evolved into a global humanitarian and advocacy group that helps hundreds of thousands of forcibly displaced people in more than 20 countries around the world. Monim, himself a Darfur refugee, is currently deployed in Eastern Chad.

PALESTINE: ‘People have lost confidence in an international system that fails to protect the powerless against the powerful’

SusanPowerCIVICUS speaks about ongoing repression in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) and the international response to Israeli aggression with Susan Power, Head of Legal Research and Advocacy at Al-Haq.

Established in 1979, Al-Haq is a Palestinian human rights civil society organisation (CSO) that documents violations of the individual and collective rights of Palestinians in the OPT and seeks to end them through national and international advocacy and hold perpetrators accountable.

PHILIPPINES: ‘Historical memory of martial law under Marcos Senior gives us strength to persevere’

CrisitinaPalabayCIVICUS speaks with Cristina Palabay, Secretary General of Karapatan, about the human rights situation in the Philippines since the start of Ferdinand Marcos Junior’s government.

Founded in 1995, Karapatan is an alliance of civil society activists and organisations working for the promotion and protection of human rights in the Philippines. Its founders and members have been at the forefront of the human rights struggle in the Philippines since the time of Ferdinand Marcos Senior’s martial law regime.

What have the government’s policy priorities been in its first year?

Ferdinand Marcos Junior, known as Bongbong Marcos, the son of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, was inaugurated for a six-year presidential term on 30 June 2022, succeeding Rodrigo Duterte, whose rule was marked by closing civic space and attacks against civil society activists.

While the new government tries to make it look like its policy priorities are aimed at addressing the economic crisis and its impacts on the debt-ridden domestic economy, this is not the case. Inflation and unemployment rates continue to rise while disproportionate shares of the budget are allocated to militarist policies rather than social services. These are insufficient palliatives and the government continues to invoke the crisis situation to justify the continuing violations of economic, social and cultural rights.

No substantial efforts have been made to curb corruption. But one after another, graft allegations against members of the Marcos family are being dismissed by the courts, which enables them to keep the money siphoned from the nation’s coffers.

The new administration tries to present itself as more humane than its predecessor in relation to the so-called ‘war on drugs’, but reports from the ground prove that extrajudicial killings and abuses of power by the police are ongoing. Moreover, Marcos Junior stands firmly behind Duterte in rejecting the International Criminal Court’s independent investigations into the thousands of killings committed under Duterte’s watch.

While mainstream surveys say that Marcos Junior maintains the trust of the population, people on the ground are increasingly questioning his rule because they see that his campaign promises to lower the prices of basic commodities and costs of services aren’t being fulfilled.

Have conditions for civil society worsened under Marcos Junior’s rule?

There seems to be no essential or substantial change in the relationship between the government and Filipino civil society, which continues to be hostile. If there is any change at all, it seems to be rather negative, considering the cumulative effect of the continuing human rights violations, attacks on civic and democratic space, dire lack of justice and accountability, and the prevalent culture of impunity.

The conditions for civil society have worsened due to the accumulation of restrictions that the state has continued to impose on civic space. These include red-tagging – the practice of labelling people and groups as associated with or sympathetic to the communist movement or progressive movements, judicial harassment and illegal or arbitrary arrests and detention of human rights defenders (HRDs). We have witnessed an increased use of counter-terrorism laws against HRDs, political dissenters, journalists and workers in churches and faith-based institutions. Violations of freedoms of association, expression and peaceful assembly have clearly continued.

The recently adopted National Security Policy bodes ill for those working towards the achievement of just and lasting peace and upholding and defending human rights, because it affirms all the policies of the Duterte administration, including the institutionalisation of a government task force that has been notorious for committing red-tagging and other forms of human rights violations. Additionally, Marcos Junior hasn’t issued a clear policy statement concerning human rights.

What challenges does Karapatan face as a human rights organisation?

Filipino civil society organisations remain steadfast in our collective work to uphold and defend human rights in the Philippines. Our historical memory of martial law under Marcos Senior gives us the strength to persevere in our human rights advocacy despite all the restrictions and challenges.

Karapatan specifically continues to face numerous challenges. One of our staff members, Alexander Philip Abinguna, remains in jail on trumped-up charges. Our national officers continue to face judicial harassment, threats and red-tagging. We are in constant fear of physical attacks and the use of draconian laws against us. However, at our recent National Council meeting, we expressed an even stronger determination to continue doing our human rights work, demanding justice for all victims of violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, resisting all forms of authoritarianism, fighting for a truly democratic country and building a human rights culture.

What international support does Filipino civil society receive, and what further support do you need?

We appreciate the tenacious political, moral and material support that the international community provides to Filipino civil society to defend and uphold human rights. Karapatan calls on its international friends and allies to further strengthen this spirit of international solidarity by amplifying our calls to your communities and peoples, to your parliaments and governments and to international mechanisms such as the United Nations Human Rights Council. We likewise appreciate any political and material support for victims of human rights violations, including HRDs at risk and their families and communities.

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

Get in touch with Karapatan through its website or its Facebook page, and follow @karapatan and @TinayPalabay on Twitter.

MALDIVES: ‘Calling this a free and fair election would be a betrayal to the people of Maldives’

ShahindhaIsmailCIVICUS speaks about the upcoming presidential election in Maldives with Shahindha Ismail, founder of the Maldivian Democracy Network (MDN).

The MDN, an independent civil society organisation (CSO) that since 2004 has worked to protect and promote human rights and the values and principles of democracy in Maldives, was arbitrarily deregistered by the government in 2019. Shahindha continues leading the organisation from exile in Germany and is currently completing a research project on violent extremism in Maldives, which she started as a Reagan-Fascell fellow at the USA’s National Endowment for Democracy.

How does the Maldives government relate with civil society?

The government is selective about the CSOs it engages with. More critical and vocal organisations receive no cooperation from the government. It has become commonplace over the past four-plus years to brush CSOs off and exclude us from government consultations as ‘unruly troublemakers’. The most worrying trend in this regard is the labelling, smearing and targeting of CSOs and individuals who criticise the government.

Additionally, one of the biggest obstacles the government has placed on civil society work is its systematic refusal to release public information, which violates the Right to Information (RTI) Law. The government ignores invitations from CSOs that conduct assessments of governance quality, depriving them of the opportunity to discuss their findings and recommendations with government officials. Public expressions of concern and requests regarding the malfunction of government systems generally go unheard and ignored.

Do you think the upcoming presidential election will be free and fair?

No, I think the election that will take place on 9 September has already lost any semblance of freedom or fairness. The government has unfairly, even unlawfully, monopolised all political spaces months ahead of the election. The government has sought to eliminate all viable opposition and has used judicial institutions to place one obstacle after another in the way of opposition parties, depriving them of precious time for campaigning. The Elections Commission (EC) in particular is seriously compromised, which affects the very principle of election freedom and fairness.

The latest news reports state that the incumbent, President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, has declared at a campaign rally in Thaa Atoll that tensions will arise if Maldives has to go to a second round of voting during the presidential election. It is a direct threat to voters, even an incitement to violence. Every election Maldives has had since the 2008 Constitution introduced multi-party elections has had two rounds and we have never had a violent election.

In early August, the Supreme Court ruled that former president Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayyoom, the presidential candidate of the Progressive Party of Maldives, was ineligible to run. His conviction for corruption and money laundering is still under appeal.

A few months ago, the EC delayed the registration of The Democrats, a new party formed by a splinter faction of the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP). This party had formed following allegations of election rigging during the party primaries, in which President Solih competed against former president and Parliamentary Speaker Mohamed Nasheed. Over 39,000 MDP members were then removed from the voter roll and did not get to participate in the primaries. The EC said it had checked The Democrats’ membership and application forms and found them to be in order but needed a further three to four months to verify them a second time. Only much later was the party officially registered.

Weeks after this manoeuvre, the EC suddenly cancelled the registration of the Maldives Reform Movement, the party led by former president Maumoon Abdul Gayyoom, claiming it was short of around nine members to be eligible to remain registered, which the party denies.

Additionally, the media is coopted by the government, so you rarely see objective or critical coverage of government actions. Media coverage often looks like government PR rather than news. Unsurprisingly, the disinformation that has plagued the campaign, often coming from the government, has only been legitimised and amplified by mainstream media. Civil society has had a very challenging time getting their voices heard.

And the Solih campaign is using blatant tactics to influence voters that involve consistently abusing state resources, as civil society has repeatedly denounced.

For instance, on 22 August, two weeks ahead of the vote, President Solih announced a 40 per cent pay rise for all government employees, even though the previous day the value of the Maldivian Rufiyaa had dropped again and the national external debt exceeds US$3.8 billion. Additionally, hundreds of government jobs and promotions were handed out at state-owned enterprises right before the MDP presidential primaries, and increases in financial benefits for health workers, teachers and retired people were announced just months ahead of the election.

Another example of an attempt to buy off voters was the announcement of land distribution to the residents of Greater Malé, the capital city’s metro area. A list of over 19,000 eligible applicants was published in June 2023 and a confirmation list has just been published in August. However, while the government has announced that dredging will begin soon, it is not at all clear how much of the promised land is in reality above water. Large-scale infrastructure development projects such as airports, housing programmes and bridges have also been irresponsibly announced or contracted out with no information about when they will be completed.

What’s at stake in the election?

Concerningly, this election may result in a turn towards religious fundamentalism and deepened authoritarianism. Right now, President Solih’s only coalition partners are the Adhaalath Party and the Maldives Development Alliance, both notorious for their support of religious extremists. Solih’s alliance with the religious conservative Adhaalath Party in the upcoming election is particularly concerning, because over the past couple of years Adhaalath has taken extreme stands on various issues, such as condemning yoga as ‘prohibited in Islam’ and calling on the government to arrest anyone who practises yoga, and making public calls on the government to hunt down and punish gay men.

At a recent rally, Adhaalath’s leader and current Home Minister, Imran Abdullah, announced that the party was ending its reformist stance and embracing the goal of establishing Islamic rule in Maldives. While Maldives has had a constitution based on the tenets of Islam and principles of Islamic Shariah for centuries, they are now going to try to enforce a Taliban-style rule veiled as Islamic Shariah. This is all the more worrying due to the fact that under Solih, the government has increasingly fallen under pressure from religious extremists, taking extremely undemocratic actions every time.

What should the international community do to support a free and fair election?

I think the international community needs to take civil society concerns seriously. As in previous years, election monitoring by civil society is underway. In addition to planned observation of the poll, CSOs have been monitoring the campaign by collecting information through RTI requests, mainly related to the ways abusive government spending is being used to influence the vote. Information is shared regularly, domestically as well as with the international community. The main local observer, Transparency Maldives, has repeatedly made statements regarding the government’s behaviour in relation to the election. These concerns are based on evidence; they are not hearsay or opinion.

I hope that election monitors and the international community listen to Maldivian civil society’s repeated warnings. Repeated corrupt behaviour and abuse of state resources to deliberately influence the election should not be ignored by international election monitors, especially when the highest measure of a democracy is the existence on free and fair elections.

Calling this a free and fair election will only legitimise the undue influence of the government on election processes and results. It would be a betrayal to the people of Maldives in every sense of the word. Maldives will not progress if its non-democracy is constantly labelled as a democracy.

What’s your hope for the future of Maldives?

My hope is to have a government that genuinely and actively promotes the fundamental values of democracy. One that will educate its people to respect human dignity and teach them to coexist peacefully. This, I believe, can only be done by including a rigorous national curriculum of civic education and providing avenues to learn, such as access to free libraries, educational centres and affordable higher education. Only then will our people be protected against the appeal of corrupt politicians.

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

Get in touch with the Maldivian Democracy Network through its website and follow @MDN_mv on Twitter.

UGANDA: ‘We’ll participate in COP28 to pressure world leaders to divert funding away from oil and gas’

ZakiMamdooCIVICUS speaks about recent developments involving the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) project and civil society’s efforts to stop it with Zaki Mamdoo, Campaign Coordinator of Stop EACOP.

Established in 2020, Stop EACOP is a coalition of Ugandan environmental and climate justice organisations that oppose the pipeline project due to the significant threats it poses to protected ecosystems, water resources and community lands across Tanzania and Uganda.

What are your coalition’s aims?

Our aim is to halt the construction of EACOP to avert the catastrophic environmental and climate consequences associated with the pipeline and safeguard human rights and communal territories.

To achieve this, we employ a multifaceted strategy: heightening public awareness, exerting pressure on financial institutions and raising their reputational costs so they distance themselves from the project, mobilising impacted communities and rallying to force governments and oil corporations to suspend the project.

A cornerstone of our approach is engaging with young people. Our partner programmes in both Tanzania and Uganda are focused on youth. We proactively seek out young people in various initiatives, including security training sessions. Recently, we’ve identified student leaders from various universities who had organised to spread awareness about the project’s impacts among their peers. We are actively pursuing funding and other opportunities to bolster their efforts.

Internally, we give space to youth representatives to contribute their perspectives. We’re committed to amplifying young voices and offering avenues for their growth and development as activists. A reflection of this is that I am 26 years old and trusted with the leadership as campaign coordinator.

How has the situation evolved since we last spoke over a year ago?

There have been significant changes over the past year. Drilling has started in one of the most important biodiversity hotspots. One of the companies leading the project, French energy conglomerate Total Energies, has launched oil drilling in Uganda’s Murchison Falls National Park, home to diverse animal and bird species, including elephants, giraffes and lions. Its ecological significance is heightened by the presence of the Murchison Falls-Albert Delta Wetland System, essential for Lake Albert fisheries.

The pipeline threatens the park’s biodiversity and tourism appeal. It will also have economic impacts, as the park is a major contributor to Uganda’s economy, accounting for 59 per cent of exports and having generated over US$1 billion in revenue in 2022.

Negative consequences are already evident, with displaced elephants damaging crops and posing threats to human lives in nearby communities. Tragic incidents involving elephants have already occurred in Buliisa district, where the park is located.

This is clearly just another a case in which profit is prioritised over environmental and socioeconomic considerations.

Our demands, however, remain unaltered: we adamantly call for the project’s complete cancellation due to its intolerable environmental and human risks. And while governmental authorities have largely remained unresponsive, we’ve achieved progress with financial institutions. Remarkably, 27 banks have already denied funding for EACOP, and an additional 23 major insurers and reinsurers have declined to support the pipeline.

What restrictions do Stop EACOP activists face?

We operate in fairly restrictive environments in which the freedom to protest is often violated. Recently, for instance, four of our activists were forcibly arrested on charges of ‘inciting violence’, transported in police vehicles and kept in jail overnight for protesting against the pipeline in Kampala, Uganda’s capital.

The activists, three women and one man, were protesting peacefully, but their arrests were unnecessarily violent. It must be emphasised that only four protesters were involved, so the degree of force applied was clearly excessive, yet not entirely unexpected. Historically, Ugandan authorities have responded aggressively to any demonstrations perceived as anti-government, in line with a dictatorial regime indifferent to public sentiments or alternate viewpoints. This reaction is not unprecedented, although it’s intriguing that the government seems threatened by even small-scale protests like this four-person event.

But this won’t stop us: we will continue to demonstrate peacefully. Several of our members maintain a fund to secure bail or engage lawyers whenever activists are arrested. We arrange legal representation and explore the possibility of anticipatory bail when possible. However, given the sporadic nature of these protests, support is often provided post-arrest. We’ve also partnered with organisations that specialise in security training so that we can provide tools for advocates to voice their concerns without jeopardising their personal safety.

How do you connect with the global climate movement?

We connect with climate activists worldwide by sharing experiences and strategies and providing each other with support across borders. Global solidarity strengthens our efforts, so we appreciate any form of international backing for our cause.

What lies ahead remains uncertain, but as demonstrated in numerous instances globally, when we come together to back local communities as they advocate for their rights and a more promising tomorrow, there is a potential to counter even the largest of corporate giants effectively.

More than a million people have already raised their voices against EACOP. We believe that together we can stop it.

Are you planning to engage with the upcoming COP28 climate summit?

We’re deliberating on the optimal way to participate in COP28 to pressure world leaders to address the pipeline project directly and divert funding away from new oil and gas developments. I will be there to represent the campaign.

Despite controversies surrounding the summit’s leadership and lack of an enabling civic space in the host country, the United Arab Emirates, we are hopeful that substantive progress will be made. But we recognise that lasting change will require continued people-powered mobilisation. We’re committed to sustaining our fight for climate justice and environmental preservation in East Africa.

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

Get in touch with Stop EACOP through its website and follow @stopEACOP on Twitter.

ZIMBABWE: ‘Election violence is a cover for ideological ambivalence and lack of substantive programmes’

WellingtonMbofanaCIVICUS speaks about the general election in Zimbabwe and the role of civil society with Wellington Mbofana, former director of the Civic Education Network Trust (CIVNET), a civil society organisation (CSO) that recently shut down due to lack of funding, and a former board member of several Zimbabwean CSOs.

What was at stake in this election?

It’s difficult to pinpoint a single crucial issue that was at stake. Over a considerable period, Zimbabwean elections, much like those in other parts of Africa, have ceased to revolve around substantive issues and have instead become centred on political parties and personalities. This trend is evident in this election, in which major political parties failed to present their manifestos in a timely manner. The main opposition party, Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC), unveiled its programme merely two weeks prior to voting, while the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU PF) didn’t even bother.

Given the crumbling state of the economy, reflected in record-breaking unemployment, pervasive economic informality, escalating poverty, the world’s second-highest inflation rate and a sense of hopelessness, economic strife remained the most prominent concern for voters. Ideally, the competition should have revolved around two or three contrasting strategies for addressing these economic woes. However, what we observed was a cloud of obfuscation. The ruling party advanced a narrative that conditions are improving and investors are flocking to the country, but progress would be even greater if it weren’t for sanctions imposed by Western states. The opposition pledged to outperform ZANU-PF across all fronts. But neither specified how they would fund their proposed initiatives.

To deal with Zimbabwe’s predicament effectively the government would need to confront a range of issues, including land reform and productivity, water shortages, electricity generation, infrastructure development and urbanisation and, most importantly, guarantee the required funding.

It should have been important to ensure the meaningfulness of this election because when elections fail, civil unrest and coups ensue, a truth that Africa has repeatedly witnessed.

Was there any election-related violence?

The prevalence of violence in all its manifestations – physical, structural and cultural – remains an unfortunate hallmark of Zimbabwean elections. Lives have been lost, injuries endured and property destroyed as a result.

It is also important to note that because of its fractured politics, the country is in a perpetual election mode. Over the past five years, we have had multiple recalls from parliament and local authorities, leading to by-elections. Instances of intra-party violence have also occurred during parliamentary and primary elections. The culture upholding the idea that wielding the strongest fist is the key to ascending to power must change. Violence is a cover for ideological ambivalence and lack of substantive programmes. Who needs a manifesto when you can use force?

What tactics did the government use to stifle dissent in the run-up to the election?

The ruling party stands accused of engaging in lawfare, a tactic that uses laws to constrain the opposition and human rights defenders. These efforts are facilitated by an allegedly captured judiciary. A prominent CCC legislator, Job Sikhala, along with other political activists and human rights defenders, languish in remand prisons on spurious allegations after being denied bail.

The government introduced controversial laws aimed at silencing dissent. The Private Voluntary Organisations Amendment Bill and the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Amendment Act, commonly called the Patriotic Bill, are clearly designed to deal with critics of the government.

The Patriotic Bill came into force on 14 July 2023. With this bill, the government created a new crime of ‘wilfully injuring the sovereignty and national interest of Zimbabwe’.  The scope and definition of this offence is vague. There are valid concerns that law enforcement agencies will interpret the law broadly and use it to stifle and penalise the work of independent civil society.

Citizens and permanent residents of Zimbabwe will be found guilty if they participate in meetings aimed at discussing or plotting armed intervention in Zimbabwe, subverting or overthrowing its government and implementing or extending sanctions or trade boycotts against Zimbabwe. A meeting encompasses any form of communication involving two or more people, regardless of whether it takes place offline or online.

Participating in discussions about armed intervention can result in life imprisonment or the death penalty if the meeting involves planning such an intervention. Discussing subversion or overthrow of the government is punishable by up to 20 years in prison. Taking part in meetings discussing sanctions or trade boycotts can lead to a fine of up to US$12,000 or up to 10 years in prison, or both. Aggravated offences may lead to consequences such as the termination of citizenship for those who are not citizens by birth or descent, cancellation of residence permits for non-citizens and disqualification from voting or holding public office for five to 15 years.

In the hands of overzealous and partisan law enforcement agents, this punitive law is very dangerous. It seems to target not only the opposition and civil society but also factions within the fractured ruling party and the military. It likely seeks to prevent a recurrence of a military-assisted transition, which brought the current government to power in 2017. That coup was willingly accepted by powerful global players, including the African Union and the Southern African Development Community (SADC), which inadvertently endorsed the idea of military change of power.

How did Zimbabwean civil society engage with the electoral process?

Civil society was actively involved in electoral activities throughout the electoral cycle. CSOs play a pivotal role in providing voter education, observing elections, advocating for electoral reforms, safeguarding human rights and offering legal, medical and psycho-social assistance to victims of human rights violations.

Both local and international observers were generally allowed and accredited. However, there were isolated cases, such as the denial of accreditation to Musa Kika, allegedly due to security risks, while some local citizens encountered intimidation, harassment and threats from unidentified people after engaging with international observers.

But unfortunately, the last couple of years have been very difficult for Zimbabwean. Several CSOs have shut down. CIVNET, a major organisation providing civic education, closed its doors this year due to lack of funding.

The Zimbabwean economy is too fragile to support a strong civil society, which heavily relies on international donors and solidarity. Further international support should be rendered to all groups promoting development, good governance, human rights, justice and the rule of law. The international community should also amplify local voices and exert pressure on the Zimbabwean government to act in accordance with international human rights and democratic standards.

What did CIVNET work on?

CIVNET operated through three main programmes: the Citizen Participation Programme, including two projects on constitutionalism and voter education, the Leadership Development Programme and the Peace Building Programme.

The Citizen Participation Programme encouraged citizen engagement in governance and development, fostering collaboration between communities and local authorities through participatory workshops and development projects. The Constitution and Constitutionalism Project aimed to raise awareness about the significance of the new constitution and share information on how to use it to exercise human rights and honour obligations as citizens.

The Leadership Development Programme enhanced leadership skills of people engaged in community projects. Our graduates now lead various Zimbabwean CSOs and work in local authorities and parliament. CIVNET contributed to the formation and development of CSOs such as the Zimbabwe Election Support Network, the Zimbabwe Peace Project and the Media Monitoring Project of Zimbabwe. It was also a key member of the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGOs Forum.

The Peace Building Programme helped people and communities divided by conflict to reach out to each other and mend broken relations. This was done through creatively designed workshops that provided security and safety to both victims and perpetrators of violent conflicts. Mediators were also trained to address local disputes, resulting in transformed relationships and improved dialogue within previously divided communities.

To what extent could the election be called free and fair?

The concept of free and fair elections involves political freedoms and fair processes prior to elections, culminating in the casting of votes by well-informed eligible voters able to vote freely for candidates and parties of their choice. A transparent tally of all valid votes, accurate result announcements and universal acceptance of the election outcomes by all parties are integral components of this concept.

Past elections in Zimbabwe have been contested at courts and other institutions. For Zimbabwe to uphold its position within the international community, this election would have to gain universal recognition as credible, legitimate and conducted in a free and fair manner. It would be key to ensure the acceptance of its outcome and secure peace and stability to attract investors.

The 2023 election was disputed in the legal arena even before a single ballot was cast. This may be a harbinger of future developments. On 12 July, the Electoral Court disqualified a presidential candidate, Savior Kasukuwere, whose participation had been previously permitted by the Nomination Court. Then the High Court disqualified 12 CCC parliamentary candidates, ostensibly for late filings, although the Nomination Court had accepted their submissions. Both decisions favoured the ruling party. However, following an appeal, the Supreme Court overturned the High Court’s verdict on the 12 CCC candidates, leading to their reinstatement on the ballot. On 19 July the electoral court ruled in favour of a leader of the opposition United Zimbabwe Alliance party, Elizabeth Valerio, whose candidacy had been initially rejected by the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC), also for alleged untimely filing.

Declaring the election to be free and fair would be unreasonable given the political environment characterised by violence, intimidation and voter suppression, non-transparent processes with the electoral roll and ballot paper printing, pre-voting by security personnel, biased media coverage, opposition rallies barred by the police, vote buying through handouts, influence from traditional and religious leaders on voters, misuse of government resources for party campaigns and indications that some parties will reject any outcome other than their own victory, implying that the ruling party wouldn’t have handed over power if it had lost. Indeed, SADC decided to abandon the term ‘free and fair’ regarding Zimbabwean elections, instead referring to them as ‘legitimate’.

What electoral reforms are needed?

Adherence to rule of law and impartial management of elections is essential. The ZEC should enforce the Electoral Code of Conduct, safeguarding the right for all to express their political views and campaign freely. It must also ensure fairness by curbing the misuse of state resources, preventing intimidation, harassment and destruction of campaign materials and improving voter education.

The police should fulfil their constitutional duties impartially, without bias, fear, or favour. Political parties should adhere to the Code of Conduct for Political Parties and Candidates. This entails refraining from violence, misuse of public resources for partisan ends, coercion and intimidation of the electorate and inciting violence through hate speech and derogatory language.

Were there any issues with people being prevented from voting, and what do you expect to happen next?

A high turnout was to be expected given the high stakes. The economy has done its own campaign, motivating people to participate. The ruling party also mobilised people, especially in rural areas, by any means necessary.

However, many voters might not have been able to locate their names on the register. The polling station-based system is such that people living in a specific neighbourhood can only vote at a certain polling station. In the 2018 election, a lot of people found their names had been removed from their usual stations without a change having been requested, while others who requested changes after moving to other districts saw those changes unimplemented. Following the election, many constituencies and councils had elected representatives recalled by political parties in power. Since there are no guarantees that this won’t happen again, some people may have been discouraged from voting.

Based on experience, disputes around results and their resolution by the courts are to be expected. Given that the judiciary is perceived to be captured and judges were given significant ‘housing loans’ before the election, judgements against the opposition are also rightly likely to be perceived as unfair.

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

AI: ‘The biggest challenges are the biases and lack of transparency of algorithms’

AI LensInterview

CIVICUS speaks about the potential of artificial intelligence (AI) for civil society’s work with Omran Najjar, Kshitij Sharma, Leen D’hondt, Nasilele Amatende and Petya Kangalova of Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT).

HOT is an international civil society group dedicated to humanitarian action and community development through open mapping. It supports communities to undertake their own mapping and provides map data that is applied to disaster management, risk reduction and development work.

What does HOT do?

HOT is an international team dedicated to humanitarian action and community development through open mapping. We develop open-source apps and tools for collaborative mapping and geospatial data collection. We enable communities, civil society organisations (CSOs), international organisations and government partners to use and contribute to OpenStreetMap for locally relevant challenges by providing training, equipment, knowledge exchange and field projects. Our tools are free for all to use and employed by partners such as Red Cross societies, Médecins Sans Frontières, United Nations agencies and programmes, government agencies and local CSOs and communities.

Each year, disasters around the world affect, displace or kill millions of people. Missing maps can result in aid not reaching communities affected by disasters. Humanitarian mapping ensures that decision-makers are able to rely on maps and geodata to better allocate resources to respond to disasters and to better reach target communities. When major disaster strikes, thousands of HOT volunteers come together online and on the ground to create open map data that enables disaster responders to reach those in need. Through the Missing Maps project, the HOT global community creates maps of high vulnerability areas where data is scarce, putting an area home to millions of people onto the world map in OpenStreetMap (OSM), a community-driven free and editable map of the world.

How do you use AI in your work?

AI systems are computer software capable of behaving in ways that mimic and even surpass human capabilities. AI therefore refers to the ability of computers to emulate human thought and perform tasks that are usually performed by humans. Some people call it machine learning, but strictly speaking machine learning is a pathway to AI: it refers to the technologies and algorithms that enable systems to identify patterns, make decisions and improve through repetition and the accumulation of data.

AI systems are created with a variety of tools including machine learning, natural language processing – the ability to use human language, computer vision – the ability to interpret images – and neural networks, which function like a human brain to analyse data logically, learn complex patterns and make predictions.

AI-enabled programmes can analyse and contextualise data, accelerate decision-making and automate tasks, triggering actions without human intervention. However, we are looking into keeping the human in the loop in the humanitarian mapping movement in all HOT programmes. This aligns with the HOT core value of putting people first.

AI is not in the future – it is embedded in many technologies we use on a daily basis, such as ‘smart’ devices, and is used in the production of goods and the delivery of services, from customer service to healthcare. And it is used in volunteer mapping.

Map With AI uses a subfield of AI called computer vision, in which machines learn to spot complex patterns in images so they can analyse the same type of satellite and drone imagery that OSM volunteers have used for years. For instance, an AI system is trained to process images to identify possible roads, or buildings such as hospitals or schools, and highlight them on a map. Humans then review and confirm or modify the AI system’s suggestions. There is still a lot of human work involved, but it is believed that AI-assisted mapping makes mapping much more efficient.

Many people fear that AI will replace humans, but rather than replacing humans, what we try to do is facilitate and amplify human actions using AI assistance. That’s why we always include humans in the loop and gather feedback. This feedback is essential to assess the performance of an AI and increase the intelligence of an algorithm. AI models will always be learning as we use them. The more data we feed into an algorithm, the more intelligent it becomes.

AI does imply threats, but also opportunities that we can take advantage of for human rights and humanitarian work to support humanitarian and emergency responders on the ground as map users.

What threats does AI pose, and how do you tackle them?

The biggest challenges are the biases and the lack of transparency of the algorithms embedded in existing AI solutions.

Most current AI models are closed. It’s not clear how they were trained. They are like a black box in which you provide input, then magic happens and you obtain a certain output. The more you train it, the better it becomes, but the output will always depend on your input. And those bringing in the input are often biased.

The problem with existing models is you cannot even know if they are biased, or how they are biased because they are black boxes. You cannot know what’s inside and training data and processes are not traceable.

We seek to tackle biases by localising models, meaning we are not looking at the general model that works everywhere. And we counter the lack of transparency by using fully open-source AI models. In our case, it’s clear how our AI systems are trained and who is training them. The training data is available, so anyone could check how we get a certain output. And those bringing in the input are local people doing the mapping of their own space for their own purposes. The input is relevant in their context.

In our work, map data features like buildings or roads are extracted automatically from satellite or drone imagery and validated by humans – local humans who train the AI models by applying them in their own regions. HOT adds this local knowledge to the extracted data. For instance, if I am working in the health sector in Zimbabwe and the imagery shows a building that appears to be a hospital, locals will not only confirm whether this is the case but will also note whether this is a facility where pregnant women can get certain services – the kind of data that is not easily extractable from imagery with current technologies.

It is the local community who defines what they want to map and why. We don’t give directions. We have regional hubs that provide support, but the actual ask comes from communities. This could be mapping fishponds in India, water points in Niger, or buildings in Brazil. It’s very often about mapping certain buildings so that people know where to go in an emergency, but it very much depends on whether the maps are going to be used for development work or in the event of a disaster.

HOT grew and became known as a result of its mapping of buildings and roads, which was very useful in responding to earthquakes such as those in Haiti and Nepal. But we then expanded our focus to enable not only post-disaster action but also anticipatory action, which is increasingly related to climate change-related challenges such as flooding or drought. At the end of the day, it’s about what each community wants to take action on – we basically enable them to do it. We’re more of a catalyser; we don’t want to do everything ourselves, and that’s why all our software is free and open source.

How do you support communities so they can do their mapping?

We make sure that the software is in place and we provide training. We try to partner local organisations with our partners to get them funding, and we sometimes deliver grants to communities so they can do their mapping.

There is a technology aspect to it, but it is a lot more than that. A community, for instance in Brazil, may approach us because they face the challenge that the government doesn’t recognise them as living where they live and want our support to map their area. We enable them to use the software, help them visualise things on maps, train them to fly drones and help them do peer-to-peer training.

We are really an enablement organisation – our mission is to enable others so ideally the movement would start moving on its own and we wouldn’t need to exist anymore.

There seems to be a lot of human work involved, so what’s the part that’s done by AI?

AI assists mappers so that they can create the map data faster, more accurately and more efficiently. A person cannot map an area that is a hundred square kilometres, and here is where AI comes in. AI extracts features from available satellite imagery, identifies them as, say, a building, and then mappers validate this with local knowledge. For road mapping, there is also the option of going on a drive with a software that uses a GPS tracker to collect data with coordinates, which is then uploaded to the map.

The data mappers feed in to train the AI so it gets better and better at making predictions when used to map other parts of the same city or region. We work with local models that get to know a specific area and can perform very well in that area.

Now the volunteers who will be mapping, they don’t need to be in the same location, although we would love to have people from the same community doing it. There are always some, because the person leading the project is from the area, and they work with what we call civic volunteers. They will be doing the first mapping – what we call the base map – with roads, rivers and major buildings, without going into further details. Then it’s the turn of locals, who will know if a building is a hospital, a school or something else, because they live there.

We have a new product coming soon, the field mapping task manager, which helps complete the mapping of a certain area by adding more local knowledge.

Do you think AI should be regulated?

This probably depends on the kind of AI and the risk it poses. The European Union has recently started developing a regulatory framework, the EU Artificial Intelligence Act, to regulate AI systems on a sliding scale of risk. For instance, AI systems that carry unacceptable risk – such as social scoring systems and AI applications that remotely monitor people in real time in public spaces – would be prohibited. High-risk AI systems – such as AI deployed in medical devices, the management of critical infrastructure, employment recruitment tools, credit scoring applications and so on – would have to comply with very strict requirements to ensure transparency, data governance and record-keeping, and human oversight, among other things.

Get in touch with HOT through its website or its Facebook or Instagram accounts, and follow @hotosm on Twitter.

BULGARIA: ‘Our society has finally become sensitised to domestic and gender-based violence’

VictoriaPetrovaCIVICUS speaks with Victoria Petrova, Communications and Development Director at the Bulgarian Fund for Women (BFW), about civil society’s struggles to end domestic and gender-based violence in Bulgaria.

Established in 2004, the BFW is the only Bulgarian feminist civil society organisation (CSO) supporting organisations, collectives and activists that challenge the status quo and work towards systemic change for women, girls and all marginalised communities.

What does BFW do?

The BFW has played a pivotal role in advancing women’s rights across Bulgaria for two decades. Our focus has recently extended. As well as funding projects, in 2020 we started providing core funding to help organisations meet essential needs such as administrative costs, office space, equipment and staff salaries, which often remain uncovered by project funding.

Core funding is of paramount importance to ensure the sustainability of CSOs. Financial stability empowers organisations to be strategic, proactive and resilient in the face of challenges. As of today, providing core funding objective has become our biggest focus.

We also have other funding mechanisms such as project funding and the Open Opportunity programme, which provides rapid funding of up to 10,000 BGN (approx. US$5,500). This has proven invaluable in times of crisis or in the face of unforeseen challenges, such as last year’s attack on the Rainbow Hub, an LGBTQI+ space in the capital, Sofia. A far-right former presidential candidate attacked the hub during an event and injured a participant, an activist and Rainbow Hub team member. The premises were destroyed. Through the Open Opportunity programme BFW gave them a grant so they could get it fixed.

Overall, BFW distributed a total of over US$700,000 in direct grants to CSOs in 2022 alone.

We’ve also taken proactive steps to contribute to building capacity in the organisations we support, recognising the significance of robust women’s rights organisations in a context where great gender inequalities persist.

It is estimated that one in three women, or approximately one million, suffer from domestic and gender-based violence in Bulgaria and at least 15 women have been killed by former or current intimate partners, husbands or other relatives since the beginning of 2023. Women do a disproportionate share of household chores and care work. There aren’t enough support services, such as public kindergartens. There is a significant pay gap and women are grossly underrepresented in politics – only about 25 per cent of members of parliament are women. Life is even harder in small towns, where gender stereotypes are much more deeply rooted.

Have you faced backlash for the work you do?

Women’s rights organisations as well as the entire civil society sector in Bulgaria have encountered significant challenges since 2018. These started alongside attacks on the Istanbul Convention – the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence.

Attacks were sparked by a far-right party, VMRO, and also by the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) after it shifted its stance in relation to the Convention. The party with the biggest parliamentary representation, GERB (Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria), sort of washed its hands at the time and left the matter with the Constitutional Court. And the Court ruled that ratifying the Istanbul Convention would be unconstitutional. This made Bulgaria one of the few European states that haven’t ratified the Convention.

These days, attacks focus on the changes recently made to the Protection Against Domestic Violence Act. Regressive and pro-Russian groups such as Revival (Vazrazhdane) and BSP claim that this law seeks to impose the Istanbul Convention and implement what they call ‘gender ideology’. A few months ago, the BSP even started collecting signatures to enable a referendum against ‘gender ideology’. The party has recently announced it has collected the required number of signatures.

What recent changes were made to the Protection Against Domestic Violence Act, and why?

Changes to this law had been pursued for years but faced rejection by some political parties, including Revival, the BSP and some GERB members. They were finally introduced in July and they represented progress, even though they did not include the definition of ‘intimate relationship’ proposed by women’s advocates, as a result of which they did not extend protection to people who are in relationships but are unmarried and not in a domestic partnership.

Regrettably, this omission meant that the shocking Stara Zagora case, in which an 18-year-old woman was beaten and disfigured by her boyfriend, did not fall within the law’s purview. This attack happened in late June but only became public in late July, as a result of the victim’s family’s engagement with the media out of frustration with the slow pace of the investigation.

In response, around 10,000 people protested in Sofia and tens of thousands demonstrated in other regions, demanding justice for victims and action against domestic and gender-based violence. This groundswell of public engagement was unprecedented, shaking the normalised apathy or victim-blaming that had often been the response to similar cases in the past.

This forced parliament to reconsider the bill, and on 7 August it reconvened to widen its scope to cover ‘intimate relationships’. This was a step in the right direction, although some concerning elements remain.

First, criteria for people to be considered as intimate partners include having been in a relationship for at least 60 days, without any clarity as to what counts as the start of those 60 days and, more concerningly, what happens if violence occurs within the first 60 days. Second, at the last minute, members of parliament inserted the words ‘man’ and ‘woman’ in the definition, therefore limiting its scope to heterosexual couples. Same-sex couples were completely excluded from seeking protection under this law.

Bulgarian politicians should do much better. During that same debate a GERB member of parliament, former Minister of Culture and former Chairman of the Parliament, Vezhdi Rashidov, made extremely offensive comments. It was during the break, when he thought his microphone was off and basically called raped women ‘whores’. Our organisation wrote an open letter asking for his resignation, and just a few days later he announced he was resigning.

Unfortunately, his comments reflect widespread attitudes among many of our politicians towards women’s rights and domestic and gender-based violence. We are fed up with their sexist jokes, homophobic expressions, lack of understanding and deliberate disinformation regarding gender issues and women’s rights.

What do you think made the Stara Zagora case so impactful?

The impact of the Stara Zagora case can be attributed to several factors, primarily stemming from systemic failures that occurred across various institutional levels. The perpetrator’s swift release within 72 hours of the attack, despite being on probation for prior offences, set the tone for public outrage.

Public indignation also resulted from the discrepancy between the severity of the attack, which involved the use of a knife and resulted in 400 stitches, a broken nose and a shaved head, and its categorisation as a mere ‘soft bodily injury’.

There was a shift in public sentiment that revealed heightened awareness and empathy for victims. The usual response in these cases is often victim-blaming. This time, however, many more people sided with the victim. Although some anti-rights voices questioning the victim’s innocence emerged, particularly on social media, most public figures refrained from such insensitivity.

As a result, over the past few weeks, we have started to see more and more domestic violence cases being reported on the media. So I’d say the Stara Zagora case sensitised society and accelerated change. I hope people will now be more willing to seek protection and justice, and institutions and the media will be more willing to empathise with the victims.

What else should be done to combat gender-based violence more effectively?

While there are organisations like BFW that have worked against gender-based violence for decades, it’s evident that a comprehensive national campaign led by the state is needed to catalyse broader change. Such a campaign should aim to reach people across all socio-economic strata, fostering a shared understanding of gender equality and the unacceptability of violence.

Education and prevention are paramount, and they must begin at an early age. Teaching children about gender equality and the importance of rejecting violence from the outset can contribute to lasting change.

The establishment of more crisis centres across the country to provide immediate support and safety for victims is also crucial. Only 15 out of 28 regional cities have crisis centres so far. Perhaps positive change will now take place as four ministries have got involved in solving the issue.

Finally, ratification of the Istanbul Convention remains a pivotal goal. Its comprehensive framework can guide Bulgaria in its efforts to counter gender-based violence. We will continue advocating for these changes and support other organisations that work for women’s rights.

How do you connect with the global women’s movement and what additional support do you need?

We participate in networks like Prospera and On the Right Track. These connections expose us to diverse perspectives and experiences and enrich our understanding of the broader movement.

Collaboration among organisations and international assistance are essential to counter anti-rights narratives, fend off far-right movements that are unfortunately increasingly organised and determined and promote positive change. When helping people and organisations, we sometimes tend to be reactive to attacks. We need to support each other to be more proactive.

As I already mentioned, core funding is of huge importance to our grantees, but it is for us as well. I am happy to see that more of our donors started providing this type of long-term support, and I am hopeful that even more will recognise the need for it in the future.

To end on a more positive note, I am thankful that Bulgarian society has finally become sensitised to the topic of domestic and gender-based violence. This isn’t a private issue but an issue that affects the whole of society. We are all responsible for educating ourselves on the topic, learning about its different forms, stepping up when we see something unacceptable and supporting people who are brave enough to report violence.

We look forward to a collective push toward lasting change, supported by all of you.

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

Get in touch with the BFW through its website or its Facebook page, and follow @bgfundforwomen on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in this interview are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIVICUS.

COP28: ‘For us, climate change is not an abstract concept of future concern but an urgent reality of the present’

DishaRaviCIVICUS discusses the hopes and roles of civil society at the forthcoming COP28 climate summit with climate justice activist Disha Ravi, founder of India’s branch of the youth-led climate movement Fridays for Future.

NIGER: ‘Threats don’t solve problems; the international response must emphasise dialogue and negotiation’

ClementKocouGbedeyCIVICUS discusses the recent military coup in Niger with Clément Kocou Gbedey, Niger’s National Coordinator of the West Africa Network for Peacebuilding (WANEP).

WANEP is a regional organisation founded in 1998 in response to the civil wars that ravaged West Africa in the 1990s. With over 700 member organisations, it includes national networks in every member state of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Taking a collaborative approach to conflict prevention and peacebuilding, it works with civil society, governments, intergovernmental bodies and other partners to establish platforms for dialogue, experience sharing and learning. In 2002, it entered into a partnership with ECOWAS to implement a regional early warning and crisis response system.

What were the causes of the recent military coup, and what’s the state of public opinion?

The coup was triggered by the continuing deterioration in the security situation, poor economic and social governance, and corruption and misgovernment. Thousands of people took to the streets of Niger’s capital, Niamey, in a peaceful demonstration supporting the coup and criticising other West African countries for imposing financial and trade sanctions on Niger.

Why did this happen? Because Nigeriens have the impression that Western countries, especially France, are in the business of exploiting all the country’s riches, such as uranium, oil and gold. And Niger still ranks poorly in terms of human development. The deposed authorities are said to have issued contracts for France to exploit mining and energy resources that are vital fuel for nuclear power. And the benefits of these contracts are only shared at the top, without people ever having any right to anything.

What restrictions have been imposed on civic space in the wake of the coup, and how has civil society reacted?

The coup led to further restrictions on civic space, including the suspension of political party activities and censorship of the international media outlets RFI and France 24, along with the closure of airspace. These measures are designed to prevent any challenge to military power and to guard against any external intervention.

The coup has had major impacts on civil society in Niger. Some civil society groups have expressed their support for General Abdourahamane Tchiani, who arrested President Mohamed Bazoum, and his men, who they see as saviours in the face of the terrorist threat and President Bazoum’s poor governance. But others have denounced the coup as an attack on democracy and the rule of law, and have called for the reinstatement of the elected president.

How long does the junta intend to stay in power?

The junta has set itself a number of long-term objectives and, although it has not yet given any indication of how long it intends to stay in power, it does not appear to be planning to leave in the near future. Its stated objectives are to correct the inconsistencies and inefficiencies of the ousted government’s security management, to review the country’s security approach and protect it against terrorism, to renew relations with neighbouring countries, particularly Burkina Faso and Mali, to improve the education and health situation and to combat the misappropriation of public funds. In doing all this, it claims to be putting Niger’s interests first.

The biggest challenge facing the military regime is the very tough sanctions imposed by ECOWAS, designed to isolate Niger economically, politically and diplomatically.

What have been the results of the foreign military presence in Niger so far?

French presence in Niger has focused on fighting terrorism, training and equipping the Nigerien security forces and promoting stability in the region. France has operated in Niger as part of its Operation Barkhane, aimed at supporting the countries of the Sahel in their fight against armed jihadist groups.

For some time now, however, French presence has been controversial among some parts of civil society, which consider it ineffective, neocolonial and contrary to our national interests. As of late, anti-French sentiment has evolved.

For the time being there is no Russian presence in Niger, but since the coup a pro-Russian sentiment has gained ground in people’s minds The public thinks that ECOWAS and international institutions have remained insensitive to the cries of the civilian population and are ready to turn to another power that might perhaps be able to help them.

Do you think the international community has reacted adequately to the coup?

The international community has condemned the coup, but the deposed president wants more: he has urged the USA and ‘the entire international community’ to help ‘restore constitutional order’.

But how? Sanctions have only aggravated the situation. ECOWAS, which claims to be aligned with people’s aspirations, was quick off the mark in imposing sanctions on Niger. The sanctions should be escalating, but this has not been the case and the situation has become untenable. With borders closed, sanctions are having serious consequences for the people of Niger, who were already suffering from poverty, food insecurity and a health crisis. Power cuts, fuel shortages, rising prices of basic necessities and the paralysis of commercial activities are just some of the difficulties affecting the daily lives of the people of Niger.

Intervention by ECOWAS would further complicate the situation in Niger and other neighbouring countries and could even lead to a subregional conflagration. We believe that what the international response needs to do is continue to emphasise dialogue and negotiation, because threats don’t solve problems.

What international support is Niger’s civil society receiving, and what support does it need?

Right now we’re not receiving any support, because everything is shut down by the unjust sanctions imposed on Niger. However, Niger’s civil society would need additional support to ensure its protection, sustainability and independence in the face of the threats and pressure it is facing as a result of the sanctions imposed by ECOWAS and international institutions. It would also need support to strengthen dialogue with public authorities and international actors and among CSOs, in order to build a common and concerted vision of Niger’s development.

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

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

The opinions expressed in this interview are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIVICUS.

ECUADOR: ‘Democracy has allowed room for organised crime and narco-politics to grow’

MauricioAlarconSalvadorCIVICUS speaks with Mauricio Alarcón Salvador, executive director of Fundación Ciudadanía y Desarrollo (Citizenship and Development Foundation, FCD), about the elections that will be held in Ecuador on 20 August, the eruption of political violence and organised crime and the implications for civil society and the future of the country.

FCD is an Ecuadorian civil society organisation (CSO) that promotes and defends the rule of law, democratic principles and individual freedoms and encourages citizen participation, social control, transparency, open government and public innovation.

Why is Ecuador facing general elections only two years after the inauguration of a new president?

We will have new elections because the current president resorted to the mechanism known as ‘mutual death’, established in the constitution since 2008. This allows the president to dissolve the National Assembly on various grounds. It is known colloquially as ‘mutual death’ because ‘killing’ the legislature also causes the ‘death’ of the executive. In May this year, President Guillermo Lasso dissolved the National Assembly because, in his opinion, it had caused a serious political crisis, in the context of an impeachment trial against him based on accusations of corruption in his close entourage. The use of this mechanism allows the president to continue governing briefly without Congress but requires both legislative and presidential elections to be called within a short period of time to elect those who will complete the ongoing term. That is why the National Electoral Council called for presidential and legislative elections to be held on 20 August. Those elected in this vote will stay in power for approximately 18 months, the length of the current term remaining, which will end in May 2025.

How has civic space evolved under this government, and what are the prospects for the future?

For the little more than two years that this government has been in office, the situation of civic space has not changed much from the previous period. While it is true that the Organic Law on Communications was reformed to provide greater guarantees for freedom of expression and press freedom, the hostile environment against the media and journalists remains unchanged. The main aggressor may no longer be the president, but the notion persists that some people have the right to silence others just because they think differently. The climate of censorship and self-censorship hasn’t changed.

Nor have the regulatory conditions under which CSOs operate. Although the authorities no longer persecute or intimidate them, the regulations that enable them to do so remain in place. No progress has been made towards the adoption of an NGO law fully guaranteeing freedom of association.

Finally, as regards freedom of peaceful assembly, protests in June 2022 highlighted the weak character of the procedures available to authorities for guaranteeing it. There is still much work to be done in this regard and the challenge ahead is enormous.

CIVICUS, an organisation of which we are members, has been key in making the situation of civic space in Ecuador and its evolution visible in recent years.

Are the conditions for clean and transparent elections in place?

At FCD we believe that general conditions exist for a clean and transparent electoral process. The National Electoral Council that is in charge of this process is the same that organised the presidential vote in 2021 and local elections a few months ago. These were processes that, generally speaking, have been commended by electoral observation missions. There are some pending issues to be resolved, mainly regarding the financing of politics, but in terms of the organisation of the process we are confident that everything will go well.

As civil society, we would have liked to collaborate much more in supporting these elections, but this process came about unexpectedly and the organisations that usually take part have not been in a position to implement all our initiatives. Nevertheless, national election observation will be carried out and we have conducted campaigns to promote informed voting: we have published background information about the candidates and their government plans, and we have even monitored, albeit in a limited way, issues related to political financing. The challenge is enormous, but we are confident that we are doing our part to strengthen an extraordinary electoral process that we never saw coming.

What are the key campaign issues?

What we’ve seen these past few weeks is an apathetic campaign, very weak on proposals. Candidates seem to be fully aware that what is being elected is a transitional government that will last a few months, and they are not giving it due importance. Little has been said about fundamental rights and freedoms in a context where security is the main focus of public attention. This is of great concern to us, because in the face of the critical situation of insecurity at the national level, people demand quick solutions regardless of whether their implementation violates rights and freedoms. Regarding security, for example, several candidates have referred to the use of force outside of what is established by basic rights and international standards in force in Ecuador and the region.

Unfortunately, it is difficult for a situation as serious as the one Ecuador is going through to be resolved in such a short period of time as the one that will be afforded to the future president. The main concerns of Ecuadorians are centred on insecurity, the economic crisis and corruption. It is hoped that the new government will act on these issues by listening to people and putting an end to the arrogance that has characterised the outgoing government. Although time is short, the transitional government should establish basic lines of action, either for continuity through the next period or so that whoever comes to power in 2025 will have a basis for doing so.

How does the assassination of Fernando Villavicencio change the political scenario?

Political violence is nothing new in Ecuador: in recent elections there have been candidates who experienced threats and attacks, which in some cases have cost them their lives.

However, this is the first instance in a long time that a presidential candidate has been the victim of an assassination. The conditions under which the attack on Fernando Villavicencio occurred are revealing. He was a candidate with a risk assessment of over 95 per cent, who had police protection and had been denouncing constant threats against him.

This affects not only the electoral landscape but also Ecuador’s democracy itself, which has allowed room for organised crime and narco-politics to grow. If the proper institutions act in a timely manner and not only prevent events like this from happening again, but also manage to put an end to the prevailing impunity, we will end up strengthening a weak democracy that has been crying out for help. For this to happen, there is much work ahead, focused on coordinating efforts between public institutions, civil society, the private sector and political actors in ways that put the country ahead of any particular interest.

What international support does Ecuadorian civil society need to continue doing its work?

After what has happened in recent years, the starting point would be to ensure that international cooperation does not abandon Ecuadorian civil society. Cooperation institutions must also understand that although it is more profitable – at least in terms of communication – to save the environment, protect species or support community development, it is key to maintain support for organisations and initiatives working for democracy and civic space, because no other initiative would be viable without these.

The international community must keep its eyes on Ecuador and look for local allies to fight back against the democratic setbacks we are experiencing. A joint effort is needed to strengthen civil society as a fundamental pillar of democracy.

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

Get in touch with FCD through its website or Facebook account, subscribe to its YouTube channel and follow fcd_ecuador on Instagram and @FCD_Ecuador and @aiarconsalvador on Twitter.

SENEGAL: ‘The situation is becoming more tense as we approach the 2024 elections’

SadikhNiass IbaSarrCIVICUS speaks about the deterioration of civic space in the run-up to next year’s elections in Senegal with Sadikh Niass, Secretary General of the African Meeting for the Defence of Human Rights (Rencontre Africaine pour la Défense des Droits de l’Homme, RADDHO), and Iba Sarr, Director of Programmes at RADDHO.

RADDHO is a national civil society organisation (CSO) based in Dakar, Senegal. It works for the protection and promotion of human rights at the national, regional and international levels through research, analysis and advocacy aimed at providing early warning and preventing conflict.

What are the conditions for civil society in Senegal?

Senegalese civil society remains very active but faces a number of difficulties linked to the restriction of civic space. It is subjected to many verbal attacks by lobbies close to the government, which consider them to be opponents or promoters of ‘counter-values’ such as homosexuality. It is also confronted with restrictions on freedom of assembly. Civil society works in difficult conditions with few financial and material resources. Human rights organisations receive no financial support from the state.

The situation is becoming more tense as we approach the February 2024 elections. Since March 2021, the most radical opposition and the government have opted for confrontation. The government is trying to weaken the opposition by reducing it to a minimum. It is particularly targeting the most dynamic opposition group, the Yewi Askan Wi (‘Liberate the People’) coalition, whose main leader, Ousmane Sonko, is currently in detention.

All opposition demonstrations are systematically banned. Spontaneous demonstrations are violently repressed and result in arrests. The judiciary was instrumentalised to prevent the candidacy of the main opponent to the regime, Sonko, and the main leaders of his party have been arrested.

In recent years, we have also seen an upsurge in verbal, physical and legal threats against journalists, which is a real setback for the right to freedom of information.

What will be at stake in the 2024 presidential election?

With the discovery of oil and gas, Senegal is becoming an attractive destination for investors. Transparent management of these resources remains a challenge in a context marked by an upsurge in terrorist acts. Poverty-stricken populations see this discovery as a means of improving their standard of living. With the breakthrough of the opposition in the 2022 local and legislative elections, we sense that the electorate is increasingly expressing its desire for transparency, justice and improved socio-economic conditions.

On 3 July 2023, the incumbent president declared that he would not compete in the next elections. This declaration could offer a glimmer of hope for a free and transparent election. But the fact that the state is being tempted to prevent leading opposition figures from running poses a major risk of the country descending into turbulence.

Civil society remains alert and is working to ensure that the 2024 elections are inclusive, free and transparent. To this end, it has stepped up its efforts to promote dialogue among political players. CSOs are also working through several platforms to support the authorities in organising peaceful elections by monitoring the process before, during and after the poll.

What triggered the recent demonstrations? What are the protesters’ demands and how has the government responded?

The recent protests were triggered by Sonko’s sentencing to two years in prison on 1 June 2023. On that day, a court ruled on the so-called ‘Sweet Beauty’ case, in which a young woman working in a massage parlour accused Sonko of raping her and making death threats against her. Sonko was acquitted of the death threats, but the rape charges were reclassified as ‘corruption of youth’.

This conviction was compounded by Sonko’s arrest on 31 July 2023 and the dissolution of his political party, PASTEF – short for ‘Senegalese African patriots for work, ethics and fraternity’ in French.

Protesters are driven by the feeling that their leader is being persecuted and that the cases for which he has been convicted only serve to prevent him taking part in the forthcoming elections. Their main demand is the release of their leader and those illegally detained.

Faced with these demonstrations, the government has opted for repression. The authorities consider that they are facing acts of defiance towards the state and have called on the security forces to use force.

Repression has resulted in the deaths of more than 30 people and more than 600 injured since March 2021, when the repression first began. In addition to the loss of life and injuries, more than 700 people have been arrested and are languishing in Senegal’s prisons. We have also noted the arrest of journalists, as well as the interruption of television signals and the restriction of some internet services.

How is Senegalese civil society, including RADDHO, working to defend human rights?

RADDHO works at the national level to help victims of human rights violations and carries out awareness-raising, human rights education and capacity-building activities.

RADDHO collaborates with regional and international mechanisms, notably the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the United Nations Human Rights Council. To this end, we carry out a number of activities to raise awareness of legal instruments for the protection and promotion of human rights. As an observer member of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, we regularly participate in civil society forums during the Commission’s sessions. RADDHO also coordinates the CSO coalition for the follow-up and implementation of the recommendations of the United Nations Universal Periodic Review for Senegal.

What international support is Senegalese civil society receiving and what additional support would it need?

To fulfil their missions, Senegalese CSOs receive support from international institutions such as the European Union, the bilateral cooperation agencies of the USA and Sweden, USAID and SIDA, and organisations and foundations such as Oxfam NOVIB in the Netherlands, NED in the United States, NID in India and the Ford Foundation, among others. However, because Senegal has long been considered a stable country, support remains insufficient.

Given the growing restrictions on civic space of recent years and the political crisis, civil society needs support to better assist victims of human rights violations, to contribute to the emergence of a genuine human rights culture and to work towards widening civic space and strengthening the rule of law, democracy and good governance.

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

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

KYRGYZSTAN: ‘True freedom cannot be granted by external forces; it needs to be claimed by people’

TolekanIsmailovaCIVICUS speaks about the restrictive conditions for civil society in Kyrgyzstan with Tolekan Ismailova, founding president of the Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society and director of the human rights movement One World-Kyrgyzstan (Bir Duino-Kyrgyzstan, BDK).

Founded in 2000, BDK is a civil society organisation (CSO) aimed at establishing an effective human rights monitoring system and encouraging the civil participation of young people and marginalised groups.

COP28: ‘Having a climate summit in an oil-and-gas country can jeopardise the outcomes’

HarleeRichardsCIVICUS discusses the hopes and roles of civil society at the forthcoming COP28 climate summit with Harlee Richards, strategist at Follow This.

Follow This is a Dutch organisation representing over 10,000 green shareholders in oil and gas companies. It supports investor stewardship by putting forward resolutions that asks companies to set targets consistent with the Paris Agreement for all emissions. Its objective is to compel companies to put their brains and billions behind the energy transition.

UK: ‘We engage in disruptive protest to keep the climate catastrophe in people’s minds’

MitchRoseCIVICUS speaks with Mitch Rose, a volunteer activist with Just Stop Oil, about climate activism and its criminalisation in the UK. Just Stop Oil is a nonviolent civil resistance group demanding that the UK government stop licensing all new oil, gas and coal projects. It was founded on the footsteps of Extinction Rebellion and Insulate Britain and has organisers from both at the helm. It first came under the spotlight in March 2022, following a series of protests that interrupted various high-profile sporting events.

What forms of protest have you undertaken in the past few months, and why?

In the last few months, we have staged a series of high-profile non-violent protests to demand that the UK government immediately stop licensing all new oil, gas and coal projects. We blocked the M25 motorway with non-violent actions, threw orange-coloured confetti to stop a game at Wimbledon and threw soup at Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers, at the National Gallery in London, to name just a few.

We engage in peaceful disruptive civil disobedience to push and maintain the climate catastrophe in people’s minds and in the news cycle. They put pressure on the UK government to fulfil the legally binding promises of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement to reduce deadly emissions from burning oil, gas and coal, which they have so far systematically broken.

POLAND: ‘In reaction to conservative backlash, public support for LGBTQI+ rights is on the rise’


CIVICUS speaks about 2023 Pride and Polish LGBTQI+ rights organisations’ response to the conservative backlash against LGBTQI+ rights with Annamaria Linczowska, advocacy and litigation officer at Campaign Against Homophobia (KPH).

Founded 2001, KPH is a Polish LGBTQI+ civil society organisation (CSO) working to counter violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity through political, social and legal advocacy.


DRC: ‘Defending the environment means becoming the target of politicians and businesspeople’

GuillaumeKalonjiCIVICUS discusses the hopes and roles of civil society at the forthcoming COP28 climate summit with Guillaume Kalonji, a youth climate activist and founder of Rise Up Movement DRC.

Rise Up Movement DRC is a citizen movement founded and led by young people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). It aims to help communities combat climate change and adapt to its effects. It amplifies the voices and experiences of young activists in the Global South, provides climate education in schools and communities and promotes sustainable land use and the development and use of renewable energies.

Why did you become a climate activist?

I graduated in general biology and trained as a teacher. I soon realised I would be unable to practise my biology skills on a dead planet or teach starving people.

The DRC is a country in the throes of war, especially in the eastern region. It is also undergoing a huge economic and food crisis. People are hungry and spend much of their time looking for food. As a result, they have no time to think about the climate, even though they are severely affected by the effects of climate change caused by the countries of the global north. A lot of what they are suffering is climate related.

So I decided to organise and mobilise against climate change. I realised I needed to be ready to play my part at every level, from my local community to international forums. That’s why I taught myself English – my mother tongue is French – within a year of realising that COP climate summits and other major international climate conferences are held in English.

What environmental issues do you work on?

Upon realising that so many people are unaware of the root causes of the problems they face, I started focusing on environmental education. I visit schools and universities to raise awareness amongst young people, in the hope that they’ll join me in one way or another in demanding those who have caused climate change to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to stop causing harm, and pay reparations for the harm they have already caused.

The DRC is a direct victim of the disruption of the seasons and the rainfall cycle that characterises climate change. This is what’s at the root of the drop in agricultural production, a major source of the food insecurity that currently affects more than 25 million Congolese people.

In addition, I host the Vash Green School Project, which installs clean cooking stoves in schools to reduce deforestation caused by excessive use of wood as an energy source, as well as to improve cooking conditions in schools.

Have you faced any restrictions or reprisals for the work you do?

In the DRC, and in most of Africa more generally, defending the environment means becoming the target of certain politicians and businesspeople, because we challenge their interests. Behind every acre of forest illegally cut down by Chinese or European corporations hides a Congolese politician. When I started my activism, I received threatening messages warning me not to look for trouble by meddling with politicians. Friends and members of my extended family put a lot of pressure on me when I started protesting against oil exploitation in the Congo rainforest. But I can’t stop defending the environment, because I think if I remain silent in the face of a crime I would become an accomplice.

How do you connect with the global climate movement?

It wasn’t easy, but it happened fairly quickly. When I realised that expressing revolt against climate change and the destruction of nature was a real possibility, I wanted to make my voice heard. The problem was that when I expressed myself in French, my voice didn’t go far; it stayed close by, only creating insecurity for myself and others.

But thanks to Twitter, I discovered Uganda’s Rise up movement team led by Vanessa Nakate, who became my friend. They are very active in Africa and around the world. In order to join them and speak up for the Congolese people I decided to learn English – and given the right incentives, I was able to do it very quickly. I downloaded Vanessa´s speeches and listened to them every day, so that I learned more about climate change at the same time as I learned English. The more I tweeted in English, the more followers and new connections I got. Today I have over 3,000 followers and connections on every continent. I’m succeeding in becoming a voice of French-speaking Africans crying out for help in adapting to the effects of climate change.

What priority issues do you want to see addressed at COP28?

COP28 must be the one to take a clear decision on fossil fuels worldwide, because this is the main cause of the climate change we are experiencing. In my country, the rainforest is in imminent danger. It is going to be sacrificed for the sake of oil exploitation, choosing to ignore the fact that this forest stores a level of CO2 equivalent to more than 10 years of global emissions.

The phaseout of fossil fuels must be accompanied by provisions for a just transition, so that costs do not fall on those who have done the least to cause the problem we are now in.

COP28 should also come back to the issue of loss and damage, by deciding to make those who have polluted the most pay, now and not in the future, so that victimised countries can survive.

Another big issue that should be addressed is that of migration. Those who are responding to climate disaster by taking the route of migration must regain their right to life, which they currently don’t effectively have. The countries of the global north have turned the Mediterranean and the Tunisian desert into cemeteries in which they are burying migrants by the thousands.

Because these issues need to be urgently addressed, it’s vital to involve civil society at COP28. Civil society is made up of members of forgotten communities, the real victims of climate change. A COP to which only presidents and ministers are invited won’t work, because they are the kind of people who will cope with rising temperatures by turning on their air conditioners and will be able to import food when there are local shortages, all while ordinary people starve because their land receives no rain. Only victims can bring in the reality of climate change, explain what it really looks like in their communities.

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

Get in touch with Rise Up Movement DRC by email and follow @Guillaume0905Kl and @RiseUpMovt_DRC1 on Twitter.


NEPAL: ‘This landmark decision represents significant progress for all LGBTQI+ people’

SanjaySharmaCIVICUS speaks with Sanjay Sharma, Programme Director of Nepal’s Blue Diamond Society, about the recent Supreme Court’s order to register same-sex marriages and civil society’s role in advancing LGBTQI+ rights in the country.

Founded in 2001, Blue Diamond Society is a pioneering and leading LGBTQI+ civil society organisation (CSO) working to ensure equal rights, equal access to public and private services, economic empowerment, representation and protection for all of Nepal’s sexual and gender minorities.

What is the status of LGBTQI+ rights in Nepal?

The Nepalese Constitution recognises the rights of gender and sexual minorities as fundamental rights. Article 12 states that people can obtain a citizenship certificate that aligns with their gender identity, while Article 18, on the right to equality, and Article 42, on the right to social justice, explicitly forbid discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation.

Being LGBTQI+ is not criminalised in Nepal, so we can talk about LGBTQI+ issues everywhere, including parliament and government offices. The school curriculum also addresses LGBTQI+ issues. The LGBTQI+ community is diverse, and the number of our allies and of innovative ideas to benefit our community are increasing.

AI REGULATION: ‘There must be a balance between promoting innovation and protecting rights’

NadiaBenaissaCIVICUS speaks with Nadia Benaissa, legal policy advisor at Bits of Freedom, about the risks artificial intelligence (AI) poses to human rights and the role civil society is playing in developing a legal framework for AI governance.

Founded in 2000, Bits of Freedom is a Dutch civil society organisation (CSO) that aims to protect the rights to privacy and freedom of communication by influencing legislation and policy on technologies, giving policy advice, raising awareness and undertaking legal action. Bits of Freedom also took part in the negotiations of the European Union AI Act.

What risks does AI pose to human rights?

AI poses significant risks because it can exacerbate preexisting, deeply ingrained social inequalities. Among the rights impacted on are the rights to equality, freedom of religion, freedom of speech and the presumption of innocence.

In the Netherlands we have recorded several instances of algorithmic systems violating human rights. One such case was the Childcare Benefit scandal, in which parents receiving benefits for childcare were unfairly targeted and profiled. Profiling predominantly affected people of colour, people with low incomes and Muslims, whom the tax authority falsely accused of committing fraud. This resulted in suspension of benefits for selected parents and caregivers and hostile investigations of their cases, leading to severe financial repercussions.

Another example is the ‘Top400’ crime prevention programme implemented in the municipality of Amsterdam, which profiles minors and young people to identify the 400 who are most likely to commit offences. This practice disproportionally affects children from lower classes and children of colour, since the system’s geographic focus is skewed towards low-income and migrant neighbourhoods.

In these cases, the unethical use of AI tools resulted in immense distress for the people affected. The lack of transparency in how automated decisions were made only added more difficulties in the search for justice and accountability. Many of the victims found it challenging to prove the system’s biases and errors.

Are there any ongoing attempts to regulate AI?

There is an ongoing process at the European level. In 2021, the European Commission (EC) proposed a legislative framework, the European Union (EU) AI Act, to address the ethical and legal challenges associated with AI technologies. The EU AI Act’s main goal is to create a comprehensive set of rules to govern the development, deployment and use of AI across EU member states. It seeks to keep a balance between promoting innovation and ensuring the protection of fundamental rights and values.

This holds significant importance: it is a unique opportunity for Europe to distinguish itself by prioritising the protection of human rights in AI governance. However, the Act hasn’t yet been approved. A version of it was passed by the European Parliament in June, but there is still a final debate – a so-called ‘trilogue’ – to be had between the EC, the European Council and the European Parliament. The EC is pushing to finish the process by the end of the year so it can be submitted to a vote before the 2024 European Parliament elections.

This trilogue has considerable challenges to overcome to achieve a comprehensive and effective AI Act. Contentious issues abound, including AI definitions and high-risk categories, as well as implementation and enforcement mechanisms.

What is civil society, including Bits of Freedom, bringing to the table of negotiations?

As negotiations of the Act proceed, a coalition of 150 CSOs, including Bits of Freedom, is urging the EC, the Council and Parliament to prioritise people and their fundamental rights.

Alongside other civil society groups, we have actively collaborated to draft amendments and engage in numerous discussions with members of the European and Dutch Parliaments, policymakers and various stakeholders. We firmly pushed for concrete and robust prohibitions, such as those concerning biometric identification and predictive policing. Additionally, we emphasised the significance of transparency, accountability and effective redress in the use of AI systems.

We have made significant advocacy achievements, which include the prohibition of real-time and post-biometric identification, a better formulation of prohibitions, mandatory Fundamental Rights Impact Assessments, the recognition of more rights regarding transparency, accountability and redress, and the establishment of a mandatory AI database.

But we recognise that there is still work to be done. We’ll keep pushing for the best possible protection of human rights and we’ll continue to focus on the demands made in our statement to the EU trilogue, which boil down to empowering affected people with a framework of accountability, transparency, accessibility and redress, drawing limits on harmful and discriminatory surveillance by national security, law enforcement and migration authorities, and pushing back on Big Tech lobbying by removing loopholes that undermine regulation.

The journey towards comprehensive and impactful AI regulation is ongoing, and we remain dedicated to continuing our efforts to ensure that the final legislative framework encompasses our critical asks. Together, we aim to create an AI regulatory environment that prioritises human rights and protects people.

Get in touch with Bits of Freedom through its website or its Facebook page, and follow @bitsoffreedom on Twitter.


SPAIN: ‘The LGBTQI+ community fears both legal and social backlash’

EmilioDeBenitoCIVICUS speaks about the situation of LGBTQI+ people in the context of Spain’s election with Emilio de Benito, spokesperson for Health and Seniors of the LGTB+ Collective of Madrid (COGAM).

Founded in 1986, COGAM is a civil society organisation (CSO) working for LGBTQI+ equality. It is one of the founding organisations of the Spanish State Federation of Lesbians, Gays, Transsexuals and Bisexuals and one of the promoters of equal marriage, legalised in 2005.

What recent changes have occurred in the situation of LGBTQI+ people in Spain?

Following the approval this March of the Trans Law, the situation in Spain is, at least on paper, one of the best in the world. The Trans Law allows free choice of registered sex based solely on each person’s will, prohibits conversion therapies and imposes measures for diversity in education and employment.

We have a problem, however, namely the rise of hate speech propagated by the far right, represented by Vox, and even by the more traditional conservative party, the Popular Party (PP). This election campaign has been plagued by expressions of homophobia and transphobia. We have seen politicians refuse to address trans people in a manner consistent with their gender identity and threaten to abolish laws that have enshrined rights, such as the Equal Marriage Law and the Trans Law. This has reflected in an increase in harassment of LGBTQI+ people both in the classroom and on the streets. According to official data, last year hate crimes in Spain increased by 45 per cent, although real figures may be much higher, because people do not always report these crimes. The LGBTQI+ community fears both legal and social backlash.

Why did LGBTQI+ rights become a campaign issue?

Over the past year, there has been much debate about the Trans Law, which was only passed in February. That is why several political parties have the issue on their agenda. This law is possibly the most shocking for the far right and it affects very few people, so even if they don’t try to repeal it, they will certainly try to amend it. In other words, in the best-case scenario, a medical diagnosis pathologising transsexuality will again be required and minors will not receive treatment or will face many obstacles.

As for the Equal Marriage Law, I doubt that the PP will be able to repeal it, although Vox calls for it. Instead, the party is more likely to seek to put obstacles in the way of adoption or registration of a partner’s child.

Unfortunately, the Trans Law has also been very strongly rejected by a segment of left-wing feminism, which has given an additional advantage to the right. I believe, however, that this is a philosophical rather than a legal debate. We can debate as much as we like about what makes us identify as male or female, but we must still recognise the right of each person to express their identity.

Did the LGBTQI+ movement align with any electoral choice?

We do not align ourselves with any political party, but we do point out that there are parties, such as Vox, with messages and proposals that threaten our rights. This has not been without controversy. The State Federation of Lesbians, Gays, Transsexuals and Bisexuals of Spain has mounted a campaign calling on people not to vote for the right, but some have expressed disagreement with this because in principle one can be right-wing in economic matters without being homophobic. But in our case, the two things overlap.

Pedro Zerolo, a very important gay activist who was at the forefront of the struggle for equal marriage, used to say that rights must not only be won and enjoyed, but also defended. Clearly we are now in the phase where we must defend our victories.

So all LGBTQI+ collectives have been involved in the election campaign. We have done so during Madrid Pride, which is one of the most important in the world, because of its duration – it lasts four days – and the number of people it attracts, including many non-LGBTQI+ people, and also because of the many cultural and social activities it includes. We have also participated in debates with political parties: COGAM, for instance, held a debate with representatives of four parties. Not all of them were left-wing parties, although these are the ones who always want to meet with us, listen to us and learn our opinion. But we did not invite the far right, because there is no point in us giving them a voice.

What are the possible post-election scenarios?

The PP has opposed all laws that recognised rights for LGBTQI+ people as well as women’s rights, even taking them to the Constitutional Court. But when the Constitutional Court has concluded that these laws do not infringe any constitutional norms, PP governments have not repealed them. But they will likely attack the Trans Law. One of the great achievements of this law is that it listens to minors. When minors know perfectly well who they are and want to be, it makes no sense to repress them until they are of age. It’s the same with abortion: in the past, minors under 16 were required to have their parents’ permission, but then this requirement was removed because there are cases, such as incest, where it was highly problematic. I think they are going to try to go back on these rights as far as minors are concerned.

They could also go back to requiring trans women to undergo two years of diagnostic psychological treatment. Transgender men have been erased from the debate altogether, as if they don’t exist. There is too much concern about what might happen if a trans woman enters a women’s locker room, but no one is concerned about what might happen to a trans man in the gym.

In the field of education, very serious setbacks are likely to occur – for instance, we could lose the space that allows us to explain the reality of LGBTQI+ people in schools. For an LGBTQI+ adolescent or pre-adolescent it is essential that someone tells them that what is happening to them is not the usual thing, but it is not abnormal either, and that they can indeed be happy. But they are trying to erase this message.

Even structures such as equality departments, the local and regional government’s equality bodies, are in many places disappearing or being diluted, renamed ‘family agencies’ when taken over by the far right. Obviously, when LGBTQI+ CSOs need state support for our campaigns, we will receive a very weak response, if any at all.

The LGBTQI+ movement has pushed for important legal changes. How have you worked to build public support for these?

Most LGBTQI+ organisations in Spain are political actors and not just welfare organisations. We advocate with parties, lawmakers and public officials. But in my opinion, our main work is about creating visibility.

The Pride events that take place in Spain, particularly those in Barcelona, Madrid and Valencia, give us the kind of visibility that brings other people closer to us. There is now a trans senator. We campaign in the media. We use social media intensively because it allows us to do two things: reach out to LGBTQI+ teenagers and pre-teens and project a proactive and positive image to society as a whole.

But we are aware that visibility also exposes us. Every year after Pride events there are cases of guys returning from Chueca, the neighbourhood where Madrid Pride events are concentrated, to their neighbourhoods on the outskirts and being beaten up as soon as they come out of the metro. It happens because they come back from the city centre feeling like the kings of the world. They have been happy, integrated, free. In that euphoria, they don’t realise that they have entered a dangerous zone, where hatred messaging has penetrated deep. And these days there are fewer qualms about insulting LGBTQI+ people. A few years ago, people wouldn’t do it or would do so in a whisper, but now they are emboldened so they are loud, as if they were showing off.

What links do you maintain with LGBTQI+ organisations internationally?

At the national level, Spanish CSOs are organised in the State Federation, which maintains relations with ILGA, the International LGBTI Association. Several Spanish organisations are also very focused on Latin America and other Spanish-speaking countries such as Equatorial Guinea. In this former Spanish colony in Africa, for instance, they have just launched a campaign.

Another form of collaboration involves working with LGBTQI+ migrants from Latin America. The main foreign population groups in Spain are from Romania, Morocco and then Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador. We are a place of refuge. It is culturally easy, and also many have a Spanish background, which makes it easier for them to stay and can even give them access to citizenship. We play a clear role in this. As our websites are in Spanish, they are very easily consulted by Latin American organisations and our messages reach them without any barrier.

However, as the situation stands, it is more about us campaigning to support others, than about others supporting us. Within Europe, for instance, we are among the countries that are doing relatively well, so it seems logical that the focus should be on countries like Hungary and Poland. But in any case, working at the European level is the most effective way to resist the conservative backlash, so that countries that break laws or withdraw rights come under pressure from the European Union.

How do you see the future?

Right now, at this crossroads, I see it with fear. I was a teenager at the time of Franco’s dictatorship and I lived through it in fear. Now I fear the idea that we might be headed back to that.

In recent decades many people have accepted us, but they have not all done it for the same reasons. Many people have done so because they did not dare to express their rejection, because it was frowned upon. But now the part of the population in which rejection is well regarded is growing.

The other day in a public debate a trans girl who is a member of a party was called ‘chronically ill’. Members of regional parliaments insist on addressing trans women lawmakers in masculine terms. Until recently, those who thought these things kept quiet because they were frowned upon and feared social rejection. But now there is a public emboldened to express their hatred. And this will continue regardless of the outcome of the election, because the groups that promote hatred have a public presence that transcends parliament. So I fear for the fate of egalitarian laws, but I fear the streets even more.

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

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

HONG KONG: ‘Any activism that the government dislikes can be deemed a national security violation’

AnoukWearCIVICUS speaks about the persecution faced by Hong Kong activists in exile with Anouk Wear, research and policy adviser at Hong Kong Watch.

Founded in 2017, Hong Kong Watch is a civil society organisation (CSO) based in the UK that produces research and monitors threats to Hong Kong’s autonomy, basic freedoms and the rule of law. It works at the intersection between politics, academia and the media to help shape the international debate about Hong Kong.

What challenges do Hong Kong activists in exile face?

Hong Kong activists in exile face the challenge of continuing our activism without being in the place where we want and need to be to make a direct impact. We put continuous effort into community-building, preserving our culture and staying relevant to the people and situation in Hong Kong today. 

When we do this, we face threats from the Chinese government that have drastically escalated since the National Security Law (NSL) was imposed in 2020.

This draconian law was enacted in response to the mass protests triggered by the proposed Extradition Bill between Hong Kong and mainland China in 2019.

The NSL broadly defines and criminalises secession, subversion, terrorist activities and collusion with a foreign country or with external elements. The maximum penalty is life imprisonment. In 2022, the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Committee concluded that the NSL is ‘vague and ambiguous’.

In practical terms, any activism the Hong Kong government dislikes, including meeting a foreign politician, organising an event and publishing an article, can be deemed a violation of the NSL, according to the government’s interpretation. This means we don’t know what is legal and what is not, and many people end up self-censoring to protect themselves.

On 3 July 2023, the government issued new arrest warrants for eight activists in exile, including three in the UK – Nathan Law, Finn Lau and Mung Siu-tat – and offered bounties of around £100,000 (approx. US$130,000) each for anyone providing information leading to their arrest. All of them are accused of breaching the NSL. Despite having no legal basis for applying the NSL in the UK, the Hong Kong government continues to threaten and intimidate activists abroad.

To what extent are civil society and independent media in exile able to continue doing their work?

Since the imposition of the NSL, over 60 CSOs, including political parties, trade unions and media groups, have disbanded. Many have relocated abroad, including over 50 CSOs that signed a joint statement urging government action following the Hong Kong National Security arrest warrants and bounties this month. 

There is a strong network of Hong Kong activists in exile, and activists in exile are still able to do their work. However, we have great difficulty collaborating with activists still in Hong Kong because of the risks they face. For example, last week, five people in Hong Kong were arrested for alleged links to activists in exile who are on the wanted list. Collaborations must now be even more careful and discreet than they already were.

What kind of support do Hong Kong activists and journalists in exile receive, and what further international support do you need?

In November 2022, Hong Kong journalists who relocated to the UK collaborated with the National Union of Journalists of the UK and Ireland to launch the Association of Overseas Hong Kong Media Professionals. They pledged to focus on freedom of the press in Hong Kong and provide mutual assistance for professionals who have relocated overseas.

There is also extensive support among Hong Kong activists and CSOs in exile, from civil society of host countries and from the international community, as can be seen in the joint response to the arrest warrants and bounties issued on 3 July.

However, more coordinated action is needed to respond to Beijing’s threats, particularly from the governments of host countries. There needs to be more assurance and action to reiterate that Beijing and Hong Kong do not have jurisdiction abroad and there will be serious consequences to their threats. 

Hong Kong activists in exile are now making submissions to the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review process, which will review China’s human rights record since 2018.

We urge UN member states, CSOs and journalists to use this opportunity to highlight the drastic changes that have taken place in Hong Kong and to continue supporting our fight for democracy, rights and freedom.

Civic space in Hong Kong is rated ‘closed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

Get in touch with Hong Kong Watch through its website or its Facebook page, and follow @hk_watch and @anoukwear on Twitter.

TURKEY: ‘For the embattled LGBTQI+ movement, simply persisting in taking to the streets is an achievement’

DalmaUmutUzunCIVICUS speaks about 2023 Pride and the civil society response to the Turkish government’s anti-LGBTQI+ campaign with Damla Umut Uzun, international relations and fundraising officer at Kaos Gay and Lesbian Cultural Research and Solidarity Association (Kaos GL).

Founded in 1994, Kaos GL is one of the oldest and largest LGBTQI+ organisations in Turkey, dedicated to creating visibility and understanding and promoting LGBTQI+ human rights.

How have Turkish authorities reacted to Pride events?

Since 2015, Pride events have been increasingly banned by city governors. The first ban was introduced in Istanbul, which in 2014 had the largest Pride gathering, with at least 50,000 participants. But despite the growing number of bans, the number of Pride events across the country has also consistently increased.

This year in Istanbul, several Pride events were banned by district governor offices, resulting in detentions, police brutality and restrictions on journalists. A Pride movie event organised by the University Feminist Collective in Şişli was banned for ‘potentially causing societal resentment’ and ‘threatening social peace’. The screening of the film ‘Pride’, scheduled by the cinema collective, and a tea gathering event organised by the LambdaIstanbul LGBTQI+ Solidarity Association were banned in Kadıköy district. The police detained and later released at least eight people who came to watch the film, using physical violence. The LGBTQI+ group Queer Baykuş of Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University had their posters violently confiscated by the university’s security units before a planned press release. On 18 June, during the Trans Pride Parade in Beyoğlu district, the police handcuffed and detained 10 people, including a child, and released them later that day after taking police statements. Journalists were prevented from taking pictures during the intervention.

The Human Rights Foundation of Turkey compiled a detailed report of rights violations in the context of 2023 Pride events between 2 June and 10 July 2023. Various Pride celebrations, including parades, picnics and press statements, were banned by multiple governorships and disrupted due to targeted threats and societal reactions in Adana, Ankara, Antalya, Eskişehir, Izmir, Kocaeli and Muğla. A total of 241 people, including four minors and seven lawyers, were detained on the grounds of Article 2,911 of the law on gatherings and demonstrations. The main reasons cited by authorities were non-compliance with regulations, disruption of public order and violation of ban decisions. Although most detainees were typically released on the same day, they might face prosecution and lawsuits months later.

Police interventions during Pride events are a reflection of the government’s hostility towards LGBTQI+ people. They are waging a kind of war against us. The recurring violence is fuelled by a sense of impunity: the fact that law enforcement officials face no consequences for harming, insulting or harassing LGBTQI+ people further emboldens them.

Why is the Turkish government hostile towards LGBTQI+ people?

Oppression of the LGBTQI+ community in Turkey is not new: the government’s crackdown first intensified following the 2016 attempted coup. But the main reason behind the increasing hatred is the attempt of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to mobilise conservative segments of society. To mask the effects of its corrupt rule and economic mismanagement, the government is employing populist rhetoric and polarisation tactics, seeking to designate an enemy to blame.

Repression hasn’t been limited to LGBTQI+ people but rather targeted at any opposition or independent views. Dissenting voices, including those of Kurdish people, feminists and human rights defenders, are labelled as ‘terrorists’.

Among these groups, LGBTQI+ people are a particularly easy target due to societal conservatism and religious tendencies. Censorship and rights violations of LGBTQI+ people affect all aspects of life, including access to goods and services, education, healthcare and housing and media representation. In line with the global anti-gender trend, the government has employed a rhetoric focused on ‘protecting the sacred Turkish family structure against perversion’, using LGBTQI+ people and feminists as scapegoats.

What role did anti-LGBTQI+ rhetoric play in the 2023 presidential elections?

Anti-LGBTQI+ rhetoric played a significant role in the election campaigns of the AKP government and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, aimed at mobilising conservative voters, including those on the left side of the political spectrum. Former Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu openly mobilised hate speech against LGBTQI+ people at public events. President Erdoğan used similar rhetoric, accusing the opposition of being ‘pro-LGBTQI+’.

Unfortunately, two radical Islamist parties, Hüdapar and New Welfare, have entered parliament, and their primary election promise was to close down LGBTQI+ organisations. They are now working actively towards this goal, and we anticipate that such rhetoric and efforts will intensify in the run-up to local elections in a few months.

How are LGBTQI+ organisations, including Kaos GL, responding to these attacks?

Despite facing oppressive conditions and lack of opportunities, the LGBTQI+ movement in Turkey remains resilient and strong. Alongside feminists, we are the only groups that continue to take to the streets and demonstrate for our rights, showing immense bravery in the face of police violence and detention. Simply persisting in organising demonstrations is an achievement in itself.

In addition to street activism, Turkish LGBTQI+ organisations are actively engaged in advocacy, the promotion of visibility and capacity building. We recognise that we won’t be able to change policies at the national level due to the AKP’s absolute majority, so we focus our efforts on grassroots societal transformation. We educate professionals who encounter LGBTQI+ people in their daily work, such as doctors, nurses, teachers, lawyers and social and municipal workers, to increase their understanding and capacity to work with LGBTQI+ people and respond to their needs in the respectful manner.

We document human rights violations and hate crimes, providing a factual basis for our advocacy campaigns. We also report on the situation of LGBTQI+ employees in the public and private sectors. Other organisations focus on reporting the challenges faced by LGBTQI+ students, people living with HIV, elderly people and refugees.

We also organise cultural events, including queer film festivals such as Pink Life Queer Fest and exhibitions and art programmes like the Ankara Queer Art Programme and the Women-to-Women storytelling contests, aimed at fostering expression and community engagement.

What obstacles do you encounter in your work, and what support do you need?

Since the attempted coup, the government has intensified its crackdown on civil society organisations (CSOs), subjecting them to frequent state audits to identify alleged mistakes, impose fines or even shut them down. Laws such as the Law on the Prevention of the Financing of the Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction have made it increasingly difficult for CSOs to receive funds, further hindering their work.

Turkish LGBTQI+ organisations maintain close contact with European human rights organisations, Council of Europe representatives, the European Union (EU) delegation and United Nations mechanisms. We regularly update them about the developments and shrinking human rights space in Turkey, and in turn, they issue statements expressing deep concern about the government’s actions. However, these efforts have proven ineffective as the AKP government demonstrates a complete lack of regard and even fails to implement decisions of the European Court of Human Rights.

Turkish LGBTQI+ organisations have generally benefitted from EU funding, but this has started to decrease. It appears that the EU has somewhat given up on Turkey, since the government is making no effort to improve human rights standards. Additionally, the fact that Turkey is keeping millions of refugees out of Europe has limited the EU’s consistency in supporting human rights in Turkey.

As LGBTQI+ individuals living in Turkey, we are constantly pressured to hide our identities, pushed to the margins of society and silenced. But as LGBTQI+ organisations we continue to fight for our rights and freedoms. To advance our cause, we need more systematic financial resources, increased collaboration with international organisations, more vocal campaigns and international pressure on the Turkish government.

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

Get in touch with Kaos GL through its website or its Facebook page, and follow @KaosGL on Twitter.

ANGOLA: ‘The untrue government narrative reveals an aversion to civil society denouncing malpractice’





Emilio Jose Manuel

CIVICUS discusses the state of civic space and the new restrictions being imposed on civil society in Angola with Emilio José Manuel, focal point for Angola of the Lusophone Platform for Human Rights and founding member of the Working Group for Human Rights Monitoring in Angola (GTMDH).

The GTMDH is a platform of civil society organisations (CSOs) that works to promote and defend human rights and strives for social justice within the framework of the Angolan constitution and other current laws, as well as international conventions and treaties.

What are the conditions for civil society in Angola?

Although there is currently no direct or indirect interference in the work of civil society in Angola, the authorities’ discourse is that, because they receive funding from international institutions, CSOs defend and represent foreign interests.

Meanwhile there are many joint actions between public institutions and CSOs. For example, once a year the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights organises a forum with CSOs where the GTMDH presents its public position on human rights and provides information on the granting of registration certificates, the legal documents that the Angolan state gives to each CSO attesting that it is legally registered and can operate in the country.

Why is the government targeting CSOs with legislation aimed at terrorists and money launderers?

According to the report supporting the draft law, the president considers that he has ‘encountered constraints and difficulties in ensuring compliance with international obligations assumed by the Angolan Government in the area of money laundering and the financing of terrorism’. Hence the need to control the sources and destination of CSO funds.

This narrative of the Angolan government is untrue and clearly demonstrates its aversion to the role of CSOs in monitoring and denouncing government malpractice. Financial support for the projects of CSOs and human rights defenders comes from well-identified organisations and goes through banking institutions with strict compliance rules – and some of these funders are the same ones that support government projects.

On 26 May, the draft NGO Statute Law was passed in general by the Angolan National Assembly, ignoring severe criticism from civil society, which has made clear that it limits the right of association and gives the executive excessive powers to interfere in CSO activities.

The situation is very alarming because the draft law imposes a 120-day period for existing CSOs to make their statutes conform with the law, otherwise they will be outlawed outright without a judicial decision. Article 2 of the draft law requires existing CSOs to conform with the new provisions, under penalty of having their statutes and registrations revoked. This is a violation of the principle of legality and access to justice guaranteed by the Angolan constitution. The principle of legality requires that the law should be clearly articulated and known in advance and should not be applied retroactively.

How has civil society reacted to the draft law?

Civil society analysed the draft law and reacted against it. In collaboration with the GTMDH coordinator, my role as legal officer was to prepare petitions, public position papers and communications with the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association, and to engage with regional and international partners to amplify the voices of Angolan civil society.

We requested a technical opinion from UN Special Rapporteur Clément Voule and drafted a public civil society position on the bill explaining why it violates freedoms of association, which we presented publicly at a press conference.

We advocated with opposition parties represented in parliament and made contacts with the Angolan Bar Association to file, within the scope of our constitutional prerogatives, the appropriate action for an assessment of the unconstitutionality of the draft law. The day before the general approval of the draft law, we sent a public petition to the National Assembly demanding that it not approve it.

Our next action will be to send a letter to the presidents of some key countries about the closure of civic space in Angola and increasing controls over CSOs, including international CSOs.

Protests are also taking place against the proposed NGO Statute Law, which have converged with protests against measures that have increased fuel prices and a crackdown on street vendors.

Do you see this bill as part of a wider trend of restricting civic space?

The recent repression of demonstrations, arrests of activists and attacks on protesters, including women, is an indicator that civic space is being severely restricted. The use of force by the national police has resulted in deaths without any appropriate process to hold to account and punish police officers involved in cases of violence, torture and killings.

Our country depends on importing food staples and other goods from abroad. Right now the prices of food, other goods and services have increased. Street vendors are a group that some CSOs work with, particularly those dedicated to empowering women to establish small businesses. Some organisations provide micro credits to street vendors. Although the street vendors’ movement has a life of its own, it is CSOs and their lawyers who have provided them with free legal aid.

There is a current of national solidarity, taking into account that the law does not explicitly say it will regulate all initiatives by citizens who wish to create an association. My personal opinion is that everyone feels that control will go further. The draft NGO Statute Law lacks a clear definition of what a ‘non-governmental organisation’ is. It also includes vague provisions that need to be better fleshed out to enable the proper interpretation of the law. For example, it is difficult to understand the meaning and normative scope of article 19(1)(d), which imposes a ‘duty on NGOs to refrain from practices and actions that are subversive or liable to be confused with them’. The unanswered question here is how subversive actions are to be defined in the context of the law.

How does the new draft law compare with the 2015 decree that was deemed unconstitutional?

According to the analysis we’ve made, the arguments and contents are the same as in Decree 74/15 on the Regulation of NGOs. We have the new role of counselling judges in the Constitutional Court. The situation in the Supreme Court indicates that we have a crisis in the judiciary. So it is uncertain whether this time the judicial decision will be in favour of CSOs. The present draft law establishes rules to control, restrict, approve, authorise and suspend the activities of CSOs, including CSO extinction by an administrative entity to be determined by the president as holder of the executive power, which violates the principle of freedom of association as provided in article 48 of the constitution.

Do you view the draft NGO Statute Law as part of a regional or global trend?

After having participated in sessions of the NGO Forum and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, I noted a tendency to restrict civic space throughout Africa. As part of the civil society strategy, we held meetings with activists from Mozambique to share experiences and assemble regional, continental and international strategies. It is worth remembering that various activists, whether linked to CSOs or not, are directly involved in campaigns and waves of protest to try to ensure that the draft law is not given final approval by parliament and promulgated by the president.

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

Contact GTMDH through its website.

ESTONIA: ‘Legal changes deepen the cultural shift favourable to LGBTQI+ rights’

Kelly GrossthalCIVICUS speaks about civil society’s role in the recent legalisation of same-sex marriage in Estonia with Kelly Grossthal, head of strategic litigation at the Estonian Human Rights Centre (EHRC).

Established in 2009, the EHRC is a human rights civil society organisation (CSO) working to create an open society where human rights are guaranteed by the state, and where everyone knows that their rights, as well as the rights of others, deserve equal protection. 

How significant is the recent legalisation of same-sex marriage?

Marriage equality has always been the ultimate goal of LGBTQI+ and human rights advocates. The previous arrangement, that of civil unions, was only a temporary compromise. In 2014, the Estonian parliament passed the gender-neutral Registered Partnership Act, which came into force in 2016. Under this law, couples entering a partnership agreement are entitled to joint property rights, succession rights, shared financial obligations, access to each other’s private information and resolution of issues related to the end of life. However, due to the law’s lack of implementation provisions, many couples had to resort to the courts to be able to actually exercise these rights.

In 2018, the Supreme Court ruled that, regardless of the lack of implementing provisions, the Registered Partnership Act was in force and was part of the Estonian legal order. It stated that failure to issue implementing provisions did not automatically render the legislation unconstitutional, as some argued. This highlights that even with the Registered Partnership Act in place, the struggle for marriage equality persisted.

How did the EHRC advocate for legal change?

Since its establishment in 2009, the EHRC has monitored legislation that impacts on LGBTQI+ people and put forward suggestions to improve it. Our main advocacy goal has always been legal equality. However, we have encountered numerous obstacles, primarily stemming from the political climate and societal attitudes. For many years LGBTQI+ rights lacked support from public opinion, and therefore it was not advantageous for politicians to actively champion the cause.

We have conducted public campaigns advocating for LGBTQI+ rights as human rights, engaged in research, contributed to public discussions and pursued legal cases through our strategic litigation programme. Strategic litigation aims to have a societal impact through specific cases and narratives. When selecting cases related to the LGBTQI+ community, our primary criterion is their potential to maximise a positive outcome for LGBTQI+ people’s human rights.

We handled several cases that have improved access to social benefits and adoption rights for LGBTQI+ people and filed petitions for constitutional review of regressive laws. For instance, in 2019 the Supreme Court ruled that a provision in the Aliens Act that prevented the granting of temporary residence permits to same-sex registered partners of Estonian citizens for leading a family life in Estonia was unconstitutional and therefore invalid.

Many of our advocacy efforts have been planned and executed in cooperation with the Estonian LGBT Association and the Equal Treatment Network, which unites 10 Estonian CSOs dedicated to protecting the equal rights of different target groups.

How have public attitudes towards LGBTQI+ people evolved over time?

Just a couple of years ago, the majority of Estonians opposed marriage equality. Resistance could have been influenced by personal values, religious beliefs, or a fear of change. Over the past few years, however, there has been intense societal debate over LGBTQI+ issues. Various video campaigns and petitions have been launched both in support of and against the Registered Partnership Act, marriage equality and LGBTQI+ rights more generally. Unfortunately, this has led to an increase in hate speech towards LGBTQI+ people, fuelled by conservative politicians. But it had the positive effect of making rainbow families more visible, as they shared their stories in response to anti-rights attacks.

The ongoing debate and increased visibility have played a crucial role in driving cultural change and garnering support for LGBTQI+ rights. The adoption of the Registered Partnership Act and the legalisation of same-sex marriage were two big milestones. Legal changes seem to have further deepened the positive cultural shift.

For over a decade the EHRC has commissioned public opinion surveys on LGBTQI+ issues from an independent research company, Turu-uuringute AS. According to the most recent one, conducted earlier this year, support for marriage equality has increased by six points in the past two years, with 53 per cent of Estonians currently in favour. Progress has been significant: a decade ago only 34 per cent were in favour and 60 per cent opposed it.

Civil society has been instrumental in shifting public opinion about LGBTQI+ people, with numerous LGBTQI+ groups and networks organising events for both LGBTQI+ people and the public as a whole.

The Estonian LGBT Association has been the main organiser of Baltic Pride, the most recent of which took place in the capital, Tallinn, in June, just before the parliamentary vote on marriage equality. It attracted over 7,000 participants from three Baltic states and there were no major incidents. It was a truly joyous march followed by an open-air concert with community artists and a picnic.

Since 2017, Estonia has also hosted an LGBTQI+ film festival, Festheart, organised by a small CSO. Initially held in the town of Rakvere, by 2020 it had expanded to Tartu, Estonia’s second-largest city.

Has the legalisation of same-sex marriage elicited any anti-rights backlash?

As anticipated, there has been a conservative backlash in response to the new legislation. Two parties, the Conservative People’s Party of Estonia and Isamaa (Fatherland), have been vocal opponents of LGBTQI+ rights in general and marriage equality in particular. Their leaders and prominent members have expressed great dissatisfaction with the new law, and some politicians have pledged to reverse it should conservative parties regain power.

The anti-LGBTQI+ civil society movement in Estonia is closely linked to conservative parties. A few weeks before the final parliamentary vote, conservative CSOs and parties organised a demonstration in front of parliament. Surprisingly, it attracted only a few thousand protesters and was not as visible and large as some previous demonstrations. Nonetheless, protests of this nature will likely continue in some form, although their scale and impact are difficult to predict.

Do you think progress in Estonia can pave the way for similar developments in other post-Communist countries?

We certainly hope so! At the same time, it is crucial to acknowledge that each country in our region is distinct, with its own language, culture and political landscape. In the case of Estonia, there’s currently a ruling coalition with all three members prioritising individual liberties, which has provided civil society with a historic opportunity to advance marriage equality. Hopefully, favourable conditions will also arise for our Baltic friends and beyond.

Meanwhile, we are delighted to share our experiences, both failures and successes, with our regional allies. Although we are a traditional human rights advocacy organisation, we maintain strong connections with LGBTQI+ CSOs in Latvia and Lithuania. We have collaborated on several international projects related to combating hate speech, working with victims of hate crimes and promoting equal treatment.

What forms of international support does Estonian civil society need to keep supporting LGBTQI+ people and advancing their rights? 

International cooperation and support are incredibly important. Human rights work can be frustrating at times, and it is comforting to connect with others working in other countries and facing similar societal and personal struggles. While it may sound like a cliché, it is vital to establish connections, share experiences and learn from each other. This process is empowering and fosters development.

It is crucial to recognise that marriage equality alone will not solve all the problems. Issues such as bullying of LGBTQI+ children, harassment of LGBTQI+ people, anti-LGBTQI+ hate speech, disinformation, intolerance and the denial of transgender rights continue to be pressing concerns. We have seen in other countries that progressive laws and legal precedents can be reversed. Therefore, it is essential for like-minded individuals and CSOs to cooperate across borders. Just as we are currently endeavouring to support the human rights of Hungarian LGBTQI+ people through various actions and means, we hope to receive support ourselves in times of urgent need.

Civic space in Estonia is rated ‘open’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

Get in touch with the Estonian Human Rights Centre through its website or its Facebook page.

FINLAND: ‘We’ll have the most right-wing government since the 1930s’

SillaRistimakiCIVICUS speaks about Finland’s new government with Silla Ristimäki, development policy specialist at Fingo.

Founded in 2018, Fingo is an umbrella organisation comprising about 270 Finnish civil society organisations (CSOs). Fingo monitors and defends civic space in Finland and around the world with the aim of building a strong, diverse, open, active and free civil society with solid operating capacities.

What was the relationship between government and civil society like under the government of former Prime Minister Sanna Marin?

Sanna Marin’s government took measures to promote transparency and the rule of law and improve conditions for civil society. Under the previous government’s programme, Finland took an active role in promoting open government internationally. Several initiatives were undertaken to improve the participation of and dialogue with Finnish civil society to increase transparency, which was seen as an integral part of all national governance objectives. For example, a transparency register was developed in 2023 to keep track of lobbying with parliament.

The previous government’s programme also aimed to harmonise procedures for tracking civil society funding while respecting CSOs’ autonomy and guaranteeing equal treatment of organisations. The objective was to reduce bureaucracy and increase the predictability of funding. Changes were made in accounting and fundraising regulations that particularly favoured small CSOs. Overall, official development assistance grew quite consistently. Fundamentally, the nature of relationships was about building a partnership between state and civil society to reduce inequality.

What were the key issues that influenced the outcome of the 2023 parliamentary elections?

Sanna Marin’s government was a coalition of left-wing parties that pushed, for example, for stricter climate policies and reduced inequalities, including gender-based one. During its term, the Finnish government’s debt grew significantly. At the same time, Russia’s attack on Ukraine resulted in an unprecedented change in Finnish popular opinion regarding NATO membership. So the elections were greatly influenced by two major issues: the severity of government debt and Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

The economic and security conditions increased the popularity of right-wing parties. The National Coalition Party that won the election has been the longest and loudest advocate of Finland’s NATO membership. It also pushed an agenda to urgently reduce Finnish public debt. The far-right Finns Party, which came second, ran an anti-immigration campaign and proposed balancing the budget by reducing climate measures and cutting development funding. On 18 June it was confirmed that Ville Tavio from the Finns Party will be the new minister for Trade and Development.

The Social Democratic Party headed by Sanna Marin came third. This is politically noteworthy, since the ruling party generally tends to do much worse in parliamentary elections. There was a significant fall in support for The Greens and the Left Alliance, and some experts say that people voted strategically for the Social Democratic Party to try to prevent the emergence of a conservative right-wing government. However, the new government coalition formed with the Finns Party, Swedish People’s Party of Finland and the Christian Democrats will be the most right-wing government Finland has had since the 1930s. Their overall interpretation of the elections results is that Finland ‘needs a change in direction’, and that people particularly want new fiscal policies.

How much public debate was there around Finland’s accession to NATO?

There has never been a lot of public political debate over Finland’s accession to NATO. Politicians used to maintain a position that it was never the right time for it, and if Finland were to change its position of neutrality and consider accession to NATO, a referendum would be organised before a final decision was made.

But the situation changed when Russia attacked Ukraine. Polls showed a significant increase in support for accession, rising to above 60 per cent. Almost no members of parliament publicly raised concerns or expressed an opinion against Finland’s accession. In the end, Finland applied for NATO membership without a referendum being held. It was considered that the polls were a strong enough indication of citizen support.

What is the new government programme’s stance on civil society and human rights?

All three parties that received the most votes in the election are largely committed to supporting civil society and recognise the value of safeguarding civic space. The new government’s programme, published on 16 June, confirms that a vibrant civil society is a prerequisite for social development and states that in all its activities Finland will promote the principles of democracy, civil society and the rule of law.

However, it also states that Finland will reduce the number of refugees it welcomes, control immigration and limit the rights of migrants. It doesn’t mention the issues of loss and damage and climate finance. While it claims that Finland will stick to its national Climate Change Act, which commits it to become climate-neutral by 2035, it also states that this must not be done at the expense of increasing daily living costs or negatively impacting on the market competitiveness of Finnish industries.

How is civil society working to safeguard human rights and democracy in Finland?

Civil society works at the local and national levels to promote human rights and safeguard democracy in Finland.

In regard to democracy, Finnish civil society has a role in providing training for democracy skills (such as decision-making in communities and communication skills); advocating towards policy-makers on a variety of societal issues; as well as working with decision-makers and officials for the implementation of democratic decisions. For example, with regards to social and health care services as well as development cooperation, this last role in implementation is quite crucial. Generally, the basis for the work of Finnish civil society is human rights: concretely this means for example working for the economic rights of vulnerable people in Finland or promoting the ‘leave no one behind’ -principle in development cooperation.

Fingo has three main areas of work: advocacy, learning and communications. Advocacy is targeted towards political leaders. Fingo undertakes efforts to improve the operational environment and institutional support for CSOs and to protect civic space. The learning component is particularly targeted at building capacity among member CSOs, offering training on, for example, how to improve advocacy, communication and analytical skills and fundraising proposals, or how to mainstream gender. A significant portion of this component is to advance global citizenship education. Communications efforts are targeted at the broader public to uphold and generate further support for human rights and democracy through media engagement and campaigns.

Following the publication of the new government’s programme, our next step is to re-evaluate the priorities of our advocacy efforts. For example, the new government has left reproductive rights out of development assistance priorities, so this may be an area that needs particular attention. All efforts to jointly protect civic space globally are valuable and support one another.

Civic space in Finland is rated ‘open’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

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

GUATEMALA: ‘Our democracy is at risk in the hands of political-criminal networks’

Picture4CIVICUS speaks with Evelyn Recinos Contreras about Guatemala’s general elections – where a candidate promising reform has surprisingly made the second round of the presidential race – and the prospects for democratic change and opening up civic space.

Evelyn is a former investigator for the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) and former advisor to the Attorney General of Guatemala. She is currently living in exile because of her human rights activism.

What is the state of civic space in Guatemala?

Civic space in Guatemala is under serious threat. To understand this better, one must understand that, as a consequence of armed conflict, the social fabric is broken. There is hardly any grassroots citizen engagement to speak of. The sectors that for decades served as an engine of social change, such as teachers, trade unionists and high school and public university students, have been irreparably affected by the violence.

Of these, probably the only grassroots sector that remains organised is Indigenous Mayan peoples, who fight for the defence of their territory and natural resources. In addition, in urban areas, civil society human rights and pro-democracy organisations have organised their work around strengthening democratic institutions, with much emphasis on the issue of justice.

It is precisely these sectors that are once again being hit by authoritarianism and state violence. In the interior of the country, thousands of community leaders are being criminalised and entire communities are subject to arrest warrants and threatened with criminal prosecution. A similar situation is experienced in urban areas, where the justice system has been captured by political-criminal networks that use state platforms to fund their criminal endeavours and intimidate justice operators, human rights defenders and activists who fight for human rights and the strengthening of civic space and democracy.

Networks of corruption and impunity affect the democratic space, as evidenced by the fact that people such as Thelma Cabrera of the People’s Liberation Movement were prevented from registering as candidates and participating in the elections.

What are the causes of Guatemala’s democratic erosion?

Democracy in Guatemala is being eroded by political-criminal networks that have taken over institutions and use them for their own benefit rather than the wellbeing of the public and the strengthening of democracy. But it has been a gradual and almost imperceptible process. Several key institutions have been weakened, such as the National Civil Police, which is in charge of two main tasks: crime prevention and the maintenance of citizen security, and collaboration in criminal investigations. For years, civil society worked with police commanders to build an institution at the service of democratic security, so that its work would serve to produce a civic space in which citizens could enjoy their fundamental rights and live a dignified life free of violence. But since 2017 we have seen the institution weakened, with commanders being dismissed and resources being misused.

Similar problems can be found in the judiciary. High courts have not followed their normal process of renewal: they have not held elections for new magistrates. In addition, the last two elections they held were denounced and investigated for acts of corruption. The Public Prosecutor’s Office has also been weakened by a policy of criminal prosecution and criminalisation of justice operators, which has also meant the sidelining of investigation of crimes against life, violence against women and property crimes, which hit citizens hard. Rates of violence and insecurity in Guatemala are almost as high as in countries undergoing internal armed conflicts.

Do you think that the anti-corruption struggle has failed in Guatemala?

It is very difficult to provide an absolute answer to the question of the success or failure of the fight against corruption in Guatemala. I think the cases that were brought to trial were supported by evidence and due process was respected. In that sense they were successful. But this was only part of the fight against corruption, because the law provides a limited platform. The damage to society had already been done and resources had already been lost.

The fight against corruption is only truly successful when there is a level of social involvement that leads to scrutiny of public officials and a sustained demand of accountability. Sadly, we are not there yet.

For those who have been involved in the fight against corruption, the negative consequences have been obvious. Prosecutors, judges, human rights defenders, activists and community leaders are being persecuted on unfounded charges and pushed towards exile. This sends a strong message of fear to Guatemalan society. But I am convinced that the struggle does not end here. We deserve a country where we can all live in freedom and dignity. The Mayan people have been resisting for more than 500 years, so I think they are our best example to follow.

Do you think a positive change could come out of this election?

I believe there is hope. People have shown they are tired of the same murky forces that for years have embodied voracious economic interests that exploit peoples and territories and are characterised by discrimination, double standards and structural violence.

The fact that one of the contenders in the runoff is the Semilla party, born out of the anti-corruption protests of 2015 and bringing together many people who have never participated in political parties before, is evidence of a desire for change. People rejected the usual political actors who represent archaic economic interests and embody authoritarian and corrupt forms of politics.

For change to really materialise, we need the international community to turn its eyes to Guatemala. The risk to our democracy at the hands of political-criminal networks must not go unnoticed. We need the international community to draw attention to and speak out about the situation in our country, because the violation of the human rights of Guatemalans affects our shared humanity.

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

GERMANY: ‘Our street blockades hurt society the least and put no one’s life in danger’

ZoeRugeCIVICUS speaks with Zoe Ruge of Last Generation about climate activism and its criminalisation in Germany.

Last Generation is an international network of climate activists using civil disobedience to urge governments to address the climate emergency, enabling citizen participation and financially supporting the global south as a primary victim of climate change that it hasn’t caused.

What forms of protest has Last Generation deployed in Germany?

Last Generation has come to dominate the climate movement in Germany, so its tactics have become the prevailing tactics. The most common form of climate protest in Germany is currently street blockades, and blockades of public infrastructure more generally, because they are efficient at creating a certain level of disruption. A small number of people protesting peacefully is all it takes to generate a wide public reach. Additionally, street blockades are a platform to have talks with politicians and citizens about the climate crisis, do media work and underline our demands.

Alongside disrupting everyday traffic, we draw attention to the major responsibility of the richest one- to-10 per cent of the population. To target them specifically, we block airports, spray-paint private jets, disrupt big events and bring protests into museums and other public spaces.

Our street blockades hurt society the least and put no one’s life in danger. We take adequate security measures, for instance to make sure no emergency vehicle gets stuck in traffic. In case of an emergency, we are ready to open the blockade and clear the street.

We know the kind of civil disobedience tactics we use face criticism, and we constantly reflect on our practices and take all feedback into consideration. We have aimed to choose a protest form that effectively rises awareness and is the least disruptive for people, and we think the street blockade is one such form. It may cause people to get to work half an hour late one day, but it provides a much-needed opportunity to stop people’s everyday routine and encourage them reflect on what we’re doing and where it’s leading us.

What have been your biggest achievements?

More people are realising the seriousness of the crisis we’re facing. Street blockades allow us to talk to people who would normally not get involved but are forced to listen and ask questions about our reasons to be there and our demands. Through disruption, we’ve been able to bring a lot of climate-related topics into public discourse, not only through media coverage but also thanks to local, face-to-face conversations. We are seeing rising awareness, which is necessary to deal with the consequences of the climate crisis.

In terms of policies, one of our demands during the first protest wave was a law similar to the one France has, to save food from going to waste in supermarkets. One third of all food is lost in the production chain, which equates to a lot of preventable CO2 emissions. Such a law is currently being discussed in several federal states.

In terms of public awareness, when street blockades began about a year ago they attracted 25 to 30 people, and now they bring thousands to the streets in Berlin. Churches are standing behind us and civil society groups are also voicing demands for climate action.

Overall, we are receiving increasing support from the whole society. We get invitations to discuss the climate crisis with politicians, artists, at schools and with other parts of civil society. In response to the criminalisation we are facing, which has included the freezing of some of our assets, we have also seen a rise in donations from the public.

What are your demands to the German government?

What Last Generation demands are pretty simple things that must be done to tackle the consequences of the climate crisis and prevent it escalating. We demand a speed limit of 100 kilometres per hour in Germany, which would bring a reduction of more than 6.7 million tons of CO2 emissions a year, and a permanent €9 (US$9.90) monthly ticket to make public transportation affordable. This was tested last year and was a huge success, as many people shifted from using cars to using public transport – but now it’s quite expensive again.

Our third demand is the establishment of a citizen assembly as a long-term mechanism for us to deal with the climate crisis as a society and end the use of fossil fuels in a socially just manner by 2030. Since our politicians are not even able or willing to implement a speed limit, we need citizens to be able to help tackle the climate crisis through more direct democratic tools.

As part of a global movement, Last Generation works in close cooperation with Debt For Climate, a grassroots global south-driven initiative connecting social justice and climate justice struggles with the aim of freeing impoverished countries from a debt burden that is often used as a tool for further natural resource extraction. We support their demand for financial support because they are the primary victims of climate change that they haven’t caused. German politicians tend to argue that the climate catastrophe isn’t happening in Germany, although it is indeed taking place, maybe to a lesser extent. But in other parts of the world people are already dying because of it while more developed countries continue benefiting from their resources.

How have German authorities reacted to your demands?

Reactions have varied at different government levels. We’ve had very productive talks with local politicians who have shown openness and understanding. But at the federal level we’ve faced a harsh and criminalising public discourse. Last Generation is being called a criminal group and increasingly treated as such.

We face accusations that we are hurting the cause of climate protection because our tactics are scaring people away. But it’s not true. The government is just trying to shift the focus from the substance of our demands to the form of our actions and avoiding our questions of why we still don’t have a speed limit and why we still don’t have proper affordable public transportation even though we have the resources for it.

The fact that our government isn’t willing to act as the climate emergency demands and is instead turning against us is the main challenge that we as climate activists currently face.

How is the government criminalising climate activism?

There are between 3,000 and 4,000 cases coming to court soon, mainly connected to street blockades. In Germany, this kind of spontaneous demonstration is protected by law, but once the police intervene and tell you to leave, it’s not so clear whether the assembly continues to be legally protected. There are also accusations of vandalism on the basis that people have damaged walls by spray-painting them.

A serious accusation being used against climate activists is that of being part of a criminal group. Based on section 129A of the German Criminal Code, when the police start an investigation on these grounds they can listen to your phone calls, read your messages and search your homes. This is weird because Last Generation is so transparent that anything the government would like to know about us – our structures, our funding, our planned protests – is publicly accessible. We have nothing to hide.

This June, some of us experienced searches of our homes, our website was taken down, our bank accounts were frozen and we had work materials confiscated. Activists are struggling because it’s scary to feel that the police could force their way in, search your entire home and take away whatever they want.

A friend of mine, Simon Lachner, was recently taken from his home to the police station and kept there for the entire day, just because he had publicly announced a protest scheduled for that afternoon. In Bavaria, people have been repeatedly taken into preventive custody for long periods of time to keep them from protesting. This form of preventing protests is becoming more common.

What kind of support are you receiving, and what further support would you need to continue your work?

The criminalisation of peaceful protests organised by people who aren’t trying to hurt anyone but who want to protect lives elicits instant solidarity. Thousands of people have joined Last Generation’s protest marches. Frozen funds have been almost fully replaced by donations pouring in. People contact us to ask how they can play their part in climate activism.

We’re also part of the A22 international network of climate movements that use civil disobedience tactics, and this also supports us, especially in the face of criminalisation. Other organisations from all around the world are reaching out to us and offering help such as legal support.

What we need is for everybody to consider their potential role in building a more resilient society. One of the most efficient ways to fulfil our collective responsibility is by exercising our right to protest within a democratic system.

Civic space in Germany is rated ‘open’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

Get in touch with Last Generation through its website or Facebook page, and follow @AufstandLastGen on Twitter.

AUSTRALIA: ‘People deeply understand that rights and liberties are won through protest’

DavidMejiaCanalesCIVICUS speaks with David Mejia-Canales, senior lawyer at the Human Rights Law Centre (HRLC), about anti-protest legislation being introduced in states across Australia and its impact on civil society activism.

The HRLC is an independent civil society organisation (CSO) that advances strategic legal action, policy solutions and advocacy to support people and communities to eliminate inequality and injustice in Australia.

What is the situation of civic freedoms in Australia following last year’s change of government?

Australia doesn’t have a national charter of human rights that legally protects people’s human rights. We are the only western democracy without a national charter or similar document. There are, however, three charters of rights operating successfully at the state and territory levels. This means that the protection of your civic freedoms in Australia is at least partly dependent on the jurisdiction you are in.

Following last year’s election, we have a new federal government that is willing to consider ambitious reforms on how civic freedoms are protected in Australia. The new government has initiated a parliamentary inquiry to make improvements to our human rights frameworks, including considering whether Australia should have a national charter of human rights. Later this year, Australians will vote on a referendum to alter the constitution to establish a permanent, constitutionally enshrined, First Nations advisory body to the legislative and executive branches of government. We are heartened by these steps in the right direction. However, the proof will be in the implementation of all these measures.

What is driving the increase of anti-protest legislation at the state level?

As environmental activism increased in response to the worsening climate crisis, state governments have increasingly sought to introduce laws explicitly criminalising protest. These laws are often so broad and vague that it could be argued that they are introduced more for the benefit of newspaper front pages than for a genuine, legitimate purpose.

It is also important to note that other laws and powers are being increasingly used to criminalise protest, even where not originally intended for this purpose. For example, move-on orders, surveillance and bail conditions are all regularly used in attempts to silence protesters.

Due to Australia’s incredibly lax lobbying regulations, it is impossible to know in what measure state governments around the country have introduced these laws as a result of pressure from oil, gas and mining corporations. Fossil fuel companies donate millions to the major parties to discourage politicians from regulating them properly. Overall, corporations spend billions hiring lobbyists to cosy up to politicians.

They can do all this because Australia lacks basic transparency and integrity safeguards, and our outdated laws leave money in politics woefully underregulated. We need to address the power of harmful industries to skew democratic processes to win political outcomes that put their profits ahead of our wellbeing.

Which groups are being targeted by anti-protest laws?

These laws are almost exclusively targeting environmental activists. However, many of these laws are so vague and broad that they often end up criminalising other types of conduct occurring in the public realm, like blocking a road or obstructing a public passageway. While their intent is to criminalise protesters, these laws are so broad that they could be used against anybody. In some jurisdictions penalties consist of steep fines or two years in prison. Often the penalties are grossly disproportionate to the offences.

In the state of New South Wales, a police taskforce was established with the express purpose of breaking up environmental protest groups. A taskforce is a concentration of police resources usually reserved for very serious crimes like murder or to deal with organised criminal groups. In Western Australia, anti-terrorism police have been involved in seizing devices like phones and memory cards of journalists covering protests.

What are the recent amendments to the protest law in South Australia?

South Australia is the latest jurisdiction to have imposed severe penalties on people for engaging in peaceful protest, joining New South Wales, Queensland, Tasmania and Victoria. South Australia’s anti-protest laws carry the harshest financial penalties in Australia.

The Summary Offences (Obstruction of Public Places) Amendment was rushed through the South Australian Legislative Assembly without any public consultation: it was introduced and passed on 18 May 2023. It was a response to protest activity in the city of Adelaide, which briefly closed traffic on a bridge.

The bill dramatically increases the maximum fine for obstructing a public place from AU$750 (approx. US$500) to AU$50,000 (approx. US$33,300) and introduces prison penalties of up to three months. It will surely have a chilling effect on protest in South Australia, undermining people’s ability to exercise this right.

How has civil society responded to the amendment?

There has been an incredible response. South Australia is rightly proud of its history of protest and dissent. It was the first place in Australia, and the second in the world, to grant women the right to vote, and the first place in the world to grant women the right to stand for election to parliament. South Australians deeply understand that these, and many other rights and liberties, were won through protest.

It is incredibly heartening to see such a strong reaction from civil society, including unions, climate defenders, women’s rights organisations, LGBTQI+ organisations, charities, legal assistance services and the legal profession. Civil society deeply resisted these laws not just in parliament but also in the streets, through rallies and other forms of protest. It was because of this incredible response that at least one of the worst elements of the bill was removed through an amendment in the upper house.

The amendment involved a single word – ‘recklessly’. In the original definition, the offence applied to ‘a person who intentionally or recklessly engages in conduct that obstructs the free passage of a public place’. This would have disproportionately criminalised very peaceful protest activity like handing out flyers on a sidewalk, because it would apply even to people unintentionally committing an offence.

What can the international community do to support civil society’s response to restrictions?

The right to protest is a fundamental human right that, together with the right to vote, has been instrumental in advancing other human rights and civil liberties. It is critical that the international community join civil society in Australia and anywhere to fight back against any interference in the right to protest. This could be as simple as amplifying the calls of activists on the ground and supporting their movements.

As the climate crisis intensifies it is crucial that we all protect the right of those fighting for climate justice to continue to gather and demand better from our governments.

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

Get in touch with the HRLC through its website and follow @davidHRLC on Twitter.

ANGOLA: ‘The new NGO Law is just a way of legalising the government’s arrogance and excesses’


GodinhoCristovaoCIVICUS discusses the state of civic space and the new restrictions being imposed on the work of Angolan civil society with Godinho Cristóvão, a jurist, human rights defender and executive director of the association Movimento de Defensores de Direitos Humanos de Angola (Movement of Human Rights Defenders of Angola, KUTAKESA).

KUTAKESA is a civil society organisation (CSO) working for the rights and protection of human rights defenders (HRDs) in Angola, particularly those active in more vulnerable areas, working on more sensitive issues and from historically excluded groups.

What are the current conditions for civil society in Angola?

Angolan CSOs work in a climate of suspicion and uncertainty, despite the fact that the Constitution of the Republic of Angola enshrines a catalogue of citizens’ fundamental rights, freedoms and guarantees.

The Angolan authorities should have aligned themselves with the democratic rule of law and respected the work of CSOs and HRDs. Instead, there has been an increase in threats, harassment and illegal arrests of HRDs who denounce or hold peaceful demonstrations against acts of bad governance and violations of citizens’ rights and freedoms. There have been clear setbacks with regard to the guarantee of fundamental rights and freedoms enshrined in the constitution, as well as the rights set out in the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and other human rights treaties Angola has ratified.

How is the government targeting civil society with restrictive legislation?

The attacks on civil society are totally uncalled for. On 25 May, the Angolan National Assembly passed a draft NGO Statute, despite severe criticism from CSOs, which have stated that it limits freedom of association and gives the state excessive powers to interfere with CSO activities.

The government targets civil society with legislation that is meant for terrorists and money launderers, though it has never been proven in any court that a CSO has committed an act of terrorism in Angola. On the contrary, the rationale of this legislation constitutes institutional terrorism, the target of which are CSOs.

In Angola we all know who the corrupt are, and which party feeds corruption and money laundering. And as far as we know, CSOs are not part of that group. Funders of Angolan CSOs are all clearly identified, and the transfer of funds goes through national banking institutions and a rigorous compliance process. It is also worth remembering that many CSO funders are the same ones that fund government projects.

How does the new restrictive law compare with the 2015 decree that was declared unconstitutional?

In general, the content and spirit of Presidential Decree 74/15 on the Regulation of NGOs are the same as those of the new NGO Statute Law. By way of example, the rights and duties chapter of the previous regulation, later declared unconstitutional, was retained with only minimal changes in wording that in no way alter its content and its controlling and repressive spirit.

Additionally, the decree that was found unconstitutional provided for an administrative body under the tutelage of the Angolan executive – called IMPROCAC – with the power to monitor and control CSO actions. The recently approved draft NGO Statute Law provides for a similar body with the same attributions as the old IMPROCAC.

In other words, this is a new attempt to impose similar restrictions, but it is more serious since its instrument is no longer a presidential decree but a law. This means that it is no longer only the executive that is attacking the principles of autonomy and freedom of association provided for in article 48 of the constitution, but Congress as well, in which the president’s party, the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), has a majority. It is worth remembering that it was the MPLA majority that approved the 2010 constitution which it is now violating by passing the NGO Statute Law.

How is civil society, including KUTAKESA, reacting to the proposed law?

CSOs, at least the most active ones, are not looking favourably on the approval of this law, given the threats it represents in terms of closing off civic space in Angola.

We are taking joint action to prevent the final approval of this law and its entry into force. From the point of view of legal certainty and security, the courts should be aligned with the principle of jurisprudential precedent. Since they submitted the presidential decree to a review of unconstitutionality and declared it unconstitutional, they should now follow suit, given that the new law contains the same irregularities.

All national organisations took a joint position to call on parliament to take off the agenda the law now approved. This was done through information exchange meetings with opposition parties represented in parliament. At the same time we made public statements alerting the public about the dangers for freedom of association if the law was approved, and we made urgent appeals to the special rapporteurs of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the United Nations (UN) who have a mandate on freedom of association and HRDs to alert the Angolan government about the consequences the law will have on respect for human rights.

On KUTAKESA’s part, urgent appeals were made to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders in Africa, Remy Ngoy Lumbu, and the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, Mary Lawlor.

Do you see the new law as part of a wider trend to restrict civic space?

Yes of course, but it is also important to note that the repression of peaceful and legal demonstrations predates the approval of this law. Government mismanagement and endemic corruption have been some of the main causes of the deteriorating social, economic and family conditions for the majority of the population, leading to growing protests and mass demonstrations, which have often been repressed. The approval of this law is just another means of repression and of legalising the arrogance and excesses of the government and its agents, particularly the national police.

While the law is not necessarily intended as a response to the ongoing protests, given that the attempt to get it passed dates back to 2015, it is likely to be used as another tool to crack down on the protests.

Now, if the government has good sense and makes a strategic reading of the current political and social context of Angola, it could stop the process of approval of the law or, if it is too late for that, the president could refuse to promulgate it, taking the appeals of civil society into consideration. The law’s approval would certainly increase the number of protests and demonstrations.

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

Get in touch with KUTAKESA through their website.

GUATEMALA: ‘These elections are key because they give us a chance to take a different path’

JordanRodasCIVICUS speaks with Jordán Rodas Andrade about Guatemala’s general elections – where a candidate promising reform has surprisingly made the second round of the presidential race – and the prospects for democratic change and opening up civic space.

Jordán Rodas is a lawyer specialising in constitutional guarantees and fundamental rights, transparency and anti-corruption. In addition to being a university professor, in 2015 he was elected vice-president of the Guatemalan Bar Association and between 2017 and 2022 he was Guatemala’s Human Rights Ombudsman. In exercising this role he was repeatedly criminalised and threatened, as a result of which he had to go into exile.

How have civic space conditions changed in Guatemala in recent years?

In recent years there has been a very worrying deterioration of civic space in Guatemala, which has worsened under the current president, Alejandro Giammattei. His predecessor, Jimmy Morales, a comedian-turned-president, left very bad practices in place, but these reached extreme levels under Giammattei.

In recent years, many human rights defenders, land rights defenders, journalists and justice defenders have had to leave our country, forced by a hostile climate of persecution and criminalisation. This closure of spaces and the absence of an independent press have produced fertile ground for the advance of an authoritarian regime. These elections are key because they give us Guatemalans a chance to take a different path for the good of our country.

What drove you into exile?

In my five years as prosecutor, I was criminalised with 18 pretrial proceedings, all of which were rejected. It is exhausting to have to constantly defend yourself against such a succession of spurious accusations. Then I had eight requests for removal from office by members of congress, in addition to a crippling financial suffocation.

Above all, I have witnessed the weakening of justice. Many had to take the difficult decision to leave the country to save their lives, their freedom or their integrity. Among them are Juan Francisco Sandoval, former head of the Special Prosecutor’s Office against Impunity (FECI), Erika Aifán, an independent judge, Judge Miguel Ángel Gálvez and many others who in one way or another touched the heartstrings of political and economic power.

It is no coincidence that behind the persecution of justice operators and journalists is often the Foundation Against Terrorism, directed by business leader Ricardo Méndez Ruiz, who has been accused by the US government of acts of corruption and acts against democratic institutions. This organisation was a plaintiff in the criminal proceedings against Virginia Laparra, former FECI prosecutor in Quetzaltenango, who has been in prison for more than a year and who should never have been detained for denouncing cases of corruption of a judge. Whistleblowing is not a crime anywhere in the world.

The same organisation criminally prosecuted José Rubén Zamora, the founder of newspaper elPeriódico, one of the government’s main critics who for years has denounced corruption. Zamora was recently sentenced to six years in prison for several alleged crimes, including money laundering. This sent a very serious message against press freedom. The independent press has had to self-censor and yet it continues to fight this battle.

I was still in Guatemala when Zamora was captured, and so I decided to distance myself. I left in August but returned in December, by land, to participate in the assembly of the People’s Liberation Movement (MLP), which proclaimed Thelma Cabrera, an Indigenous Maya Mam woman, as its presidential candidate and myself as its vice-presidential candidate. Four years ago, the MLP came in fourth place, but in a context of social malaise in the face of corruption and thanks to its opening up to mestizo people – people of mixed European and Indigenous heritage – I thought it had a good chance of entering the second-round race.

But my successor in the prosecutor’s office filed a spurious complaint against me, as a result of which our presidential ticket was blocked. I was systematically refused information about the content of the complaint. In other words, this was used to take us out of the race. Since then, I have continued the struggle from exile. This may not be what you want, but it is what you have to do.

Under what conditions would you decide to return to Guatemala permanently?

I was just talking about this last week following a work meeting with the Guatemalan state mediated by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). I have been the beneficiary of a precautionary measure from the IACHR since 2017. These measures establish that the state has the obligation to ensure and guarantee a person’s life, integrity, security and liberty, and in my case the state of Guatemala has not complied with it. In order to return, I would need as the minimum that the state does not persecute or criminalise me.

There are currently two accusations against me, one filed by the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office and another by the Comptroller General’s Office. I have no official knowledge of what the accusations are because I don’t have access to the documents; I have requested them through access to information requests. But it seems to me they are related to the fact that in my declaration of assets I said that I had handed over on 20 August, which is when my constitutionally established term ended, but I left the country on 18 August, leaving the deputy attorney general in charge, as the law dictates. In other words, there was no falsehood or crime. This case is under reserve, and I have asked the state, as a sign of goodwill, not to extend this reserve but to hand over a copy of the complaint so I can defend myself, and to guarantee my life and safety, and that of my family in Guatemala.

Has the fight against corruption in Guatemala failed?

The fight against corruption has not failed, but it has stalled as a result of a well-thought-out strategy of a corrupt alliance of political officials and private sector actors.

However, today more than ever I hope that we will learn the painful but positive lessons from the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), which I believe has more lights than shadows. I hope that from that learning we can, sooner rather than later, take up the fight against corruption again.

International support will continue to be indispensable because our justice system is very porous, permeated by organised crime and lacking institutionality. Three of the nine magistrates of the Supreme Court of Justice and several other judges and judicial officials are on the US State Department’s Engel List of people who have committed acts of corruption or have participated in actions to undermine democracy in their countries. Members of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal have been accused of falsifying their doctoral degrees to get elected and the Human Rights Ombudsman was Giammattei’s human rights officer in the prison system at the time he launched ‘Operation Peacock’, a police operation that resulted in a massacre and eventually cost Giammattei 10 months in prison, but also launched its presidential bid. Hence the trust that exists between these two officials.

But it is clear that people are tired of all this and they showed it at the ballot box on 25 June, when they said no to a return to the past and yes to a proposal that sends a message of hope for the fight against corruption. This was clearly put by the candidate who represents this hope, Bernardo Arévalo, who made it to the second round against all odds.

Do you consider these elections to have been free and competitive?

The presidential election was not free and competitive, because a fair election requires not only that there be no fraud on voting day, but also that a series of elements are present throughout the process, from the moment the elections are called. The election was called on 20 January, and on 27 January the state closed the door on us and prevented our participation. Not only did this violate our right to stand for election, but it also restricted citizens’ right to have a full range of options.

In reaction to this exclusion, Thelma Cabrera called for a null vote, and numbers don’t lie. The null vote actually won, with 17 per cent, a higher share than that received by the candidate who came first, Sandra Torres, who got around 15 per cent. People are clearly fed up.

The unfairness of the competition also manifested itself in the official party’s handling of public resources and the government’s extremely close relationship with some Supreme Electoral Tribunal magistrates.

But the fact that Bernardo Arévalo managed to enter the second round is, alongside the mass of null votes, blank votes and abstentions, a sign of enormous rejection of the system. I have high expectations for the second round, in which I hope that the Guatemalan people will participate massively and take advantage of this opportunity to choose a better future.

What would Guatemala’s new government need to do to put the country back on the road to democracy?

Above all, the anti-corruption message must be accompanied by real action. Revenge against justice operators must stop, the rule of law must be restored and the freedom of the independent press must be guaranteed.

The new president should form a cabinet inclusive of progressive sectors. He should convene political parties, social forces and Indigenous peoples’ movements to jointly make a proposal that ensures public policies benefit those most in need.

The new government should totally dissociate itself from the malpractices of the past and be very careful about power’s temptations. Its responsibility to those who have placed their trust in it must prevail. There will be temptations along the way, so it is essential that it place its bets on people who are ethical, capable and consistent with the values projected in the electoral campaign, as people voted for them because they recognised them first and foremost as an honest party. Bernardo is surely the most interested in honouring the legacy of his father, former president Juan José Arévalo. His government could become a third government of the revolution, taking up and improving on the great achievements of that democratic springtime that took place between 1944 and 1955.

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

Get in touch with Jordán Rodas through his Facebook or Instagram pages, and follow him on TikTok and Twitter.

SIERRA LEONE: ‘Civil society plays a crucial role in ensuring free and fair elections’

JohnCaulkerCIVICUS speaks about Sierra Leone’s 24 June general election with John Caulker, founder and executive director of Fambul Tok.

Founded in 2007, Fambul Tok (‘Family Talk’ in Krio language) is a civil society organisation (CSO) that promotes peace, restorative justice and community building in post-civil war Sierra Leone.

What’s at stake in the 2023 general election?

For many Sierra-Leonean voters, the most pressing concerns revolve around the economy. In his first term in office, President Julius Maada Bio of the Sierra Leone People’s Party, who has just won re-election, allocated 21 per cent of the government budget to support education, positioning himself as a champion of human capital investment. In his second presidential campaign, Bio expressed a commitment to overhaul Sierra Leone’s agricultural sector, believing it will lead to an economic turnaround.

Bio’s supporters believe that the global economic crisis is the main reason for the current financial predicament in Sierra Leone. But Sierra Leone’s economic instability started a lot earlier, with the outbreak of Ebola in 2014, and subsequently deteriorated further with the decline in iron ore mine prices on the global market, the COVID-19 pandemic and the war between Russia and Ukraine. Inflation is in double digits, its highest level in almost two decades.

The main opposition party, All People Congress, nominated the same candidate, Samura Kamara, who previously lost the presidential election in 2018. Kamara, who is an economist, pledged to revive Sierra Leone’s struggling economy and promote national unity.

Both President Bio and Samura Kamara have significant support throughout Sierra Leone, while other candidates hoped that public dissatisfaction with the economy would turn votes against the two major parties.

In addition to selecting a president, voters also elected new lawmakers, mayors and councillors.

What changes have been introduced to the electoral law?

As a result of a 2022 electoral reform, Sierra Leone now uses a proportional system for allocating parliamentary seats. The president decided to adopt this system to avoid by-elections and increase women’s representation, which can be done through legislative quotas when using party lists. The change was judicially challenged, leading to a landmark Supreme Court ruling that upheld the proportional representation system.

Some people believe that by adopting party lists and using multi-member districts, the proportional system takes away their right to choose representatives directly and hands that power over to political parties. Chernor Maju Bah, the leader of the parliamentary opposition, expressed concerns regarding the limited timeframe for educating the public about the intricacies of the new system and argued that more time was necessary to ensure a smooth transition.

Have fundamental civic and democratic freedoms been respected during the election process?

In recent years Sierra Leone has made progress towards safeguarding and upholding freedoms of expression and association in line with its constitution and international human rights standards. However, the situation has varied over time and challenges have arisen in some instances. For example, ahead of the election the Political Parties Regulation Commission imposed a ban on all street rallies organised by political parties. Many viewed this as an infringement of their right to peaceful assembly. However, political parties were still able to gather peacefully in public spaces such as stadiums, large fields and town halls. The use of social media is also subject to limitations and regulations outlined in the Cyber Security and Cyber Crimes Act of 2021. Some arrests have been made for violations of this law.

Sierra Leone has also made significant steps to improve its electoral processes and ensure a transparent, democratic and inclusive political system. Civil society plays a crucial role in ensuring free and fair elections by promoting voter education, monitoring the electoral process and advocating for electoral reforms. Both the government and civil society have made considerable investments to ensure that citizens are well-informed about their rights, the electoral process and the importance of participating in elections, thereby creating a more knowledgeable and engaged electorate.

Sierra Leone has also welcomed international election observers from various organisations and institutions, who provided an impartial assessment and promoted transparency. Moreover, political parties have collectively agreed to abide by a Code of Conduct setting out guidelines for ethical campaigning and peaceful behaviour during elections, encouraging parties to uphold democratic principles and discouraging any form of violence or intimidation.

How has civil society, including Fambul Tok, engaged in the election process?

CSOs have been vigilant and expressed concern over increasing ethnic-based campaigns, hate speech and unrest. These are viewed by civil society as early warning signs of conflict and election-related violence.

Although Sierra Leone has made progress in holding generally peaceful and credible elections, there have been isolated incidents of violence during this election period, including clashes between supporters of different political parties and between opposition supporters and the police, and instances of property destruction such as arson. The opposition also called for public demonstrations following the resignation of the electoral commissioner.

As a peacebuilding organisation, Fambul Tok is focused on promoting nonviolence and voter education through our community structures and is advocating for a culture of political tolerance. Fambul Tok facilitates stakeholders’ meetings to promote peace and national cohesion and avoid malice and violence despite political differences. This has promoted peaceful and inclusive political dialogue, raised awareness about electoral misconduct and ensured that appropriate measures are in place to prevent and address electoral violence, intimidation and any other actions that undermine the integrity of the process.

What international support is Sierra Leone’s civil society receiving, and what other forms of support would you need?

International support plays a crucial role in assisting Sierra Leone’s civil society in both the pre-election and post-election phases. Even though funding support for civil society has diminished during these elections, CSOs continue to collaborate with international institutions to uphold the values and principles of democracy.

International organisations, in partnership with the CSO National Elections Watch, have provided capacity-building training and financial resources to strengthen the skills and knowledge of local CSOs in election monitoring, advocacy, voter education and human rights promotion. This support enhances the effectiveness of civil society in promoting free and fair elections and safeguarding human rights. However, there is also a need for technical resources such as communication tools, data analysis software and logistical support to further enhance the capabilities of civil society.

In 2018 there was post-election violence throughout society. The international community should support CSOs to engage in post-election peace and cohesion campaigns. This involves encouraging communities to accept the outcome of the electoral process and respect the rights of individuals. Diplomatic missions and human rights organisations should remain engaged in the process and keep advocating for a conducive environment for free and fair elections. They can do this by applying diplomatic pressure, issuing public statements and engaging with national authorities to address concerns related to civic space, human rights and electoral integrity.

It is crucial that international support is tailored to the specific needs and priorities of Sierra Leone’s civil society, in close consultation and collaboration with local groups. This approach ensures that support is context-specific, sustainable and responsive to challenges on the ground.

Civic space in Sierra Leone is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

Get in touch with Fambul Tok through its website or Facebook page, and follow @fambultok on Twitter.

COP28: ‘We are worried that the host country, the United Arab Emirates, restricts civil society’

GideonSanagoCIVICUS discusses the hopes and roles of civil society at the forthcoming COP28 climate summit with Gideon Abraham Sanago, Climate Coordinator with the Pastoralists Indigenous Non-Governmental Organizations’ Forum (PINGOs Forum).

Established in 1994, PINGOs Forum is an advocacy coalition of 53 Indigenous peoples’ organisations working for the rights of marginalised Indigenous pastoralists and hunter-gatherer communities in Tanzania. It was founded by six pastoralists and hunter-gatherers’ organisations promoting a land rights and development agenda.

What environmental issues do you work on?

PINGOs Forum works with Indigenous peoples’ communities across Tanzania to address the impacts the environmental and climate crisis is having on them.

Although it is a global phenomenon, climate change affects communities in different ways and presents a variety of challenges. These include prolonged and severe droughts, floods, biodiversity loss, land conflicts and displacement, and the loss of livestock that communities depend on for their livelihoods. This also leads to the loss of culture and identity as young men migrate towards towns looking for an income-producing job, leaving women, children and older people abandoned at home.

To respond to these challenges, PINGOs Forum supports community initiatives for land conflict resolution, the development of land use plans and the recognition of land rights for Indigenous peoples, as well as for water provision and restocking of agricultural supplies for destitute families. We also build capacity to tackle climate issues and support Indigenous peoples’ participation in national, regional and global climate forums to ensure their voices are heard and the resulting policies respond to their needs.

PINGOs Forum is a member of the Climate Action Network (Tanzania Chapter), the CIVICUS alliance, the International Indigenous Peoples Forum on Climate Change and other bodies engaging with the United Nations (UN) Framework Convention on Climate Change. We use these platforms for advocacy and campaigning. They have been instrumental for us in being able to voice our concerns and engage in productive dialogue and exchanges.

Have you faced any restrictions or reprisals for the work you do?

Human rights defenders face threats and intimidation when advocating for the rights of Indigenous peoples to land and resources and organising to respond to their violations.

The state of Tanzania does not recognise the existence of Indigenous peoples in the country. Instead, it always refers to them as marginalised groups, forest-dependent communities, forest dwellers and other such terms. This limits the ability of Indigenous peoples to exercise their rights as enshrined in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, of which Tanzania is a signatory but clearly does not respect.

The UN declaration includes the key right of Indigenous peoples to give free prior and informed consent, which of course the Indigenous peoples of Tanzania have never exercised. Their rights to ownership of land and resources have been repeatedly violated through forceful evictions from their ancestral lands. We have seen examples of this in Loliondo/Ngorongoro and Kimotorok in Simanjiro District.

Another major challenge is access to the media. We believe in the power of media and recognise the pivotal role it plays in addressing the challenges faced by Tanzanian Indigenous peoples. But the media is restricted when it comes to publishing any information coming from Indigenous people’s organisations regarding issues such as land crises, as happened in the case of Loliondo. All media outlets were warned not to publish any information about it.

What priority issues do you expect to see addressed at COP28?

There are several key priorities for Tanzanian Indigenous peoples on the frontline of climate challenges, the first one being funding of loss and damage. One of the key decisions from COP27 was to establish a loss and damage funding mechanism. We would like to see this funding mechanism operationalised with sufficient resources to urgently respond to the challenges faced by Indigenous peoples. We are eager to understand how this mechanism will address economic and non-economic losses and provide compensation for what we have already lost.

More broadly, Indigenous peoples are in dire need of direct access to reliable and flexible funding, including for adaptation measures and to build resilience in the face of the impacts of climate change.

Regarding the carbon market, Indigenous peoples would need to be engaged and the technicalities and political issues around these investment approaches should be clarified. Indigenous peoples should be able to exercise their right to free, prior and informed consent when it comes to carbon credits in their ancestral lands and forests to avoid any rights violations resulting from climate interventions.

All this would require a recognition of the rights and knowledge of Indigenous peoples and their full and effective participation in climate forums at all levels to inform better policy formulation and decision-making processes.

Do you think COP28 will provide enough space for civil society?

We are particularly worried about the fact that COP28’s host country, the United Arab Emirates, restricts civil society movements and campaigns. It is key for civil society and Indigenous peoples’ organisations to be able to exercise their rights to express their views and peacefully demonstrate at any time during the negotiations. Otherwise their perspectives will not be reflected in the outcomes and their concerns will not be addressed.

Civil society and Indigenous peoples’ organisations play a pivotal role as observers at COPs. They hold negotiating parties accountable and make a difference when they are reluctant to take important decisions during the negotiations. During COPs, civil society campaigns, mobilises, develops position papers and issues joint statements to push parties to take urgent actions on agreed points.

What are your expectations concerning its outcomes?

Our main expectation is to have an ambitious COP28 addressing key points of climate change action. We expect the loss and damage financial mechanism to be operationalised in ways that take into consideration the rights of Indigenous peoples and address both the economic and non-economic losses they are experiencing. We expect direct and flexible funding to become accessible to Indigenous peoples, as well as capacity building and the transfer of the required technologies.

We also would like to see a clear definition of adaptation actions and serious emission reduction commitments by developed countries. But above all, we want this to be a COP of actions and not of empty promises – we want to see developed states live up to their commitments, giving vulnerable communities reasons for hope that they will be able to face and survive the impacts of climate change.

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

Get in touch with PINGOs Forum through its website of Facebook page, and follow @PINGOsForum on Twitter.

COP28: ‘Political momentum should translate into adequately funded collective action’

CIVICUS discusses the hopes and roles of civil society at the forthcoming COP28 climate summit with Caroline Owashaba
, an eco-feminist and gender inclusion specialist and Executive Director of Action for Youth Development Uganda (ACOYDE).

Founded in 2014 and fully operational since 2014, ACOYDE is a community-based civil society organisation (CSO) working with adolescents and young people to set the agenda and influence policymaking to tackle young people’s challenges at the local, national and international levels. Its head offices are in Mbarara District, southwestern Uganda.

What environmental issues does your organisation work on?

ACOYDE works on a variety of environmental issues. In August 2022 we officially launched Climate Justice Clubs in Schools, aimed at helping teachers and students learn more about climate issues, bring this information into their families and the wider community, advocate for climate justice in their localities and create their own sustainable solutions. Schools are in a good position to start up sustainable solutions – for instance, some schools have agreed not use polythene bags as packages for the food consumed at break times.

We also run a social enterprise that uses banana fibre to produce a variety of useful items. In this way, we contribute to the green economy by producing eco-friendly products that are biodegradable and support community livelihoods, especially for women and young people. This adds value to available community resources by training women to learn new skills to enhance their livelihoods.

We have recently launched a climate justice club for adolescents and young women in Mbarara, which works as a peer learning and knowledge exchange platform focused on learning new skills. We also aim to build the resilience of rural women and raise the voices of women environmental human rights defenders. Women make up a large portion of the agricultural workforce in Uganda, but their importance is largely unacknowledged: their voices and concerns are rarely heard at the national and global levels and they are largely absent from decision-making roles. Our work has focused on training young women environmental defenders to be better able to tackle the challenges they face, including threats, intimidation, harassment and evictions, amplifying their voices, sharing their best practices and providing the conditions so they can learn from one another.

Over time, we’ve seen growing collaboration between environmental activists and organisations working to protect biodiversity and those working for the rights of Indigenous peoples.

Why is civil society participation in climate talks so important?

Civil society plays critical roles in pushing for new laws, programmes, policies and strategies on climate change, holding governments accountable for their commitments, identifying the lack of coordinated government responses to climate change and ensuring that national policymaking does not forget the poor.

CSO networks also collaborate to engage the media in order to reach the public and important decision-makers to impact on policies at the planning levels.

What are your expectations concerning the outcomes of COP28?

We expect to see a clearly defined agenda take shape to implement the loss and damage strategy agreed at COP27. Political momentum should translate into adequately funded collective action.

The loss and damage fund launched at COP27 lacked a clear action plan, so we now expect to see a strategy to make it operational. Loss and damage funds are supposed to be aimed at assisting global south countries that are most vulnerable and have experienced the worst impacts of climate change. This is meant to cover the costs of natural disasters caused by global warming, such as wildfires, rising sea levels, heat waves, droughts and crop failure. Affluent countries must be the main source of funding for loss and damage, because forcing poor countries to borrow money to mitigate the effects of extreme weather and climate disasters would create more problems than it would solve.

We would like to see more heads of states present at COP28, especially from the worst polluters and largest geopolitical powers, and held accountable for their countries’ emissions.

We would like to see progress towards a just economic transition across key climate policy sectors. Meaningful partnerships are needed to link the climate agenda with broader issues of gender, food systems and ecosystem restoration. A fund should be set up for women farmers because in terms of climate resilience, grassroots and rural women are the most unsung change-makers of all time. They provide food, decent jobs and income to a large number of people. Consider how many households would be positively affected if they are adequately funded.

That’s why I take part in the COP’s national gender and climate change working group, which has a chair reporting to the global chair. This is how we connect with the global climate movement and engage in conversations to influence climate policy.

Do you anticipate any obstacles in engaging with COP28?

Gender underrepresentation is likely to persist. Women have historically been underrepresented at COPs, for a variety of reasons including lack of funding to cover airfares, accommodation and living expenses. For example, when two young women from our organisation arrived in Egypt last year, they had trouble with their accommodation reservations. They had an incredibly hard time because hotels kept increasing their rates, and the hassle hindered their involvement in the event. We were very dissatisfied with the COP’s organisational planning.

We have also witnessed accreditation procedures limiting women and girls’ involvement in COPs. The number of accreditations given is always limited, and a low share is granted to women, limiting their voices in decision-making spaces. In 2011 states agreed to boost female participation at COP, but their numbers have continued to significantly decrease. This happens at every level: for instance, a photo that was widely circulated at the start of COP27 showed only seven women among 110 leading negotiators.

If we educate women and girls but do not provide them the opportunity to participate in international conferences, we are wasting their education, time and brains. Among participants at COP27 in Egypt, only 34 per cent were women. We don’t want this to happen at COP28 in the United Arab Emirates. We want to see educated, learned women and girls representing us at COP28. More inclusiveness is needed, including of women and girls with disabilities, from Indigenous and grassroots communities, rural and peri-urban communities, and especially those working in agriculture.

What measures should be taken to make it happen?

States should invest in funding more women and young people to take part in COP28 negotiations to ensure their issues are addressed and their voices are heard. Governments should invest more in women to drastically increase the current rates of female representation, which for some countries is as low as 10 per cent.

As a result of their bigger burden of unpaid care work and more limited access to resources, women are more affected by climate change and suffer its economic impacts more. In some contexts, women are forced to drop out of school or marry to alleviate financial stress. If women and girls are given more space in negotiations, it will be more likely that these issues are addressed.

We acknowledge that COP27 had the first-ever children and youth pavilion, where young people were able to participate effectively in the process; however, there is a need for higher numbers in subsequent sessions.

The United Nations Secretary General’s Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change made a credible attempt to involve and engage young people at COP27. But there are ongoing barriers to youth participation in high-level events, including lack of commitment from older people and lack of funding, which must be addressed.

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

Get in touch with Action for Youth Development Uganda through its website and Facebook page.



25  Owl Street, 6th Floor
South Africa,
Tel: +27 (0)11 833 5959
Fax: +27 (0)11 833 7997

CIVICUS, c/o We Work
450 Lexington Ave
New York
NY 10017
United States

11 Avenue de la Paix
Tel: +41.79.910.34.28