BELIZE: ‘Many laws remain that keep LGBTQI+ people as second-class citizens’

Caleb OrozcoCIVICUS speaks about the situation of LGBTQI+ rights in Belize and the ongoing impacts of the British colonial legacy with Caleb Orozco, the chief litigant in a case successfully challenging Belize’s discriminatory laws and co-founder of the United Belize Advocacy Movement (UNIBAM).

Founded in 2006, UNIBAM was the first LGBTQI+-led policy and advocacy civil rights organisation in Belize. Focused on dismantling systemic and structural violence that impacts on human rights, it uses rights-based approaches to reduce stigma and discrimination.

What was the process leading to the overturn of Belize’s so-called anti-gay laws?

The process of overturning the sodomy laws contained in Section 53 of the Criminal Code started with a preliminary assessment that guided the development of the University of the West Indies’ Rights Advocacy Project (URAP) led by Tracy Robinson, whose group initiated my case in 2010. In 2011 we worked with Human Dignity Trust, which joined as interested party, to engage on international treaty obligations.

In 2007, a conversation started at a meeting in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, organised by the Caribbean Vulnerable Communities Coalition. URAP engaged by email and Viper Messenger, with additional regional conferences to flesh out legal arguments. The process identified Lisa Shoman as local Senior Counsel and Chris Hamel Smith, who argued the case in 2013.

Meanwhile, we submitted reports for Belize’s Universal Periodic Review at the United Nations Human Rights Council to test the government’s response to the challenge to the sodomy laws. We also resorted to thematic hearings at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The response of the government was that it needed a ‘political mandate’. We worked with the subcommittee for policy and legislation of the National AIDS Commission to monitor legislative opportunities and gauge the position of the government and the prime minister. We knew the government would not significantly fight the process.

In late 2010 we filed a challenge to Section 53 and a fight with the group of churches ensued. UNIBAM’s role was eventually reduced to that of an interested party, with the churches relegated to the same role, and I remained as the sole claimant.

We did not have a communications strategy, so we developed one. Nor did we have a security strategy, but we got help from the Human Dignity Trust. We participated in around 300 media interviews, collectively, over the years. The process included the derailment of the government’s revised national gender policy of 2013, with hundreds protesting across the country. Also, in Jamaica, 25,000 people protested to demand the removal of Professor Brendon Bain, an expert witness in my case in support of the churches, from his job at the University of the West Indies. 

The case was heard by the Supreme Court in May 2013. We submitted personal experiences of discrimination and tried to strike out the churches, but we failed. Three years later, on 10 August 2016, the judge ruled in our favour, establishing that Section 53 was unconstitutional, which effectively decriminalised consensual same-sex activity held in private by consenting adults.

The Attorney General launched a partial appeal focused on the freedom of expression and non-discrimination on the grounds of ‘sex’, but the Court of Appeal’s judgment was reaffirmed in December 2019, with the expectation that the sodomy law had to be modified by parliament after the Court reaffirmed its unconstitutionality. Over time, the political tone changed: from claiming a political mandate was needed to change our sodomy law, to supporting 15 out of 17 Universal Periodic Review recommendations on LGBTQI+ rights in 2018. We are now waiting for parliament to modify the law as per the instruction of the Court of Appeal.

Did you experience backlash?

I experienced a lot of backlash throughout the process. This included character assassination and death threats, to the point that a personal security plan had to be put in place for me to go to court in 2013 and for my daily movement. Christian TV stations pushed negative propaganda and social media platforms buzzed with homophobia and threats. 

How much progress has the LGBTQI+ rights movement achieved so far? 

The LGBTQI+ rights movement became part of a National Working Group, in which I helped draft a cabinet note to advance the Equal Opportunities Bill and Hate Crime Legislation, with support from the Human Dignity Trust. Even though the Equal Opportunities Bill was endorsed by the cabinet, it didn’t reach parliament before the 2020 general election, because the evangelical ‘Kill the Bill’ campaign succeeded in derailing it just in time. We are not giving up in 2022!

I run the only LGBTQI+-led observatory of human rights in Belize, which provides litigation support to clients. We produce knowledge products on systemic and structural violence that feeds into a national and transnational advocacy framework that includes LGBTQI+ economic inclusion and livelihoods. 

The process influenced and inspired the development of several niche organisations focused on LGBTQI+ families, health, trans issues and lesbian and bisexual women. It helped launch the global mandate of the Human Dignity Trust’s campaign on decriminalisation. Ours was in fact their first case back in 2011.

What challenges do LGBTQI+ people continue to face in Belize? How can challenges be addressed?

There is the denial of gender markers for trans people. Violence against us can take place in the family and the workplace. Kids experience discrimination in schools. In addition, family insecurity for LGBTQI+ parents is a huge deal. We endure economic rights violations and economic exclusion, as well as unequal access to economic benefits such as social security and government pensions. 

LGBTQI+ Belizeans experience daily deficits in the police’s work that deals with us as victims of violence and detainees. If you’re of African descent and gay, expect police harassment.

We need resources to advance 20 amendments to laws that exclude LGBTQI+ Belizeans as citizens, which attack our dignity and rights and keep us as second-class citizens. The functions of the Human Rights Observatory, which provides redress to LGBTQI+ Belizeans and marginalised women, should be strengthened.

What kind of international support does Belizean LGBTQI+ civil society need? 

International allies can support us with donations through our GoFundMe page. We also really value offers of pro-bono legal support for the work of our Human Rights Observatory, including legal research, legal defence,  protection work, bill drafting, litigation support, and branding strategies, as well as offers of pro bono support to produce investigative or victim advocacy training.

Civic space in Belize is rated ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with UNIBAM through its website and follow @UNIBAMSupport on Twitter.

 

UGANDA: ‘Hate speech against LGBTQI+ people comes from religious, traditional and political leaders’

CIVICUS speaks about the situation of LGBTQI+ rights in Uganda and the ongoing impacts of the British colonial legacy with Opio Sam Leticia, founder and Executive Director of Queer Youth Uganda (QYU).

QYU is a civil society organisation founded in 2006 that advocates for the rights of young LGBTQI+ people.

Opio Sam Leticia

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

The absence of laws that protect LGBTQI+ people makes for a delicate situation in Uganda. The LGBTQI+ community faces discrimination in many aspects. People are still being denied their right to housing in some places because of their sexual orientation and gender identity. They continue to suffer assaults, sexual violence and ‘corrective rape’ as a way of trying to change them into what those perpetrating abuses think is the African way of life, with the LGBTQI+ ‘lifestyle’ still viewed as an imposition of ‘western ideology’. We have had several cases of LGBTQI+ activists who have been evicted by their landlords as a result of their community advocacy work.

Discrimination in workplaces is still rampant: many people who openly identify as LGBTQI+ find it challenging to get employed. The unemployment rate in the LGBTQI+ community is high because there are not enough job opportunities. In addition, some LGBTQI+ people do not have the skills needed for the job market due to their higher school dropout rates. Parents play a significant role in this because when they discover their kids’ sexual orientation they often deny them access to education and even throw them out of their homes.

The breakout of the COVID-19 pandemic revealed the underlying issues that people in the LGBTQI+ community deal with. During the pandemic, several homeless shelters for LGBTQI+ people were raided by the police. As a result, many people were left homeless and others were jailed for three months, sometimes more than once.

Despite the work done to ensure access to health services as a need, there is still discrimination at public health centres meant to provide free healthcare for all people in Uganda. Discrimination in access denies LGBTQI+ people this basic right.

Does Ugandan legislation discriminate against LGBTQI+ people?

The Ugandan constitution stipulates equality for all people, but every single day there are cases of assault and rights violations of LGBTQI+ people.

The law is used as an instrument to oppress LGBTQI+ people instead of promoting their human rights. Same-sex marriage is illegal and same-sex relations are criminalised with harsh penalties, including life imprisonment under Penal Code Act 145. Despite the existence of mechanisms such as the Uganda Human Rights Commission and the Equal Opportunities Commission, it is clear that the rights of LGBTQI+ people continue to be systematically violated.

The government of Uganda continues to enforce the 1950 Penal Code, which prohibits same-sex relations and threatens to imprison LGBTQI+ activists. Parliament has continued to pass bills against sexual minorities, such as the recent Sexual Offences Bill 2021. The current legislation threatens our work environment and our very existence as an LGBTQI+ organisation in Uganda.

To what do you attribute the recent tightening of legislation criminalising LGBTQI+ people?

Uganda is a highly religious country where traditional cultural beliefs or norms take centre stage. LGBTQI+ people see their basic human rights violated because of deeply embedded cultural and religious beliefs. That is why political advocacy does not have an impact: politicians are quick to play the morality card to please their constituencies and sideline the issues raised by LGBTQI+ organisations.

The government should work to integrate the LGBTQI+ community into Ugandan society, not least because we can play a pivotal role in the country’s economic and social development. We can contribute by paying taxes and creating jobs, among other things.

But instead, the LGBTQI+ community faces hate speech coming from religious, traditional and political leaders who promote homophobia. Far from receiving mass support and recognition from the state and citizens, LGBTQI+ activists and organisations have faced increasing human rights abuses and attacks.

What work does your organisation do?

QYU is an LGBTQI+ youth-led community-based organisation that advocates for the rights of young LGBTQI+ people in rural and peri-urban areas of Uganda. QYU operates in the four regions of Uganda: the Eastern, Southern, Western and Bunyoro Kitara/Albertine regions. We have five key programmes that we run in communities to offer safe spaces and promote the participation of LGBTQI+ people in human development: human rights awareness and advocacy, sexual reproductive health rights and services, emergency housing and accommodation, economic empowerment, and advocacy, alliance building and partnerships.

Through implementing these programmes, we want to create a legal and policy environment where the rights of LGBTQI+ people are upheld and respected. The high numbers of rape cases and arbitrary arrests have pushed us to advocate for equal and inclusive reproductive health rights and access to sexual and reproductive health services and to set up safe spaces at community health centres so that LGBTQI+ people can access healthcare facilities without the trauma of being harassed.

In addition, QYU responds to urgent housing needs of LGBTQI+ people who are victims of social stigma and discrimination from their families and the public. We also mobilise and empower LGBTQI+ people, particularly young people, by providing them with practical skills, knowledge and appropriate information regarding employment and social entrepreneurship and developing their personal and professional skills for the labour market. Through partnership building, advocacy and referral, we work with like-minded organisations to advocate for and advance the rights and freedoms of LGBTQI+ people at both the national and international levels.

But we have faced several challenges that make it difficult to carry out our work. We have continued to suffer office break-ins from unknown individuals, causing fear among our staff members. We also have limited funding, which impacts the scope of our work because we can only do so much with the funds we have.

What should Commonwealth states do to promote LGBTQI+ rights?

Commonwealth states should work together since most have the same codes that criminalise LGBTQI+ people, dating back to the colonial era. So many years later, they are still making daily life miserable for LGBTQI+ people in the countries that are part of the Commonwealth. I think member countries should use the various organs of the Commonwealth to provide a platform for LGBTQI+ voices. Those that have decriminalised same-sex relations should support those fighting toward that goal.

The international community fighting for similar causes should also use their platforms to raise awareness on the kind of struggles we are facing. Their mobilisation will hopefully pressure our governments to create policies that will benefit all members of society regardless of their gender identity or sexual orientation.

Civic space in Uganda is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Queer Youth Uganda through its website or Facebook page, and follow @QueerYouth2006 on Twitter. 

 

THE GAMBIA: ‘Civil society works to ensure Jammeh and other perpetrators of human rights violations face justice’

Adama JallowCIVICUS speaks about the prospects of The Gambia’s former dictator Yahya Jammeh being put on trial with Adama Jallow, National Coordinator of the Gambia Center for Victims of Human Rights Violations (Victim’s Center).

Founded in 2017, the Victims Center is a civil society organisation (CSO) that seeks justice and reparations for victims of human rights violations under the dictatorship. It has successfully pressured the government to recognise the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC).

What are the main conclusions of the TRRC report?

After consulting with victims of Yahya Jammeh’s inhumane treatment, the TRRC’s report concluded that Jammeh should be brought to justice and victims must receive help and support to recover from the atrocious experience they endured under the former dictator’s rule. The government has released a white paper in which it accepts the recommendations made by the TRRC. We believe this is huge, considering the amount of work civil society put into advocating for the establishment of the TRRC.

The TRRC report is a sort of roadmap we can use so that justice can be served in The Gambia. Out of the 265 recommendations made by the TRRC, the government rejected only two, while marking the rest for implementation. Many atrocities were committed under Jammeh’s dictatorship and were highlighted by both perpetrators and victims before the TRRC. These include sexual and gender-based violence, torture, enforced disappearances and killings, arbitrary detention and crimes in which the victims were accused of witchcraft.

The TRRC’s report states that The Gambia’s society and government institutions have a responsibility to prevent the reoccurrence of the crimes it documented. Its recommendations focus basically on the well-being of victims, who are expected to receive individual and collective reparations, and the prosecution of perpetrators. 

We initially did not think the government would agree to implementing the TRRC’s recommendations. It came as a shock to us when the government agreed to it, because it is a new experience for civil society to be seen and heard by the government. It is a positive indication that our government is prepared to work together with us. The fact that only two of the recommendations were rejected surpassed our expectations. Now we will focus on pushing the government to implement the recommendations.

What does the Victims Center do?

The Victim’s Center was established in 2017, right after the regime change. Under Jammeh’s rule citizens lived in an oppressive state that restricted their rights and freedoms, and there was no freedom of association, assembly and expression. Many human rights violations and abuses occurred, including killings, torture and other cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment, disappearances, arbitrary arrests and detention, sexual violence and the indiscriminate and illegal use of force. Many civil society activists and organisations were arrested because of the work they did – basically for speaking up against the regime and pushing for democracy.

When Jammeh was overthrown, and we got a new government, civil society and victims felt the need to seek justice and hold Jammeh accountable for the atrocities committed under his rule. We formed the Victims Center to offer a platform for victims to express their issues, seek support and assistance and advocate towards the government.

Part of our mission is to advocate for the TRRC report. We have been fortunate enough to receive international support. Organisations such as Human Rights Watch have released letters in solidarity with the victims and to demand the government responds to our advocacy asks. We have also worked closely with other CSOs and victim-led organisations to ensure that the government takes its duty seriously, recognises victims and provides reparations. We want to make sure the government provides reparations to all victims, without discriminating against anyone.

We have also seen a need to go out and sensitise people on transitional justice processes, victims’ rights and the cases submitted to the TRRC. The Victim’s Center has always been at the forefront of advocating and engaging with the Ministry of Justice and mobilising media to ensure victims are getting the help they need. Despite the challenges we have faced, such as intimidation and lack of capacity, we remain committed to helping victims get justice.

How has civil society advocated for prosecution?

The Gambia’s civil society has been very active throughout the process. We understood the importance of engaging with the government because it will play a key role in ensuring that justice is served. We had meetings with the Ministry of Justice staff to find out how they intend to support victims.

We have also disseminated press releases demanding that justice take place at the societal level. We think it is important to inform victims, their families and society at large about the contents of the TRRC report and how The Gambia’s society will benefit from it, so we have held conferences. We have also formed partnerships with other local and international CSOs to reach a wider audience and to put additional pressure on our government.

We know that our laws present obstacles. We were supposed to have a new constitution to replace the 1997 one, but the new text was rejected by the National Assembly. The legislation presently in place does not consider enforced disappearance or torture as crimes, which is something civil society advocates for. We now hope the National Assembly can adjust the old constitution to ensure the possibility of litigation in such cases. In the meantime, the Ministry of Justice has promised to form a body to handle cases involving crimes that are not codified in our legislation.

In essence, civil society has engaged extensively to ensure that Jammeh and other perpetrators face justice.

Do you foresee any challenges in the implementation of the report’s recommendations?

We foresee several challenges, one of them being the Ministry of Justice’s lack of capacity to handle cases of extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearance and torture. We need experts to oversee these cases so that everyone who is prosecuted is brought to justice.

Another challenge lies with our constitution, as neither the old nor the current draft recognises enforced disappearance and torture. These are some of the human rights violations victims experienced and we need them to be recognised so that victims can receive help and perpetrators can be tried.

We are also concerned about whether Jammeh can be brought to trial outside The Gambia, given that he is not currently residing in the country. We are trying our best to see how we can work with other organisations to address this issue.

But all these challenges have not discouraged us. We continue advocating with partners to ensure the TRRC’s recommendations are implemented. We are also putting pressure on the Ministry of Justice to come up with a realistic timeframe that will convince us that the government is really committed to implementing the recommendations. We encourage the government to work closely with CSOs and victim-led organisations to ensure they implement the white paper with an inclusive approach.

What kind of support does civil society in The Gambia need from the international community?

Local CSOs and victim-led organisations need funding to continue their advocacy work, build capacity and support victims. International CSOs should partner with us and advise us on a way forward in terms of what types of cases could be brought, and how they can be brought if the constitution is not changed or amended. We also need them to use their resources to put pressure on the Gambian government to make sure justice prevails.

Civic space in The Gambia is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Gambia Center for Victims of Human Rights Violations through its Facebook, and follow @gambia_vc on Twitter. 

 

TURKEY: ‘Refugees are the perfect scapegoat in times of crisis’

Dilan AkbayırCIVICUS speaks with Dilan Akbayır, a social worker who works with Syrian refugees, about Turkey’s plan to send refugees back to Syria and the rise of anti-refugee sentiment and racism against Syrians in Turkey.

Dilan collaborates with several Istanbul-based civil society organisations (CSOs), including the Women’s Health and Planning Foundation.

What prompted the Turkish government to announce a plan to send a million Syrian refugees back to Syria?

I think the change in the government’s position on immigration has a lot to do with the 2023 general elections and the context of severe economic crisis that Turkey is going through, with very high inflation and the Turkish lira falling to its lowest level in history. Both the ruling party and the opposition have already started their campaigns, which are also taking place in a context of increased restrictions on personal rights and freedoms, severe inhibition of the freedom of expression, and the use of unlawful evidence in judicial proceedings.

Turkey is the country with the world’s highest population of migrants and refugees. More than six million Syrians were forcibly displaced after the Syrian revolution broke out in 2011, and most of them flew to neighbouring Turkey. The official number of Syrian refugees in Turkey is over 3.7 million, but the total is estimated to be over five million.

It is not surprising that migration and the future of refugees have become the main agenda item in Turkish politics. Refugees are the perfect scapegoat in times of crisis. Politicians are using the issue to redirect people’s anger towards refugees instead of blaming the politicians who have not been able to address their concerns. Opinion polls are showing that the only thing that unites Turkish society is anger towards refugees – anti-refugee sentiment is the glue that keeps the new Turkey together. People are driven to believe refuges are responsible for everything that is wrong in the country and given the illusion that everything will be okay if refugees are taken out of the way.

In the context of an election campaign, any politician who most believably promises they will take care of this issue is likely to win. This is not exceptional to Turkey: we are seeing similar situations throughout Europe, as was recently the case with the French elections. Far-right politics are rising globally thanks to hostility towards refugees, immigrants and other minorities.

Are there any legal grounds for the new anti-refugee policy?

There are no legal grounds for the new anti-refugee policy. The international conventions to which Turkey is a state party, and Turkey’s domestic legislation, all stipulate the prohibition of refoulement. This means that refugees should not be sent back to countries where there is a danger of persecution, war, crisis, ill-treatment or torture. If this is not legal, then why have Turkish authorities and politicians announced a plan to return a million Syrians back to their country?

There is a lot of confusion about the legal situation of Syrian refugees in Turkey, which has been under discussion for years. When the mass flow of Syrians began there was a legal gap that was later filled by two new laws: the 2013 Law on Foreigners and International Protection and the 2014 Temporary Protection Regulation. As a result, Syrians’ presence in Turkey began to be referred to as ‘temporary’. People started saying that Syrians are just passing by, waiting to move on to a third, more developed country.

For the past decade, politicians have systematically emphasised the ‘temporary’ status of refugees living in Turkey – but in the meantime, refugees have made a life here, and they want to stay. Moreover, even if they remain under temporary protection, it still holds that certain conditions must be met before they can be sent back to Syria. The United Nations (UN) Refugee Agency has established that the return of asylum seekers must be dignified, safe and voluntary.

For refugees to be returned, the UN should declare the region a safe zone for return, which has not happened. The UN considers Syria to be unsafe due to the ongoing violence, human rights violations and desperate humanitarian situation: 14.6 million people need humanitarian assistance and more than 12 million are struggling to find enough food. Ninety per cent of the population is below the poverty line and the country is on the verge of famine.

As reported by Amnesty International, between 2017 and 2021 some Syrians were returned from Jordan and Lebanon, and returnees faced serious human rights violations, including arbitrary detention, kidnapping, torture, sexual assault and extrajudicial killings. Returnees may even be charged with treason or terrorism for having fled. Although armed conflict has decreased, the environment is still not safe.

Do you think this is part of a broader pattern?

It is not only in Turkey that migration and refugees have become highly charged political topics; this is happening in many European countries. More developed countries in particular were supposed to side with human rights and take much more responsibility in hosting refugees fleeing wars in Syria and other Middle East countries. But their policies have been mostly exclusionary and discriminatory.

We just saw the rise of far-right politics hostile toward refugees, immigrants and minorities in the 2022 French election. In Denmark, a country of 5.8 million, only 35,000 of 500,000 refugees are Syrian, but in 2021 the Danish government decided not to renew their residence permits claiming that parts of Syria are safe. It is also planning to start processing asylum petitions in Uganda, in a plan very similar to the British government’s plan to process theirs in Rwanda.

Following a UN resolution, the international community agreed to share responsibilities for the resettlement of refugees, but numbers tell a different story: the rate of resettlement in European countries is quite low compared to Turkey. This exposes the European Union’s externalisation policy, aimed at preventing irregular migration into Europe by ensuring that refugees stay in Turkey. This is not fair and causes more problems for developing countries such as Turkey, which experience more pronounced economic, social and political crises.

How has the announcement of the new policy impacted on Syrian refugees living in Turkey?

A majority of Syrians in Turkey don’t want to return to their country. Even as they are being increasingly scapegoated, over the years they have changed their view on a possible return. In 2017, 60 per cent of Syrian refugees surveyed in Turkey said they wanted to return to their country as soon as the war is over. Currently, 80 per cent say they do not want to go back because they have already established life in Turkey, and they think life will not go back to normal in Syria even if the war ends.

However, many do not feel so safe in Turkey anymore. The political rhetoric around sending back Syrian refugees goes hand in hand with growing anti-refugee sentiment fuelled by the increased visibility of Syrians in Turkish society. The majority live in big cities such as Ankara and Istanbul, and as the refugee population grows, they start to be seen as a problem or a threat.

In contrast, when Syrians started to arrive in Turkey in 2012, society welcomed them. At that time, a major factor leading to acceptance was emphasis on their ‘temporary’ status, supported by the authorities’ discourse referring to them as ‘guests’. Eleven years later, growing socio-economic problems that the government has not taken seriously began to reflect on Syrian refugees.

As exclusionary nationalist discourse spiked, Syrians were placed at the root of domestic problems. According to a recent report by the Center for Migration Studies at Ankara University, 85 per cent of surveyed people in Turkey want Syrians to be returned or isolated, as they view them as potentially causing more problems in the future.

Moreover, anti-refugee groups are using the media to disseminate xenophobic propaganda. They stir feelings of national and racial superiority and raise concerns regarding cultural integration, presenting attacks on refugees as a way to defend the homeland. They insist the presence of Syrians is having negative effects on public safety and the country’s demography and economic prospects. Syrian refugees are blamed for growing restrictions on women’s freedoms and increasing rates of murder and rape. These issues are easily used to manipulate the public.

How has Turkish civil society responded?

In the face of increasing anti-refugee rhetoric, some civil society groups and activists, including women’s rights organisations, artists and academics, have expressed solidarity through public statements and by holding events such as anti-racist panels.

However, given the wider anti-refugee political climate, many CSOs did not make any statements against anti-refugee discourse. Sadly, some institutions working with refugees stopped their activities in response to increasing hostility. Others decided to continue their work more quietly. Civic space in getting narrower for us.

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

 

USA: ‘The Starbucks unionisation campaign has sparked the imagination of workers across the country’

Theresa HaasCIVICUS speaks about unionisation efforts at Starbucks with Theresa Haas, director of global strategies of the labour union Workers United. Workers United coordinates the Starbucks Campaign in the USA. It is affiliated with the Service Employees International Union, which has members in both the USA and Canada.

What role did Workers United play in the process leading to Starbucks’s first union vote in 2021?

When Starbucks partners – as the company calls its employees – in Buffalo, New York first started thinking about organising, they researched what they needed to do and how to go about doing it. Knowing that the Rochester Regional Joint Board, an affiliate of Workers United, had successfully organised another coffee chain in upstate New York, they reached out to that affiliate. Pretty soon, it was clear that the values held by Starbucks partners seeking to join a union aligned closely with the values of Workers United. Workers United and its predecessor unions have worked for more than 100 years to build a strong middle class, advancing the social, economic and political welfare of our members by empowering them to use their voices in their communities.

Workers United has a long history of standing in solidarity with low-wage workers across global supply chains and taking on powerful multinational corporations to demand that workers have respect and dignity on the job.

On the international platform, Workers United is deeply invested in ensuring safe and healthy working conditions for workers across the globe through our work with IndustriALL. We actively campaigned for US brands and retailers to join the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, now the International Accord for Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry, a ground-breaking programme that has dramatically improved safety conditions in the country’s garment industry. In 2019, Workers United fought for and became a signatory to an agreement with major denim corporations and local unions to address gender-based violence and harassment in Lesotho garment factories.

As with all campaigns Workers United is involved with, this Starbucks Workers United campaign has been driven by the recognition that Starbucks partners are seeking corporate accountability and a voice in their workplace. Since the beginning, Workers United’s role has been simply to empower Starbucks partners through guidance and support.

What progress has been made since then?

Since a store in Buffalo filed the first petition with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for the right to form a union in August 2021, more than 280 stores in 37 states across the USA have filed petitions to join Workers United. We continue to assist many other stores that have yet to announce publicly their intent to form a union.

The first store to win its election was in Buffalo. Since that win in December 2021, more than 120 other stores have won their elections to join Workers United. There have been more than 140 elections held so far – ten are pending based on challenges, and 12 stores voted not to join the union by slim margins.

It should be noted that there are only six Starbucks Reserve stores in the world – three in the USA, one in China, one in Japan and one in Italy. Two of the three in the USA have voted to join Workers United.

This campaign has sparked the imagination of hourly wage workers across the country. It derives its strength from being fuelled from the bottom up by workers who have found solidarity among each other. Working together, across the country, they are building strength, and with each election victory their collective voice grows.

Workers around the world, including unionised Starbucks workers in several countries, have also expressed solidarity with Starbucks workers fighting to organise in the USA.

What challenges does Workers United face in southern states?

Like every other union, we must overcome the anti-union history of the US south, which makes any organising campaign much more difficult. Stores in the south have had a tougher win-loss record compared with other parts of the country. Overall, Workers United has won 90 per cent of all Starbucks elections. In the south, our win rate is 67 per cent. We are still very happy with this win rate, considering this is the traditional south we are working in.

Starbucks’ anti-union activities are also pervasive in the south. There have been more firings in this region than any other place – in Estero, Florida; Memphis, Tennessee; and Raleigh, North Carolina. We know the company does this to chill organising efforts, as a way to scare people so they will be too afraid to support the union.

In response to the company’s aggressive anti-union actions, Workers United has filed numerous unfair labour practice charges against the company for actions such as holding captive audience meetings, intimidation and unjust firings, which the union alleges are illegal under the US National Labor Relations Act.

The NLRB recently declared illegal the actions of the company to fire seven workers in Memphis, and is petitioning the courts to make the company reinstate them.

How has Starbucks responded to unionising efforts across the USA?

Starbucks has aggressively fought against letting their partners have a voice in the workplace. Partners have a very simple ask: they want the right to form a union so they can have a voice in their workplace. They are the ones who interact with customers and the ones brewing the coffee and providing the service the company prides itself on. So they are the ones who know first-hand the issues that need to be fixed and the improvements that need to be made.

Starbucks has waged an aggressive anti-union effort, going as far as holding captive audience meetings, providing false and misleading information, cutting partners’ hours so they don’t qualify for certain benefits, and even firing workers for engaging in union activities. The company has hired a team of lawyers known for their aggressive anti-union stance to fight its partners every step of the way, to slow the momentum of this movement.

Despite its stated values and mission, the company has shown through its actions that it is not what it claims to be – a warm and welcoming company that encourages growth within its workforce, challenges the status quo, conducts itself with transparency, dignity and respect, and holds itself accountable for results and through a lens of humanity.

In response to the company’s activities, in recent months Workers United has filed more than 180 unfair labour practice charges with the NLRB.

NLRB regional offices have been investigating Starbucks’ anti-union conduct across the USA and have so far issued nine1 complaints charging it with violating labour laws. In Memphis, Tennessee, the NLRB has charged that the company fired five of six members of the union organising committee and is now prosecuting the company. In Buffalo, New York, the NLRB found ‘serious and substantial’ misconduct by Starbucks, and has charged it with over 200 violations of US labour laws in one of the largest complaints in US history.

How do your efforts relate to unionising efforts at Amazon?

Both Starbucks and Amazon are companies that have tried to portray themselves as responsible, ethical corporate citizens that care about our planet and society – even as they blatantly mistreat and exploit their employees.

We are hopeful that the grassroots efforts driven by workers who are tired of their exploitative and unjust working conditions have set in motion a push towards transformative change for improved conditions for hourly wage workers to include dignity and respect in the workplace.

Workers all over the world should be afforded the right to organise, seek improvements and speak up against injustice and inequality wherever they see it.

How can the international community best support Workers United’s Starbucks campaign?

We face a company that has proven to be determined to silence its partners’ voices at whatever cost and by whatever means. It does not seem to recognise that partners are fighting to improve the company rather than seek its demise. Partners are seeking to help make the company the progressive employer it claims to be. They want to improve the climate and culture of the company, which they say has deteriorated over the years.

In return for these efforts, the company is seeking to squelch their voices, and international civil society and the wider international community should recognise the company’s actions for what they are.

Partners who are organising should be recognised as courageous champions of the working class. They are buoyed by acts of solidarity, through words and actions.

We need international civil society and the broader international community to amplify partners’ calls on Howard Schultz, Starbucks founder and chief executive officer, and Mellody Hobson, chair of the Board of Directors, as well as the entire Board of Directors of Starbucks to stop their union-busting practices. They are threatening workers, firing them, threatening to withhold raises and waging a war on their own employees. The international community should call out Starbucks for not being a progressive company and let workers at Starbucks stores in the USA know they support them.

Let them know that the world is watching and cheering them on. Show your support online by following the organising effort on Twitter and check for the latest news coverage of this historical movement on the Workers United website.

Civic space in the USA is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Workers United through its website and follow @WorkersUnited and @sbworkersunited on Twitter. 

 

PALESTINE: ‘They label us antisemites or terrorists to silence us and paralyse our human rights work’

NadimNashifCIVICUS speaks about civil society’s online activism against repression and oppression in Palestine with Nadim Nashif, executive director and co-founder of 7amleh: The Arab Center for the Advancement of Social Media.

7amleh is a civil society organisation that advocates for Palestinian digital rights. With the aim of creating a safe, fair and free digital space for Palestinians, it researches digital rights, provides training to Palestinian activists and organisations and leads local and international advocacy campaigns.

What is the focus of 7amleh’s work?

We focus on digital rights and digital activism. Palestinian people have been living under occupation for the past seven decades. This kind of occupation obviously involves lots of violence, repression and oppression.

As technology progressed and the internet became part of our lives, the same power relations were replicated in the online world. Palestinians live under siege from the Israeli government. This siege is not only physical; it has also migrated to the virtual world.

There are frequent attempts to prevent Palestinians from exercising their freedom of expression online. This is done by pressuring companies to exclude Palestinians. For instance, many social media platforms are biased in their policy toward Palestinian content and many digital payment platforms don’t allow Palestinians to use them under various excuses due to Israel’s pressure. PayPal, for instance, is available to Israelis but not Palestinians. Palestinians’ freedom of expression is also limited because they can be arrested for what they post on social media. There’s an evident practice of discrimination against Palestinians.

Our organisation is recording all these cases of restriction and documenting them to fight for the rights and freedoms of Palestinians.

How have Palestinians worked around these restrictions to make themselves heard?

The Palestinian identity is under attack. For instance, the Israeli army doesn’t let the Palestinian flag be raised. But Palestinians have tried to find creative ways to express their identity. For example, to represent their flag while not raising an actual flag, they have chosen to display the flag’s colours. These are the colours that can be found in watermelons, so they will instead draw a watermelon.

Social media platforms use the available technology, their algorithms and search engines, to cooperate with the Israeli authorities by monitoring speech and deleting content when certain keywords come up. For example, Palestinian political movements are considered by Israel and the USA to be terrorist organisations, so their names are banned from social media. But digital activists are finding ways to write them that trick artificial intelligence, such as by adding full stops between letters. This is how they can still express themselves and find ways not to be banned entirely online. Those are some tactics Palestinians are using to refuse to play by the rules of those who want to limit them and tell them how to think, write and express their national identity.

Digital activism is key. When you experience human rights violations on a daily basis, the camera becomes a tool of resistance. For many Palestinians, it is the only defence from soldiers and violent settlers attacking them constantly. In many cases, home evictions were prevented because they were livestreamed. That’s why the Israeli government initiated legislation to criminalise photography and video-making.

Online global solidarity is also key, as shown by the 2021 case of the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood in East Jerusalem, in which online solidarity movements applied pressure to prevent house evictions. As a result, the Israeli government’s plan didn’t succeed.

How have the authorities reacted to this activism?

They have constantly tried to silence the Palestinian narrative and raise the Israeli one, by criminalising Palestinian activists and sending them to jail. There are cases in which you don’t even understand why someone is in jail.

I remember the case of a young teenager from Jerusalem who posted on Facebook some phrases about Palestinians needing to go to Al-Aqsa Mosque to defend it from Israeli settlers. He spent one and a half years in jail because of this, which was not a call to violence at all. He just said, ‘Hey, this is our holy place, we need to protect it’. You can be sent to jail for saying something about protecting a place! This example is just one of many.

The Israeli government is pushing many laws and regulations to be able to do this. One of them is the so-called ‘Facebook law’ it is trying to pass. Officially, it’s meant to help deal with harmful content. But it aims to grant Israeli courts the power to demand the removal of user-generated content on social media platforms that can be perceived as inflammatory or as harming the security of the state, people or the public. It is so vague that anything the Israeli authorities don’t like will be sent to the courts, without those affected being able to defend themselves. Using ‘secret evidence’, Israel can order companies to take down content they consider to be illegal. This would obviously be used exclusively against Palestinians.

Many tactics of online repression are already being used, including lots of online brigading – coordinated actions by groups constantly reporting social media content to the Cyber Unit. Palestinians are under surveillance 24/7, especially on social media. Accounts are continually under surveillance and reported to social media companies. These companies are taking down almost 90 per cent of what the Israeli government asks them to.

How can international civil society and the international community best support Palestinian civil society?

I think they must take a firm stand when human rights violations happen. There’s an ongoing attempt to silence Palestinian civil society by labelling us as antisemites or terrorists. These accusations have profound effects: they aim to paralyse Palestinian civil society and prevent it recording human rights violations and atrocities – war crimes – committed against Palestinians.

Internationally recognised Palestinian human rights organisations have been on the ground for more than four decades and have recorded everything. They clearly have nothing to do with terrorism or antisemitism – all they care about is human rights and democratic values. But many governments around the world fail to reject the accusations against them. Why?

Any outstanding personality or activist standing up for Palestinians faces a smear campaign. We are trying to develop tools that help us deal with this, but it’s not simple. Palestine is not the only place where this is happening. We’ve seen shrinking civic space and civil society activists and organisations stigmatised as terrorists or terrorist supporters in many other countries in the global south, with many countries of the global north cooperating and supporting the regimes that oppress them.

No human being would accept having their freedoms taken away without fighting back, as Palestinians do; it’s a natural human reaction. We hope allies and friends from global rights movements, political movements and civil society organisations will stand up for us and raise their voices on our behalf.

Civic space in Palestine is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with 7amleh through its website or Facebook page, and follow @7amleh and @NadimNashif on Twitter.

 

 

ZIMBABWE: ‘Society is only starting to open up to the idea of living harmoniously with LGBTQI+ people’

Samuel MatsikureCIVICUS speaks about the situation of LGBTQI+ rights in Zimbabwe and the ongoing impacts of the British colonial legacy with Samuel Matsikure, programmes manager at GALZ-Association of LGBTI people in Zimbabwe.

Founded in 1990, GALZ is a civil society organisation (CSO) that seeks to promote and protect LGBTQI+ rights in Zimbabwe through advocacy, research, education and service provision.

What is the situation of LGBTQI+ people in Zimbabwe?

We have seen a slight improvement with the recent change of government. In the previous years, the late President Robert Mugabe would contently throw in homophobic statements whenever he addressed the nation. He openly attacked the LGBTQI+ community on both the local and global stages. The current government, in contrast, is not proactive in targeting LGBTQI+ people to push its political agenda. We are seeing fewer rights violations committed by the state against LGBTQI+ people across the country.

Nonetheless, the government’s relative silence and shift of focus do not mean things are now okay for LGBTQI+ people. In fact, this shift has left us with many unanswered questions because we do not know if the government really supports LGBTQI+ rights or if they do not want to deal with what is considered a very controversial issue.

Organisations advocating for LGBTQI+ rights continue to question politicians about their strategies to integrate LGBTQI+ people in the community. During the 2017 elections we reached out to political parties to make a couple of questions regarding the inclusion of LGBTQI+ issues in their agenda. Unfortunately, we only received responses from two parties, including the ruling party, the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF).

ZANU-PF has recently become quite open about engaging with us on matters concerning the LGBTQI+ community. We see this as a milestone because it previously would not have a dialogue with the LGBTQI+ community. This has helped us to have more conversations with the government and look at the possibility of changing laws and policies. This has also made the public more open about having conversations with us than before. People now hear about LGBTQI+ rights and their responses are more positive than negative.

How do laws discriminate against LGBTQI+ people in Zimbabwe?

There are some provisions that promote inclusion, but the reality is quite different. Zimbabwe still has draconian laws that impede the rights of LGBTQI+ people. The current constitution has a bill of rights that aims to promote people’s right to health, privacy and freedom of association. The constitution recognises diversity and includes a non-discriminatory clause. But LGBTQI+ people still have their rights violated regardless of what the constitution says. The laws are there but their interpretation by various parties leads to discrimination.

According to the experiences we have collected from the LGBTQI+ community, discrimination in the health sector is widespread, although efforts are being made to sensitise and train healthcare workers to improve access for LGBTQI+ people and other key populations. Until recently, by law people were required to reveal their HIV status to their partners, and failure to do so was a criminal offence. 

The recent decriminalisation of HIV transmission under the Marriage Amendment Bill will be a great milestone for the LGBTQI+ community. It was difficult for LGBTQI+ people to reveal their status to partners or healthcare workers because they did not have easy access to healthcare facilities and feared being reported to the police or arrested. So with the support of new policies and our HIV/AIDS national strategy, the result has been the provision of a comprehensive programme giving LGBTQI+ people the right to access these facilities. This shows that the state is willing to create a space in which people can access these resources; the question is whether they will monitor those spaces to ensure people are not harassed.

Discrimination against LGBTQI+ people is also present in the workplace. We have dealt with several cases of people being unfairly dismissed because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Most businesses involved justify their decisions by saying their companies are founded on Christian values so they cannot work with or support LGBTQI+ individuals. This goes against labour laws banning discrimination in the workplace. Sadly, such cases cannot be taken to court and challenged because the legislation does not recognise LGBTQI+ rights. There are legal loopholes that allow the public to discriminate against LGBTQI+ people.

Unfortunately, we still have laws inherited from colonial times that cause segregation in our society. The law that criminalises same-sex practices dates back to when we were a British colony. As a result of this law, men who engage in same-sex activities risk a year in prison. The Immigration Act still discriminates against homosexuals and prostitutes. These laws were drafted during colonial times and are no longer applicable: we are a democratic country with a constitution that has a comprehensive bill of rights.

What work does GALZ do, and what challenges have you encountered?

For around 30 years, GALZ was the only organisation in Zimbabwe focusing on LGBTQI+ issues. But over the past years, we have seen the emergence of new organisations that are either LGBTQI+-led or are working with the LGBTQI+ community. Because of this, we have been able to reorganise ourselves and prioritise the things we want to focus on while letting other organisations deal with remaining issues.

GALZ’s work currently stands on four pillars. The first is community and empowerment. Our mandate here is equip LGBTQI+ people with life skills. We also want them to understand their human rights and to freely participate in economic and social activities. We inform them of the processes related to the development agenda and their role in it.

The second pillar is knowledge, documentation and ideas. The third is policy and law and the fourth is human rights and access to justice. We want to develop strong institutions that will ensure the participation of LGBTQI+ people in communities and uphold their rights. The third and fourth pillars are related to human rights and internal governance and their use is to raise the visibility of the community and provide services related to the rights to property, family and participation.

We want to build a technical hub for distributing information that will help LGBTQI+ CSOs and guide LGBTQI+ people in building CSOs in a hostile environment. Zimbabwean LGBTQI+ CSOs have been able to develop their own LGBTQI+ advocacy plan. This gives us the chance to speak as a collective and support each other’s advocacy work. By working together, we have been able to provide safe spaces for LGBTQI+ people in our country, including recreational spaces, internet access, support to complete academic studies, and support for students willing to pursue research on LGBTQI+ issues.

Given the importance of family, GALZ has built a portfolio for parents and friends of LGBTQI+ people, P-Flag. We bring them together to promote the acceptance of LGBTQI+ people within families and communities and share their experiences.

But we have faced some challenges. Zimbabwean society is starting to open up to the idea of living harmoniously with LGBTQI+ people but has not fully accepted us. We still face harassment from community members. LGBTQI+ activists are arrested for their advocacy work. In the recent past the state used to disrupt our activities and question our legitimacy. In addition, the proposed Private Voluntary Organisation (PVO) Bill threatens our work: there is fear we may not be allowed to register once the bill is passed. Human rights violations make it difficult for people to participate actively in LGBTQI+ movements.

How can Commonwealth countries work together to promote LGBTQI+ rights?

We need to acknowledge that many of these laws in Commonwealth countries are a legacy of the British empire. The laws we still have are repressive in nature and fail to acknowledge diversity and human rights. It is time for us to include the principles and practices of human rights in our laws. As organisations fighting for LGBTQI+ rights we need to pressure our governments to reform regressive policies and abolish laws that enforce discrimination and exclusion in our societies. We should pressure them to respect the constitution and hold people and institutions accountable for disrespecting people’s rights.

We should pool our resources to mobilise and form a global alliance to bring LGBTQI+ issues to the forefront. By working together we can defeat the discrimination that is embedded in our systems and challenge the laws that perpetuate the violation of human rights.

Civic space in Zimbabwe is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with GALZ through its Facebook and Instagram pages, and follow @galzinf on Twitter.

 

JAMAICA: ‘Laws that discriminate against LGBTQI+ people send a signal about our place in society’

Glenroy MurrayCIVICUS speaks about the situation of LGBTQI+ rights in Jamaica and the ongoing impacts of the British colonial legacy with Glenroy Murray, Executive Director of J-FLAG.

J-FLAG is a human rights and social justice organisation that advocates for the rights, livelihood and well- being of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Jamaica.

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

We continue to face challenges even as we note that there has been progress in the form of moderately increasing positive attitudes towards the community. Based on the 2019 Awareness, Attitude and Perception Survey commissioned by J-FLAG, there was a small but noticeable increase of five percentage points in tolerant and positive attitudes towards LGBTQI+ Jamaicans, from 20 to 25 per cent. A 10-year analysis of the human rights violations being reported to J-FLAG shows a decline in mob violence, arson and murder.

However, there continues to be reports of verbal harassment, threats, physical violence and displacement of LGBTQI+ Jamaicans by their family and members of their community. According to the 2019 Community Needs Assessment commissioned by J-FLAG, one in five LGBTQI+ Jamaicans have been displaced at some point in their lives, and 46.8 per cent of LGBTQI+ Jamaicans have experienced discrimination.

That being said, there has been a noticeable increase in the willingness of LGBTQI+ Jamaicans to be more visible and a decline in openly homophobic rhetoric among politicians and key decision-makers, and in violently homophobic lyrics in popular music genres. These qualitative shifts suggest that we are slowly moving in a positive direction as a society, even though the most vulnerable members of the community often continue to face the most severe manifestations of homophobia.

Do you think there are enough mechanisms in place to address homophobia in Jamaica?

Quite the opposite: there are specific legislative provisions that are discriminatory. For example, section 76 of the Offences Against the Person Act criminalises anal sex regardless of consent and section 79 generally criminalises male-to-male intimacy. Although these laws are hardly enforced, they send a signal about our place in society. In addition, same-sex couples are deliberately excluded from laws that recognise unmarried couples and provide benefits and protections, including against domestic violence, to people in those relationships.

Jamaican law does not prohibit discrimination by private people and groups, including companies, on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. While some steps have been taken to prohibit sexual orientation discrimination in policy, this has not always translated into better protection for LGBTQI+ Jamaicans. In addition, there continues to be a reticence among community members to report crimes and violence against them to the police because of experiences of discrimination that they’ve had or are aware of.

It is critical for the Jamaican government to do more to ensure the inclusion of LGBTQI+ Jamaicans. A 2020 study done by the Caribbean Policy Research Institute revealed that billions of dollars are lost because of discrimination against the community. Beyond this economic burden, the continued exclusion faced by the community puts Jamaica at odds with its international human rights commitments and obligations. The success of our national development plan, Vision 2030, is endangered by this exclusion.

What work does J-FLAG do, and what challenges has it faced?

J-FLAG uses a range of approaches to advocate for greater inclusion of LGBTQI+ Jamaicans within society. We continue to agitate for law and policy reform so that criminalising and discriminatory laws are changed and protective laws and policies are introduced. Recognising the need to engender cultural change, we do online and traditional media campaigns to promote tolerance and inclusion.

We have also invested heavily in building the capacity of members and allies so they can do their personal advocacy independently from us. This has led to increasing visibility among community members, contributing to our efforts to change hearts and minds.

We also do research around issues facing the community to ensure our advocacy is evidence-based and we are able to act as a repository of knowledge for those who would like to support our work. Additionally, we do capacity building training and sensitisation sessions for a range of public and private groups to improve their engagement with members of the community. Finally, we have hosted seven incident-free PrideJA celebrations since 2015 and are now planning the eighth.

The major challenge we have faced is fear among a wide range of stakeholders to openly or quietly engage with our work. There are low levels of political will to effect legal and policy change. Community members are reticent to engage with us openly because of fears of discrimination. Various public and private organisations prefer not to work with an openly LGBTQI+ organisation. There has been consistent, though in recent years not as visible, opposition by extremist religious groups.

Within Jamaican society there are mixed views about our work, but support for it has grown significantly over the last five to 10 years. Some people are curious, others are willing to engage and learn, but among a significant mass there continues to be distrust or outright opposition. 

How can Commonwealth countries work together to advance LGBTQI+ rights?

Given the similarities across many Commonwealth countries, there is an opportunity for dialogue and experience-sharing, particularly with countries such as Bahamas, Belize and Trinidad and Tobago, which have taken different routes to decriminalisation.

As a body, the Commonwealth has a majority of countries from the global south, which while it presents its own challenges, also affords the opportunity to discuss and do work around LGBTQI+ rights with respect for each country’s cultural experiences. Within such a space, there is less potential for global north and western countries to be regarded as pushing ‘a foreign agenda’, and it is more likely for honest and difficult conversations about LGBTQI+ inclusion to happen and for collaboration to emerge. The only challenge will be whether the heads of government of these countries are willing to engage in these conversations.

International organisations should maintain lines of communication with local organisations such as J-FLAG and TransWave Jamaica, which works on trans health and wellbeing, to develop an informed understanding of LGBTQI+ issues in the Jamaican context and use their various platforms to share that understanding with a wide range of actors. It would also be useful for them to assist in forging partnerships among organisations and movements in places like Jamaica and other parts of the world and offer support to ensure that the Jamaican movement is sustained.

Civic space in Jamaica is rated ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with J-FLAG through its website or Facebook and Instagram pages, and follow @EqualityJa on Twitter.

 

 

NIGERIA: ‘People experience gross rights violations because of their sexual orientation or gender identity’

Olaide Kayode TimileyinCIVICUS speaks about the situation of LGBTQI+ rights in Nigeria and the ongoing impacts of the British colonial legacy with Olaide Kayode Timileyin, executive director of Queercity Media and Productions.

Queercity Media is a civil society organisation (CSO) that promotes the rights of LGBTQI+ people in West Africa through advocacy and communications.

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

Nigerian LGBTQI+ people are marginalised. They experience gross violations of their rights because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, including extortion perpetrated by state actors such as the police and military as well as non-state forces such as local boys, landlords and bosses. Other violations include blackmail, mob attacks, assault and battery.

It is very traumatic to live in an environment that discriminates against you and puts your life in danger. Homophobia is a huge problem. It is disheartening to see cisgender heterosexual people threaten the lives of LGBTQI+ people.

Does Nigerian legislation discriminate against LGBTQI+ people?

Yes, Nigerian laws discriminate against LGBTQI+ people. Two major laws criminalise LGBTQI+ people: the Criminal Code Act and the 2013 Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act. Under these laws LGBTQI+ people are not allowed to get married or carry out their advocacy activities. In addition, their way of life is not considered to be normal because it goes against social norms. As a result of these laws, members of our communities are arrested and their rights systematically violated by the police.

A few states, such as Lagos, also have local laws that criminalise LGBTQI+ people. In the past year Queercity Media has recorded two murders of LGBTQI+ people that were clearly linked to homophobia. In response to these we have held a nationwide digital campaign, with over a hundred people signing our petition on one of the cases.

It is very unfortunate that we have not seen any form of government response in these cases, or any other hate crime committed on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Instead, rights violations against the Nigerian LGBTQI+ community have only increased. For example, a recently proposed cross-dressers bill further targets and aids the targeting of queer people.

It is clearly necessary to work on the integration and reintegration of LGBTQI+ people as active members of Nigerian society. Criminalisation not only cripples the socio-economical capacity of this population but also disempowers LGBTQI+ people from active participation in nation-building.

What does Queercity Media do, and what kind of backlash have you faced?

We are a community-based media organisation whose four cardinal points are productions, events, campaigns and archiving. These represent our strategic departments, namely Queercity Productions, GLOW UP Pride, Queercity Campaigns and The Nigerian LGBT+ Museum of Arts.

As well as the rights violations that some of our staff, myself included, have experienced at the hands of the Nigerian police because of our work, the comments section of our Facebook page can sometimes be quite scary. This is one of our main ways of being in direct contact with everyday Nigerians, and it is mostly filled with negative comments or aggressive arguments among strangers.

Sometimes we learn from these reactions to better design our campaign language and approach. However, funding is a major problem for us and many LGBTQI+ organisations in West Africa, as no one seems to be interested in LGBTQI+ people, organisations or businesses, so we are often self-funded. Lack of access to proper funding also massively limits the reach we have compared to mainstream media organisations.

How can the international community support LGBTQI+ people fighting for their rights in Commonwealth countries?

Sadly, partnerships across Commonwealth countries on LGBTQI+ rights and movement-building is slow, and I do not know the reason for this. But I believe if we could find organisations doing the same work we are doing in other Commonwealth countries, it should be easy to create networks and partnerships to foster each organisation’s strategic goals in their home countries.

The international community and international civil society could help by recognising the socio-political nuances of working with local LGBTQI+ organisations and the need to be more flexible with their partnership and funding approach. That way, the advocacy work of organisations and activists living in contexts of restricted civic space will be enhanced and they will be able to better promote the rights of LGBTQI+ people.

Civic space in Nigeria is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Queercity Media and Productions through its website or Facebook and Instagram pages, and follow @PrideInLagos on Twitter. 

 

CUBA: ‘All tactics used by activists have been turned into crimes’

CIVICUS speaks about changes to the Cuban Penal and Family Codes and the government’s reaction to mass protests in 2021 with Marta María Ramírez, a Cuban journalist and autonomous feminist.

Marta Maria Ramirez

Photo by María Lucía Expósito

How do you assess recent changes to the Cuban Penal Code?

The reform of the Penal Code cannot be understood without reference to last year’s protests. The argument provided to justify this reform referred to the previous constitutional reform: once the constitution was updated in 2019, a reform of the Penal Code was required. But the constitutional process itself was misleading: one would think that a constitutional update is something positive, but this is not necessarily the case in Cuba. The constitutional reform process was confusing: while the rituals of consultation were carried out, the reform was basically imposed. And in terms of substance, the new constitution contains many questionable elements, which are precisely the ones that should have been changed but were carried over intact from the old constitution.

For instance, while the new constitution recognises the market, it continues to declare socialism as the economic system in place and highlights the ‘irrevocable’ character of socialism. The one-party system remains intact, with the Cuban Communist Party recognised as ‘the superior leading political force of society and the state’ on the basis of ‘its democratic character and permanent link with the people’.

As a result, other freedoms that the constitution also recognises are rendered meaningless. For example, the constitution recognises ‘the rights of assembly, demonstration and association, for lawful and peaceful purposes, [...] provided that they are exercised with respect for public order and in compliance with the prescriptions established by law’ – but this is the very same law that establishes that the only legitimate political affiliation is to the Cuban Communist Party.

The same applies to the freedoms of expression and artistic creation, which are recognised if they are exercised ‘in accordance with the humanist principles on which the cultural policy of the state and the values of socialist society are based’, that is, only if they are used to express acquiescence rather than critical thought.

In any case, on the basis of this reform it was argued that the rest of the legal framework, including the Penal Code and the Family Code, should be updated. In the case of the Family Code, this was really necessary, because it had not been updated since 1975 and was totally out of step with the reality of today’s society. The reform of the Penal Code was also justified by the need to ‘modernise’ legislation and codify crimes that the previous code, which dated from 1987, did not recognise, such as environmental crimes, cybercrime and gender-based violence. But from my perspective, this reform can only be understood in reference to the July 2021 protests and their predecessors: those of 11 May 2019, 27 November 2020 and 27 January 2021.

To shield the regime from dissent, all tactics used by activists have been turned into crimes of public disorder and crimes against state security, and foreign funding of civil society organisations and the media is criminalised. The aim is to stifle dissident media, because how is a media not aligned with the state to be financed in Cuba?

Penalties for various crimes have also increased. Not only has the death penalty been retained, but the range of crimes it can be applied for has increased. The age at which a person is decreed criminally responsible is among the lowest in the world. What kind of modernisation is this? For some reason it was decided not to submit this reform to any kind of consultation.

If we analyse the production of laws in recent years, it is clear that this has been systematically aimed at shielding the regime, which has gone beyond controlling actions to try to control thought as well. This protective shield is completed with the new Penal Code, which seeks to prevent a repetition of last year’s protests and silence all dissent.

How can we understand the discrepancy between these highly regressive changes to the Penal Code and the apparently progressive reform of the Family Code currently underway?

The Family Code is also being updated following the constitutional reform, although it should – and could – have been reformed much earlier. The first time I heard about equal marriage in Cuba was back in 2007. Even then there were calls for reform coming from academia, which is where activism linked to gender issues, women’s rights and sexual minorities was concentrated.

But there was a lot of resistance and it was argued that recognition of equal marriage required a constitutional reform. This was obviously not true: marriage was regulated by the Family Code and not by the constitution, and when the constitution was reformed, this right was not included, but rather purposefully excluded and left pending for whenever the Family Code was reformed.

The issue of equal marriage was again at the centre of the debate from the moment that, following the constitutional reform, the Family Code needed to be reformed as well, and pressures mounted for this right, not enshrined in the constitution, to be recognised by the Code – something that could have been done in 2007, 15 years ago. But this is clearly the way Cuba is ruled.

In the draft Family Code that was submitted to consultation no special protection was included for trans children. Nothing, not a single mention, although it is known that this group experiences high rates of school dropout, expulsion from their homes and school bullying, both by students and teachers, experiencing a total impossibility to live their gender identity with guarantees. When trans people grow up, particularly trans women, they are the favoured victims of punitive provisions relating to ‘pre-delinquent behaviour’. This concept is so fascist that it is no longer called this in the current Penal Code, but it will remain in force through other regulations, in the practices of law enforcement officials and in the biases that will continue to exist.

Why are we discussing these issues now? I have the impression that this is being used as a smokescreen, a manoeuvre to placate a demand without making profound changes to the political regime. These two seemingly contradictory strategies – a regressive reform of the Penal Code and a seemingly progressive reform of the Family Code – both point in the same direction, that of the stabilisation of the regime.

I say ‘seemingly progressive’ because after a long process of consultations, parliament must now take the proposals received, reformulate the bill and set a date for a referendum to turn it into law. We still don’t know what will remain in the bill and what will be watered down or modified. Nor do we know how this document will translate into the daily lives of Cuban families.

What positive elements are expected to be included in the new Family Code?

One of the issues included in the draft Family Code is same-sex marriage and adoption by same-sex couples. Another issue that has been included is that of so-called solidarity gestation, or surrogacy, which until now has been illegal. This of great concern to feminist activists. Let’s remember we are in a context of brutal machismo and feminisation of poverty. How will solidarity gestation be regulated? Even if the law is clear on the prohibition of remuneration, how will it be possible in this context to avoid the development of an informal economy based on the exploitation of pregnant women?

Another important issue is that of the rights of grandparents to have a relationship with their grandchildren, which has its counterpart in some provisions on parental responsibility, which would include respecting and facilitating the right of children to maintain communication with their grandparents and other close relatives.

The issue of parental responsibility is key. It replaces the concept of parental authority, bringing a welcome shift from the idea of fathers’ and mothers’ power over children to the idea that parents are responsible for and have a responsibility towards their children. This is very interesting, and yet it has generated uproar, not only from social conservatives but also from political activists.

This must be understood within Cuba’s political context. Activists – not necessarily conservative ones – feel that the emphasis on responsibility would allow the state to label them as irresponsible so they can take their children away from them, or threaten to do so to force them to desist from their activism. Many activists, and particularly women with maternal responsibilities, have already encountered this kind of threat, with comments such as ‘take care of your children’, ‘we know you have your daughter’ and ‘be careful, do it for your child’.

But I think this threat is already out there, and under the new Code fathers could also be forced to exercise their responsibilities – something that does not currently happen in Cuba, with the feminisation of poverty being a consequence. As elsewhere in the region, there has been a massive increase in single-parent, female-headed households, something official statistics do not fully recognise.

Another issue that has been at the centre of discussions is that of the children’s progressive autonomy. We know that punishment – including physical punishment – is normalised in Cuba, and parents make important decisions for their children without consulting them. The idea that parents are able to decide everything for their children until they come of age has changed over time, increasingly replaced by the concept that children progressively acquire the capacity to make their own decisions. I personally believe that as parents we should no longer talk about ‘parenting’ a child, but rather about accompanying them in their learning process.

An important issue contained in the version of the document that went out to consultation is that of child marriage, added at the last minute as a result of strong pressure from feminist activism and independent media and allies. It is a vital issue, but legislators had not seen it.

Many of these issues have created controversy, but I don’t think there has been real debate. In a context of high political polarisation, Cuba is not ready for debate. As activists who participated as independent observers have reported, the debates that have taken place in the consultative stages have been misguided and have not been led by people well trained to conduct them. There really is no debate in Cuba; you simply hear monologues for and against.

What other problems do you see?

Generally speaking, the problem is not with the contents of the Family Code. Women make up more than half of the population, and if you also count children, adolescents and LGBTQI+ people, the new code would meet the needs of a large majority.

But we have great doubts about the reasons why it is being pushed through just now, especially because of the way in which some controversies were encouraged that served to obscure the fact that at the same time a terribly regressive reform of the Penal Code was being imposed on us, without any debate.

In the new Penal Code, everything we do as activists and citizens is criminalised. It is a medieval code. The Family Code, on the other hand, is presented to us as ultra-modern and the result of consensus, which also creates uncertainty about its implementation. But while we have no doubts about the implementation of the Penal Code – we know that it will be implemented to the letter – if the Family Code ends up being as modern and progressive as advertised, I have huge doubts that it will actually be implemented. 

To a large extent, those who would benefit from the new Family Code are the same people who will be repressed under the new Penal Code. Those who are protesting for the release of activists imprisoned after the 2021 protests are mostly single mothers demanding their children’s freedom. Many of those who took to the streets to protest were poor, Afro-descendants, transgender people and children raised by single mothers. This problem has existed for a long time and there have been no public policies aimed at solving it. There has not been the slightest attempt to make public policies with a gender perspective. In this context, it cannot be expected that the new Family Code will make such a big difference.

Civic space in Cuba is rated ‘closed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Follow @Martamar77 on Twitter.

 

ZIMBABWE: ‘We need CSOs to continue working and defending people’s rights’

Ernest NyimaiCIVICUS speaks about a proposed NGO bill and the threat it represents for Zimbabwean civil society with Ernest Nyimai, the Acting Executive Director of Zimbabwe’s National Association of Non-Governmental Organisations (NANGO).

NANGO is the umbrella body of civil society organisations (CSOs) operating in Zimbabwe, mandated by its membership to coordinate CSO activities, represent the sector and strengthen its voice.

How do you think the proposed NGO bill would affect civic space in Zimbabwe?

In our view as the umbrella body of CSOs operating in Zimbabwe, the proposed Private Voluntary Organization (PVO) Amendment Bill presents the danger of further shrinking civic space should it sail through in its current form. The bill will put at further risk the fundamental freedoms that civil society is supposed to have to be able to do its work to improve people’s lives. This is due to quite significant proposed amendments that in our view are repressive. 

Currently, more than 60 per cent of NANGO members are legally registered as trusts, and some are registered under Common Law Universitas. If this bill is passed as it is, they will be automatically deregistered and required to apply for re-registration under the new proposed PVO guidelines.

The PVO Amendment Bill proposes to criminalise CSOs that support, oppose or finance a political party or candidate. The clause does not clearly specify what supporting or opposing a political party or candidates entails. If a CSO opposes a party’s policy or governance practice, does this amount to opposing a political party? If a CSO gives legal support in an election challenge, does this amount to supporting a political party or candidate? This provision can be abused, especially against CSOs that work on democracy, governance and human rights issues. This provision is contrary to the right to the freedom of association provided for in section 58 of the Constitution of Zimbabwe. The imposition of harsh penalties such as imprisonment for violation of this provision without any justification or regard to civil remedies or administrative fines is grossly arbitrary.

Another reason the PVO bill can affect civic space is that it is phrased in a way that would make room for selective application during its administration. If an organisation is deemed to be operating outside its mandate, its board can be immediately suspended and an interim one can be appointed to act in its stead while a final decision is made. But procedures are not clear, so there is room for the responsible minister, the Minister of Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare, to arbitrarily suspend an organisation’s board due to personal interests. This kind of interference in the operation of CSOs would limit their independence and autonomy. 

The PVO bill was prompted as a way to ensure compliance with Recommendation 8 of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), which requires governments to review the adequacy of laws and regulations that govern non-profit organisations so that these organisations cannot be abused for money laundering and financing of terrorism. But in my view, the government deployed an omnibus approach to pursue many other interests besides the fulfilment of FATF Recommendation 8 requirements.

The bill in fact violates the FATF’s balanced approach, which stipulates the need to maintain an enabling operating environment to fulfil FATF requirements. The government has not concluded a risk assessment indicating which CSOs are at risk of being used for money laundering and financing terrorism. This is the ideal procedure as required by FATF to ensure the application of the risk-based approach to mitigating vulnerabilities to money laundering and financing of terrorism.

How would the PVO Bill, if implemented, affect NANGO’s work?

NANGO is registered under the existing PVO Act. But if the amendment bill goes into effect, many of our members will be automatically deregistered, which will have immediate repercussions on NANGO, whose greatest strength is precisely our membership. Besides, there are various clauses that impose sanctions and restrictions in terms of programming areas and NANGO is of no exception to this potential criminalisation of CSO work.

The new legislation will also weaken our eligibility for funding due to increased government interference in the operations of CSOs. The donor agencies we work with require recipient organisations to be independent and autonomous for the purposes of grant compliance. But the implementation of the new proposed PVO Amendment bill will potentially affect our independence and limit our autonomy. Development partners and donors may decide to stop funding CSOs in Zimbabwe if they view it as becoming too risky.

As CSOs we exist to protect the rights and dignity of people. If the new bill forces many CSOs to stop operating, the vulnerability of communities they serve and human rights abuses will likely increase. We need CSOs to continue working and defending people’s rights in an enabling operating environment. CSOs promote and protect human rights, but through the increased surveillance of CSO operations by security agencies, many activists, human rights defenders and civil society members will be abducted and tortured, and the security threat will increase.

How is civil society responding to this threat?

We have used a multifaceted approach, taking advantage of the various strengths we have as a large and diverse group of organisations. In the initial stages, we tried to push back against the PVO bill in many ways, including through litigation to expose the ways in which it would violate constitutional provisions. We also assessed the bill against the core humanitarian standards that we adhere to as CSOs.

Unfortunately, the bill has nonetheless progressed, so we are currently conducting scenario planning in which the law might be passed. Most of our efforts are focused on engaging, having a dialogue and negotiating with government officials for revision of repressive clauses of the bill. The bill is currently being debated in parliament following its second reading, so we are also advocating with parliamentarians to get them to really understand how this bill is going to affect the work of CSOs and those they work with.

We are also engaging with the body that administers the PVO Act, the Ministry of Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare, which played a key role in drafting the bill. We are trying to engage it in discussing the potential political, social and economic impacts of the bill. CSOs are a significant contributor of foreign currency in Zimbabwe: close to one billion dollars per year are coming in the form of official development assistance that is channelled towards various programmes implemented by CSOs. CSOs employ around 18,000 people. If they shut down or their activities are limited, barriers to overcoming unemployment will rise. Our desire and hope is to have an enabling instrument guaranteeing the space for civil society to continue its good work.

How can the international community help Zimbabwean civil society?

Zimbabwe is a member of various regional and continental organisations, which we have used to our advantage. We have engaged with regional and continental pressure groups, and especially the FATF, and they have shared their technical expertise on advocacy and lobbying, while also leveraging their convening power to help us engage with our government.

The international community should continue to assist us as mediators, especially in light of the hostility and limited confidence and trust between civil society and the government. It is very important that they highlight how the bill will affect the general role of CSOs in Zimbabwe. There is also politicisation of CSO work due to misinterpretation of the general role of CSOs in the national development discourse. For example, civil society has the key responsibility of holding the government accountable and advocating for people’s rights, and this bill threatens our ability to fulfil it. We need regional, continental and global organisations to help us advocate with the Zimbabwean government to ensure an enabling operating environment for civil society in line with the ‘whole of society’ approach that the government subscribes to.

Civic space in Zimbabwe is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with NANGO through its website or Facebook page, or by emailing , and follow @ErnestNyimai and @nangozimbabwe on Twitter.

 

KENYA: ‘The government has put all the burden of addressing homophobia on civil society’

Stephen OkwanyCIVICUS speaks about the situation of LGBTQI+ rights in Kenya and the ongoing impacts of the British colonial legacy with Stephen Okwany, programme director of Talanta Africa.

Talanta Africa is a civil society organisation (CSO) that uses art to promote the rights of LGBTQI+ people and advocates for an inclusive society in which LGBTQI+ and young people have a say in the decisions that affect their lives.

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

The Kenyan LGBTQI+ community continues to celebrate amazing gains brought by progressive organising and its focus on opening conversations around queer lived realities, discussing bodily autonomy and deconstructing cis hate.

This has been met with mixed reactions from different quarters. Our gains have elicited organised opposition from anti-gender and anti-rights movements highly resourced by illiberal populists and very active in the religious, cultural and legal arenas. These movements perpetrate organised rights violations against LGBTQI+ people, including by promoting conversion therapy practices, profiling LGBTQI+ people and queer activists, deliberately denying access to basic human rights such as healthcare and education, perpetrating online attacks and outing queer people, and even through the murder of queer people, the most recent case being that of Sheila Lumumba, a 25-year-old non-binary lesbian who was attacked, sexually assaulted and killed in her home on 17 April.

How does legislation discriminate against Kenyan LGBTQI+ people?

The Kenyan government recognises the existence of queer people in the country. However, there are still regressive laws in place that threaten the existence of the queer movement, such as Sections 162-165 of the Penal Code, which discriminate against consensual same-sex relationships and criminalise those who live on the proceeds of sex work, limiting the independence of LGBTQI+ sex workers in Kenya.

Additionally, queer people and collectives face restrictions on their freedoms of association and peaceful assembly, as the government shies away from registering queer collectives and the police typically use excessive force to disrupt queer parades.

The government has not put in place mechanisms to address homophobia. The burden to do so has been left to civil society. Queer survivors of deliberate homophobic attacks have been denied justice by a judicial system built upon cis hate and in violation of the provisions to integrate LGBTQI+ community members as equal participants in the Kenyan development process. No progress can be achieved if a section of the population continues to be excluded on the basis of prejudiced perceptions.

How does your organisation work to counter those perceptions?

Talanta Africa is an artivist collective of queer human rights defenders. We put the power of strategic communications tools such as arts, culture, media and tech at the service of queer storytelling to promote a change in narratives and improve the civic space of LGBTQI+ people.

Our organisation is largely a strategic communications platform that convenes queer people who believe that silence is too high a price to pay in the face of injustice and inequality. We believe that conscious art and culture play a key role in shaping narratives and telling stories while also countering regressive narratives that advance cis hate.

Not surprisingly, our work has been met with extreme opposition and has been branded as a queer ‘recruitment’ process. This has resulted in attacks on our offices, the intimidation of our artivists, the profiling of our work and intentional exclusion from activist spaces and platforms.

How can Kenya and other Commonwealth countries work together to advance LGBTQI+ rights?

Commonwealth countries should establish multilateral instruments to affirm and advance the bodily autonomy of LGBTQI+ people. These could provide a platform for auditing legal instruments at a country level and assessing the development and implementation of new legal frameworks to replace regressive legal provisions.

International organisations have a mandate to raise human rights awareness, including of the human rights of LGBTQI+ people, and denounce human rights violations, including those faced by LGBTQI+ community. To do so, they must promote progressive queer narratives. They must be deliberate in resourcing queer-affirming spaces through the equal rights and equal opportunities framework.

Civic space in Kenya is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Talanta Africa through its website or Facebook page, and follow @TaAfrika on Twitter.

 

SRI LANKA: ‘They arrest us to stop us, silence us and instil fear in others’

CIVICUS speaks with Hejaaz Hizbullah, a human rights defender who was kept in detention for 22 months under Sri Lanka’s Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA).

Based in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital, Hejaaz is an attorney and a minority rights advocate who fights hate speech against the Muslim community. He began his career at the Attorney General’s Department and started his own law practice in 2012. He has litigated in several important cases before the Supreme Court and is among the lawyers who challenged the dissolution of parliament in 2018.

Hejaaz

What kind of work were you doing when you were arrested and why do you think you were targeted?

In 2012 a hard-line Buddhist group emerged in Sri Lanka calling itself ‘Bodhu Bala Sena’, or Buddhist Force. The group began a nationwide campaign against Muslims that was based on lies, Islamophobia and hate speech. They sought to stir up Sinhala Buddhists, Sri Lanka’s majority, against the Muslim minority. Similar groups soon proliferated. As a result, there were incidents of violence against Muslims all over Sri Lanka. Muslim girls got their hijabs ripped off, Muslim businesses were attacked and torched, and Muslims were harassed everywhere.

I began my human rights work in response to these very extraordinary circumstances. With two colleagues I launched an anti-hate hotline, a telephone helpline to assist victims of hate speech and hate crimes. We helped people protect themselves and assert themselves against racism and hate by using the tools provided in the law. We also monitored these incidents and prepared reports to bring the situation to the attention of the government.

This work led to me appearing in cases involving human rights and constitutional law issues. One of the earliest cases I appeared in was the case of a Muslim schoolgirl who wanted to go to school in a uniform approved by the Ministry of Education that also respected her cultural and religious norms, which school authorities objected to. The case concluded with the Attorney General upholding the student’s right to wear an approved uniform of her choice that met her cultural and religious norms.

In 2018 the then-president dissolved parliament, sacked the prime minister and appointed another one, and called for general elections. This was challenged by political parties and by a member of the Sri Lankan Elections Commission, whom I successfully represented before the Supreme Court.

This was the kind of work I was doing when I was arrested, and there are various theories regarding why I was targeted. My arrest may have been part of an attempt to scapegoat selected Muslims who were critical of the government’s treatment of Muslims and blame them for the Easter Sunday bombings, a series of coordinated Islamist terrorist suicide bombings in April 2019. They tried to silence us personally and as a community. In that sense, my arrest is no different from so many arrests of lawyers all over the world. They arrest us to stop us, silence us and instil fear in others.

How were you treated while in detention?

During the first 10 months I was a detainee, so I was under police custody; then I was produced before a judge and I became a remand prisoner. For the following year I was in the custody of the Prisons Department, and my experience was radically different.

As a detainee you are in the custody of those who are trying to frame you and fix you for an offence you did not commit. For 24 hours, seven days a week, you are exposed to your tormentors and under their control – for everything, including food, sleep and family and lawyer visits. Remand prison was different because the guards just knew I was a special case but beyond that they did not care much about me.

As a detainee I was locked up 24 hours a day: the cell was opened only to let me use the toilet or go for questioning. In remand prison we spent around six hours a day outside in the yard, which was good. However, both places degrade you and seek to destroy you mentally and psychologically. I am happy that I survived without too many scars; many are not that lucky.

Were you aware of the international solidarity around your case and how does it feel to be out on bail?

As a detainee I knew very little, just what my wife would tell me when I met her on Saturdays for around 15 minutes. It was only after I was remanded that I learnt more about the support I was receiving from the international community. This gave me real hope and made me even more determined to fight back, so it was incredibly helpful. I am grateful for the support I received and for the international and local pressure that forced the Attorney General to agree to release me on bail.

Being free is like being born again. I am slowly trying to rebuild my life. My imprisonment had deep effects on the lives of my family: everybody’s life was on pause for almost two years. But being on bail is not easy: I am always looking behind my shoulder and concerned about the progress of my case.

What are your thoughts on the use of the PTA law?

In its judgment on my case, the Court of Appeal described the PTA as a ‘draconian law’ leading to a cycle of abuse. That is precisely what it is. The PTA puts detainees into a legal blackhole from which they find it almost impossible to get out. I am a lawyer and had lots of legal backing, support and attention, and still found it tough. Many others don’t have a fighting chance.

The government has recently made some amendments to the PTA, but they have not changed some of the worst aspects of the law, such as the use of confessions against those who are co-accused. Whilst amendments have been cosmetic, they have in fact opened a window for judges to intervene, and if they do, the situation of detainees may improve. I think the judiciary will grab this opportunity.

What is the current state of civic freedoms in Sri Lanka?

My answer to your question would have been different if not for what I am seeing today. It seems freedom is what we carve out for ourselves through courage. Desperate times have pushed people to desperate measures, and they have now overcome their fears and are fighting for their freedom. They are fighting in the legal space that has been created through years of jurisprudence. The theoretical space has now been occupied in real time and I feel is also being expanded. All good news! However, this is not due to any state intervention but due to the actions of people responding to the dire circumstances they find themselves in.

How can international civil society and the international community support criminalised human rights defenders?

When human rights activists are arrested, the state would like the whole world to forget them. They hope grand allegations and prolonged detentions will suffocate everyone’s will and resolve to fight. Civil society and the international community can help us by keeping us alive outside the prison walls: by asking the important questions and putting pressure on the government to justify its actions.

Civic space in Sri Lanka is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Follow @hejaazh on Twitter 

 

BERMUDA: ‘A right that the LGBTQI+ community enjoyed for four years has been stripped away’

Adrian Hartnett BeasleyCIVICUS speaks about the recent court decision on same-sex marriage in Bermuda with Adrian Hartnett-Beasley, a founding board member of OUTBermuda.

OUTBermuda is a civil society organisation that promotes and supports the wellbeing, health, dignity, security, safety and protection of the LGBTQI+ community in Bermuda. It provides educational resources on issues of diversity, inclusiveness, awareness and acceptance of LGBTQI+ people, and advances human rights, conflict resolution and equality and diversity in Bermuda.

 

What is the significance of the recent court ruling declaring the ban on same-sex marriage constitutional? How has it affected LGBTQI+ people in Bermuda?

In March 2022, Bermuda’s highest judicial body, the Privy Council’s Judicial Committee, sided with the government of Bermuda, stating that it may regulate and restrict marriage licences only to unions between a man and a woman. According to the judgement, this does not violate the Bermudian Constitution. It would have violated the Human Rights Act of 1981 if the Bermuda Government had not amended it to allow discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation.

This judgement reversed previous decisions that starting in 2017 made it possible for same-sex couples to get legally married in Bermuda. As a result, a right that we as a community enjoyed for four years was stripped away.

We don’t have survey data, but the general feeling of disappointment is palpable. Our community and our allies are disappointed that this fundamental human rights issue was ever made political in the first place, first with an irresponsible referendum held in 2016 – a non-binding consultation that failed due to low turnout – and then again by successive administrations who used our community as leverage in two electoral campaigns.

We are still reviewing the case, but overall, we have concerns that our constitution has failed us and what this means, if people are paying attention, is that our constitution is not fit for purpose anymore.

How was OUTBermuda involved in the case, and what will it do next?

OUTBermuda was heavily involved throughout the process. We ran very successful arguments at the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeal and the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, with the guidance and hard work of our legal teams. We believe our leadership and standing helped bring together a consortium of plaintiffs, which together supported the novel and intricate legal arguments being made before the courts, including two churches and a couple of individuals – together encapsulating a broad range of perspectives, as reflected in the evidence we submitted to the courts.

In its former life, that is, before it became a registered charity, OUTBermuda was known as Bermuda Bred and successfully sued the Bermuda government in 2015 to secure some immigration rights for non-Bermudian same-sex partners to live and work on the island. As a result of that victory, its members pivoted the organisation into OUTBermuda and registered it as a charity. The organisation has been leaning into the empty space in which the LGBTQI+ community had no voice ever since.

This adverse ruling does not change that. We will continue to advocate for equality, justice and dignity for all LGBTQI+ Bermudians. If anything, the negative decision of the court highlights that OUTBermuda must continue its work.

What other challenges do LGBTQI+ people face in Bermuda?

The issues we face are as diverse as the community itself. At the core of all of it is acceptance; without acceptance, our community is subjected to unfair and illegal housing discrimination, which alongside family disapproval results in young people having nowhere to live and having higher rates of drug and alcohol abuse. Not surprisingly, this leads to members of our community staying in the closet longer, or at least being less comfortable about being themselves in public. All of this ends up resulting in our community not reaching its collective full potential.

OUTBermuda gets requests for help regularly, and this is the typical story we hear over and over. Marriage has been one, very public, issue but it’s by no means the only one – probably not even the most important one. We will continue working to educate people, including our political leaders, about the human rights of LGBTQI+ people. The next government must re-amend the Human Rights Act to reinstate the full protection of sexual orientation.

How much progress has the LGBTQI+ rights movement achieved so far? Have you experienced any anti-rights backlash?

We have made a lot of progress. When we started litigating for same-sex marriage, polls showed a slight majority of Bermudians were against it, and within five years, when same-sex marriage became legal, a clear majority supported it.

A poll we conducted in 2020, three years into same-sex marriage being legal, showed that 92 per cent of Bermudians believed that LGBTQI+ people deserved human rights protection, 95 per cent believed we deserved civil rights protection, 53 per cent were in favour of same-sex marriage and 72 per cent thought that a church should be allowed to perform a wedding between two consenting adults. An overwhelming majority of 75 per cent opposed the government spending more money on litigation to ban same-sex marriage, while a mere three per cent claimed they had been negatively affected by same-sex couples being able to marry, adopt or live together.

But this progress was met with backlash, particularly by organisations such as Preserve Marriage, which grew markedly since the early days of the public debate on marriage equality. They are well-organised and well-funded and are reacting quite violently to the evidence that public perceptions on all LGBTQI+ issues is increasingly more accepting.

What kind of support would Bermudian LGBTQI+ civil society need from their international counterparts?

Bermudian LGBTQI+ civil society, while physically isolated – more than 600 miles away from North Carolina – is fortunate to have great internet accessibility, so resources are easy to access and connections are easy to make. OUTBermuda as an organisation has been fortunate to receive the support of comparable – but larger and more sophisticated – organisations overseas in the form of resources, ideas and solidarity. As we have just hired our first employee – a part-time executive director – we are looking forward to building out those relationships and capitalising on the great work that has already been done in other jurisdictions – while still doing it the uniquely Bermudian way.

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

 

LEBANON: ‘The political youth movement was a major pillar of the opposition to the ruling class’

MarwanIssaCIVICUS speaks about the recent general election in Lebanon with Marwan Issa, research assistant with the Asfari Institute for Civil Society and Citizenship at the American University of Beirut.

The Asfari Institute seeks to bridge academia and civil society activism. It does so through knowledge production, convenings and the creation of safe spaces for learning, dialogue and exchange. Located at the heart of the American University in Beirut, it functions as a regional hub for civil society working for diversity, inclusion, equality, accountability and sustainability.

What was the political and economic context of Lebanon’s 15 May general election?

The election was held while Lebanon faced one of its worst economic crises in recent history. People were experiencing severe hardship due to lack of essential items, including medicines. On election day, the currency exchange rate skyrocketed, with the US dollar going from 1,515 to around 30,000 Lebanese pounds. Not surprisingly, the majority held deep-seated anger against traditional ruling parties. This led many voters, and especially those in the diaspora, to elect new independent opposition parties and candidates.

However, the intensity of the crisis also led many people to despair and crippled their desire or motivation for action. As a result, the revolutionary feelings stirred by the protests of 17 October 2019 largely died down, and many people felt their vote would not make any difference, which explains the low turnout.

But this did not mean that people were not searching for alternatives: in fact, a solution-focused, rational debate has also emerged that is clearly different from the tribal methods of traditional political parties, which instrumentalise sectarianism, clientelism and fearmongering. New opposition groups have developed that criticise the traditional division between those who blame all the country’s problems on the presence of Hezbollah as an armed militia, and those who believe the presence of resistance against a potential threat from Israel is necessary. Both are viewed as serving the interests of the current political elite.

In the face of this, the new opposition offers an alternative discourse focused on both sovereignty and economic justice. This debate about alternative economic and social solutions is very promising for the years ahead.

How did youth-led groups engage with the election process?

There are plenty of youth-led political groups in Lebanon, but the main one is Mada, the Network of Secular Clubs. The first secular clubs were formed in universities as an alternative to the domination of ruling class parties on campus and started to take part in university student council elections. Over the past few years, these secular clubs won more than two-thirds of the seats in student council elections, breaking the hegemony of traditional political parties. As a result, they have paved the way for a new type of discourse on and outside campuses. Now the Network has 21 clubs throughout the country – not just in universities but also in unions and regions – and continues to have a clear youth-led political discourse.

In preparation for the election, Mada engaged in negotiations with other groups to form coalitions. In Beirut, Mada members were active in the creation of Beirut Tuqawem (Beirut Resists), a grassroots participatory campaign that included individuals and groups from various progressive circles. Those volunteering in these campaigns were mostly university students working alongside other Mada members who were a bit older – but still young, around 25 on average.

Mada members were also active in launching campaigns in other parts of Lebanon, including al Janoub Youwajeh (The South Confronts), Jil al Teghyir (The Generation of Change), and the 17 October Coalition.

So-called apolitical young people – young people not active in any political group – also mostly leaned towards voting for new independent opposition groups. They also encouraged those around them to do the same, which boosted the opposition movement. Had the voting age been 18 instead of 21, we could confidently say that the elections would have brought many more new faces to parliament.

How free and fair was the election?

The electoral process was plagued with violations that made the competition unfair. For instance, although there are strict caps on campaign spending, ruling class candidates violated the law and poured millions of dollars into their campaigns. This huge financial advantage allowed them to reach vast audiences, while opposition campaigns had much more limited resources.

Bribery and clientelism were also rampant. In addition, smear campaigns and direct threats on opposition candidates were widely noticed. One of them, Ali Khalife, received direct threats following a smear campaign by pro-Hezbollah electronic armies. A few days before the election there were attacks by Tashnag party supporters on opposition groups in Metn and the beating of volunteers.

On election day many violations were recorded, but they were highly dependent on the context. In the southern region, for example, violations included brawls, fights, and politically affiliated electoral assistants going inside voting booths alongside voters. In areas controlled by armed or powerful parties, such as Hezbollah and the Amal movement in the south, many people did not dare turn up to vote.

How do you assess the election results?

All the above combined, plus the fact that the ruling class also very carefully crafted the electoral law to suit its sectarian and partisan quota system, made for a tilted playing field. Under the circumstances, the results were promising and can be built upon.

The election resulted in around 12 or 13 new opposition faces in parliament, plus a couple more who could be counted as part of the opposition but were in parliament already. The presence of 15 opposition, mostly new, legislators is great news. They have clear views regarding both the presence of an armed militia and the responsibility of banks and bank owners in the economic crisis. For instance, newly elected member of parliament Ibrahim Mneimneh, of Beirut Tuqawem, who got the most preferential votes among all new opposition candidates, has a progressive economic and social discourse and took a clear stand on issues related to security and arms.

In contrast, candidates traditionally linked with the Syrian regime lost their seats, including Assaad Herdan in the south, Weeam Wahhab and Talal Erslan in Mount Lebanon, and Elie Ferzli in Bekaa. This was a huge victory against people who were puppets in the hands of the Syrian regime during the period in which Syria maintained a military presence in Lebanon, between the 1990s and 2005.

Following the election, pro-change political forces must continue pushing for change in and outside parliament, supporting the newly elected members of parliament and holding them accountable for the implementation of their programme.

What kind of international support does Lebanese civil society need?

Youth-led groups have been at a significant financial disadvantage, and I believe they are the ones that need the most support. It only makes sense that the new generation be supported since waves of emigration keep rising as students and young people more generally lose hope in Lebanon. Financial support, however, should be conditional on the credibility of the opposition group receiving it; it must be directed towards groups with a proven commitment to democracy, social justice, and non-sectarian values.

International organisations, embassies, and other entities could also express their support by including the perspectives of opposition groups in designing policies and humanitarian aid mechanisms because Lebanon’s ruling class has proven highly skilled at transforming aid into clientelism and perpetuating the cycle of violence and poverty for political gain.

Civic space in Lebanon is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS monitor.
Get in touch with the Asfari Institute through its website and follow @AsfariInstitute on Twitter. 

 

LEBANON: ‘This election has brought to the forefront new voices speaking about rights’

Lina Abou HabibCIVICUS speaks about the recent general elections in Lebanon with Lina Abou Habib, director of the Asfari Institute for Civil Society and Citizenship at the American University of Beirut.

The Asfari Institute seeks to bridge academia and civil society activism. It does so through knowledge production, convenings and the creation of safe spaces for learning, dialogue and exchange. Located at the heart of the American University in Beirut, it functions as a regional hub for civil society working for diversity, inclusion, equality, accountability and sustainability.

What change resulted from the 15 May general election?

Despite taking place in an extremely complicated, uncertain and turbulent political and economic context, the process resulted in the election of many new independent candidates coming from civil society and calling for change. These new voices have political agendas that are very different from those of traditional ruling parties: they call for a new, more accountable governance system and for women’s rights, among other issues. These agendas include road maps for overcoming the ongoing deep economic crisis. And most importantly, they focus on how to stop the political race to the bottom that’s been happening in Lebanon.

Most of the independent candidates who were elected are linked to the 17 October protests, the uprisings that took place in 2019, when people clearly said that they had enough of the political elite that had become – and continues to be – outrageously corrupt. The 17 October Revolution was a unique moment because protesters had such diverse, inclusive and feminist voices – feminist demands became an integral part of the political demands of the revolution. For instance, sexual harassment became a political issue because the voices of the LGBTQI+ community and migrant women domestic workers were also represented. No demand was compromised or put aside.

By that time, it became clear to us what system of governance we aspired to. It must be based on equality, inclusion, diversity and respect for human rights. The revolution also gained momentum because the same thing was happening in Chile and other countries where people were rising up. Hence, I do not exaggerate when I say that the feminist voices of the 17 October Revolution inspired political participation in the 2022 election.

It is important to note, however, that some independent members of the new parliament do not share the agenda of the 17 October Revolution and have quite regressive rhetoric. For instance, newly elected member of parliament Cynthia Zarazir called for the death of Syrian refugees on social media. Having people like her in parliament represents a new challenge. Aside from that, I would say that this election has brought to the forefront new voices speaking about rights and pointing the way forward out of the current crisis.

How did the feminist movement work collectively in preparation for the election?

There was rallying behind feminist candidates such as Zoya Jureidini Rouhana, who pushes for an compulsory egalitarian family law, a top priority for Lebanon’s feminist movement. Rouhana is the founder of KAFA (‘enough’) Violence and Exploitation, a feminist civil society organisation that was behind several legal reforms in Lebanon. Moreover, it champions political discourse on gender-based violence. Her electoral campaign was in line with that. It is a rare moment when you have a feminist candidate running on a feminist agenda in a general election – and this was partly possible thanks to the voices that became heard in October 2019. The political movement took shape and gained more feminist voices during those uprisings.

Feminists mobilising around the elections forced candidates to state their position on gender equality, including the rights of the queer community. In return, independent candidates who sided with gender equality were attacked by the regime and conservative forces. One way for government officials and supporters to disparage and attack somebody is to say they are going to endanger the family. This is very unfortunate, but at the same time, it is fantastic that this important conversation is taking place in the public sphere and these issues are being discussed as part of the overall social and political dialogue.

In sum, the inclusive and intersectional feminist movement of Lebanon has succeeded in elevating feminist discourse to the public and political arena. But there is still a long way to go: the new parliament includes only two additional female members compared to the previous one, as only eight women were elected, out of 115 candidates nominated by traditional parties, opposition groups, and civil society. These results are still lacking in terms of reaching a critical mass to exercise feminist influence in parliament.

What’s next for the civil society movement following the election?

The real battle is just about to begin. The election showed that change is possible, but it is still not enough. The next step for us is to figure out how we will hold independent members of parliament accountable. They must be accountable because they won as a result of our collective movement.

We will still be facing a corrupt and oppressive regime and serious issues such as illegal arms and a heavily militarised society, economic downfall, destroyed livelihoods, broken public institutions and irresponsible and unaccountable policymaking. As such, civil society in its diversity, and especially the intersectional feminist movement, should remain vigilant.

The conversation we started must continue, and we need our international allies to help keep it going, and certainly not be complicit with the regime. We have a collective responsibility to monitor human rights violations, talk to feminist activists and help amplify the voices of Lebanon’s intersectional young feminists.

Civic space in Lebanon is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS monitor.
Get in touch with the Asfari Institute through its website and follow @AsfariInstitute on Twitter.

 

PHILIPPINES: ‘We fear the democracy those before us fought so hard for will be erased’

CIVICUS speaks about the recent presidential election in the Philippines with Marinel Ubaldo, a young climate activist, co-founder of the Youth Leaders for Environmental Action Federation and Advocacy Officer for Ecological Justice and Youth Engagement of Living Laudato Si’ Philippines (LLS).

Founded by Catholic lay people, LLS began in 2018 as an interfaith movement calling on Filipino financial institutions to divest from coal-related operations and other environmentally harmful activities. It aims to empower people to adopt lifestyles and attitudes that match the urgent need to care for the planet. It promotes sustainable development and seeks to tackle the climate crisis through collective action.

Marinel Ubaldo

From your perspective, what was at stake in the 9 May presidential election?

The 2022 election fell within the crucial window for climate justice. As stated in the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we need to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius or we will suffer terrible consequences, such as a rise in sea levels that will submerge much of the currently populated land, including the Philippines. Upcoming leaders will serve for the next six years –and possibly beyond. They have the immense responsibility of putting a climate change mitigation system in place for our country and urging more countries to do the same.

As shown by Super Typhoon Rai that hit the Philippines in December 2021, climate change affects all of us. Whole communities lost their loved ones and their homes. Young people will reap the fruits, or pay the consequences, for whatever our incoming leaders do in response to this crisis. This is why climate anxiety is so prevalent among young people.

How did young people mobilise around this election?

Young people campaigned house to house. We also went to grassroots communities to educate voters on how to vote wisely. Alongside other organisations that form the Green Thumb Coalition, our organisation produced a Green Scorecard and we used our social media platforms to promote the ‘green’ candidate.

One of the biggest youth initiatives around the elections was ‘LOVE, 52’, a campaign aimed at empowering young people and helping them engage with candidates and make their voices heard in demand of a green, just, and loveable future through better governance. We wanted to shift the focus from candidates’ personality and patronage politics to a debate on fundamental issues, and to help young people move traditional powerholders towards a people-centred style of policymaking.

We called this initiative ‘LOVE, 52’ in reference to the fact that young people – people under 40 – comprise 52 per cent of the Philippines’ voting population. We sought to appeal to younger voters’ emotions, and our central theme was love because a frequent response to the question ‘why vote?’ is to protect what we love: our families, our country, and our environment. The main element of this campaign was a ‘love letter’ drafted by several youth organisations and addressed to the country. It contained young people’s calls to incoming leaders, including those of prioritising environmental and social issues, coming up with a coherent plan to address the climate crisis, and supporting a vibrant democracy that will enable climate and environmental justice. We gathered all the love letters people wrote, put them in one envelope, and delivered them physically to the presidential candidates’ headquarters.

What are the implications of the election results for civil society and civic freedoms?

The results of these elections will have a lot of implications for the Filipino people. They will have a direct impact on civil society and our freedoms of association, expression and peaceful assembly.

The winning candidate, senator Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos Jr., the son and namesake of a former dictator, has said that he will include his family in his administration. Just today, I saw the new president’s spokesperson on the news saying Marcos will make his own appointments, bringing in the people he trusts. I think he will really try to control the government with people who follow him unconditionally. He will put such people in all the positions available, so everyone will tell him what he wants to hear and no one will disagree with him. I think this is the scariest part of it all.

I fear in a few months or years we will be living under a dictatorship. Marcos may even be able to stay in power for as long as he wants. After trying to reach power for so long, he has finally won, and he won’t let go of power easily.

It’s very scary because the human rights violations that happened during his father’s dictatorship are not even settled yet. More human rights violations are likely to happen. It’s a fact that the Filipino people won’t be allowed to raise their voices; if they do so, they may risk being killed. This is what happened under martial law during Ferdinand Marcos’s dictatorship.

This will definitely affect civil society. It will be very difficult for humanitarian workers to respond to any crisis since Marcos will likely aspire to micro-manage everything. We fear the democracy those before us fought so hard for will be erased.

Regarding the specifics of policymaking, we don’t really know what the plan is. Marcos campaigned on vague promises of national unity and implied that all problems would be solved if people unite behind his leadership. Needless to say, he never mentioned any policy to tackle climate change and the environmental crisis.

Against all signals, I keep hoping the new administration will be receptive to people’s demands. I really hope our new president listens to the cries of the people. Our leaders must reach out to communities and listen to our issues. I doubt Bongbong Marcos is capable of doing that, but one can only hope.

What support does Filipino civil society need from international civil society and the international community?

We need to ensure the international community sends out a consistent message and stands by our side when oppression starts. We also need them to be ready to rescue Filipinos if their safety is at risk. We activists fear for our lives. We have doubts about how receptive and accepting the new administration will be toward civil society. 

Today is a gloomy day in the Philippines. We did our best to campaign for truth, facts, and hope for the Philippines. Vice President Leni Robredo campaigned for public sector transparency and vowed to lead a government that cares for the people and bolsters the medical system. If she had won the elections, she would have been the third woman to lead the Philippines after Cory Aquino and Macapagal Arroyo.

Leni’s loss is the loss of the Philippines, not just hers. There are still too many people in the Philippines who believe Marcos’s lies. I don’t blame the masses for believing his lies; they are victims of decades of disinformation. Our system sadly enables disinformation. This is something that needs to be urgently tackled, but the next administration will likely benefit from it so it will hardly do what’s needed.

We now fear every day for our lives and for the future of our country.

Civic space in the Philippines is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Living Laudato Si’ Philippines through its website or its Facebook page, and follow @LaudatoSiPH on Twitter and @laudatosiph on Instagram

 

INDONESIA: ‘The Sexual Violence Bill is one step further in claiming the rights of women and children’

Nuril QomariyahCIVICUS speaks with Nuril Qomariyah, coordinator of Perempuan Bergerak, about the Sexual Violence Bill recently passed in Indonesia and the key roles played by civil society.

Founded in 2016, Perempuan Bergerak is an Indonesian civil society organisation (CSO) that promotes women’s rights in local communities, striving for the values of equality, justice and human rights, and providing support for both women and men to build more equal gender relationships.

What is the relevance of the newly passed Sexual Violence Bill?

The Sexual Violence Bill that Indonesia’s House of Representatives passed on 9 May 2022, formally known as RUU TPKS, seeks to protect victims of sexual violence crimes and help them with the recovery process. 

The bill deals with nine types of criminal acts of sexual violence regulated in article 4, paragraph 1: non-physical sexual harassment, physical sexual harassment, forced contraception, forced sterilisation, forced marriage, sexual torture, sexual exploitation, sexual slavery and electronic-based sexual violence. Perpetrators proven guilty of these crimes will be subject to imprisonment.

It is interesting that the inclusion of electronic-based sexual violence received some criticism. In the early stages, when the bill was being drafted, it was not included. However, CSOs and activists advocated for its inclusion because sexual violence cases, especially among young children, are increasingly happening in or in connection with cyberspace.

How might the new law change things for the better?

The main outstanding thing about this bill is that it focuses on the victims and seeks to create an environment that will help them recover from acts of sexual violence. According to a study conducted by the Indonesia Judicial Research Society, the law should be appreciated because it clearly takes sides with sexual violence victims by mandating the establishment of mechanisms to support their recovery.

In its article 30, paragraph 1 the bill states that victims are entitled to services such as restitution and counselling. If the perpetrator is unable to pay restitution the state will compensate the victim in accordance with the court’s decision. Further, victims are recognised as having the right to receive the necessary treatment, the right to be protected and the right to recovery.

Community-based service providers such as the police are required to receive and follow up on reports of sexual violence and provide assistance to the victims. Under the new law they are no longer allowed to dismiss sexual violence cases, and instead must conduct the investigation needed to help the victims. The role of families, communities and central and local governments in preventing sexual violence is also emphasised. The new law seeks to make victims of sexual violence feel comfortable enough to report their perpetrators and open legal cases against them. We consider this bill fundamental in helping victims and survivors of sexual violence.

Do you see it as a civil society victory?

Indeed, we consider this a civil society victory because we have been involved in the whole process and have long advocated for the bill to be passed. CSOs working closely with victims and survivors of sexual violence understand how important this bill is, which is why we were at the forefront of the efforts that resulted in its approval. 

It took us 10 years to get here. This is quite a long time. During the past decade, we have organised and made sure we built a unified front pushing for this law. Sexual violence is an offence that affects those who constitute the majority in our society; it is women and children who experience it the most. So getting this law passed is one step further in claiming the rights of women and children, including their right to live in a safe and secure environment. 

The new law empowers victims because it provides tools to respond to cases of sexual violence. We are very happy to see this kind of progress. A victory like this provides confirmation of the great influence our work has on society. 

What tactics did you use to encourage the passage of the new legislation?

Perempuan Bergerak is based in Malang, the second-largest city in the province of East Java. We provide safe spaces for people, and especially women, to get together, exchange with one another, learn and organise. We also provide space for men to learn about equality in human relations so they are able to see women as fully autonomous human beings, rather than weak creatures of lesser value who are under their dominion.

The Sexual Violence Bill is crucial for this work because it has the potential to provide the same kind of safe space, with legal guarantees, for women and children all over Indonesia. This is why we collaborated with various community groups in Malang, including students, academics and activists, to raise wide awareness about the importance of the bill. Perempuan Bergerak has a large virtual community on social media platforms, so we created content to promote the bill and shared it on these platforms. The young generation is very active on social media, so we channelled much of our activism there. 

In addition to social media activism, we did a lot of work on the ground, including organising discussion forums, making as many appearances as we could on television and local radio stations, and demonstrating on the streets alongside other organisations and activists.

We are also part of Koalisi Masyarakat Sipil Anti Kekerasan Seksual (KOMPAKS), a coalition of Indonesian civil society groups fighting against sexual violence. As a coalition, we share the same vision and have worked together to push the government to pass this bill. We mobilised in unity throughout the whole process. 

What challenges do you see moving forward, and how does civil society plan to address them?

The main challenge we anticipate is implementation. We know we will have to be very vigilant, monitor each implementation stage and make sure local governments respect the law. We have known this would be a challenge all along, so throughout our advocacy and campaigning in the process to get the bill passed we acted together as civil society to create awareness at the community level about the importance of this bill’s implementation. Now that our strategy to get the bill has worked, we will need to keep moving together to ensure a successful process of implementation. We believe that through collaboration with as many stakeholders as possible, including with the government, educational institutions and civil society, we can make the implementation stage progress smoothly.

Civic space in Indonesia is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Perempuan Bergerak through its Instagram page.

 

PANDEMIC TREATY: ‘States hold a shared responsibility to keep the world safe and must be held accountable’

Barbara StockingCIVICUS speaks with Dame Barbara M Stocking about the need to develop a new pandemic treaty anchored in solidarity, transparency, accountability and equity.

Barbara Stocking is chair of the Panel for a Global Public Health Convention, former president of Murray Edwards College at the University of Cambridge, former chief executive of Oxfam Great Britain and former chair of the Ebola Interim Assessment Panel.

 

 

What is the Panel for a Global Public Health Convention, and what prompted its launch in April 2021? 

The University of Miami decided to survey experts across the world about the topic of pandemics. This happened before the COVID-19 pandemic erupted. We needed to know if we were prepared for a pandemic and what issues needed to be tackled. I was among the experts in 2015: I chaired the Committee on Ebola that assessed the performance of the World Health Organization (WHO). An article summarising the experts’ views was published in the peer-reviewed medical journal The Lancet a few months later.

By then the COVID-19 pandemic was well underway, and University of Miami’s president, Julio Frank, proposed doing more than publishing a report. The Panel for a Global Public Health Convention was founded in 2020 to advocate for new ways of governing and undertaking outbreak control and response, and I was asked to chair it.

The Panel is an independent, high-level advocacy coalition. It includes former presidents such as Laura Chinchilla from Costa Rica and John Mahama from Ghana, and former Secretary-General of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Angel Gurría. These are all people who can have influence with the WHO, its member states and other bodies. We are not campaigning publicly because we do not have the resources or the people, but we operate at the highest political level.

In December 2021 the World Health Assembly agreed to launch the process to develop a global treaty on pandemic prevention, preparedness and response. Our panel will keep watching as the idea unfolds to make sure it accomplishes the things we think are needed to stop outbreaks turning into pandemics.

What shortfalls in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic made the need for a treaty apparent?

The need for a convention became obvious to everybody as a result of COVID-19, but it is not just about COVID-19. For the last 20 years, every single report concluded that we were not ready to deal with a pandemic. COVID-19 just confirmed this in the most horrifying ways.

Preparedness is key. Governments have tried to be prepared, but they were clearly not. Why is that? For some countries it was a matter of resources, and in those cases we must ensure they get the resources to have health surveillance systems in place. However, many countries with abundant resources and excellent health systems were not ready either. One of the reasons for this is that very few countries practice preparedness. When I was in the UK health service, each hospital would practice a major incident every three years. We need the same approach in public health preparedness. Practice is key and must include not just health systems but the whole government, because if anything that big happens, ministries and heads of state must also get involved.

The public was not prepared either. We need to make sure we deliver the right messages and we engage communities, which we know are so important.

When it became clear that there was a virus circulating, and it was not yet clear what it was, and the WHO made the call for a public health emergency of international concern, not much was done. February 2020 was a key moment for action, yet very little happened.

It all boiled down to a fundamental lack of understanding about what being precautionary means in the case of a pandemic. With most things in life, you can ask yourself whether a situation is going to get worse and make a realistic assessment. But with a pandemic, especially at the beginning, you don’t know how the virus will replicate, and you must move fast. But with COVID-19, states did not. They also had objections to WHO guidelines because, they said, the WHO ‘had no authority’.

The next fundamental problem is that although we have international health regulations, people tend to not comply, and there are no enforcement and accountability mechanisms. Clearly, there is also work to be done to update international health regulations, but the biggest issue is countries agreeing to be accountable to each other. The expression we use is ‘mutual assurance’: for a state to make difficult decisions, it needs to know other states will do the same. This should sell the idea of accountability.

There is no point in having a pandemic treaty or convention unless people are willing to be accountable. But this is often ignored because it is difficult. States are sovereign over their territories and are responsible for the health of their people, but also hold a shared responsibility to keep the world safe. This is why we need a treaty or convention.

How could the treaty help solve these problems? 

The principles of equity, transparency and accountability must be built into this treaty. We need to think what needs sorting out or making right, because these are the things we will be held accountable for.

For example, on the preparedness side, there has begun to be progress, but only through peer reviews of countries to determine whether they are ready. This system would have to be scaled up. Independent reviews would be a positive thing for the treaty or convention. We need somebody other than the WHO to conduct the assessments for preparedness and response, which can be done within a treaty structure. The WHO should set the standards and provide support in the role of ‘friend of the country’. We could set up a small body. As the WHO has pretty much all the data, there is no need to start from scratch. But it must be a body with the required experience and expertise. It may have to report up, through treaty structures, to heads of state, whom we hope would form the conferences of parties overseeing this treaty or convention.

All these things can be built in. They will not take away WHO’s powers but rather add to them.

How has civil society participated so far in the treaty process?

Civil society is clearly asking for more say in health issues and in the development of the pandemic treaty, and I think this is truly necessary.

At the WHO level, the civil society participating comes mostly from international bodies and local partners, which often have a health background – and I mean ‘health’ in the broader sense, including mental health.

When hearings were held, civil society participated actively and the scope of participating civil society organisations (CSOs) broadened to include human rights CSOs, not only because of the freedoms affected by lockdowns but also because governments were using the pandemic as an excuse to violate human rights. As a result, more and more human rights CSOs wanted to have a say in the treaty.

In terms of participation in the treaty process itself, the WHO has a category for civil society, as ‘official observers’. But civil society should have much more influence in the discussion. At the top level, the WHO is setting up two-day events to provide evidence to stakeholders beyond member states. They held a two-day event in April, in which the Panel participated and gave its view on the topic. Another event is coming up in June.

One major problem I have seen is centralised pandemic management. We need to engage communities, and this includes civil society. When handling a pandemic, engagement of people and organisations at the local level must be built in. This can’t be done by central government alone; local authorities must play their role to engage with these groups. 

Expanding the treaty’s governance to include civil society would be quite challenging because member states will own the treaty they will be signing up for, either by consensus or by government ratification. There has got to be more debate on how, even if there is a conference of parties, we can include civil society more and engage with it. 

What are the main challenges you foresee for the near future, regarding the implementation of an eventual treaty?

The first challenge is to produce a Global Public Health Convention with strong accountability. States must accept that they are to be held accountable towards each other and the world. And although it may be tough for states to accept the idea of being assessed by independent people, we need assessments to be conducted by an independent body. We can have states overseeing its work, but it needs to be able to work independently.

The notion of ‘shared sovereignty’ is still hard for countries to accept fully. But we are a globe; we need people working together. We are all related to each other, so we need to have the willingness to cooperate and see how we can build together. People will worry about the loss of sovereignty, but we need to help them understand how critically important this is, in both a moral and a self-interested way. It is in each one’s own interest to have others behave well towards them. These are some of the blocks we need to get over to have a very good treaty.

In sum, states have already agreed to produce some sort of treaty or convention and are already working on it. But the question is, is it going to be the right one? If everything goes well, we will have an agreement by 2024, and then there needs to be some time for countries to ratify it – or not.

But we must not let the momentum pass because we really must be prepared. People keep asking if we might have another pandemic in the next 10 or 20 years. Well, frankly, we might have another one next year. There is a real urgency because habitats are changing; animals and humans are getting closer and closer together.

I see everyone relaxing a bit since COVID-19 seems to be somewhat under control. But we must not go to sleep on this. It is almost certain that this will happen again in the future. The one thing we don’t know is how soon.

Get in touch with the Panel for a Global Public Health Convention through its website. 

 

NIGERIA: ‘The federal government and ASUU at some point made it feel like our education doesn’t matter’

Benedicta ChisomCIVICUS speaks with Benedicta Chisom about the current student mobilisation that is calling on Nigeria’s government to respond to teachers’ demands and end the strike by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU). 

Benedicta is a student at Nnamdi Azikiwe University in Nigeria and a creative writer. Being directly affected by the ASUU strike, she has worked on social media to create awareness about it and its underlying issues.

How did the #EndASUUStrike movement start, and what does it want to achieve?

The #EndASUUStrike started with students’ protests at the University of Benin and Ambrose Ali University, Ekpoma, and then snowballed into an online movement. Its message is simple: we want to go back to school.

Students just want to voice their grievances over the strike. Both the federal government and ASUU at some point made us feel like our education doesn’t matter. They keep going back and forth with the matter while our academic year is wasted. Every time teachers go on strike, we become passive spectators, just waiting on them to decide when to end it. We had to remind them that we matter too, and that it is our education and future that is at stake.

The protest was our way of demanding that the federal government and ASUU come to a final agreement so that teachers stop going on strike every single academic year. As a result of the strikes that have happened since 2020, we have lost more than 12 months of our academic career.

It would be a shame if the students that come after us continue to face the same challenges. Recurrent strikes need to end with us, this year. We want a five-year course to take five years of schooling, not more.

How has the government responded so far?

In February, President Mohammed Buhari mandated a trio composed of his chief of staff, the minister of education and the minister of labour and employment to address the disagreement with ASUU over the strike. The Minister of Labour met with the other unions – the National Association of Academic Technologists, the Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities and the Non-Academic Staff Union of Educational and Associated Institutions – which went on strike in support of ASUU. He assured the public that the government is tackling disputes in the educational sector holistically and acknowledged that some issues causing the crisis are economic, including funding for the revitalisation of universities and workers’ welfare.

But ASUU and the students are angry at the government’s undivided focus on the upcoming 2023 general election, as though students and their education did not matter. The union also condemned the rush to purchase the ruling All Progress Congress party’s presidential nomination forms by politicians even though money is one of the reasons for the strike. It accused the ministers of labour and education of insensitivity.

According to Independent Electoral Commission, more than half of registered voters, 51.1 per cent, are between the ages of 18 and 35. Many of them are students, and how will students believe in the government if their voices aren’t heard by the people they vote for? At some point we had hopes for change but now that the strike has been extended by 12 weeks, I can’t say much. But we are positive the mobilisation will drive home our grievances to some extent.

What do you think striking teachers should do?

For students, the strike is frustrating and disheartening. We are told to stay home without any idea of when we will return to school. I have spent a whole semester at home, and what was supposed to be a five-year course increased to six years. Our lives are put on hold; this affects not only our academic progression but also our life plans. Education workers should be more flexible with their demands and have more empathy towards students.

What should the government do?

There are many things the federal government can do to ensure that both the needs of students and education workers are met. The government must offer a good agreement to ASUU and begin to implement it immediately. It must also start paying unpaid allowances and salaries. This will give students back their right to education and stabilise the economy. The strike has done a lot of damage already.

One of the first things the government could do is adopt the University Transparency Accountability Solution (UTAS) as a preferred payment option instead of the system currently used. UTAS was created by Nigerian experts and must be run and maintained locally, so it will encourage local innovation and provide employment. It has passed the test and ASUU has agreed to improve it. It has become a bone of contention, so there is a big chance the strike will end once it is adopted.

Most significantly, the government must set out a strategy and timeline to come up with the billion-dollar funding required to revitalise universities. This will show ASUU and students that they are indeed working towards restoring public universities.

What kind of support do you need from the international community? 

Social media has made the world a global village, so I am sure people in other parts of the world are aware of the protests and strikes in Nigeria. We need more voices to put pressure on our government to take immediate action. It would be of great help if students in other countries and Nigerians in the diaspora could help share the #EndASUUStrike hashtag, repost our posts and share our tweets to add momentum to the movement.

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

 

NIGERIA: ‘The government is more willing to negotiate with terrorists than with striking teachers’

Olorunfemi AdeyeyeCIVICUS speaks with Olorunfemi Adeyeye about the current student mobilisation that is calling on Nigeria’s government to respond to teachers’ demands and end the strike by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU). 

Olorunfemi is a student activist and member of the Fund Education Coalition, which works to raise awareness about the importance of Nigerian public universities and is currently supporting teachers by taking part in the #EndASUUStrike movement.

How did the #EndASUUStrike movement start, and what does it want to achieve?

The origins of the campaign are in the Fund Education Coalition movement, a coalition of Nigerian student groups advocating for education rights. #EndASUUStrike started when student organisations came together and called for students to be at the forefront of the struggle for their rights to quality public education. It uses the grievances of the ASUU strike to highlight what students need to have on their respective campuses.

The demands of the ASUU strike include several issues that concern Nigerian students directly. For instance, the union has raised the need to revitalise public universities. This is of great importance to students, who are the direct victims of underfunding. The campaign to properly fund education demands the revitalisation of laboratory equipment, which is in poor state, and fixes to the problems of overcrowded lecture halls and moribund campus health centres, among other key aspects. The union also frowns at the proliferation of universities and seeks an amendment to the 2004 National Universities Commission Act. The establishment of more universities, while existing ones are poorly funded, has become a constituency project for Nigerian rulers. Almost everyone in the ruling class wants to have one in their backyard. This is just unacceptable. We are fully in support of the strike, which also highlights issues surrounding the poor remuneration of lecturers.

What the Fund Education Coalition wants is for the Nigerian government to accede to workers’ demands in the educational sector. And not just to ASUU’s: the Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities and the National Association of Academic Technologists are also on strike. With all education workers currently on strike, it was only rational for students to join them.

Have you established any connections with student movements facing similar challenges in other parts of the world?

Social media platforms have made it easy for us to share information about the #EndASUUStrike movement, reaching a vast audience across the world. Unfortunately, however, we have not yet had the chance to get in contact with any international student organisations facing similar issues.

As student activists, when things happen in other countries we lend voices to help each other – for instance, when the #FeesMustFall movement erupted in South Africa the Alliance of Nigerian Students against Neoliberal Attacks, an organisation I led in 2018, released a statement of support. We hope the same will also happen with the #EndASUUStrike. International solidarity among all the oppressed people in the world is key.

To counter the government’s propaganda that ASUU is on strike because it feels it can gain some concessions due to the approaching elections, it should be noted that this isn’t a new problem. Interestingly, there are no new problems in Nigeria. Our issues date back a long way. Strikes similar to the current one have been happening since the 1980s and the issues they point to continue to affect generation after generation of Nigerians.

We are still dealing with the same issues, as the government systematically fails to fulfil its promises and implement the agreements reached with unions. Our issues are perennial and endemic, but even though they may be different from those faced by young people in other countries, we are still open to collaboration with as many organisations from around the world as possible.

How has the ASUU strike affected you?

As students it is very unfortunate that we must go through this again. It is an endless cycle of spending very little of your time in class and most of it on the streets fighting for your right to education.

When ASUU goes on strike, it not only affects academic activities, but also the economic and social life of everyone in the academic community. There are students who depend on universities being open because they sell academic textbooks, stationery or equipment to make a living. There are also people who run businesses within universities as a means of providing for their families. All these have been disrupted. The strike has affected everyone.

As student activists, some of our activities have been affected and we have not been organising as we normally would on campuses. We hope the federal government will agree to ASUU’s demands so things can go back to normal.

What do you think education workers should do?

First, I need to clarify that students have a good relationship with ASUU and the other educational workers’ unions. We are all partners in the education sector. As students, we have been able to present some of our ideas and thoughts to ASUU.

An issue we discussed recently was that they should come out with a clear message against the government’s propaganda. The government has tried to convince people that it cannot accede to ASUU’s demands because there is no money to fund education. This is misinformation and propaganda, so we have asked ASUU to counter it with their own narrative and make it public. Everyone should understand why ASUU is striking and support their struggle. This will not only benefit teachers, students and their families, but it will also help us save public universities and ensure they are well equipped for ordinary citizens to attend.

How has the government responded so far to both the ASUU strike and the #EndASUUStrike movement?

The federal government has not responded to ASUU’s and students’ demands. Faced with strikes by other unions, such as the Airline Operators of Nigeria, the government reacted fast to prevent the suspension of airline services. But ASUU has been on strike for almost three months and the government has not even called them to a meeting. This serves as an indication that education is not really a priority for them. The government is more willing to negotiate with terrorists and bandits than to sit down and negotiate with academic workers.

As a result, ASUU has decided to extend the strike by three more months, which means students will have spent close to six months without attending school.

We hope we can put more pressure on the government so it will react to what is happening. We want the government to agree to a meeting with ASUU representatives and commit, this time, to solving the issues brought up at the meetings.

What kinds of support do you need from the international community?

As someone who is at the frontline of the struggle to protect a public education, I would say that the international community should put pressure on the Nigerian government to prioritise education.

The government has been telling us it does not have money to fund education, but yet there is serious capital flight from Nigeria to other countries. The president has donated one million US dollars to Afghanistan and oil theft has grown. Who is stealing the oil? Not ordinary people. Who are contributing to oil theft, money laundering and massive capital flight, if not foreign nations? These monies are mostly not kept in our banks. We need our international allies to put pressure on the government to stop capital flight and instead invest in education. 

International organisations should also help us put pressure on foreign governments, corporations and parastate actors to stop aiding and abetting the thievery in Nigeria. Nigeria has plenty of resources that should be put to the correct use, such as funding education.

In addition, we need the international community to help us push our narrative through social media so that more attention is paid to the situation Nigerian students are dealing with.

Civic space in Nigeria is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Follow @activistfemi on Twitter. 

 

INDIA: ‘We have achieved a historic labour rights win for female Dalit workers’

Jeeva MCIVICUS speaks about a recent labour rights victory in India’s garment industry with Jeeva M, General Secretary of the Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labour Union (TTCU).

TTCU is a women-led independent and majority Dalit trade union of textile workers that represents 11,000 female workers in Tamil Nadu, India. Jeeva, who hails from the Dalit community, has worked for more than five years in the Tamil Nadu textile industry, including at Eastman Exports. She is a founding member of TTCU and has led struggles for decent work and violence-free workplaces in the garment industry for more than a decade.

What is the Dindigul Agreement, and how significant is it?

The Dindigul Agreement was signed in April 2021 by TTCU and Eastman Exports, one of the largest textile producers in India, which supplies knitwear, apparel and accessories to major global clothing brands. Its aim is to end caste-based and gender-based violence and harassment (GBVH) at Eastman factories and spinning mills in Dindigul, a city in India’s Tamil Nadu state.

This is a historic labour rights win for around 5,000 mostly female Dalit workers, who are placed at the bottom of India’s caste system.

The Dindigul Agreement includes an enforceable brand agreement (EBA), a type of legally binding agreement in which multinational companies commit to use their supply chain relationships to support a worker-led or union-led programme at particular factories or worksites. In this case, TTCU, the Asia Floor Wage Alliance (AFWA) and Global Labour Justice-International Labour Rights Forum (GLJ-ILRF) have signed an EBA with the multinational fashion company H&M, which requires H&M to support and enforce the Dindigul Agreement. If Eastman Exports violates its commitments, H&M must take steps to penalise the company, including by reducing business, until it comes into compliance.

This agreement is the first of its kind in India, the only EBA to cover spinning mills and the first to include explicit protections against caste-based discrimination, a problem that intensified during the pandemic.

The Dindigul Agreement is in line with the International Labour Organization’s Convention 190 concerning the elimination of violence and harassment in the workplace. It creates structures that will empower female workers, supported by their union, to monitor and seek redress for GBVH. It also provides a new model for brands, suppliers and trade unions to cooperate to prevent and respond to GBVH in garment supply chains.

What tipped the balance in favour of the agreement after so many years of efforts?

Civil society has advocated for better working conditions for Dalit workers for many years, but it was not until the murder of Jeyasre Kathiravel, a Dalit woman garment worker and member of TTCU, that we succeeded in addressing the extreme problems of GBVH pervasive in this industry. The killing of Jeyasre by her supervisor in January 2021 prompted TTCU to shed light on the situation at the factory where she was killed.

In response, TTCU, AFWA and GLJ-ILRF formed a unique partnership and launched the #JusticeforJeyasre campaign in India and other Asian countries as well as in Europe and the USA. Over 90 international unions, labour groups and women’s rights organisations joined to urge international brands and Eastman Exports to sign a binding agreement to end GBVH.

A year-long campaign ensued, including an international vigil for Jeyasre held across 33 countries and an 11-city speaking tour across the USA to raise awareness about her case and the need to address GBVH in global supply chains. This enabled the civil society coalition to lead the negotiations that concluded with the historic agreement.

What other challenges do Dalit workers face in India, and what needs to be done to improve their situations?

Caste discrimination permeates every aspect of society. Due to its systemic nature, workplaces and supply chains are likely to be affected by it unless special measures to counter it are put in place.

For instance, Dalit workers experience poorer working conditions than non-Dalits, including longer working hours, sexual harassment, lower wages, dirtier or more hazardous tasks and abusive language and gestures. We also face discrimination at the hiring stage – for instance, qualified applicants from Dalit communities are not considered for skilled jobs – and encounter discrimination in accessing services and utilities offered by the employer, such as housing, healthcare and education and training.

With approximately 80 per cent of the bonded workforce coming from the Dalit community, strong measures need to be put in place to address bonded or forced labour and to ensure that employment in this sector is not forced.

Important measures to advance Dalit workers’ labour rights include ensuring the freedom of association and collective bargaining, improving working conditions, paying living wages and implementing binding agreements such as the Dindigul Agreement to address caste-based discrimination and GBVH in sectors where the workforce is mostly made up of Dalit women.

What’s next for the civil society groups involved in the Dindigul Agreement?

Through the campaign and negotiation process, TTCU built strong forward momentum and gained respect from the factory and brands. TTCU, AFWA and GLJ-ILRF have built a powerful coalition of unions, women’s rights groups and Dalit rights advocates, among others. Now the agreements have been signed, we need to keep that momentum. We will continue to keep our allies engaged in the implementation phase and as we work to drive industry-wide change.

We see the Dindigul Agreement as part of a regional movement against GBVH in garment supply chains. We plan to use it as a model for organising against GBVH across the industry and the region. We are already calling on more brands to join this agreement and working with them to expand it. There will surely be challenges, but we are confident we will overcome them.

Civic space in India is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with AFWA through its website or Facebook page, and follow @asia_floorwage, @tamil_labour and @GLJhub on Twitter. 

 

INDIA: ‘Muslim girls are being forced to choose between education and the hijab’

ZakiaSomanCIVICUS speaks about the recent ban on the hijab, a headscarf worn by Muslim women, in educational institutions in the Indian state of Karnataka with Zakia Soman, a women’s rights activist and co-founder of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (Indian Muslim Women's Movement, BMMA).

Founded in 2007, BMMA is an independent, secular, rights-based civil society organisation (CSO) that advocates for the rights of women and the Muslim minority in India.

Why have girls wearing the hijab been banned from school in Karnataka state?

Girls in hijab were denied entry into classrooms in the name of the school uniform rules, with the authorities citing a circular that states that each student must comply with the uniform requirement in school. Both the Karnataka government and the high court played the uniform card to justify preventing Muslim women wearing the hijab from entering the college campus.

While educational institutions undeniably have the right to set their own rules, these cannot infringe the fundamental rights granted by the Indian Constitution. According to Article 25 of our constitution, all citizens are guaranteed the right to freedom of conscience as well as freedoms to profess, practise and propagate religion.

And under no circumstance can a dress code for schoolgirls be more important than education itself. Muslim girls have the right to be in school with or without the hijab, which is why I oppose those who promote the court’s verdict as a decision that empowers women. Although I don’t believe in the hijab, I think it is wrong to discriminate against girls wearing it. Our nation will only progress when girls have access to education regardless of their religious affiliation.

Does the hijab row indicate the rise of anti-minorities voices in India?

Although it may sound like an internal disciplinary matter over girls wearing the hijab, the wider context of the hijab row is one of religious polarisation and politics of hate towards Muslims. The hijab row is an integral part of the politics of religious hate in India’s polarised milieu, where Muslims are the target of the growing anti-Islam propaganda aired on TV as well as on social media platforms.

There is a spiralling nationwide campaign against the Muslim community under the garb of religious festivities. Journalists and other monitors have found deliberate, concerted violence against life, property and businesses of India’s Muslim community carried out by hooligans claiming to celebrate religious festivals in the states of Delhi, Gujrat, Karnataka and many others. But ultimately, the Indian state must be held responsible for the terrible living conditions experienced by millions of Muslims.

How has civil society responded to the ban?

Civil society has extended solidarity to the affected girls and has supported them. However, civil society’s response has so far failed to impress the government and the high court, which sadly ruled to uphold the hijab ban inside classrooms in Karnataka state.

As for opposition parties, they have been unable to run a sustained campaign to challenge the climate created by hate speech and open calls for the genocide of Muslims. This is why it’s so important for the international community to stand up and support the voices of sanity in India.

What have pro-hijab protests achieved so far?

Peaceful protests have been held in support of Muslim women’s right to wear the hijab in educational institutions. However, I am afraid that conservative elements of the Muslim community got involved in the protests in a way that aggravated matters, making Muslim girls and their families even more vulnerable to political onslaught.

In my understanding, neither the hijab nor the burqa, a full body covering, is mandatory in Islam; however, patriarchal elements would like to put every Muslim girl and woman behind a burqa or hijab. The matter could have been easily resolved through dialogue between college authorities and parents. Instead, it got politicised, with different religious and political outfits jumping in the fray with their radical and antagonistic positions.

As a result, Muslim girls found themselves in a tough position, being forced to choose between education and the hijab, which is outright unfair to them. Since many Muslim parents will not allow girls to go to school without the hijab and schools will not give them entry into class with the hijab, many girls have dropped out of their studies and have not sat their exams.

Civic space in India is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with BMMA through its website and follow @BMMA_India on Twitter.

 

HONDURAS: ‘We must address the roots of the conflict: the handing over of natural resources’

Edy TaboraCIVICUS speaks about the criminalisation of environmental, land and territorial defenders in Honduras with Edy Tábora, director of the law firm Justicia para los Pueblos (Justice for the Peoples) and coordinator of the group of defence lawyers of eight defenders of the Guapinol river who were recently released from detention.

Why were the Guapinol defenders criminalised?

The case of the eight Guapinol comrades deprived of their freedom is one of the most revealing expressions of the conflicts around mining and energy and the dispossession of land and natural resources in Honduras. Along with that of Berta Cáceres, the Guapinol case is one of the most significant ones.

Berta’s case, which culminated in her assassination, was the first in a new wave of criminalisation surrounding dispossession projects following the 2009 military coup. Her case displayed all the typical elements: stigmatisation, surveillance, rupture of the social fabric, criminalisation. The same pattern can be seen in many parts of Honduras.

After the coup, there was a privately conducted exploration of mineral deposits and businesspeople realised there was a lot of money to be made here. In the case of Guapinol, the process kicked off with the granting of an iron oxide mining concession – one of the largest in the country – to Los Pinares, a holding company registered in Panama, owned by an extremely wealthy Honduran family. Its mining business was developed jointly with the US company Nucor.

Nucor claims to have withdrawn from the project in late 2019 due to the conflict triggered by the criminalisation of the Guapinol defenders, but there is no evidence of this and we do not believe it to be true. Los Pinares is simply the mining arm of a company whose power comes from airport concessions at home and abroad. It is a company with high-level political connections, and with so much power that in 2013 it succeeded in getting the National Congress to change the delimitation of the core zone of a national park.

On 22 April 2013, the day before a new mining law came into force, applications were submitted for the two mining concessions related to the Guapinol case, both located in the core zone of the Montaña de Botaderos National Park. This had been declared a national park in 2012, as part of a ‘friendly settlement’ with the relatives of Carlos Escaleras, a social leader and environmental defender active in the 1980s and 1990s, who was assassinated for defending this mountain. The statute of the national park, which bears the name of Carlos Escaleras, prohibited the granting of mining concessions in its core zone and even its buffer zone.

However, in 2014, engineers began to arrive on the mountain to collect information and check how deep down metal was deposited. People noticed this, began to demand an explanation and organised in the Municipal Committee of Public and Common Goods of Tocoa.

In June 2016 they began to file complaints; some were filed by the Guapinol defenders who ended up in prison. They requested information from the institutions in charge of granting mining permits but only obtained some information in November 2019, after three years of back and forth. Tired of not getting answers, in June 2018 people started protesting at the Municipality of Tocoa Colón. It was then that systematic surveillance by the national police and Los Pinares security began.

In August 2018, the Honduran Council of Private Enterprise held press conferences in which it complained to the government about an alleged loss of 20 billion dollars caused by ‘vandals’ protesting in various parts of Honduras.

Criminalisation was a nationwide strategy, but the criminalisation of the Guapinol comrades was the most serious case. On 8 September 2018, the Public Prosecutor’s Office presented the first accusation against 18 comrades for the crimes of usurpation, damage and usurpation of public space. Los Pinares appeared in the hearings as the accuser. Fourteen comrades were put on trial and all their cases were closed, but the fact that they were accused enabled the illegal eviction, in October 2018, of the Camp for Water and Life, one of many set up around Honduras. This was one of four charges brought by the Public Prosecutor’s Office as part of the strategy to criminalise resistance movements against mining and energy projects.

In January 2019, in response to a complaint filed by Los Pinares, the Public Prosecutor’s Office filed another indictment against 32 people, including eight Guapinol comrades. The nature of the charges changed: it was no longer about usurpation of public space but about organised crime. Human rights defenders were now treated as taking part in organised crime, with charges including criminal association, theft, damage, unjust deprivation of liberty and aggravated arson. The case was assigned to the Specialised Court for Organised Crime, which meant it was transferred from local to national jurisdiction, in violation of the right to be tried by one’s natural judge. 

Of the 32, a first group voluntarily submitted to trial in February 2019 and was kept in prison for only 10 days before the accusations against them were dismissed. The Guapinol eight, however, despite having voluntarily submitted to trial, were subjected to arbitrary detention from 26 August 2019 until 24 February 2022, when they finally regained their freedom.

What did civil society do to secure their release?

During the pandemic, Guapinol was one of the most high-profile cases globally. Not even the pandemic could stop our comrades’ defence. We quickly moved our activities online, and by late April 2020 we were already filing habeas corpus writs for our comrades’ right to health, alongside international organisations. Even under these conditions, we managed to set up discussions with important organisations, and three months after the pandemic began, we restarted our advocacy work, which meant that by the time the trial started, the case had become very well known around the world.

Initially the case was promoted by the Coalition Against Impunity, which brings together more than 50 Honduran civil society organisations (CSOs). Later, many CSOs joined a kind of international support group for the case.

First, we publicly denounced the violence and criminalisation against the Municipal Committee. Second, before our comrades were imprisoned, we documented the irregular granting of concessions for natural resources. Third, alongside several Honduran CSOs, we organised our comrades’ legal defence. A working group was then organised including national and international CSOs to support the defence. A lot of advocacy work was done, both nationally and internationally, to convince the public that this was a very important case and to counter the company’s account of the violence allegedly committed by our comrades.

Documentary and testimonial work was crucial to expose our comrades’ real activism. We had many meetings with international CSOs. Canadian, US and European organisations and academics reported on the concession and the legal process. International CSOs filed amicus curiae – friend of the court – briefs with Honduran courts. We participated in multiple forums with national and international organisations.

Many actions converged to create a powerful wave of demands for our comrades’ release. CIVICUS’s and Amnesty International’s campaigns, for example, allowed us to reach wider audiences. When the trial came, the case was widely known, and less than 24 hours after the end of the trial, in which our comrades were convicted with two thirds of the court’s votes, the Supreme Court of Justice annulled the whole process and ordered them to be released.

This was an unprecedented decision, surely motivated by the strength of the demand for their freedom and by the evidence presented, both in and out of court, which demonstrated that our comrades were innocent and that they fight for a just cause that is of great interest to humanity.

Are there other cases like the Guapinol case in Honduras?

There are many defenders criminalised for defending land, including some from the Garífuna people, a marginalised minority, but they are not in prison. Many comrades were also imprisoned for defending democracy in the aftermath of 2017’s electoral fraud: around 30 people were imprisoned in maximum security prisons, but they are currently free. Most pending cases are being closed as a result of an amnesty issued by the National Congress in February 2022.

In that sense, the Guapinol case was an exception, because this amnesty did not apply to them. What’s important about this case is that we managed to close the process by defending ourselves even with the highly questionable tools offered by the Honduran judicial system.

However, there were other cases at the same time as Guapinol, such as that of the Indigenous comrades of the Lenca people in the department of La Paz, who were accused of forced displacement. They were imprisoned for more than a year for a crime that is the craziest thing I have ever heard: they were accused of displacing landowners. The Public Prosecutor’s narrative uses the made-up concept of ‘reverse racism’, according to which Indigenous peoples can also commit discrimination against minorities within their communities – the minority in this case being the landowners.

Do you view Guapinol as part of a pattern of criminalisation against environmental defenders?

We have detected patterns of criminalisation by sector in the cases we have monitored. For example, between 2011 and 2016 one of the most criminalised sectors was the student movement mobilised in defence of public education. Some 350 students, mostly university students, were criminalised.

In the case of environmental defenders, we were able to document several patterns of criminalisation. Again and again, prosecutions were initiated only a few days after pronouncements by companies or employers’ organisations. The behaviour of the police and the Public Prosecutor’s Office has also been similar in all cases, with an initial focus on eviction and accusations changing over time following the same pattern. The narrative peddled by companies is always the same as well, often because they share the same lawyers.

Criminalisation follows different patterns depending on the interests affected. The crimes people are accused of when challenging mining interests differ from those used to dispossess communities of land for the construction of tourism megaprojects or the plantation of African palm in the Atlantic zone, and from those used against peasants claiming access to land and crops.

However, all the groups criminalised over the past 15 years have something in common: their resistance to the project, promoted since the 2000s, of handing over natural resources to private companies. Land grabbing was politically supported the state following the coup: from that moment on, national regulations were made more flexible to facilitate dispossession and the national police and the security forces of the Public Prosecutor’s Office and the judiciary were placed at the service of the private sector, which used them to criminalise land rights defenders.

Has there been any improvement in the situation of environmental defenders since the new government came to power in January 2022?

The new government brought several positive changes. First, while we had already achieved the closure of several emblematic cases, it decreed an amnesty that resulted in the closure of most legal proceedings against defenders, although there are still some cases pending.

Second, the new government has put an end to the state’s stigmatisation of land struggles, which used to make use of information obtained by state security forces. And third, for the time being the government has not tackled conflicts with violence. People who protest are not being repressed.

In recent years state violence was deployed to manage social protest, private violence was reflected in the assassination of defenders, and hybrid violence was seen in the area of surveillance. Over the four years of the current government we may no longer witness violent management of social protests, but there is a chance that state violence will be replaced by private corporate violence.

What are the challenges ahead?

The challenge right now is to address the causes of criminalisation. We have worked to defend and support our comrades criminalised by the state and private companies, but we have never been able to address what’s at the root of the conflict: the handing over of natural resources. Preventing the criminalisation of defenders is a big step, but we must address the issue of concessions, which in fact continue. Approved projects are waiting to be implemented. If we don’t seize the moment to address this problem, then when the government’s political colour changes, private companies will come back stronger and criminalisation will intensify.

Moreover, social movements are worn out after 12 years of resistance against the handing over of natural resources. There must be accountability, reparations for victims and guarantees of legal security for defenders to be able to do their work. The hostile legal framework for exercising rights and defending human rights that has been established in recent decades must be reversed.

Civic space in Honduras is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Learn more about the Guapinol case on its website and follow @Edy_Tabora on Twitter.

 

KENYA: ‘The denial of resources for civic education has been a massive blow for civil society’

Paul OkumuCIVICUS speaks about the upcoming elections in Kenya with Paul Okumu, head of the Secretariat of the Africa Platform (AP). AP is a pan-African civil society platform based in Nairobi, Kenya, that works to strengthen state-society relations to achieve more effective and inclusive development.

With elections still a few months away, is it clear who the contenders will be?

Many are unaware that Kenya has only one election day in which all political positions are filled. But although the focus is on the presidential race, the forthcoming elections will bring in 349 members of the National Assembly, the lower house of parliament, including 290 elected from the constituencies, 47 women elected from the counties and 12 nominated representatives, plus 69 members of the Senate, 47 of whom are elected directly while the rest are elected to represent women, young people and other excluded groups.

In addition, Kenyans will be electing 47 governors, the regional leaders directly responsible to county assemblies, that is, their respective regional parliaments. Kenyans will elect a further 1,450 county assembly members. So the election is a complex one.

For the presidential race, some likely frontrunners are already emerging. The current president, Uhuru Kenyatta, is ineligible to stand for re-election after completing his second term; his deputy, William Ruto, is among the leading candidates alongside former prime minister Raila Odinga. It is worth noting that this is the fifth time Odinga is running for president, having lost his previous attempts and withdrawn once in 2017.

By law candidacies for the presidency will be made official in mid-May, and there are currently almost 45 people who have submitted their names as possible candidates. The election body, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, will have the final word on which candidates fulfil the legal criteria to run.

The question many are likely to ask is why there are only two leading contenders. The answer is as complex as the country’s elections.

In a bid to exercise a divide-and-rule strategy, the British colonial government divided Kenya into regional ethnic units, with people from one unit not allowed to travel to other units without the authority of the colonial government under a system known as Kipande (Identity) system. In addition, people in regions closest to where white people lived were given access to education much earlier so they could work for whites. As a result, these regions (mainly central, Rift Valley and Western) progressed much faster and became dominant in the period leading to and after independence. It helped that these regions are also the most agriculturally productive, which is part of the reason the whites chose them as their residence.

There are about 43 ethnic groups in Kenya, but just five of them constitute over half of its population of about 50 million. Due to the combined effects of colonial boundaries, which the 2010 Constitution kept intact – a story for another day – and the numeric dominance of these few ethnic groups, the country’s politics, in a quite similar fashion to that in South Sudan, continue to revolve around five ethnic groups. Leading presidential candidates always emerge from these five. Currently, the two leading candidates represent a coalition of three and two of these largest ethnic groups.

What will be at stake in the upcoming elections?

The current president is seen to have spent his time investing in sections of the economy that benefited his vast family businesses. From infrastructure to hospitals to the dairy and transport sectors, most of the investments have been in areas that are perceived directly to add value or make it easy for the president’s family businesses to thrive. As a result, there is a perception that what is at stake is the protection of these investments, hence the current complex coalition supported by the president that has brought together people seen to be those who will preserve the status quo.

But at a deeper level, the country is in a serious crisis. The economy has been in recession for over eight months now. Half of its recurrent budget is used on civil service salaries. The latest economic report by the government shows that for the first time in the country’s history, debt costs will surpass the recurrent expenditure, projected at Sh1.34 trillion (US$1.3 billion) for the coming year. The debt binge is mainly from Eurobond offerings, a package of Chinese loans and syndicated commercial loans taken in recent years. Distress levels are so high that the Central Bank has begun to ration foreign reserves, especially US dollars. Fuel prices have risen by nearly 53 per cent in the past one year, largely due to the fact that fuel has always been an easy target for taxation.

And that is not all: European countries have always used Kenya as a trade gateway to the continent and have largely made it a multinational headquarters for European companies working across Africa. This has led to massive losses through tax evasion and avoidance and skewed double taxation agreements, and has killed countless small businesses that could not manage the massive resources and subsidies given by European development finance institutions or donor agencies (such as the CDC Group of the UK) to European corporations so they can win contracts and set up businesses in the country.

But there is a bigger underlying fear among citizens. In 2017 the Supreme Court was forced to overturn the results of the presidential elections after it emerged that the government, through Ot Morpho, a French company fronted by the French government, had manipulated the vote counting and tallying, handing victory to the incumbent president. The subsequent repeat elections were boycotted by the opposition at the last minute on the grounds that the government had refused to make the changes demanded by the Supreme Court to ensure transparent vote counting. This massive collusion and rejection of changes proposed by the judiciary severely eroded confidence in the electoral system. It is believed to be the part of reason for the current low voter registration.

What are the civic space conditions like in the run-up to the election?

The executive and the political class had made attempts to water down the constitution significantly through a process known as Building Bridges Initiative, but they were stopped in their tracks by the courts, including the Supreme Court. This has preserved citizens’ freedoms and has strengthened confidence in the judiciary. Because of this there is still considerable freedom of assembly and expression.

But the government has also tried to limit the work of civil society around the election. In July 2021, the Kenyan Foreign Affairs Ministry sent a confidential memo to all foreign missions and international civil society organisations (CSOs) that usually support civic education, instructing them not to put any resources, either directly or through local CSOs, into civic education and civic advocacy without the express authorisation of the government. To date, such authorisation has not been granted, and it’s not clear if partners have even requested it.

Interestingly, foreign missions kept quiet and refused to divulge this information to local CSOs. It is not clear why the government took this drastic measure, but it is even more baffling why foreign missions have been so quick to obey it when a few years ago they defied a similar directive by the Russian government and funded civic education in that country. A possible reason lies in Kenya’s centrality, alongside Rwanda, for the politics of Africa and the economies of Europe, which these foreign countries are keen to preserve. 

As a result of this decision, this year Kenya has had the lowest voter registration in its history and levels of civic awareness have plummeted. The denial of resources for civic education has been a massive blow for civil society, and with the elections under 90 days away, it is not yet clear what role civil society will play around them.

The window for registration as election observers, usually played by the African Union, the Carter Foundation, the European Union and a coalition of civil society groups, is still open, and it is still possible that with alternative sources of funding, CSOs may still engage in some way.

What is the potential for electoral violence?

Violence is highly unlikely. Despite ethnic politics rooted in the colonial regionalisation arrangement, Kenyans are largely peaceful. Most of the post-election violence that Kenya has experienced has been mostly confined to power struggles among the five dominant ethnic groups and has never been about the entire country. Over the past five months, these five ethnic groups have formed two large coalitions, making violence unlikely.

Of course, conflict between these two coalitions cannot be ruled out if one of them loses the elections, but if it occurs, this violence is unlikely to have an impact on the rest of the communities.

Civic space in Kenya is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Africa Platform through its website.

 

INDIA: ‘An effective civil society is essential for advancing human rights’

Quill FoundationCIVICUS speaks about the recent ban on the hijab, a headscarf worn by Muslim women, in educational institutions in the Indian state of Karnataka with Aiman Khan and Agni Das of the Quill Foundation. 

Founded in 2015, the Quill Foundation is an Indian civil society organisation (CSO) engaged in research and advocacy. Its work focuses on the human rights issues faced by underprivileged people, especially Adivasis, Dalits, Muslims, women, sexual minorities and differently abled persons.

Why was the use of the hijab banned in Karnataka schools? 

The hijab ban should be seen in the wider socio-political context of India. Since the beginning of 2022, Indian Muslim women have been subjected to violence and discrimination carried out by multiple offenders. It started with an app called ‘Bulli Bai’ that placed vocal Muslim women in an online auction. This violated their privacy, as it used their photos and information without their consent.

Shortly after that, girls wearing the hijab were not allowed to enter a couple of colleges in Karnataka state in southwest India because the administration deemed the hijab a violation of the dress code for schoolgirls. This was followed by a Karnataka government order on 5 February. While this government order did not specifically ban the hijab, it did say that such ban would not violate Article 25 of the Indian Constitution, which guarantees all citizens the right to freedom of conscience as well as freedoms to profess, practise and propagate religion. As the girls who were restricted from wearing the hijab filed petitions in the high court, the verdict decided against them and chose to impose what they should wear. Both the state government and the high court used the excuse of maintaining ‘uniformity’ in educational institutions to impose restrictions on Muslim women wearing the hijab.

Following that order, several incidents of discrimination and violence against Muslim women were reported. They could not enter their educational institutions if they did not remove their hijab. Although the order did not include teachers, Muslim teachers were also asked to remove their hijab or burqa, a full body covering, at the gate of the campus. 

How does the hijab ban relate to the overall status of minorities in India? 

The hijab ban is arbitrary. it goes against India’s constitutional promise of secularism and fits into the trend of authorities using the law to criminalise minority communities. For instance, Karnataka’s anti-conversion law set barriers on converting to Islam or Christianity and made it more difficult for interfaith couples to marry. Following this law, the Christian community faced rising threats and violence as well as increased attacks on their places of worship.

Generally speaking, minority communities are subjected to vilification because they are framed as ‘the other’. The Muslim minority is a specific target of persecution. At mass assemblies of the Hindu community, calls are often made for the genocide of the Muslim community and the mass rape of Muslim women. Calls for social and economic boycott of Muslims have been repeated frequently over the past few years. This has included taking mass oaths to boycott Muslims.

Muslim business owners have suffered the full brunt of this incitement. In the states of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, some Muslim-owned shops have been set on fire by rioters or demolished by the very same authorities that should protect them. The perpetrators of such communal violence enjoy impunity and face no consequences. 

The restriction on the use of the hijab was introduced in the context of this rising culture of intolerance. Even though the court limited the restriction to within the classroom, it has been implemented far and wide, including to suspend Muslim women teachers and other working Muslim women. 

What are the implications of the hijab ban for women’s rights?

The high court’s verdict, which kept the ban on the basis that the hijab is not an essential part of Islam, erased Muslim women’s free will to choose for themselves and violated not only their right to education but also their freedom of practise their religion. 

Several studies suggest that due to systematic discrimination against the Muslim community, Muslim women in India encounter extreme hurdles in accessing education, especially higher education. In this context, the hijab ban is patriarchal and regressive in nature, because it makes decisions on behalf of Muslim women regarding what to wear and how to practise their faith.

The decision further pushes Muslim women out of educational spaces and places them under threat in any public space. More than 400 Muslim girls have already been not allowed to appear for their exams and are facing distress, and attacks on Muslim women wearing hijabs and burqas have also increased across India. But the authorities have still not acknowledged the violence that Muslim women are going through.

How has civil society responded to the ban?

There have been protests on two fronts. The girls who have been directly affected by this restriction are protesting outside their college gates and holding demonstrations in other public spaces. But they are facing intimidation and threats by Hindutva vigilante groups while also being warned that they will be criminally charged for protesting. 

In bigger cities, protests are also being organised by human rights CSOs and Muslim groups, and particularly by Muslim women. 

Following the Karnataka high court ruling, CSOs have played an important role in raising awareness about the implications of the verdict. Several CSOs rejected the court order while also producing analysis to help the public understand its intricate legal language.

Civil society has been able to respond in a tangible and timely manner, offering unconditional solidarity and support to the schoolgirls affected by the order and experiencing trauma resulting from violence, discrimination and harassment in the aftermath of the high court order. Some CSOs have offered mental health counselling and other services.

Other CSOs have offered litigation support, in two forms: first, by representing individual cases of religious discrimination and providing legal support to those who missed out on exams due to the ban; and second, by petitioning on larger issues before courts of law. There have been several petitions before the Supreme Court of India to challenge the Karnataka high court order.

In short, the civil society response has been key because of its capacity to play a full range of roles to drive change, from the micro to the macro level. An effective civil society is essential for advancing human rights in India, and the international community can play a vital role in reinforcing the work of local CSOs to amplify marginalised voices.

Civic space in India is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Follow @aimanjkhan and @AgniDas26 on Twitter.

 

INDIA: ‘The hijab ban is just another tool used by right-wing politicians to remain in power’

CIVICUS speaks about the recent ban on the hijab, a headscarf worn by Muslim women, in educational institutions in the Indian state of Karnataka with Syeda Hameed, co-founder and board member of the Muslim Women’s Forum (MWF).

Founded in 2000, MWF is a civil society organisation (CSO) working for the empowerment, inclusion and education of Muslim women in India. Its primary goal is to provide Muslim women with a platform for expressing their aspirations and opinions on matters directly affecting their lives.

Syeda Hameed

How did the hijab row start?

The controversy started in the town of Udupi, a small secular district of Karnataka state in southwest India, where girls wearing the hijab were not allowed to enter a college campus because the administration deemed it a violation of uniform rules. Some students protested against the ban, and protests escalated into violence.

From this tiny part of Karnataka, the hijab row spread to other parts of the country. In response to Muslim women wearing the hijab on campuses, many Hindu students took to wearing saffron shawls, a colour seen as a Hindu symbol.

The matter reached a Karnataka high court as some Muslim students filed petitions claiming that they have the right to wear the hijab under the guarantees provided by the Indian Constitution. But the high court’s verdict kept the ban, arguing that the hijab is not an essential part of Islam. Surprisingly, the bench in Karnataka includes one Muslim woman judge.

What triggered the decision by Karnataka’s educational institutions?

The decision to ban Muslim students from wearing the hijab in colleges’ premises came as a surprise. Such a ban is strange to our society. Unlike in France, where it has long been under the spotlight, the hijab had until very recently never been prohibited in India.

Karnataka state is known for its diverse society and pluralistic culture, with the two major religious groups, Hindus and Muslims, historically coexisting, along with a wide spectrum of other religious groups.

However, the roots of the Karnataka hijab controversy are quite deep, and are linked to growing Islamophobia. Those in power have ignited a sectarian fuse all over India in every possible way. Right now, Karnataka state also has a right-wing government, which has created fertile ground for strain in Hindu-Muslim relationships.

To them, the hijab ban is just another tool to remain in power. It is tied to current political events, notably the upcoming December election. Right-wing politicians fabricate issues that target Muslims, who are depicted as the ‘disruptive other’, to divert people’s attention from dire economic conditions. The hijab ban did the job well, as it captured media attention. Sensational media coverage only added fuel to the fire.

How do you view the hijab ban from a gendered perspective?

The hijab ban is a complete violation of women’s rights to express their own identities. It should be my choice alone whether to wear the hijab or not. I am a believing and practising Muslim and I don’t wear the hijab. Muslim women of my generation usually did not wear the hijab, but younger generations of Muslim women across the globe do. I see it as a search for an identity in the face of the charged atmosphere created by Islamophobia. Indian Muslim women have worn the hijab for about a quarter of a century.

We don’t oppose school uniforms because there is good reason for them, especially in a country such as India and all other South Asian countries, where both religious diversity and social inequality lead to differences in dress. But the use of the hijab in educational institutions had never been put to debate before the current Karnataka right-wing government suddenly considered it a violation of the school uniform rules.

As I said, in my generation very few girls wore the hijab, and therefore my uniform was skirt and blouse, which was acceptable at the time. Later, when girls started wearing the hijab, the situation escalated from establishing that their hijab should match the school uniform colours to starting to throw them out of schools.

What is the overall status of Indian Muslims as a minority?

As a former member of government, I observed the status of minorities change over time. From 2004 to 2014 I was a member of a now-extinct Planning Commission that was entrusted, among other responsibilities, with bringing minorities up to mark with society in every way possible. For ten years, we devised all kinds of schemes in the areas of education, employment and health, and tried to ensure minorities made the most of them. Our main tasks were to make these plans and ensure their implementation across the country by persuading the governments of India’s states to embrace them.

Change was slow because we did not have the power to force implementation. A key moment was when the government commissioned a report on the status of Muslims that provided a very candid conclusion by a retired Supreme Court judge. It stated that India’s 200 million Muslims, the second largest Muslim population in the world, had the lowest status on all social and economic parameters when compared to other religious groups. It should have been a wake-up call for the Indian government.

But since then, it has only got worse. Recent so-called ‘Hindu religious gatherings’ include a call for the genocide of Muslims. Some have suggested that the saffron flag should replace India’s national flag. Many decisions have been made in violation of the constitution. This is an extremely difficult moment for Muslims in India. 

And the hijab ban is very much part of Muslim marginalisation. Muslims are being driven to a corner and targeted by a right-wing government that demonises them to boost their support and remain in power.

How has civil society responded to the ban controversy?

Many CSOs have raised the issue and protested against the ban. Voices have also raised internationally, both from civil society and from influential individuals, as was the case of US congressional representative Ilhan Omar. Maybe if they became louder, these voices could drive positive change in the lives of India’s Muslims, which are becoming exceedingly difficult.

Frankly, at times I feel it is a losing game. 

All international attention that was paid to the ban has damaged the image of India without really making a dent on those in power, who only care about the upcoming general elections.

Civic space in India is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Muslim Women’s Forum through its website and follow @syedaIndia on Twitter.

 

AFGHANISTAN: ‘Our fight for accountability has become a thousand times harder under the Taliban’

CIVICUS speaks with Horia Mosadiq, an Afghan women human rights defender (HRD) and founder of Safety and Risk Mitigation Organization (SRMO). SRMO aims to empower, support and protect Afghan civil society activists and organisations, including those working in remote and insecure areas, and to advocate for greater state protection and accountability for any abuses they suffer as result of their work.

Horia has extensive experience in assisting HRDs at risk and providing human rights and safety training. She previously worked as the Afghanistan researcher for Amnesty International.

Since the Taliban takeover in August 2021, Afghanistan has experienced a human rights and humanitarian crisis. Protests, especially by women, have been dispersed with excessive force, gunfire and beatings, leading to deaths and injuries of peaceful protesters. Journalists and HRDs have been threatened, intimidated and attacked and had their homes raided.

Horia Mosadiq

Why did you establish your organisation?

Along with two other dedicated activists, I established SRMO in 2013 with a mandate to protect HRDs and civil society in Afghanistan. We founded it because there was no mechanism inside the country to respond to growing threats against activists. I was an HRD at risk for many years and was totally reliant on international civil society organisations (CSOs) such as Freedom House, Front Line Defenders and Urgent Action Fund.

But we wanted to set up something led and run by Afghans, by people who understood the situation on the ground and could respond to the needs of Afghan HRDs who don’t speak English and don’t have access to international platforms and organisations. The whole idea behind SRMO is to reach out and protect grassroots activists, especially those in volatile areas and without international access or funding.

What does your research reveal about the current situation of Afghan HRDs?

We recently published a report that contains two distinct sections. The first covers the situation in 2021 until 15 August, a time when the previous government was in control and there was an elected president in charge. A clear law enforcement system, a judiciary and other accountability mechanisms were in place. They were not anywhere near perfect or even responsive, but at least they existed.

The second section covers the events following the Taliban takeover on 15 August 2021. The whole security situation in the country changed significantly and the republic of Afghanistan was gone. The Taliban operate on the basis of Islamic ideology and renamed the country ‘Islamic Emirates of Afghanistan’. There is no law-and-order system anymore. The whole system is run by a group of mullahs with no clear accountability. Nobody knows which laws they are implementing. There is a lack of clarity and a definite legal gap. In many instances they refer to Sharia law, although we don’t have a codification of Sharia, so it is all open to interpretation. This is the situation on the ground today.

Following the Taliban takeover, attacks against HRDs have continued and nobody has been held accountable. Many HRDs have been killed, abducted, tortured and disappeared. Between January and March 2022 alone, SRMO documented 120 violations against activists, journalists and critics, including killings and kidnappings. Even medical doctors have been abducted by the Taliban.

Many CSOs have had to shut down and media workers and journalists have faced numerous restrictions. We documented the case of a TV journalist who interviewed a critic of the Taliban, and right afterward he and his crew were arrested and tortured, and were only released after signing statements pledging not to reveal their treatment to the international community. Many activists who protested had their passports and IDs taken away so they couldn’t leave the country and expose the truth. Activism is still happening, but civic space is increasingly shutting down.

Contrary to the general belief among the diplomatic community, the security situation has not improved under the Taliban. Although you may not hear about many bombings or active fighting in various parts of the country, the general security situation has deteriorated. Dozens of HRDs, journalists and others have been abducted, tortured, disappeared and detained unlawfully and without any explanation. The de facto authorities are part of an abusive system. The limited accountability mechanisms that existed under the previous regime are all gone. Now no one is accountable to anyone. Our fight for accountability has become a thousand times harder under the Taliban.

How have you conducted your work following the Taliban takeover?

Since August 2021, our focus shifted to reactive work to provide safety and protection to HRDs at risk and evacuate them from the country. The evacuations have since slowed down, but we also support the internal relocation of those at risk. We also provide humanitarian assistance to women HRDs, as many have lost their jobs and livelihoods. So as well as facing security threats, many have lost their means of surviving, paying for food and essentials required for their family. We have tried to support some minimal living costs where possible.

What has happened to the activists who were evacuated?

Those who were part of an organised effort undertaken by some countries and CSOs are being looked after while they resettle. But those who fled the country to Central Asia, Pakistan or Turkey experience an extremely bad situation as they run out of funds, their visas expire and there are no programmes for their resettlement. Many are pushed back by embassies or told they need to register with the United Nations (UN) Refugee Agency and that it can take years before they are resettled.

Some with expired visas are even being deported back to Afghanistan. I just heard that Greece has deported 500 Afghans to Turkey, which sent them back to Afghanistan. In Central Asian countries people cannot get their expired visas renewed while in the country; they must leave to get a new one, which many HRDs are unable to do. This is making it difficult for them to survive. Many activists and journalists are facing ever-growing economic difficulties. They can’t pay for rent or food. Things are particularly difficult for those with small children. Many funders don’t provide resources for HRDs outside their country.

What can the international community do to support HRDs in Afghanistan?

I am disappointed with the international community. The way they have responded to the Ukraine crisis is very different from how they have responded to the situation in Afghanistan. They were open to receive millions of Ukrainian refugees, whose cases were processed within weeks. In contrast, only a few countries – including Canada, Germany and the USA – have been willing to issue visas to Afghans. This is not nearly enough, as thousands are currently stranded in neighbouring countries and in need of immediate help. If they can do it for Ukraine, why not for Afghanistan? Is it because of our skin colour or because they don’t view the Taliban as the enemy? There may be politics involved but I think there is also systematic racial discrimination. 

More positively, the appointment of the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan is an excellent step. At the moment there is a vacuum of human rights monitoring mechanisms. CSOs can only do so much and having someone working with a UN mandate and the support of the international community is key. The international community should provide the UN Special Rapporteur all the necessary financial and diplomatic support and his recommendations must be taken seriously and implemented.

Our recent report includes a series of recommendations for the international community to put pressure on the Taliban to ensure accountability for crimes committed against HRDs and to provide financial, diplomatic and political support to Afghan HRDs at risk, including by issuing humanitarian visas and funding resettlement programmes. The international community should use its leverage to pressure the Taliban to create a safer space for HRDs and journalists in Afghanistan. This issue is currently not being addressed adequately at the international and diplomatic level.

Civic space in Afghanistan is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Follow SRMO Afghanistan via its website and follow @AfgSrmo on Twitter 

 

UZBEKISTAN: ‘Advocacy for labour and human rights is a marathon, not a sprint’

Allison GillCIVICUS speaks about the recent civil society victory in eliminating state-imposed forced labour in Uzbekistan’s cotton industry with Allison Gill, a human rights lawyer and Forced Labour Director at the Global Labour Justice - International Labour Rights Forum (GLJ-ILRF).

GLJ-ILRF is a civil society organisation (CSO) that provides strategic capacity to cross-sectoral work on global value chains and labour migration corridors. It coordinates the Cotton Campaign, which since 2007 has fought against state-imposed forced and child labour in the cotton industries of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

What prompted the Cotton Campaign to lift the boycott on Uzbek cotton?

We have advocated for an end to child and forced labour in the Uzbek cotton sector for almost 15 years, and the 2021 harvest was the first in which we did not observe state-imposed forced labour since our frontline partner, the Uzbek Forum for Human Rights, started conducting annual independent monitoring 11 years ago. This crucial development followed several years of progress in the implementation of legal and policy changes that our campaign advocated for, including reforming the forced labour system, imposing liability for the use of forced labour and raising payments to cotton pickers to attract voluntary labour, and raising awareness among the population of the forced labour ban.

Despite this landmark achievement, significant labour risks continue to exist. We continue to warn against the use of coercion and threat of penalty in labour recruitment as well as about the interference of local officials in recruitment and cotton production. We are also worried about restrictions on the freedoms of association and expression, and specifically about the ability of independent groups to register and operate. In addition, farmers in the cotton sector continue to be subjected to exploitative conditions.

The situation is quite different in Turkmenistan, the other country covered by our campaign, where the government has systematically used forced labour during the most recent harvest season, in autumn 2021. It maintains total control over the cotton sector, and forcibly mobilises civil servants, including teachers, medical workers and others, to pick cotton or make them pay for a replacement picker. It forces farmers to meet official production quotas under threat of penalties, including loss of their land. Worse yet, it exerts control over all aspects of civil society work and has taken harsh action against those who report abuses in the sector.

What advocacy tactics has your campaign used, and what lessons have you learned?

Over the past 15 years, we have used a wide range of advocacy tools, including direct actions, policy engagement, accountability tools and support for civil society and labour rights monitors.

A centrepiece of our work and strategy is independent monitoring through our partner, the Uzbek Forum, which is based in Berlin but operates a network of independent monitors on the ground in Uzbekistan. Our advocacy has therefore been shaped by direct information collected from the ground through in-depth interviews with cotton pickers, people in forced labour, local officials and other stakeholders.

Another key advocacy tool is the Uzbek Cotton Pledge, a commitment by more than 330 brands and retailers not to use Uzbek cotton in their supply chains until forced labour has been eliminated. We formalised the Pledge after companies began to adopt sourcing policies to exclude Uzbek cotton and Uzbek activists called for an international boycott in 2009.

We launched complaints against the World Bank and the International Finance Corporation’s investments in the Uzbek cotton sector. We advocated with the US government, the European Union and its member states, the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the United Nations, using specific policy mechanisms to bring pressure on the government of Uzbekistan to end forced labour. We also have advocated with the government directly, including by issuing a Roadmap of Reforms at the government’s request.

We have remained convinced of the importance of centring our campaigning around the demands of affected workers and civil society and the need to be guided by independent monitoring and reporting. And we have learned that advocacy for labour and human rights is a marathon, not a sprint. There is power in collective action and commitment by broad coalitions united with a purpose, which is what makes it possible to make progress even on seemingly intractable problems.

What are the conditions for independent civil society monitoring in Uzbekistan?

There are activists inside Uzbekistan who have tried to form their own organisations, but they have faced many obstacles. The ILO, which has included civil society monitors for several years, has concluded its monitoring of the cotton harvest with the intention of transitioning monitoring to local civil society organisations (CSOs).

Unfortunately, local CSOs are unable to register to operate. One of the monitors that had previously partnered with the ILO and intended to carry on monitoring work was denied registration nine times and was ultimately forced to register as an enterprise instead of a CSO.

Civic space in Uzbekistan remains tightly restricted. The authorities continue to impose excessive and burdensome registration requirements on independent CSOs, in violation of their freedom of association. They have repeatedly and arbitrarily denied registration to nearly all independent human rights CSOs, including those that monitor forced labour.

Although Uzbekistan ratified the 1948 ILO Convention 87 on Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise in 2016, it has made little progress on meaningful implementation. Farmers, farmworkers and cotton pickers are vulnerable to abuse by cotton companies (known as ‘clusters’) as well as local officials. They are not represented by independent labour unions or other representative organisations.

In March 2021, cotton workers held the first democratic union election in Uzbekistan, organising hundreds of cotton workers at Indorama, an international company growing and spinning cotton. The union faced harassment and intimidation around the time of its formation and, experiencing significant barriers against registration, ultimately took the decision to affiliate with the government-aligned trade union federation, which is far from independent.

All these impediments leave Uzbekistan with one million hectares of land under cotton production and no independent local CSOs with the skills, capacity and legal status to conduct credible independent monitoring, which is ultimately necessary to provide assurances to international buyers in line with their obligations.

How can the international community best support labour activism in Uzbekistan?

Companies interested in sourcing cotton products from Uzbekistan must do so responsibly, in a way that meets their obligations and ensures that labour rights are respected at every tier of the supply chain. The Cotton Campaign has developed a Framework for Responsible Sourcing that provides for co-governance, independent monitoring and reporting, access to grievance and remedy, and a space for workers to ensure their interests are represented.

Uzbekistan must undertake reforms to allow workers and farmers to exercise their right to the freedom of association, particularly to organise and form representative organisations. It must also lift restrictions, both in law and in practice, which prevent civil society groups from operating. International stakeholders, especially governments, international organisations and multilateral development banks, must urge Uzbekistan to follow through with these reforms.

Civic space in Uzbekistan is rated ‘closed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with GLJ-ILRF through its website or Facebook page, and follow @GLJhub and @cottoncampaign on Twitter.

 

UGANDA: ‘Our government cares only about profit, not people’

Nyombi MorrisCIVICUS speaks about the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) project and its potential impacts on the climate and on the health and livelihoods of local communities with Nyombi Morris, founder of Earth Volunteers.

Established in 2020, Earth Volunteers is a Ugandan civil society organisation (CSO) that brings together young people who are passionate about planting trees, protecting forests and standing up for climate justice. Earth Volunteers advocates for climate justice and promotes climate education in local schools.

What is EACOP, and what is wrong with it?

EACOP is a pipeline project that will transport oil from Uganda to Tanzania, for export through the Tanga port on the Tanzanian coast. It will travel through hundreds of miles, flowing oil through sensitive environments, including the richly biodiverse Murchison Falls National Park in western Uganda.

The project is led by China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) and TotalEnergies, a French company, and funded by Standard Bank, among others. Ever since it kicked off in 2015, it has caused numerous activists to lose their lives and has put many natural resources on the verge of disappearing.

Local communities are already being affected by the pipeline. While pipeline construction itself hasn’t yet started, a process has begun to acquire the land required for the pipeline and related facilities. Those who own land on the projected pipeline’s path or in its vicinity are already unhappy because of the mistreatment they are experiencing and the lack of transparency in the process. They say they were not consulted about the project before it was approved and they are now being pressured to sell off their farms, homes and land at cheap prices and forced to leave to make way for the pipeline.

How is civil society in general, and your organisation in particular, mobilising against the pipeline project?

I have not seen any established CSO come out to oppose or even challenge the pipeline project. It is only us, individual activists loosely connected through informal networks, who are trying to sensitise people and mobilise them against the danger of allowing money-makers to exploit our land to take away the oil and get rich off it. We can’t drink or eat oil, and this will only make us poorer and less healthy.

As one of those activists, I have organised strikes to challenge the project, but since my last protest this March, I have received threats from unknown people who say they are police officers and tell me they are going to come and arrest me.

How has the government reacted so far?

Our government cares only about profit, not people. We have put pressure on them and urged them to be mindful about the approval they give to investors, as they only benefit the wealthy and do nothing to improve people’s lives. But the response we always get in return is threats.

Personally, I do not expect my government to listen to my concerns. The problem is, if they do not, this is a death sentence for many people in both Uganda and Tanzania. We already face the challenge of inflation and we may be heading towards famine and insecurity because people are being forced to sell off their properties in western Uganda and the capital, Kampala, is their next destination. This is one of the biggest and fastest-growing cities in Africa, with a population that has already hit four million.

What kind of support does the anti-pipeline movement need from international civil society and the wider international community?

We need three different support structures. Firstly, we need funds to continue door-to-door mobilisation. We need to speak up with a strong voice, so it is our role to wake up the public and get people to start demanding justice.

Secondly, we need the media to cover our movement and amplify our voice. We need the world to join us in challenging these perpetrators of environmental destruction. Except for Standard Bank, which is from South Africa, pipeline funders are from the global north, and we need people in their countries to know what is happening so they can join us in exposing these capitalist fundamentalists who only care about money – not about people, and not about nature.

Finally, we need protection. I am constantly receiving threats, and since last week I haven’t even been allowed to tweet for fear of my life and the lives of my family. We are in danger and nobody is helping us with security and support. I am hiding at my sisters’ place but very soon we are going to run out of resources such as food.

Every organisation I reach out to, they redirect me to CSOs that are not really independent but actually serve the government that is targeting me. I feel like there is no one I can trust in my country. This is terrible and traumatising, and many others are going through the same. We cannot imagine help coming from anywhere but international civil society.

Civic space in Uganda is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Earth Volunteers through its website or its Facebook and Instagram pages, and follow @earthvolunteers on Twitter.

 

TANZANIA: ‘The government is trying to silence those who are against the pipeline’

Baraka LengaCIVICUS speaks about the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) project and its potential impacts on the climate and on the health and livelihoods of local communities with Tanzanian climate justice activist Baraka Lenga.

Baraka is a young climate scientist and sustainability consultant, currently volunteering with Fridays for Future to raise awareness of climate change and pressuring businesses and government leaders to act urgently to address the climate crisis.

What is EACOP, and what is wrong with it?

EACOP is a massive crude oil pipeline that will involve the transportation of crude oil from Hoima in Uganda to a Tanzanian port located in Chongoleani village, in Tanga region. It will cover 1,445 kilometres in Uganda and Tanzania, but 80 per cent of the land it will go through is in Tanzania.

Local communities depend on land as the crucial resource to support their livelihoods, which consist mostly of farming and livestock keeping, so if their land is taken or ruined by the pipeline, they will be seriously affected. The project is therefore going to affect the development of many communities and impact negatively on any effort to create a sustainable and liveable local environment.

But EACOP will not only affect people; it will also pose a threat to the animals that depend on the land that will be taken up by this project.

Further, it has been estimated that once operational the project will emit 34 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year. This means it will amplify climate change and local communities will become poorer, more vulnerable and less resilient.

How has civil society organised to resist this project?

Very unfortunately, in my country, Tanzania, most civil society organisations (CSOs) are not organising against EACOP. One contributing factor may be the limited understanding of the pipeline project in Tanzania. Little information has been shared about the project and the consequences it will have on communities, contributing to Tanzanian civil society’s limited response.

I have been working in my capacity as a freelance activist to raise awareness about the pipeline’s consequences and explaining why it needs to be stopped. I find it crucial for local communities to know and understand the extent to which EACOP could damage their environment and impact on their lives. Fortunately, I have been receiving support from colleagues from various parts of Africa who are using their resources to amplify our voices against EACOP.

How has the government reacted so far?

As most activists and CSOs have noticed, the government is trying to silence those who are against the pipeline. Some of us have raised our concerns since the very beginning of the project but our questions have not been addressed and the project has continued regardless.

But we have continued campaigning because we cannot overlook the damage this project will have on local communities; it comes with a lot of investment that is allegedly meant to develop East African nations but in reality is going to bring more harm to innocent lives.

What kind of support does the anti-pipeline movement need from international civil society and the wider international community?

We would like environmental activists and CSOs from across the globe to join us in raising awareness about EACOP and pressuring the governments involved to put an end to this project. We want people to understand that the companies leading the project, China National Offshore Oil Corporation and TotalEnergies – along with the governments of Tanzania and Uganda, which have brought in both countries’ national oil companies into the project – are endangering wildlife, tipping the world closer to a climate crisis and affecting the livelihoods of our people.

We have seen various multinational cooperation funds pull out of the project in compliance with their obligation to protect the environment and we hope more will do the same. Hopefully, a lack of funding will ultimately force the governments of Tanzania and Uganda to stop EACOP. 

Civic space in Tanzania is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Follow @lenga2020 on Twitter.

 

EAST AFRICA: ‘The pipeline project would open up critical ecosystems to commercial oil exploitation’

OmarElmawiCIVICUS speaks about the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) project and its potential impacts on the climate and on the health and livelihoods of local communities with Omar Elmawi, coordinator of the Stop the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (#StopEACOP).

#StopEACOP is a global online campaign that seeks to raise awareness of the effects of the project and calls for its cancellation.

What is EACOP, and what is wrong with it?

EACOP is a project to extract and transport crude oil from Uganda to Tanzania, led by the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) and French energy conglomerate TotalEnergies alongside the Uganda National Oil Company and Tanzania Petroleum Development Cooperation.

If it goes on, EACOP would have disastrous consequences for local communities, for wildlife and for the entire planet. In other words, it will affect humans, nature and climate. It threatens to displace thousands of families and farmers from their land. It poses significant risks to water resources and wetlands in both Uganda and Tanzania – including the Lake Victoria basin, which over 40 million people rely on for drinking water and food production.

Additionally, EACOP would increase the severity of the global climate emergency by transporting oil that, when burned, will generate over 34 million tonnes of carbon emissions per year. The pipeline would also open up critical ecosystems in the landlocked regions of Central and Eastern Africa to commercial oil exploitation.

It would also rip through numerous sensitive biodiversity hotspots and risk significantly degrading several nature reserves crucial to the preservation of threatened species, including elephants, lions and chimpanzees.

How are you mobilising against EACOP?

Civil society came together under a global campaign that we have called #StopEACOP, aimed at sharing news related to the pipeline project and distributing resources to help people organise and take action against it.

#StopEACOP is led by an alliance of local groups and communities and African and global civil society organisations (CSOs). Over 260 CSOs have endorsed it and are working towards realising the campaign’s objectives through public mobilisation, legal action, research, shareholder activism and media advocacy.

Since environmental licences have been awarded for the pipeline and associated oil fields in Kingfisher and Tilenga, several cases have been filed against the EACOP pipeline, including at the East African Court of Justice and in French courts against TotalEnergies, under the duty of vigilance law.

We hope that our campaign will put enough pressure on the companies and governments involved so that they will put an end to the pipeline project and prioritise the wellbeing of people and the environment.

How have the governments involved responded to the #StopEACOP campaign?

The governments of both Tanzania and Uganda are committed to seeing this project through despite the fact that each will receive only 15 per cent of the proceeds from the crude oil going through the pipeline. TotalEnergies and CNOOC hold 70 per cent of the pipeline’s shares, so they will be the ones pocketing 70 per cent of the proceeds from crude oil.

Additionally, TotalEnergies and CNOOC both get tax benefits, including a waiver on payment of corporate tax for 10 years once the pipeline becomes operational and on the value-added tax on imported products and materials needed for the pipeline. They are required to pay only five per cent in withholding tax instead of the required 15 per cent.

We haven’t stopped trying to engage the Tanzanian and Ugandan governments, although some of our members, and especially community partners, have been arrested and detained, had their offices raided or been threatened with the deregistration of their organisations. The government has had a part to play in most if not all these challenges, but we have continued to engage and use all legal mechanisms and processes available to make sure our community partners are protected.

What kind of support do you need from international civil society and the wider international community?

Allied organisations, activists and regular people are welcome to visit our website and click on our action page, which suggests a variety of actions addressed at the companies involved and governments and their funders and insurers. Please take as many of the actions listed as you can, prioritising those targeting insurance companies and banks. This is key because the EACOP project will need multi-billion-dollar loans to proceed, as well as numerous insurance policies covering every component of the project.

People can also donate to the cause. All the resources we receive are shared with our community partners and support any security and legal needs that may arise, including legal representation fees.

You can follow us on our social media pages to get updates on the campaign and subscribe to receive email updates on the progress of the campaign and upcoming actions that you can endorse or take part in.

Civic space in both Tanzania and Uganda is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with #StopEACOP through its website or its Facebook and Instagram pages, and follow @stopEACOP on Twitter. 

 

SRI LANKA: ‘The ongoing protests have put the government on the defensive’

RukiFernandoCIVICUS speaks about protests in response to deepening economic crisis in Sri Lanka with Ruki Fernando, a human rights activist, writer and consultant to the Centre for Society and Religion (CSR) in Colombo.

How significant are the current protests in Sri Lanka?

This protest movement is the biggest and most diverse one I have ever experienced in Sri Lanka. The protests are largely driven by angry, frustrated, disappointed citizens. Mainly the protests have been triggered by the ramification of the economic crisis that reached its peak with shortages of fuel, electricity, gas and medicines among many essential items that either disappeared from the market or had their prices hiked.

Most protests have taken place around Colombo, the capital, and its suburbs. Still, there have been protests all over the county. A large continuous day and night protest has been happening at the Galle Face Green in Colombo adjoining the Presidential Secretariat and similar initiatives have appeared in other districts. In addition to the streets, social media has been an important battleground. 

Protesters are also now demanding the truth about people who disappeared during Sri Lanka’s civil war and even before. Their demands have expanded beyond the severe financial crisis to call for those in power to be held accountable for war crimes, crimes against humanity, disappearances and killings, disappearances and assaults on journalists.

The protesters are demanding long-term legal and institutional changes to the current governance system that must start with the resignation of the Sri Lankan president Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the Rajapaksa family, the ruling family. Others call for the abolition of the 20th amendment to the constitution, which expanded the president’s executive powers.

Protest slogans calling on the president to ‘Go Home’ are now evolving into ‘Go to Jail’ and ‘Return Stolen Money’.

Do you think the protests will make a difference?

These protests have put the government on the defensive. As a result, the cabinet resigned and the government lost its majority in parliament when more than 40 lawmakers abandoned the ruling coalition to become independent members of parliament. These mass resignations are quite significant, as it proves that small groups can influence the political system. However, I believe we are still long way from any real change and meeting all people’s aspirations, especially for poor people and marginalised groups, including ethnic and religious minorities.

Repressive measures did not last in the face of the ongoing protests. The authorities had to release arrested protesters and revoke the declaration of emergency, the curfew was not extended, and the social media shutdown was withdrawn.

I believe that when President Rajapaksa revoked the declaration of a state of emergency on 5 April, it was because he realised, he was not able to sustain the necessary parliamentary majority that was needed for its continuation.

Most importantly, these protests, which are largely being led by young and students, represent a political awakening of various groups of our nation. Many women, older people, LGBTQI+ people, lawyers, religious clergy, artists and well-known people such as former cricketers have been part of the protests. They have enriched the spirit of defiance, resistance, courage and creativity unleashed by youth, on an unprecedented scale.

How has civil society responded to the arrest of protesters?

More than 50 people, including journalists and bystanders were arrested after the protest had marched on the evening of 31 March to the president’s residence. Other arrests since have led not only to fear, but also outrage. As a result, the protesters have received much public sympathy and support from lawyers, journalists and the public. Some civil society groups support and stand with the protesters, but most significant roles in the protest movement is by ordinary people, especially young people.

Do you think repression will dissuade people from protesting in bigger numbers?

We cannot deny that the proclamation of a state of emergency, curfew and the shutdown imposed on some social media platforms led to fears. At the same time, the curfew was challenged by tens of thousands of protesters who came to the streets to protest despite the curfew. Overall, these repressive measures galvanised more people to join, organise and support protests.

Aside from that, there is fear and uncertainty about what the future may hold for our country. There are many concerns about a potential military–police crackdown, especially after the shooting at protesters in Rambukkana that had led to at least one death and several others injured. There have been other incidents of concern, such as the presence of police trucks at the key protest site, special training for the military at army camp in Ganemulla and police reporting about the main protest site to courts. There are also worries about sustaining the protests and a lack of clear political alternatives. But it has been an inspiring, heartening moment to see so many people, especially young people, standing up, creatively and courageously. As I said earlier, this is a moment of political awakening for many.

How can the international community best support Sri Lankan civil society?

They must show solidarity for our struggles for justice, including economic justice, ethnic justice, gender justice and environmental justice. In that sense, the international community must defend and protect protesters and those criticising, questioning and challenging the government.

On the economic level, international financial institutions, foreign governments and multinational corporations must not engage in exploitative and opportunistic practices in Sri Lanka. They should refrain from going ahead with investments that will negatively affect economic justice, economic democratisation and labour rights.

Civic space in Sir Lanka is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Ruki Fernando through his website and follow @rukitweets on Twitter. 

 

SRI LANKA: ‘By peacefully protesting, we hope to protect our democracy’

Bhavani FonsekaCIVICUS speaks about protests in Sri Lanka in response to the country’s deepening economic crisis and civil society’s role in supporting protesters with human rights lawyer Bhavani Fonseka of the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA).

CPA is a Sri Lankan civil society organisation (CSO) and leading public policy research think tank. It advocates for policy alternatives of non-violent conflict resolution and democratic governance to facilitate post-war recovery in Sri Lanka. 

How significant are the current economic protests in Sri Lanka? What are the main demands?

The protests are spontaneous and come as a direct result of the current economic crisis, which is imposing a heavy burden on the people. They have been suffering from severe hardships due to a lack of essential items, including medicines, long power cuts and skyrocketing prices. Such a catastrophic situation manifested in several citizens dying while waiting in fuel queues. In response, people have taken to the streets in peaceful protests across the country for more than a month.

It is important to state that the widespread protests are not linked to any political party. The opposition held their own protests weeks ago and continue to protest currently. But the ongoing protests that are catching global media attention are largely driven by angry citizens who oppose the involvement of politicians and members of parliament in their peaceful protests. The reason behind this is that there is frustration with existing political parties, including the opposition; people denounce them for not doing enough as representatives of the people.

In line with that, the thousands of people who have continued to protest in recent weeks demand a radical change. They call for the President and government to step down, a peaceful transition of power, and for structural reforms including the abolishing of the executive presidency. There is also a loud call to address immediate needs such as shortages of essential items, livelihoods and rising cost of living, among the many other calls from the protesters.

The impact of the peaceful protests was evident when there were mass-scale resignations from the cabinet on 3 April. But the call for the resignation of the President and Prime Minister has yet to materialise. As the protests expanded and became extremely vocal, people sent a clear message to the regime that a real change is needed. Protesters insist on the resignation of the president and the prime minister. They chant on the streets ‘Go Home Rajapaksas’ and ‘Go Home Gota’ – referring to the president – and post on social media under the hashtag #GoHomeGota2022.

Sri Lanka has not seen this scale of protests in recent years – none that I can remember. Even the older generations are saying that they have not seen a similar movement. As most of these protests are peaceful, they are making a difference by raising the profile of our domestic issues across the region and internationally. As a result, there is a recognition that the situation is quite bad in Sir Lanka.

What do you think the resignation of the cabinet means for the prospect of political change? What role is the army playing?

The country is also seeing a political crisis with the mass resignation of the cabinet, which is extremely significant. It shows there is an unstable government ruling the country under mounting pressure from both protesters and the economic crisis.

A few weeks ago, the country was ruled by a powerful family, the Rajapaksas, but now there are only two members of this family who remain in power, the president and the prime minister. We are going through a very unprecedented time that raises many questions about the future of Sri Lanka, including the question of whether this government can continue in the way of ruling it has been doing it so far.

Regarding the possible drift towards militarisation, the military institution is a powerful force, and its influence has increased sharply in recent post-war years with former military officials holding various positions in government with an active role in governance. In that sense, the drift toward militarisation is a great concern for the Sri Lankan people as the political vacuum may be an opportunity for military rule.

What is the scale of arrests among protesters? How have CSOs, including your organisation respond?

The authorities responded to the protests with arrests even though most of these protests were peaceful. For instance, security forces arrested around 50 people near the president’s residence when a protest became violent. But according to reports most of those arrested weren’t involved in that incident; we found out later that the violence was orchestrated by certain groups. There were random arrests of people who are now before the court.

Also, when the state of emergency was declared, there were several arrests of people for breaking the curfew.

From our side, CPA and other CSOs have issued several public statements commenting on the situation and reminding of the rights guaranteed in our constitution. Personally, I have been protesting for a month now and my colleagues have joined the peaceful protests. We are protesting because it is a democratic right. In this regard, civil society and citizens have taken a stand on the need to uphold constitutional democracy because we are now confronted by an unprecedented political and economic crisis in Sri Lanka. By peacefully protesting, we hope to protect our democratic rights and our democracy.

Overall, the mobilisation of lawyers and of civil society to offer solidarity and support are quite high. Over 500 lawyers turned up to support those who were arrested on 31 March, and many other instances have seen lawyers appearing to protect the rights of citizens. 

How have protests mobilised despite the arrests and social media shut down?

I do not think that arrests of the protesters prevented others from joining protests. Not at all. In fact, I think the violence unleashed on peaceful protests coupled with the economic crisis prompted more to join the protests. Despite the curfew on the first weekend of April, there were thousands who came to the streets that Sunday to protest peacefully. This was a large-scale civil disobedience from the citizens, unprecedented in Sri Lanka because it is the first time, we have seen such large numbers of people coming to peacefully protest during a curfew. 

Regarding the social media shutdown, it is now being challenged in court, and we will see how it goes. Sri Lanka’s people are highly creative and resilient, and many used virtual private networks (VPNs) to continue to use social media to communicate and protest against the government. Every attempt used by this government to stop people from protesting, from speaking out, has failed.

Generally, I believe that it is amazing how people are stepping out, creating ways of protesting despite the challenges and hardships.

Civic space in Sri Lanka is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) through its website or Facebook page and follow @CPASL on Twitter. 

 

ITALY: ‘The constitution now contemplates the interests of future generations’

CIVICUS speaks with Edoardo Zanchini, National Vice President of Legambiente Onlus, about the recent legislative vote that introduced environmental protections in the Italian Constitution, and civil society’s role in making it happen.

Established in 1980, Legambiente Onlus is an Italian civil society organisation (CSO) that works towards a clean and liveable environment by monitoring environmental issues, diagnosing problems and offering solutions, denouncing environmental crimes and seeking to hold those responsible to account, running sensitisation campaigns and educational projects, and advocating with policy makers.

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What is the significance of the recent constitutional amendment that mandates the state to safeguard ecosystems and biodiversity?

It’s very important because it elevates the protection of the environment, biodiversity and ecosystems to the constitutional level. Before this amendment, the Italian Constitution did not explicitly recognise environmental protection as a fundamental value. The new text of Article 9 establishes the principle of environmental protection ‘in the interest of future generations’, a reference to the concept of sustainable development, according to which natural resources cannot be exploited in an unlimited way – that is, without taking into account that they are finite and how this will affect those who will come after us.

A change to Article 41 also establishes that economic initiatives cannot be carried out in a way that could create damage to health or the environment. Before, the only constitutionally recognised restrictions were those related to security, freedom and human dignity.

Wording was also introduced regarding the ‘protection of animals’, and this was the only point around which there were strong disagreements: pressure from hunters’ associations was strong and led to a compromise.

Do you view the amendments as a civil society victory?

Yes, it was a victory for the CSOs that have long been committed to the defence of ecosystems, the landscape and biodiversity. These amendments would not have been introduced if it hadn’t been for the growing awareness of the importance of these values and the increasing interest in their defence. And that awareness is the result of sustained civil society work.

It has been a long road to reach today’s great consensus on environmental issues. And consultations with environmental CSOs in the amendment process were a key factor in that they helped put pressure on political parties to make the right decision.

The fact that nobody openly campaigned against the amendment proposal is very telling: it shows there is a broad consensus, stronger than any political divide, around values that are recognised as being in the general interest, even as part of the identity of local communities and Italy as a whole. Aside from the strong conflict around the protection of animals, it got to the point that those who have an interest in pollution continuing to be allowed or overlooked were very careful not to take part in any controversy.

Do you see the constitutional change in Italy as part of a European trend?

In recent years several European countries have amended their constitutions to explicitly include and strengthen environmental protection. In all countries there is a strong consensus around this perspective, with an increasing public demand for information on environmental issues and increasingly active citizens who take it upon themselves to get informed, visit protected areas and valuable landscapes, and organise to demand their preservation for future generations. Environmental associations from all over Europe have been working together for many years on issues such as natural resource protection, the push towards a circular economy and the battle against climate change. 

We also frame our initiatives and campaigns in the context of our membership of regional and global networks such as the Climate Action Network, which includes over 1,500 CSOs in more than 130 countries in every global region, the European Environmental Bureau, which is the largest network of environmental CSOs in Europe, with over 170 members in more than 35 countries, and Transport & Environment, Europe’s leading clean transport campaign group.

What needs to happen next, both in terms of implementation and further policy development?

Now it will be necessary to update the regulatory framework to include protection measures that had so far not been considered. The new constitutional reference to environmental protection will also allow environmentalists to appeal against laws that are in contradiction with it. Of course, Italy will have to review all its regulations related to environmental impact assessments, which were established without taking into account the protection objectives that are now part of our constitution.

Civic space in Italy is rated ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Legambiente Onlus through its website or its Facebook and Instagram pages, and follow @Legambiente on Twitter. 

 

CSW66: ‘Advocacy for policy change takes time and a long-term commitment’

Helen McEachernCIVICUS speaks about women’s rights and the United Nations (UN) Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) with Helen McEachern, CEO of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women.

Established in 2008, the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women works with women entrepreneurs in low- and middle-income countries. It has already supported more than 200,000 women to start, grow and sustain successful micro, small and medium-sized businesses in over 100 countries.

What does the Cherie Blair Foundation do, and what challenges have you faced?

The Cherie Blair Foundation for Women works with women entrepreneurs in low and middle-income countries. We are committed to eliminating the global gender gap in entrepreneurship and creating a future where women entrepreneurs thrive.

As a UK-based charity working in international development and women’s economic empowerment, we are very concerned about the decision the UK government made in November 2020 to cut the UK overseas aid budget from 0.7 to 0.5 per cent of GDP. The impact of this decision on women and girls has been devastating. We welcome the commitment late last year to restore the women and girls’ development budget to what it was before the aid cut. The government should swiftly act on this commitment and restore the overseas aid budget, which will save lives and protect the rights of women and girls. We are also very much looking forward to the new gender development strategy due out from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office later in 2022.

What issues did you try to bring into the CSW agenda?

It is estimated that it will take 268 years until women have equality in economic participation and much remains to be done to address economic gender injustices in women’s entrepreneurship, and more holistically when it comes to women’s economic empowerment. In real terms, this statistic means millions of women and girls are exposed to exploitation and are not able to increase the education and health outcomes of their children or enjoy their rights and the choices that come with financial independence.

The review theme of this year’s CSW was ‘Women’s Economic Empowerment in the Changing World of Work’. Our current advocacy efforts are focused on tackling gender stereotypes that affect women’s entrepreneurship. Gender stereotypes undermine women’s economic rights in multiple ways: they affect their aspirations, sources of support, opportunities, perceptions and access to resources such as finance and markets, and impact on the wider entrepreneurial ecosystem.

We wanted to use the 66th session of the CSW to recognise how gender stereotypes undermine women’s rights and embed strong calls for action in the session’s Agreed Conclusions.

Based on detailed survey responses from 221 women entrepreneurs across 42 low and middle-income countries, our recent report, ‘Gender Stereotypes and their Impact on Women Entrepreneurs’, reveals that gender stereotypes are part of the social background for women entrepreneurs, with 96 per cent of respondents saying they had directly experienced them. Overall, 70 per cent of respondents said that gender stereotypes have negatively affected their work as entrepreneurs. Nearly a quarter – 23 per cent – also experienced gender stereotypes or discriminatory remarks while trying to access finance for their business, and more than 60 per cent said they believe that gender stereotypes impact on their business growth and affect how seriously they are taken as business owners.

We also raised concerns about the challenges women face around entrepreneurship in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. For women entrepreneurs, the pandemic has meant further reduced incomes, temporary and permanent business closures, dismissal of employees, missed business opportunities and reduced access to often already limited finance and capital. 

Women-owned firms face additional barriers to accessing government support, and are more likely to close, with many citing difficulties with managing additional unpaid care work. Women-owned enterprises are overrepresented in sectors most vulnerable to the detrimental impacts of COVID-19 – such as retail, hospitality, tourism, services and the textile industry. That’s why we wanted to advocate to ensure that a strong focus on women’s economic empowerment and gender-transformational post-pandemic recovery was embedded in the CSW session’s final conclusions.

We also highlighted the unpaid care work that disproportionately affects women. Before the pandemic, women already spent about three times as many hours on unpaid domestic work and care work as men. The pandemic has increased the unpaid workloads – both for women and men – but it is women who are still doing the lion’s share. This impacts on the everyday lives of women in multiple ways, including by undermining women’s economic rights and opportunities, for instance, to access and pursue education, formal employment, entrepreneurship and leadership positions.

These themes are critical when we consider the enormous gender economic gap.

To what degree were your expectations regarding CSW met?

This was the first time the Foundation undertook advocacy at CSW, so it was definitely a learning experience for us – but a very positive one.

Our objective was to ensure that women’s entrepreneurship and gender stereotypes that affect women’s entrepreneurship and economic participation were raised, and that in addition to addressing gender justice, CSW’s final elaborations included commitments on these issues.

We decided to do this by organising a side event and by sharing our advocacy calls with permanent missions by email and through social media. I am very grateful for the collaboration and support from the excellent colleagues at the Permanent Mission of Rwanda to the UN, who hosted a side event with us. The side event was co-sponsored by the permanent missions of the Philippines and Sweden. We found many missions and colleagues receptive to this topic and willing to get involved.

As our advocacy focused largely on tackling gender stereotypes as a critical barrier for women’s rights and economic empowerment, we were delighted to see multiple references to gender stereotypes in the final agreed conclusions of CSW’s 66th session. Also, it was great to see commitments to adopt measures to reduce, redistribute and value unpaid care work.

Did you have the opportunity to participate fully, or did you experience any access issues?

We did not travel to New York but decided to undertake advocacy virtually given the pandemic. I think that being present in New York would have enhanced our advocacy. Yet I know the virtual format has also enabled more people to join, as advocating in person in New York is beyond reach for most civil society organisations (CSOs).

It is important to support partners from low and middle-income countries to attend and join these platforms – and provide sustained financial support to multi-year advocacy work in general. Changes in policies and practices rarely happen in a 12-month cycle or if you attend a global platform like CSW only once – advocacy takes time and a long-term commitment. It is only possible with funding to support a longer-term agenda.

As participation was fully virtual this year, we lacked direct engagement with UN member states as well as opportunity to connect, share and network with advocacy targets and other CSOs. Time zones can pose a challenge too, but many side events provided an option to receive the recording afterwards, which was a really great way to learn about different key themes if people weren’t able to make an event.

There is no way that online engagement can match in-person engagement, but if everyone is online then access is equal, and it does open more cost-effective avenues for many more grassroots organisations to join.

Do you think that international bodies, and specifically the UN, adequately integrate women in their decision-making processes?

I think the rhetoric of commitment to women’s political leadership and integrating women in decision making is there. Yet the right of women to participate politically and lead refers to participation in all levels and there are definitely gender gaps. I learnt at the CSW that only four women have been elected as president of the UN General Assembly in its 76-year history. Also, the UN has never had a woman Secretary-General. So there is more work to do to ensure women’s equal share and representation in decision-making processes at all levels. We also must make sure that the voice and agency of the most vulnerable women and girls is shaping the decisions of these international platforms. We have seen a rollback in advances in women’s rights in many areas, and thus feminist leadership and women’s political participation in UN processes are so critical. We know women’s political leadership can have an impact across many other areas where women lack opportunities and equal access.

One way to do better is to tackle gender stereotypes more effectively as they undermine women’s rights, opportunities and confidence. It is important to increase the understanding of how gender stereotypes shape women’s lives, including their access to decision making and leadership, and take concrete measures to prevent and eliminate gender stereotypes and their negative impacts, both in private and public spheres. Further efforts are also needed to promote women’s leadership and agency to address the underrepresentation of women and girls in policy-making platforms and processes.

Get in touch with the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women through its website or its Facebook and Instagram pages, and follow @HelenMcEachern and @CherieBlairFndn on Twitter.  

 

CSW66: ‘Violence against women continues at pandemic levels in the UK as elsewhere’

Zarin HainsworthCIVICUS speaks about women’s participation and the United Nations (UN) Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) with Zarin Hainsworth, director of the National Alliance of Women's Organisations (NAWO), a UK civil society network that works for women’s empowerment by advocating for women’s rights at the national and international levels.

What do you see as the main women’s rights issues in the UK, and how does NAWO work to address them?

In the UK there is a lack of an institutional mechanism for the advancement of women’s rights. The Women’s National Commission, which used to be an independent advisory body that represented women and made sure their views were heard by the UK government, was closed by the Conservative government in December 2010. 

The Government Equalities Office (GEO), established in 2007, is identified by the government as the institutional mechanism although the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) Committee continues to question this. The GEO is a department of government, with employees who are civil servants and all communications must abide by the usual government codes with all reports agreed by ministers. It cannot therefore claim to be independent. Some civil society members have complained that there is a lack of consultation with them and this affects how women are included in the policy-making process. Furthermore, GEO does not have remit in devolved nations, meaning it does not cover Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales. The CEDAW Committee has raised concerns about the UK not being compliant with the treaty, but the government responded that they are adequately provisioned by the GEO.

The UK Civil Society Women’s Alliance has a good relationship with the GEO, especially in regard to CSW, which we believe to be an example of best practice. However, many would argue that in light of the recommendations of CEDAW and the definition within the Beijing Platform for Action, there is still need for an independent body representing the voice of women and girls to government. NAWO would suggest that it is well placed to be such an organisation. 

Violence against women continues at pandemic levels in the UK as elsewhere in the world. Sexism is institutionalised in the police force, but this is still a postcode lottery – how women are treated depends largely on where they live. Rape is still underreported and too few cases get to trial, and adolescent girls are not taught about gender-based violence. NAWO is part of the End Violence Against Women Coalition, which seeks to create awareness of these issues and urge the government to address them. Recently a number of members of Parliament have raised awareness on this issue and the government is keen to state it is in the process of effecting positive change in this regard.

We are aware that the UK has not ratified the Istanbul Convention, the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. The government says that the new Domestic Violence Bill covers the same ground as the Istanbul Conversion, but civil society groups working on women’s rights and gender-based violence claim that the Bill does not robustly cover all the areas of the Istanbul Convention. NAWO is part of IC Change, a campaign pushing the UK government to ratify the Istanbul Convention; in the past, we also participated in advocacy work towards legislation to implement the Istanbul Convention across the UK.

Regarding employment, occupational segregation continues to hinder women from progressing and becoming leaders in their workplaces. Despite efforts to increase the presence of girls in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), women still do not occupy equitable work positions because of pre-existing structures put in place to accommodate men rather than women.

Finally, there is evidence that women’s voices are not heard in the health sector and that women are suffering the most when services and budgets are cut. Health education is biased towards the male experience and female indicators of stroke or heart attack are only slowly starting to be taught in medical school. Most drug trials are based on male responses.

NAWO raises awareness of these issues through coalition-building and advocacy work. We also engage government stakeholders to ensure they are aware of these issues and put mechanisms in place to promote women’s equity and rights.

To address these issues at CSW, NAWO has helped establish and worked within the UK Civil Society Women’s Alliance, seeking ways of working with the government to promote equality and ensure that women’s rights are advocated for at CSW. As an organisation, we have understood the need to develop a good relationship with the GEO and we are developing relationships across the government to advance our advocacy work.

What issues did you try to bring to the CSW agenda this year?

We are aware that CSOs are not adequately involved in the decision-making process, and we highlighted a need to involve grassroots organisations in policy formulation stages because they are the ones that truly know what people’s needs are. We wanted to bring to attention the fact that many CSOs are restricted by their national governments and cannot carry out their work effectively. Governments and international bodies must support CSOs and integrate them into policy-making processes.

We have seen COVID-19 affect marginalised women and girls disproportionately, so this is an issue we emphasised at CSW this year. The pandemic revealed pre-existing gender gaps regardless of mechanisms put in place to promote women’s empowerment. Women from marginalised groups did not have access to proper healthcare and their employment chances have severely decreased. Pandemic recovery structures are not working for them because they are being put in place with little to no consultation with them.

We also raised the concern of women’s access to decent work. There is a need to promote the participation of women in the labour force, but this should be done in an inclusive manner and with respect for human dignity. Many women still struggle with sexual harassment at work and there are not enough measures in place to counter this. Women have much lower prospects of advancing at work than their male colleagues. We hope CSW will see the need to help women in the workforce and find sustainable and realistic ways to protect them.

As we have done every year since 2005, we enabled a youth delegation and we are keen to ensure the informed voice of young women is present at CSW.

What were your expectations, and to what degree were they met?

We wished to work and collaborate with other CSOs with the aim of bringing women’s issues to the forefront and promoting women’s empowerment. In our opinion, we were successful in that regard. We also wanted to reach out to UN member states, and to some extent we were successful in that regard as well.

We hosted side events that offered young people a space to talk about the issues they experience and how they affect them. In these side events we were able to discuss how women experience climate change and their views and demands concerning gender equality, sustainable development and women’s empowerment.

We participated virtually and faced some issues concerning broadband and connectivity issues. We believe there were challenges with the online platform and most CSOs had problems accessing it.

Do you think that international bodies, and specifically the UN, adequately integrate women in their decision-making processes?

We believe women are still not adequately integrated in decision-making processes both at the national and global levels. Many plans have been put in place to ensure women are in decision-making positions. These are always good in theory, but their implementation does not necessarily go accordingly. This could be due to lack of commitment and accountability from international bodies. Hopefully as time progresses, we will see real change. But for the time being we believe the UN system needs reforming.

Civic space in the UK is rated ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with NAWO through its website or its Facebook and Instagram pages, and follow @NAWOorg on Twitter. 

 

CSW66: ‘Women need more access to real political decision-making power’

CIVICUS speaks about women’s rights and the United Nations (UN) Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) with Terry Ince, founder, and convenor of the CEDAW Committee of Trinidad and Tobago (CCoTT), a civil society organisation (CSO) focused on advocacy, education, and public awareness on and for the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

The CCoTT seeks to ensure the mandates of the CEDAW are upheld and the recommendations of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women are implemented. To do so, it partners with a wide range of stakeholders in the government, private sector, and civil society.

Terry Ince

What do you see as the main women’s rights issues in Trinidad and Tobago?

On the surface, you see women in high-profile positions in every area of society in Trinidad and Tobago. However, when you scratch beneath the surface, you realise these women are not the real decision makers.

In 2010 we elected our first woman prime minister. Women make up 38 per cent of the current cabinet. We currently have a woman president for the first time in the history of the country. There are women in the positions of speaker of the House, president of the Senate and Ombudsperson. There are women assisting the Superintendent of Commission of Police. Women lead ministries including trade and industry, planning and development, housing and urban development, public administration, education, gender and child affairs, social development and family services and sports and cultural affairs, and Legal Affairs in the Office of the Attorney General and Legal Affairs. And this is just in the public sector. In politics, you find women on the ballot; political parties actively recruit women to run for political office.

However, women are still not getting enough support. They certainly do not get the required support to run for political office. They may be selected as candidates, but the road to success is often steep and filled with deterrents. Women candidates are often asked to run in districts their parties find particularly difficult to win, so they are almost guaranteed to lose. Women are running but not necessarily winning. To win, they would need financial and coordination support.

On top of this, many of these women are often mothers, wives, care givers, so they have additional duties that nobody is helping them with either. They are playing all these roles simultaneously and expected to be successful at all of them. 

Women need more access to political decision-making power. It is not just about being in the room, but at the table, contributing, being listened to, and having their ideas examined, pushed forward and implemented.

It is not enough to have a woman on the ballot. It is also not enough to elect a woman without providing an enabling environment which values her unique perspective on issues. 

There continue to be barriers, but I think women can leverage their positions to make headway. I also think that women can and should support other women more within their capacity.

How does the CCoTT work to address these issues?

The CEDAW Committee of Trinidad and Tobago advocates for sustained implementation of CEDAW, a convention that Trinidad and Tobago signed in 1985 and ratified in 1990. More generally, we advocate for women’s development and empowerment. CCoTT’s work is grounded in human rights and CEDAW. We focus on advocacy, public awareness, sensitisation, and education on the Convention, with the overarching mission of achieving the implementation of its mandates and all the recommendations made to the state by CEDAW’s monitoring body.

CEDAW addresses all aspects of women and development, including political engagement, so we work on the understanding that our government’s obligation is to ensure that the appropriate policies and laws are in place for women to have an equal opportunity to access political office. Our citizens, and particularly women, need to know and understand this. And governments must honour its responsibility for having signed this Convention and held accountable. Achieving substantive equality is the goal and CCoTT collaborates with stakeholders to achieve that goal.

So, among other things, we campaign to improve female participation and representation at all levels of governance. We focus on preparing women to claim those spaces and offer training for female candidates. We collaborate – locally, regionally, and globally – with other organisations to bring good global practices to women in Trinidad and Tobago. For example, we have collaborated with the Women’s Human Rights Institute to bring CEDAW training to Trinidad and Tobago.

What issues did you try to bring into the CSW agenda this year? 

Not only did we bring the issues I just mentioned, but also climate-related issues – the climate crisis, disasters, and risk mitigation. This was the first time that CSW focused on the nexus between women’s empowerment and climate change, climate justice and disaster management. As a Caribbean country, we are acutely aware of the impacts of climate change and disaster, as we have recently witnessed a volcanic eruption in St Vincent and the Grenadines and floods in Dominica and other countries, which wiped-out whole communities.

In Trinidad and Tobago, we have seen unprecedented levels of flooding. How are women prepared for this? How are women empowered to navigate these kinds of crises when they occur? How are we ensuring that girls’ and women’s needs are addressed appropriately? For example, when disaster hits, how do you ensure their safety in shelters? Do your emergency kits include menstrual products? Who is thinking about these things? These are the kinds of questions we are bringing to the table. Therefore, it is so important that women have a voice when decisions around these issues are made.

We also need to assess how emergencies are managed after the initial cause has been assessed – because the fact that a volcanic eruption has ended, for example, does not mean everything goes back to normal. What happened to the communities most impacted by the eruption? How are they coping? We must rethink the mechanisms we use to ensure people get back on their feet.

What were your expectations, and to what degree were they met?

Fortunately, we were able to have meaningful discussions of all these issues at this year’s CSW. CCoTT hosted a parallel event examining women’s empowerment in times of crises – climate crisis and Covid-19.

Our expectations included gaining access to a wide variety of discussions, hosted by other Caribbean and Latin American countries as well as cross-sectional discussions with countries from other parts of the world – because climate change and climate justice impacts all of us, and we all need to understand this. If something is happening in Latvia, for example, it does not mean it may not happen in Trinidad. We can learn from how the issue is/was addressed in Latvia. Whatever the climate action is, we can use it as a mitigating factor to prevent or better manage adverse effects. 

Were you able to participate fully, or did you experience any access issues?

The virtual nature of this year’s CSW made it possible for more people and CSOs to attend. It was different from past editions because there were none of the usual barriers involved in getting visas, traveling to the USA, and gaining access to the UN’s headquarters – which you cannot do if you are not an organisation accredited to the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).

Those barriers were eliminated this year. From this perspective, virtuality made it much more accessible. CSW66 opened many doors and raised several questions that now must be answered. The UN should assess its own barriers to women’s access, such as the need to have ECOSOC accreditation to get inside UN headquarters during CSW.

Because CSW66 was virtual, participants had the opportunity to hear about different solutions, network with global peers, learn from their stories and share globally what is occurring in Trinidad and Tobago and how we have successfully addressed issues at a local level. In this regard, CSW66 met my expectations.

However, having access to high-level discussions was not easy. Even though they were virtual. Often this required registration which closed at certain number of attendees. Time zones were also a challenge. Events hosted by countries that are 12 hours ahead required some creativity. These were specific challenges of a virtual event, which would normally not be an issue during in-person gathering.

Overall, it was remarkably successful. If it continues to be virtual, we will learn how to navigate the challenges based on this years’ experience.

Do you think that international bodies, and specifically the UN, adequately integrate women into their decision-making processes?

In 2020 the UN acknowledged it was behind in terms of women’s integration in leadership and aggressively implemented changes. However, in 2021, when it had the opportunity, a woman was not elected as its Secretary-General, despite qualified candidates. 

With recognition comes responsibility. Global eyes are on the UN, so it needs to set an example throughout its bodies, divisions, and units. However, as I already said, just selecting women is not the answer. We also hear ‘get youth more involved,’ but young people should be prepared, mentored, encouraged, and supported. Similarly, we need to help women along the way and ensure that when they occupy a space where they can contribute, their contributions are valued. The gap is shrinking.

This is a work in progress, and the UN is trying. One way to ensure this happens properly is to involve civil society more – and not just lawyers or PhD holders. Learning does not only occur in the classroom. Application takes place on the ground in communities often led by community organisers or members of organisations. We need the academics collaborating with the community and others to strengthen capacities. Making room for grassroots, women and youth led initiatives. In this regard, there is more work to be done.

Civic space in Trinidad and Tobago is rated ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor. 
Get in touch with the CEDAW Committee of Trinidad and Tobago through its website or its Facebook page, and follow @CCoT_T on Twitter. 

 

CSW66: ‘Global-level policy-making is disconnected from women’s realities’

CIVICUS speaks about women’s human rights and the United Nations (UN) Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) with Wanun Permpibul of Climate Watch Thailand (CWT) and Misun Woo of the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (APWLD).

APWLD is an independent civil society organisation (CSO) committed to building feminist movements to advance women’s human rights and development justice in Asia and the Pacific as well as globally. CWT, a member organisation of APWLD, is a CSO that works with local communities and women to call for urgent climate action and climate justice.

Thailand CSW66 interview

What do you see as the main women’s rights issues in Thailand and the Asia Pacific region, and how does APWLD work to address them?

Women in Thailand still do not have access to political spaces. Women work on farms and take care of their families, but when policies are made regarding farm work and domestic work they are not engaged in policy discussions, either in the planning process or the implementation stages.

We tend to look at the symptoms of issues, in this case of the violations of women’s human rights, but we need to look at both the structural causes and the consequence of these violations and injustices. The exclusion of women in policy formulation and decision-making processes perpetuates gender injustices and rights violations. We need to shift power relations so that every person can exercise their inherent power with dignity. Most women do not have the opportunity to exercise their democratic rights and access political leadership because they are systematically undermined.

APWLD’s work consists of identifying the systems of oppression – patriarchy, fundamentalisms, militarism, colonialism and capitalism – and fighting to dismantle them while finding alternative solutions to advance women’s human rights and development justice. Through our work we have been able to build capacity and solidarity among feminist movements.

We focus on several thematic areas, including climate justice. Part of our work is about identifying and promoting the adoption of mitigation and adaptation strategies to advance women’s human rights as well as address the loss and damage and historical responsibilities. We see women experience the impacts of climate change disproportionately and they must be a source of solutions to help deal with the climate crisis. However, the reality is that they are not sufficiently engaged and the policies implemented in most instances do not cater to their needs and concerns.

What issues have you tried to bring into the CSW agenda this year?

This year’s focus for CSW’s 66th session (CSW66) was on the impact of climate change, environmental degradation and disasters on women’s human rights. We have highlighted the ways women have been experiencing the impacts of climate change and the solutions they have devised. What we really wanted to see highlighted at CSW66 was the acknowledgment of the root causes and consequences of climate change on women and their effects leading to widening inequalities and increasing violations of women’s human rights.

A very critical point we wanted to see addressed was loss and damage associated with impacts of climate change and delays in mitigation efforts. It would have been good if CSW66 had supported a financial mechanism to address loss and damage due to the climate crisis as well as an accountability mechanism to hold accountable those responsible for causing the climate crisis, particularly large fossil fuel industries. We need to address the root causes of climate change for our societies to achieve sustainability.

Another issue we wanted to highlight at CSW66 was the ongoing attacks against women human rights and environmental defenders in Asia and the Pacific in the context of the climate crisis. They are at the frontline of climate crisis, working day in and day out to raise awareness about and resist the catastrophic impacts of extractive industries and fossil fuel burning, and they must be protected.

What were your expectations, and to what degree were they met?

We had high expectations, even though so many restrictions were imposed due to the pandemic. We viewed CSW as a space or momentum to elaborate on the causes and the consequences of climate change, environmental degradation and disasters on women’s human rights. We expected it to meet the dual missions of advancing global commitments to address climate change and advancing women’s human rights, gender equality and women’s empowerment.

Unfortunately, CSW66 failed us on both counts. It did not look into the deeper causes of the climate crisis and the extent of its impacts on women’s human rights and gender equality. Mostly what it did was just add wording on climate change, environmental degradation and disasters at the end of the existing text of CSW66 conclusions. It failed to address the structural causes of the crisis, so the conclusions and recommendations are not designed to address and rectify those structural issues.

We need to pay attention to, for instance, how CSW66 Agreed Conclusions effectively let governments off the hook from their human rights obligation to regulate the private sector. Instead, they seek to strengthen the roles and responsibilities of the private sector and just encourage them to conduct human rights and environmental due diligence, where appropriate.

Another practical example is the net-zero goal included in the text. Most states are welcoming this goal that seeks to balance the amount of greenhouse gas produced and the amount removed from the atmosphere. In doing so, they are placing the responsibility of determining the future in the hands of those that are causing climate change.

If CSW66 were serious about addressing climate impacts and really thought this is a climate emergency, it would not go for a net-zero goal, which is buying time for those exploiting fossil fuels and polluting the planet to continue their business as usual, and would instead focus on the just and equitable transition to decentralised and renewable energy systems.

Did you have the opportunity to participate fully, or did you experience access issues?

We made a political decision to attend CSW66 in person, even though we were concerned about COVID-19 restrictions and there were lots of uncertainties regarding CSO participation in CSW66. The decision came from the fact that we, women from the global south, have lost significant opportunities and access to influence multilateral processes during the COVID-19 crisis.

Our experience is that CSW66 was not well organised, especially from the perspective of CSOs from the global south. It was all very uncertain and CSOs were not provided with enough information, while UN Women continuously advised us against traveling to New York. We were given access to the UN building only two or three days before CSW66 started. Only through an informal announcement we got to know that special event tickets would be distributed to two representatives per organisation with ECOSOC accreditation to access the conference room to observe. If the announcement had been made officially by the UN in time, it could have reached a larger audience of CSOs that had the right to be there.

We were also disappointed to see that CSOs continued to be excluded from the negotiation room. Civil society in the global south faces many structural restrictions on participation, including time constraints and language barriers. We really wanted to see CSW66 facilitate women’s meaningful and democratic participation, particularly because this year saw the negotiation of a Methods of Work resolution. However, this was yet another failure. To us, it was a further indication of how disconnected from women’s realities global-level policy making is.

If we compare CSW66 to other UN spaces, such as climate conferences, the lack of engagement between CSOs and national governments in CSW66 becomes readily apparent. It was challenging to have a dialogue with government representatives and negotiators because of the travel restrictions and the inability of some countries to participate in person.

Do you think that international bodies, and specifically the UN, adequately integrate women in their decision-making processes?

If we look at UN climate conferences, for instance, we will find that the proportion of women delegates is always low. Even though it has been increasing, it is still significantly small. We have seen attempts in successive climate conferences of the parties (COPs) to try and have a gender and climate focal point for every country, but the UN has not supported the initiative to introduce a protocol for national governments to implement it. The CSW66 Agreed Conclusions reiterate the need to have a gender and climate focal point in national governments. Thailand still does not have one.

Arrangements may be better for women in the global north, but from our global south perspective they are pretty bad. The CSW66 Agreed Conclusions note the importance of women’s and girls’ meaningful participation in decision making. However, the reality of women’s participation at CSW is far from encouraging.

It’s easier to say that UN Women or the CSW methods of work resolution encourage member states to include CSO representatives on their delegation. Many countries in Asia and the Pacific have seen a rise in autocratic and misogynistic leadership, and having CSO representatives on such government delegation is not something that will happen at all or in a meaningful way. It is not enough to hear the voices of women; women must be given actual power to make policy decisions grounded in women’s realities. This is the only way structural changes will happen.

Civic space in Thailand is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor
Get in touch with APWLD through its website or its Facebook and Instagram pages, and follow @apwld on Twitter. Get in touch with Climate Watch Thailand through its website or its Facebook page, and follow @ClimateWatchTH on Twitter. 

 

CSW66: ‘Grassroots environmental defenders are highly underrepresented in decision-making’

interview MALAWI CSW66CIVICUS speaks about women’s rights and the United Nations (UN) Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) with Joy Hayley Munthali and Dorothy Kazombo Mwale of the Green Girls Platform.

Founded in 2018, the Green Girl Platform is a female-led civil society organisation (CSO) that advocates for climate justice for women and girls in Malawi by building capacity, providing leadership skills and promoting sexual and reproductive health rights.

What are the main women’s rights issues in Malawi, and how does Green Girl Platform work to address them?

In Malawi, women and girls are highly affected by the effects of climate change and environmental degradation due to their role in society. Girls are expected to help fetch firewood and get clean water for their households. Due to the effects of climate change, including erratic rains and depletion of natural resources, women and girls often have to walk long distances to find clean water and firewood. Because of these challenges, most girls are forced into early marriages and some drop out of school.

The vulnerability of women and girls to environmental degradation, as well as to sexual violence and exploitation and gender-related violence, is on the rise. This is happening due to a lack of understanding of the implications of climate change for their lives, lack of information, lack of leadership skills, low participation in governance structures, limited women-led climate-related platforms and a lack of understanding and application of their rights.

Women and girls are left out of decision-making processes although they are the ones who are most affected. The Green Girls Platform was founded to address the violence against women and girls that emanates from climate change and increase the number of women and girls engaged with climate change issues.

The Green Girls Platform is working to ensure that gender and women’s rights are placed on the local, national and global environmental and climate change agendas by advocating for gender-responsive governance and policies. We conduct capacity-building workshops and training on climate change to equip girls with skills and knowledge on climate justice and all it encompasses. Through our initiatives, we have been able to reach around 5,000 young women and girls in Malawi, increasing their active participation in addressing climate change.

What issues did you try to bring into the CSW agenda this year?

As an organisation we noticed that there is underrepresentation of young women and girls in decision-making processes. Their participation and active engagement in climate change governance structures is minimal. Structural changes are needed so that more women are included in decision-making bodies.

Climate change is affecting young women’s access to education, and we need to come up with adaptation strategies that work for girls and young women in their specific contexts. Strategies have to be sustainable and demand-driven to build the adaptive capacity of women and girls and enhance their access to education.

We are aware of the violence that girls and young women environmental defenders face either within their homes or in their communities. We would like to see the adoption of measures to protect the rights of adolescent girls and young women from climate-related violence. Civil society donors could help us navigate these challenges.

What were your expectations, and to what degree were they met?

Our expectations were that our concerns would be listened to and we would collectively come up with solutions to some of the overarching challenges. Although our needs were met to a good degree, we were not highly impressed by the output. But we are positive that things will improve.

In terms of access, we faced some challenges. Only one of our staff was able to attend the CSW sessions in person, and she did so for only three days due to insufficient funding. We also attended some online events, mainly side events, but we had issues accessing main events due to time differences and late notices, and because some of them were not open to civil society.

Do you think that international bodies, and specifically the UN, adequately integrate women in their decision-making processes?

UN Women has taken steps in the right direction in terms of integrating women into decision-making spaces. However, we still have challenges getting all voices represented at the table. Women and girl environmental defenders working at the grassroots level are highly underrepresented in decision-making spaces, even though they are the ones working at the local level and facing the adverse impacts of climate change. Access to climate financing for girls and young women working on climate issues is still minimal and inaccessible, leading to more issues falling through the cracks and not reaching decision makers.

Civic space in Malawi is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Green Girl Platform through its Facebook page and follow @GirlsPlatform on Twitter.

 

AFGHANISTAN: ‘Education is our basic right, it’s an Islamic right, it’s a human right’

Matiullah WesaCIVICUS speaks about girls’ right to education in Afghanistan with Matiullah Wesa, founder and president of PenPath.

PenPath is an Afghan civil society organisation (CSO) dedicated to reopening closed schools, establishing new schools with communities and local authorities’ support, supporting ‘secret schools’, collecting books and setting up libraries, distributing humanitarian aid and educational materials and conducting awareness-raising campaigns in Afghanistan. 

What is PenPath, and what kind of work does it do?

My brother Ataullah and I founded PenPath in 2009. We work on a wide variety of topics, including human rights, girls’ education and public libraries. We seek to realise fundamental human rights. We support children’s human rights and women’s human rights.

In the area of education, we work towards the goal of reopening closed schools. In 2009, we reopened a school in a war zone area that had been closed for almost 15 years. After we started reaching out to volunteers, we were able to campaign house to house in village after village. Over time, we were able to reopen 100 schools in the 16 provinces of Afghanistan. 

For instance, once we went to an area which had 2,100 families and not a single school. We started encouraging people by giving them information about the importance of education. They saw how important it was to have a school in their area. PenPath eventually established 46 schools in this previously school-less area, and we also opened 40 public libraries in remote areas.

We want to change people’s minds and show them that children’s rights, women’s rights and the right to education are all fundamental rights. We organised a book donation campaign and with the help of Afghan people we have so far collected 340,000 books. We have also distributed 1.5 million stationery material kits (pens, notebooks, schoolbags, pencils) among Afghan people. We provided education facilities for 110,000 children; and 66,000 of them were girls.

We think of PenPath as a bridge: we are a bridge between people and education.

What inspired you and your brother to found PenPath?

Our father was a tribal leader, and after 25 years of work and campaigning house to house to promote education, he established a public school for 900 students. This first school was built out of tents my father got, and we all studied under the trees. In 2003, I was a child attending school in Kandahar Province, Maruf District. I was in the fourth grade and I still remember the day when armed militants came and burned it down. It was very early in the morning, and they destroyed everything, including the Afghan national flag, pictures of the president, and of course the tents, chairs, books, and all school materials we owned. They yelled out awful things to teachers and students. My father was not present when this happened, so I told him once I saw him at home that evening. Even though he was devastated, this did not stop him. The next day, he encouraged all of us to fight for our rights and rebuild the school.

Six days after my school was burned down, militants came into my house to warn my father that as he was a supporter of girls’ education we were not welcome any longer. They gave us one week to go. We left our home and our district or else we would have been killed.

We left for Kabul, where we saw that both girls and boys had access to education. I reflected on this and decided to start some kind of campaign. I explained my idea to my father and he agreed to give me financial support for my project, which was also dear to him because he had a history with girls’ education initiatives. This is how my brother and I founded PenPath in 2009.

 What obstacles have you faced?

When we campaign with PenPath, we travel around the country and visit all districts and villages on our way. We talk to the local people in each area and we promote the unity of Afghan society for the cause of education. It is always difficult to start this conversation. When you first approach locals, their reaction can be very aggressive; they give us death threats and say they will kill us if we keep doing what we do. We also receive threatening phone calls from unknown numbers.

However, I don’t personally see these threats as obstacles. We manage to have thousands of contacts with locals and tribal leaders from all religious backgrounds who support our work. Fundamentalist militants can’t control our work and they can’t make us stop.

How did the context change as the Taliban returned to power?

The Taliban took over Afghanistan on 15 August 2021. Two days after this, PenPath started campaigning. We travelled to 20 provinces and met with thousands of women, men, tribal leaders and people from all religious backgrounds. We encouraged them to join us and contribute to the cause of girls’ education. We told them education is our basic right, it’s an Islamic right, it’s a human right.

When the Taliban closed girls’ schools, PenPath was the first CSO to start protests against this. We started protesting in March 2022 and held press conferences against the Taliban’s decision. 

Right now, girls’ schools are closed from grade six to grade 12 – that is, approximately from ages 12 to 18 –, which means that secondary education is out of reach for girls. People are starting to feel hopeless because it has been seven months now and girls still can’t go back to school.

We are campaigning to reverse this every day, protesting and holding press conferences. The Taliban told the media they would open these schools soon, so now we are waiting for this to happen. We are just waiting for the Taliban’s final decision regarding girls’ education. If the Taliban don’t keep their promise and open the schools, we won’t stay silent – we will take to the streets.

We will protest outside the Ministry of Education until schools are reopened. The reason I stayed in Afghanistan was to open all schools and to defend this fundamental right. This is now PenPath’s responsibility.

To what extent are people able to mobilise for girls’ education in Afghanistan?

Mobilising in Afghanistan is not an easy task. Every day we work to change the narrative around protests. We tell the media that we love our people and our country, and that is why we are fighting. But we must accept the hardships of mobilising in Afghanistan.

We receive threats and face any challenges that come our way. I could write books about all the challenges I’ve encountered because of my work. But I prefer not to focus on the challenges: I try to share with the media just the positive things. We want to reopen schools, and we will do whatever is necessary to achieve this. We won’t be silenced.

How does a ‘secret school’ work?

Secret schools function inside people’s homes. Many houses in Afghan villages are sufficiently big, with very big entrance halls. Some secret schools have grades one to six (ages 7 to 12), and others have grades six to nine (ages 12 to 16). Girls usually attend the latter since the biggest problem is that now they can’t attend high school. We also have five online programmes that are specially designed for girls who can’t attend school right now due to the political situation. The vast majority of our secret schools are located in the most remote areas or in war zones. We provide them with teachers, grade divisions and the necessary infrastructure.

In 2016 we started with 12 secret schools. These were located in a war zone area where there were no teachers available. We moved education to the houses and family teachers helped us with this. At this time, we didn’t want to promote this initiative on the media or among the government because we were afraid for the well-being of the teachers and students who took part. If they saw we had secret girls’ schools in that area, the military would try to kill our teachers.

Right now, we have 33 secret schools in the poorest provinces of Afghanistan. These areas had no schools 20 years ago, and we were the ones who brought education to them. There are two kinds of schools in these areas: one has only one class, and the other one has up to nine classes. Girls from poor areas used to have no access to schooling, and now they do. This is what matters to us. We give girls hope. Right now, 5,000 girls are studying every day in our secret schools.

How could international civil society support your work?

Funding is a big challenge for us. During the last government, I had contacts with the president and the minister of education, but I’ve never had contacts with the local Taliban. This means that no one in the current administration will help us. We used to have a team of 2,400 volunteers and worked together with the government. They had a big salary budget and helped us with donations. But the majority of those officials don’t have a job anymore, and this is a problem because we are running very low on donations.

On the ground I can manage, because all of our activities used to be in war-zone areas, which were 50 per cent Taliban-controlled anyway. I know how to talk to religious leaders and how to navigate these difficulties. But funding is a whole different thing.

I am very active on social media. PenPath has a website, Facebook page and Twitter account. I also use Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. If international civil society or foreign CSOs want to contribute to our projects, they can always get in touch with us on social media, by email and through WhatsApp. We currently don’t receive any kind of international funding, and all our work is volunteer work. But we do need your support to continue running secret schools, public libraries, online classes and other activities. Donations would be a big help for PenPath.

Another key way the international community could help is by putting pressure on the Taliban government to reopen schools and by supporting education in Afghanistan. Before the Taliban took over in August last year, there were still many areas with no schools, so we need help building schools, providing scholarships, distributing books and stationery and bringing all these to remote places. We need all the help we can get if we are to provide education opportunities to every woman, girl and boy in Afghanistan.

Civic space in Afghanistan is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with PenPath through its website or its Facebook page, and follow @PenPath1 and @matiullahwesa on Twitter and @penpathvolunteers and @matiullah_wesa on Instagram.

PenPath Afghanistan 1

 

CSW66: ‘UN member states should make efforts to honour their commitments at home’

Eucharia AbuaCIVICUS speaks about women’s rights and the United Nations (UN) Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) with Eucharia Abua, Senior Programme Officer on Gender and Reproductive Justice at African Girls Empowerment Network (AGE Network).

Founded in 2015, AGE Network is a young feminist civil society organisation (CSO) committed to advancing gender equality in girls’ education and promoting young women’s bodily and economic rights and leadership in Nigeria. It works to end child marriage and keep girls in school, and provides support to rape survivors, teenage mothers, victims of domestic violence and female genital mutilation, LGBTQI+ women, sex workers, women and girl refugees from Cameroon, internally displaced women and girls, and other economically disadvantaged and vulnerable women and girls.

What do you see as the main women’s rights issues in Nigeria, and how does AGE Network work to address them?

One of the main issues is women’s right to pregnancy by choice. In Nigeria, there’s an imbalance in the sexual and reproductive health and rights of women and adolescent girls. This is evident in the country’s discriminatory abortion law, which only allows medical abortion under certain circumstances. This strict law, alongside shame, social stigma and a lack of access to timely and non-judgemental information about safe, self-managed medical abortion and legal support, steers young women towards unsafe abortions.

Many young women with unintended pregnancies, particularly those in vulnerable settings and displaced communities who are pregnant as a result of sexual violence, rape or incest, and those with critical medical conditions who cannot carry a pregnancy to term, seek unsafe abortions from quack doctors in hideouts and become vulnerable to irreparable harm or death. This has contributed to the current maternal mortality ratio of 512 per 100,000 live births, according to a 2020 report by the Federal Ministry of Health.

To address this situation, AGE launched the #BellebyChoice campaign, an initiative to advance women’s and girls’ bodily rights and autonomy by securing their rights to pregnancy by choice, not by chance. The campaign seeks to curb unintended pregnancies by improving access to and uptake of family planning and modern contraception and end unsafe abortions through the provision of timely and non-judgemental information and legal support so that women can access safe and self-managed medical abortions. We have a dedicated hotline and use local and pidgin languages to address communication barriers in accessing sexual and reproductive health services among women and adolescent girls.

Additionally, since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, AGE has stood in solidarity with vulnerable young women, including female sex workers, and has helped them access timely sexual and reproductive health services. We partnered with Women First Digital and incorporated their AllyChatBot for safe abortion via WhatsApp into our campaign. So far they have supported our efforts to end abortion stigma and help young women access non-judgemental sexual and reproductive health information and care through their mobile phones.

In the face of COVID-19, we have also advocated with the Nigerian government to relax the discriminatory abortion law. We have campaigned and engaged with key stakeholders to call on the government to set aside laws and policies that restrict access to safe abortion and allow the use of telemedicine and self-managed abortions in line with the guidelines put forward by the World Health Organization.

Why do you think the Nigerian government is not sufficiently responsive to women’s rights demands? 

Here is where another major women’s rights issue comes in: there’s a great imbalance in female representation and too many obstacles prevent women from having effective political participation. Inclusive governance is still a pending issue in Nigeria, and it continues to face strong resistance. For instance, just this March, Nigeria’s Senate and House of Representatives rejected proposed bills to grant additional legislative seats to women and other forms of affirmative action.

This is also apparent in the area of climate justice and environmental protection: rural women form the majority among farmers, but they have not been fully integrated or carried along in the process to develop the national climate change mitigation and adaptation action plan.

What issues have you tried to bring into the CSW agenda this year?

This year AGE has called for climate justice, in the form of a more inclusive climate change mitigation and adaptation action plan. This was the official theme for International Women’s Day 2022 (IWD 2022), to which the priority theme for the CSW’s 66th edition (CSW66) was closely aligned.

We carried out an online campaign, joined our civil society partners’ side events at CSW66 and hosted a virtual summit to commemorate IWD2022, in which we reflected on climate change and its disproportionate impact on women and girls, reviewed the progress made so far in mitigating climate change in Sub-Saharan Africa, celebrated women’s achievements, raised awareness of gender bias, engaged leading feminists working on climate justice and environmental protection in both government and the private sector in discussion and called for investment in Nigeria’s renewable energy sector.

Against all odds, women in Nigeria have played a key role in addressing the impacts of climate change and advancing climate justice. However, in spite of their contributions, women and girls – and particularly those in vulnerable settings and displaced communities – are still being disproportionately affected by the lack of climate action.

What were your expectations of CSW and to what degree have they been met?

Our expectations were to be able to connect, collaborate with and learn from women’s rights organisations and activists from around the world, joining together in a unified call for climate justice.

We re-echoed the achievements and contributions of our women, reviewed the reality and impacts of climate change on women, and called for a more level playing field and gender-responsive climate change mitigation and adaptation for a sustainable future for all.

But we were unable to participate fully due to internet connection problems and time zone differences during most of the events.

Do you think that international bodies, and specifically the UN, adequately integrate women into their decision-making processes?

As the leading international body, the UN has created an enabling environment for women’s participation in leadership and decision making and inclusive governance, including through Sustainable Development Goal number 5 on gender equality. However, UN member states should match this with efforts to honour their commitments at home, reducing gender inequalities, tackling human rights violations, and upholding the rule of law.

Civic space in Nigeria is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the African Girls Empowerment Network through its website or its Facebook page, and follow @TheAGENetwork on Twitter.

 

TUNISIA: ‘We are just students fighting for the future in times in which our opinions are disregarded’

Aziza FakherCIVICUS speaks about the impacts of the climate crisis in Tunisia and civil society responses with Aziza Fakher, a biology-geology engineering student and member of Youth for Climate Tunisia (YFC Tunisia).

Founded by two students in July 2019, YFC Tunisia strives for social and climate justice in Tunisia. It acknowledges the impact of the climate crisis on vulnerable and marginalised communities and demands climate action through digital campaigns and on-the-ground mobilisation.

What prompted the foundation of YFC Tunisia, and what issues do you currently work on?

The movement was started during the 2019 heatwave, which hit the whole of Tunisia and was so bad that you couldn’t leave your home without first getting properly hydrated.

Due to its diversity of ecosystems and landscapes, Tunisia faces multiple climate issues. Access to water is a human right, but here it is a very challenging issue. Receding coastlines put the lives of many Tunisians living on islands in peril. The coastline as a whole is endangered.

We are also working with other civil society organisations (CSOs) to stop industrial pollution in the city of Gabès, which faces an environmental catastrophe. Industries there have destroyed natural ecosystems and Indigenous communities. This fits the definition of ecocide, and the rest of the country should acknowledge it.

All of this has impacted on women in very specific ways. There are rural areas where women still have to carry barrels of water for as far as 10 kilometres. In places such Gabès, they live amid pollution, and for those of reproductive age this can have long-lasting impacts both on themselves and on future generations. 

We advocate for the introduction of climate education in all school curriculums and for exposing women to it as well, so they can transmit it to their children. Although the government has signed an agreement indicating support, it has so far been passive. CSOs lack funds to get this work done and the state hasn’t intervened or reached out to help.

Why is climate so important for young people in Tunisia?

This is important to us because it’s our future that is at stake. Young people have been very serious and dedicated to tackling this crisis from day one: we have skipped school to fight for the climate, we have helped other CSOs, we have reached out to political figures who have shut us down and refused to meet with us and listen to us. We have played a role in influencing other young people and raising wider awareness, which has been an important goal of the movement since it was founded. Indeed, we are still recruiting more young activists every day and we are able to provide them with a platform and a space to express themselves and their thoughts about the ongoing crisis.

People tend to forget that we are just students fighting for the future in times in which our opinions are disregarded. Many of us are endangering our daily lives, but we think it is worth it.

How has the current political crisis influenced your work?

The political and economic situation has influenced our movement. If one of your main tactics is to reach out to decision-makers to advocate for the adoption and implementation of laws and policies, a constantly changing situation is a big problem. It does not let us get ahead in our work and regularly makes us lose ground on the progress previously made.

When we first held a strike in Tunis, the Tunisian capital, we were exposed to religious conspiracy theories, which people tried to use against us because they refused to believe that climate change was real. Politicians and government officials should have conveyed the correct message to educate the public so that this crisis isn’t something alien and mysterious to them. But they didn’t.

We received backlash and were targeted with criticism and hate speech concerning our methods. Others, however, have said that our discourse is too soft, that we do not take risks and that we are not active in real life. Our response to them is that we are young Tunisians living in a context of political unrest, so our real-life activities are always uncertain.

The economic context for activism is also complicated, especially following the recent news about the president’s intention to ban all foreign funding for Tunisian CSOs.

We have often found ourselves lagging in the funding department. The situation is very difficult for many CSOs that have no independent funding. If we are unable to get funding, we will be unable to work on new projects. We are very uncertain regarding our future plans. And being young activists, we also struggle to exercise our right to access data and information, which is a huge issue in Tunisia.

Additionally, we have faced bureaucratic restrictions. For example, we have recently had to submit our registration paperwork because we are working on climate education and we are not allowed to work with children or in a school or university environment unless we are recognised and certified as a formal CSO. But we have faced challenges because the process is very slow and requires a huge amount of paperwork.

What are your demands for national and international decision-makers ahead of the COP27 climate change summit?

We are aware that activity in the global north has a huge environmental impact on the global south, including Tunisia. Since COP27 will be held in Egypt this year, we have formed a coalition with other environmental rights groups to work at a regional level.

We want to see more engagement from local and global politicians in terms of laws and policies to tackle climate change, and also for them to condemn greedy capitalist profiteers. We would like the Tunisian government to acknowledge the Sustainable Development Goals in the Tunisian context and to implement nationally determined contributions and start a transition to renewable energy.

New laws must also be introduced to protect future generations’ right to water and food security. The Ministry of Environment must adopt climate change mitigation and adaptation measures. Effective waste recovery and management systems must be adopted, because the lack of these is a huge problem for local communities. People have died as a result of living near toxic waste dumps. We also need state-run awareness campaigns targeted at marginalised and vulnerable communities. And we want climate education in all schools, because of its crucial role in preparing kids for the future to come.

We are willing to work together with other CSOs that share our goals. Because these are human rights issues, we would like to bring them into the United Nations Human Rights Council and its Universal Periodic Review sessions, where civil society voices are heard, taken into consideration and empowered.

Civic space in Tunisia is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Youth for Climate Tunisia through its Facebook and Instagram pages, and follow @yfctunisia on Twitter.

 

UKRAINE: ‘International organisations are clearly not up to their historic responsibilities’

Oleksandra MatviichukCIVICUS speaks with Oleksandra Matviichuk, head of the board of the Center for Civil Liberties (CCL), about human rights violations in Ukraine amid the Russian invasion and civil society’s response.

Established in 2007, CCL is a Ukrainian civil society organisation (CSO) that promotes human rights and democratic values in Ukraine and Europe.

How has Ukrainian civil society organised in the wake of the Russian invasion?

Ukrainian civil society came together and issued the Kyiv Declaration, an appeal made by 100 civil society leaders that includes six points: to establish safe zones that protect civilians from air and ground attacks; to provide immediate defensive military aid, including lethal and non-lethal weapons; to implement crippling economic and financial sanctions to undermine Russia’s war machine; to provide immediate aid to local humanitarian organisations; to freeze the assets and revoke the visas of Putin’s cronies; and to provide the technology and support required to record war crimes.

There are a lot of CSOs in Ukraine, and therefore lots of initiatives happening. CCL has an initiative called Euromaidan SOS, which we launched a while back, in 2013, to provide legal help to activists detained during the Revolution of Dignity. This initiative involves hundreds of volunteers and focuses on legal and logistics support, humanitarian assistance and the documentation of war crimes to help bring perpetrators to justice.

We work alongside international organisations, foreign governments and the Ukrainian diaspora. We have a campaign dedicated to the establishment of humanitarian corridors and we work with partners in several countries to provide aid in occupied cities. Russians have deliberately isolated occupied cities, attacking people who try to evacuate and obstructing humanitarian assistance. We are working to help those people.

We also engage with partner human rights organisations in European countries, such as France and Germany, so that they put pressure on their national governments. Some countries have continued doing business as usual with Russia, even though they have repudiated the war. We need their governments to make the kind of political decisions that will save Ukrainian lives.

As well as producing information to disseminate abroad so that the world knows what is happening in Ukraine, we use Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to spread information among people within Ukraine. One of the ways Russian invaders try to isolate the local population is by cutting off communications. We work to bypass these obstacles and provide life-saving information regarding evacuation procedures, medical care and official decisions, among other things.

We have all adapted our work to the needs of the moment. I for instance am a human rights lawyer, so my field is the law, but I have somewhat shifted my priorities. I do not have military experience or expertise, but I have had to learn a number of things to be able to help. My work now not only involves research on war crimes for the quest for international justice, but also advocating and finding ways to pressure for the war to be stopped. So while I still conduct work in the field of law and gather evidence for future use, I also do other things, such as connecting with international organisations to try to get them to maintain their presence in Ukraine.

What are you asking the international community to do?

We work to force the international community to act in ways that are consistent with their words. Western politicians have expressed their support for Ukraine and its people, but their actions say otherwise. They have established economic sanctions against Russia, but there are still too many loopholes. A clear example is that of the SWIFT network, which has banned only a few Russian banks. Sberbank, one of the biggest banks, has not been excluded. We want all Russian and Belarusian banks expelled from the system, which would hopefully obstruct funding for the war and put enough pressure so that they will push for stopping it. Another urgent measure would be to put an embargo on Russian oil and gas, which are enabling the Russian government to fund its invasion of Ukraine.

We don’t want the international community to get comfortable with what is happening in Ukraine. They must stand in solidarity with us and help us fight this. Our number one priority is to be able to defend ourselves, but we are fighting not only for ourselves but also for the values of a free world. Russia started this war because it is afraid of NATO. Putin is afraid of freedom. We hope our example will also impact on other post-soviet states and we will get to decide what our region will be like.

We want the international community to provide tangible solutions. Now that the bulk of refugees have been got to safety, it is time to reach for a more ambitious goal. We need strategic measures that will stop war crimes and force the invasion itself to stop. In occupied territories, we have already seen people being beaten up, arrested and tortured. Detentions, kidnappings and torture are being used against the brave Ukrainians who go out with the Ukrainian flag and face Russian soldiers. It is only a matter of time before human rights defenders, journalists, religious leaders and civil society activists and organisations start to be deliberately targeted. We need to find ways to protect people. 

What is your assessment of the international response to the Russian invasion so far?

We feel and appreciate the huge wave of solidarity across the globe, but it is not enough to address our situation. What we need is a serious response to the Kyiv Declaration.

Unfortunately, our advocacy asks have not been met. International organisations and our allies are focusing on providing humanitarian assistance to refugees outside Ukraine. This is very important because there are more than three million Ukrainian refugees now. But it is also the easiest thing to do in this horrible situation, when tens of millions remain in Ukraine, where war is still happening. The people who have stayed also need protection and humanitarian assistance, and they need it even more urgently.

This is why we urged the establishment of a no-fly zone and the supply of long-range distance weapons, defence systems and fighter planes. We have been asking for weeks but have not received anything yet. What we got instead from the international community has been drones, that’s all. But drones will not protect civilians from Russian attacks.

Our own allies sometimes offer us aid that is not useful. Instead of listening to our requests, people who have no idea what it is to be under this kind of attack insist on providing the help they think we need. For instance, I have received calls from international CSOs who wanted to send us vests and helmets, which hopefully would arrive in Kyiv within a few weeks. That sounded funny because right now we don’t know what will happen within the next few hours. I had to explain to them that if Russians came to occupy Kyiv and found us wearing their nice helmets, they would kill us all. Their helmets won’t protect us from the dangers we face.

I think the architecture of the international governance system is not working properly because it has a fundamental design defect. Russia is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. The mandate for this body is to maintain international peace and security, but we have seen the total opposite of that take place in Ukraine. And there is also a lack of understanding of their responsibilities by those who are in positions where they could help. When the war started, international organisations evacuated their staff from Kyiv and other places under attack. International organisations are clearly not up to their historic responsibilities. 

I remain in Kyiv and have spent yet another horrible night in which residential buildings have been targeted by Russian missiles. I really don’t understand what the international community is waiting for. We need their urgent help. The people who died last night in Kyiv couldn’t wait.

Civic space in Ukraine is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Center for Civil Liberties through its website or Facebook page, and follow @ccl_ua on Twitter.

 

UKRAINE: ‘The presence of international organisations is key to ensure safe humanitarian corridors’

Sasha RomantsovaCIVICUS speaks with Sasha Romantsova, executive director of the Center for Civil Liberties (CCL), about Ukrainian civil society’s response to the Russian invasion.

Established in 2007, CCL is a Ukrainian civil society organisation (CSO) that promotes human rights and democratic values in Ukraine and Europe.

What are the main ways in which your organisation is responding to the Russian invasion?

In the face of the unprecedented situation in Ukraine, on the first day of the Russian invasion CCL renewed its Euromaidan SOS initiative. This was launched in 2013 to provide legal help to activists detained during the peaceful protests held in the context of the Maidan Revolution, or Revolution of Dignity, which erupted in response to the then-president’s sudden decision not to sign a political and free trade agreement with the European Union.

This initiative, which brings together hundreds of volunteers, is now working on various aspects of Russia’s human rights violations in Ukraine. More specifically, our volunteers are documenting war crimes and gathering information about prisoners and missing persons.

Other volunteers help spread the word about what is going on in Ukraine through our social media accounts on Facebook and Twitter. They share useful information 24 hours a day. They publish content in various languages on YouTube. There is a whole group of volunteers who provide translations and specialists who tirelessly work on video editing.

At the international level, we maintain communication channels through our diaspora, international human rights networks, partners and friends. We discuss with diplomats the urgent need for the protection of human rights in Ukraine. One significant issue we have discussed is the need for the presence of the missions of international organisations to ensure safe humanitarian corridors to evacuate civilians from war zones.

Additionally, to respond to requests from people in need, we have created a special chatbot for the Telegram app.

We are also constantly conducting advocacy actions and campaigns, such as #CloseTheSky, supporting President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s international demand for a no-fly zone over Ukraine. We are now starting a new campaign regarding the need for safe humanitarian corridors – safe evacuation routes for those fleeing the war.

Alongside us, many other human rights organisations are involved in various areas of documenting Russia’s war crimes. Additionally, there are numerous public initiatives on all fronts, among them efforts to provide humanitarian cargo and logistics, evacuate civilians and organise art events and media campaigns, including some aimed to a Russian audience. These are very important because otherwise the truth about what is happening in Ukraine would never get reach the Russian population. We maintain a database of initiatives across the country. 

How is the conflict affecting Ukrainian civil society’s work?

Most CSOs have been forced to suspend their activities on the ground, and some have had to leave Ukraine for the time being. Many CSO staff members and activists who have stayed have at the very least sent their families away. There are some cities – such as Kharkov in the northeast and Mariupol in the southeast – where it is impossible for any CSO to continue to work. In other cities, such as Berdyansk, Kherson and Melitopol, activists are being kidnapped for their work.

CCL continues to operate from Ukraine and our team members have not left the country. We are truly blessed to have a group of fantastic people who have run the Euromaidan initiative since Russia started this war.

What should the international community do to help?

Our demands to global leaders are to close the skies over Ukraine, provide weapons for our effective protection and fully enforce all the sanctions imposed on Russia, including the disconnection of all Russian banks from the SWIFT network and the cessation of oil and gas purchases from Russia.

Given that most international organisations, including the United Nations (UN), have evacuated their international staff from Ukraine due to serious threats to their lives, we urge them to send in international missions qualified to work in military conditions.

These missions’ duty should be to monitor the actions of both parties. The UN should establish an international tribunal to establish the facts of the Russian Federation’s military aggression, while the International Criminal Court should consider and promptly rule on war crimes and crimes against humanity in Ukraine. The International Committee of the Red Cross should be in charge of organising the exchange and removal of the dead from both sides.

We stress the urgent need for international presence and international monitoring of violations during the evacuation of the civilian population from destroyed cities, villages and settlements. We therefore urge international civil society to support the advancement of our demands to the governments of democratic countries and the leadership of international organisations.

Civic space in Ukraine is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Center for Civil Liberties through its website or Facebook page, and follow @ccl_ua on Twitter.

 

UKRAINE: ‘If we share information, leaders won’t be able to turn blind eye to human rights violations’

Yaropolk BrynykhCIVICUS speaks with Yaropolk Brynykh of Truth Hounds about Ukrainian civil society’s response to the Russian invasion.

Truth Hounds is a civil society organisation (CSO) aimed at fighting against the impunity of perpetrators of international crimes and grave human rights violations through investigation, documentation, monitoring, advocacy and problem-solving assistance for vulnerable groups. Jointly with Brussels-based International Partnership for Human Rights, The Truth Hounds team has carried out over 50 fact-finding missions to document war crimes in eastern Ukraine and Crimea.

What are the main ways in which your organisation is responding to the Russian invasion?

I’m a board member of the Ukrainian human rights organisation Truth Hounds, which has focused on documenting war crimes and crimes against humanity in war contexts since 2014. We wouldn’t be able to tackle this mission without a highly qualified team of human rights professionals with experience in conflict areas – not only in the east of Ukraine and occupied Crimea but also in neighbouring countries, including in Nagorno Karabakh, a territory disputed by Armenia and Azerbaijan. Having prepared three extensive submissions to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, we have developed thorough knowledge of international standards and best practices of evidence collection and systematisation of war crimes.

Thus, when Russia began its invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, I immediately joined a field team of investigators working day and night to document Russian war crimes in our country. Since then, our team members have collected evidence of indiscriminate shelling, targeted attacks against civilians, ecological crimes and other violations of customs of war. On the basis of that, our team has already prepared and published 13 reports revealing grave human rights violations and war crimes committed by the Russian military.

Most of our current efforts in response to the Russian invasion focus on monitoring human rights violations and war crimes committed by the Russian army, international advocacy, support for professional groups and humanitarian and legal aid to people in need.

Our team also supports the Ukrainian prosecutor’s office in chasing perpetrators of war crimes through documentation and monitoring of human rights violations. We also share reports and evidence as much as possible to provide international judicial bodies, including the ICC, with evidence that can one day be used to bring perpetrators to justice.

In the context of the war, we also understand the importance of information, so our team works to produce accurate and reliable information as quickly as possible and shares it with international media groups. We believe that if we share information about Ukraine, global leaders won’t be able to turn a blind eye to the human rights violations that Russia is perpetrating here. Our nation needs support from the whole world; hence, our current mission is to deliver facts from the field to the international community.

How is the conflict affecting Ukrainian civil society’s work?

Ukrainian civil society is in the same boat as the whole nation, and as everyone else, we are trying to keep working despite the difficult circumstances. Some civil society representatives, including well-known human rights defenders, have joined the army to fight and protect the country. Others have had to leave Ukraine, but they are doing their best to operate in exile within their limited possibilities.

While many CSOs moved to western Ukraine to try and resume their activities despite limited technical and financial opportunities, others decided to stay in the eastern and southern parts of the country, to cover humanitarian needs and help with the logistics of relocation of the civilian population. But their capacities are down to a minimum because they are not able to receive much support from international CSOs.

Only a tiny segment of civil society took on board information about a possible Russian invasion and was prepared enough. They have managed to continue working for the past weeks. But even this small group cannot be as effective as it used to be because of the need to hide in shelters during chaotic air and rocket attacks.

Overall, civil society is under tremendous mental pressure, which will have long-lasting effects. This will become yet another challenge for the country once the war is over. Civil society will suffer from post-traumatic syndrome.

What should the international community do to help?

Ukrainian civil society needs advocacy and communications support. Our partners must help us deliver our messages to our allies and governments worldwide. Needless to say, Ukraine cannot win this fight alone. But we share the same democratic values and we need your support.

All of us in contemporary Ukrainian civil society grew up believing in democratic values and we heard time and again that these were the most important principles for the western world. Now we are fighting for these values, we ask the international community to amplify our voices. If it doesn’t, it will be clear that western countries choose their business interests over democratic values. We don’t want to be let down.

Ukraine also needs the humanitarian assistance of international organisations. We understand how hard it is for organisations such as the World Health Organization and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe to organise proper fieldwork. But there is one thing even harder: explaining to people from war-affected regions why these organisations disappear when they need them the most.

Since 2014, when Russia occupied Crimea and invaded Ukraine for the first time this century, Ukrainians have seen thousands of international organisations’ representatives spending their time here, mostly in expensive hotels and restaurants. We were told that were here to try and save Ukrainian lives. But now that Ukrainian lives are in fact under immediate threat, international organisations are not here anymore. For us, they are now invisible and silent.

Civic space in Ukraine is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Truth Hounds through its website or Facebook page.

 

RUSSIA: ‘The shutdown of media sources threatens to create information vacuum for Russians’

Natalia MalyshevaCIVICUS speaks about anti-war protests in Russia and the government’s violations of digital rights with Natalia Malysheva, co-founder and press secretary of Roskomsvoboda.

Roskomsvoboda is a civil society organisation (CSO) that works to defend people’s digital rights. Established in 2012, it promotes the freedom of information and advocates against censorship. It is currently working to ensure people receive accurate information about the war and offering assistance to those who have been detained.

How significant are the ongoing anti-war protests in Russia?

The protests are small. In the first days of the so-called ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine, many people came out to take part in spontaneous rallies for peace in all major cities of Russia. Human rights CSOs have reported that more than 15,000 people have been detained so far for speaking out against the war. But now protests typically consist of small groups of people in multiple locations across the country.

The new law that prohibits and criminalises the dissemination of ‘fake news’ about the Russian military action and the expression of support for ‘anti-Russian sanctions’ has had a strong impact on how people organise, and on whether they go out to protest, because it has installed fear throughout society.

People have been arrested merely for using the words ‘war’ and ‘peace’ in the context of protests, and even for using asterisks instead of letters on their signs – because the government knows that if you protest with a blank sign or a sign full of asterisks, what you are trying to say is ‘no to war’. People who advocate against the war on social media are also often at risk of being arrested.

There are fewer and fewer people who are willing to take part in an uncoordinated rally and get arrested for several days, because most of them have families and jobs they wish to protect. Many people who fear for their lives are leaving the country for their safety. Others simply do not see any prospects in a continuing struggle. Moving forward, we shouldn’t expect mass protests to arise in Russia.

Do you think protests can make any difference?

Right now it is clear that the Russian government does not intend to have a dialogue with the part of society that does not support its so-called ‘military operation’ in Ukraine. This is unfortunately a relatively small segment of society and its demands are overlooked.

Although people continue to go out to protests and some get arrested in the process, in my opinion this will not change the course of the events that are currently taking place. The authorities won’t listen to protesters. Protesting will perhaps start making more sense when – or if – most Russians begin to understand what is really happening.

What is Roskomsvoboda focusing on?

Roskomsvoboda is a CSO that supports open self-regulatory networks and the protection of digital rights of internet users. It seeks to counter online censorship and expand the opportunities brought by digital technologies.

For 10 years, Roskomsvoboda has constantly monitored the activities of government agencies. We publish a register of blocked sites and raise awareness of online abuse, leakages of personal data and the persecution of citizens for their social media statements. We conduct extensive public campaigns and events aimed at informing citizens about the violation of their digital rights, initiating public discussion and bringing people together so they can fight for their rights. Our lawyers defend those who are prosecuted for their online statements or activities, represent the interests of users and site owners in court and participate in the development of proposals for changing legislation.

In the past few days, against the backdrop of an information war and a growing social crisis, we have focused more on helping people get reliable information about what is happening. We have published pieces about new laws that have been adopted to introduce censorship and analysed how they will affect people and their right to speak up. Our lawyers continue to provide targeted legal assistance to those who are being prosecuted for speaking out online, defending people in courts.

The closure of some news outlets and social media platforms is affecting the kind of information people receive. State media outlets provide information that only reflects events from the government’s perspective and disseminate a lot of propaganda. The shutdown of leading media sources threatens to create an information vacuum for Russians, which won’t contribute to the goal of achieving peace.

Restrictions on access to information and censorship have already significantly reduced people’s ability to protest. Even publishing an online call for a peace rally can result in criminal punishment.

We recently issued a statement calling on the world’s leading internet and IT companies and initiatives not to indiscriminately impose mass sanctions and not to punish ordinary people in Russia, many of whom are already in a vulnerable position. We have translated our appeal into several languages and are asking everyone to help disseminate it.

What are the dangers of disinformation in the context of the current crisis?

The biggest risk of disinformation is that of disconnecting Russia from the global information space.

Russian authorities have blocked the world’s largest media outlets and social media. Many western companies have stopped operating in Russia, making it even more closed for international viewers. This prevents people from getting the truth about what is happening; it also destroys the businesses and careers of many people who have worked in partnership with Western countries for many years.

The current closure of businesses has left many people without vital resources. People are not only affected by oppression from the Russian government but must also deal with the potential loss of their jobs and sources of income. With such actions, western countries only risk Russia shutting down completely from the outside world, paving the way for the rise of a ‘sovereign internet’ – an internet thoroughly controlled by the government.

How can the international community best support Russian civil society?

The international community can help by bringing our message to the widest possible audience. On behalf of Russian internet users, Roskomsvoboda urges technology companies located in the jurisdictions of the USA, the European Union and other countries not to massively disable the accounts of Russian users. They should not restrict their access to information and means of communication.

Digital discrimination based on nationality would reduce the ability of Russians to gain access to reliable information, as well as to conduct honest work, study and research activities. So we ask you to please distribute our statement far and wide.

We also started a petition asking the world’s virtual private network (VPN) services to help ensure that Russian users have free access to their services during these difficult times. This is necessary to protect users’ basic rights to privacy, the secrecy of communication and their ability to receive and disseminate information freely. Access to information is a basic human right enshrined in various international agreements. In critical situations, it is more important than ever.

Civic space in Russia is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor. Russia is currently on the CIVICUS Monitor Watch List, which identifies countries in which a severe and abrupt deterioration in the quality of civic space is taking place.
Get in touch with Roskomsvoboda through its website or its Facebook and Instagram pages, and follow @RuBlackListNET on Twitter.

 

GREECE: ‘Together we can do more’

CIVICUS speaks about the state of civil society and civic space in Greece with Sotiris Petropoulos, director of Higher Incubator Giving Growth and Sustainability (HIGGS), an initiative that seeks to strengthen Greek civil society organisations (CSOs) through education and support programmes and activities. HIGGS’ purpose is to mobilise the ‘invisible’ forces of the CSO ecosystem, stimulating people and organisations to undertake new, innovative initiatives, and providing the right conditions for their incubation and acceleration.

Sotiris Petropoulos

What are the current conditions for civil society in Greece?

Greece is a democracy with a relatively open civic space. The 2010 socioeconomic crisis enhanced a trend towards increasingly active CSOs playing an important role in covering societal needs. Nevertheless, we are witnessing a regression in the freedoms enjoyed by organised civil society in the form of barriers, mostly of a legal nature, that make CSO work more difficult.

A first indication of this trend was seen when the government elected in July 2019 started gradually creating a more strict and formal oversight system of Greek CSOs, mainly through the introduction of new official registries under relevant ministries, such as a register of CSOs working with migrants and refugees, and so on.

Then in October 2021 draft legislation on CSOs proposed by the Ministry of Interior was put out for public consultation. The initiative was aimed at establishing a single registry of CSOs to replace the existing nine separate databases, so as to enhance transparency about their activities and fundraising activities.

At first, many CSOs welcomed this initiative as an opportunity to strengthen civil society, abolish complicated and bureaucratic procedures, unify all existing registries and ensure a safe and independent environment for CSOs to operate.

However, it soon became clear that the proposed legislation was aimed in a different direction: it would establish mechanisms to monitor rather than support CSOs, enhancing bureaucratic procedures, adding new limitations – such as a requirement for all CSO board members to have a clean criminal record – and increasing their overall operational costs. Moreover, it included some points that were quite problematic, especially for new or small organisations. For instance, to access the registry CSOs would need to have their accounts assessed by certified auditors, a rather costly service, especially for many small-to-medium CSOs with fluctuating budgets. But even those that could afford it probably wouldn’t prioritise this expense and would rather use the funds on their substantive work – say, for buying 1,000 meals to distribute among homeless people.

Another problematic point was the so-called ‘three-year limitation’, a provision that CSOs must have been legally established for at least three years to be eligible to enter the new registry, creating another barrier for some organisations. These points, among others, would widen the gap between big and small organisations and, overall, would create new obstacles for civil society work. In retrospect, the proposed legal framework mirrored the government’s view that only big organisations are and can be transparent and efficient, which in fact runs counter to existing evidence.

In addition, the government’s proposal seemed to be part of an overall ‘policing approach’ towards the segment of civil society it cannot understand or control – a continuation of a measure that had been introduced a year earlier, establishing an even more problematic registry exclusively for CSOs operating in the field of migration and refugees.

How did society respond to the proposed initiative?

The draft law was published in October 2021, just five weeks before the parliamentary vote on the proposal. The timeline for public consultation was short, but the civil society response was fast and massive.

Major CSO networks established a task force to coordinate a joint strategy to respond collectively with specific proposals to improve the draft law.

The first step was to inform all CSOs about the draft law. HIGGS sent emails, posted the proposal on social media and held online public events. In the meantime, we started to draft and share a joint public statement and called on all CSOs to support it by co-signing it and sharing it. This public statement collected 303 signatures, an impressive number by Greek standards. It was one of the biggest collective actions of Greek civil society ever recorded.

Taking advantage of this momentum, we made targeted calls for action to motivate all CSOs to work, both together and individually, to put pressure on members of parliament by calling them on the phone, sending them emails and sharing briefing papers with them.

During the public consultation process, HIGGS put together a policy proposal that contained improvements to the draft law, which was supported by over 45 organisations.

We encouraged all networks to be loud about the draft bill. We all communicated every single development through our media channels, published joint press releases and created social media campaigns.

What did the campaign achieve?

In response to all these actions, the Minister of Interior, Makis Voridis, invited some organisations to working meetings and eventually included some of our policy proposals in the final version of the law.

Law 4873/2021 was passed in December and introduced a new registration procedure for CSOs that seek to access government funding and receive various tax and economic privileges. The process is clear and has clear timeframe. In addition, in the area of volunteerism, specific provisions for emergency situations that were missing were added.

We value the sense of unity, solidarity and power of joint forces as the greatest legacy of this process. This approach is something that most CSOs agreed was missing in Greek civil society, and there is much space to work towards this direction in the future.

What about the restrictions targeting CSOs that work with migrants and refugees?

Over the past few years, several measures were implemented that were meant to discourage or restrict the work of CSOs working in the field of human rights and migration.

In September 2020, the government introduced a ministerial decision that established that Greek and foreign CSOs working in the field of migration, asylum, and social inclusion in Greece must fulfil an exhaustive list of formal and substantive requirements to register with the Ministry of Migration and Asylum. The required documentation targets both the organisation and its staff, members and volunteers, and non-registration would automatically lead to operations being ceased. Moreover, the Ministry of Migration and Asylum was granted complete discretion to accept or reject a CSO’s application.

Among a huge amount of bureaucratic documentation, these CSOs were required to submit audit reports for the previous two years, entailing costs that may be too much of a burden for small grassroots CSOs. For staff, members and volunteers, CSOs must provide criminal records and proof of permanent residence in Greece. If an individual does not meet the requirements, not just the individual concerned but also the CSO may be withdrawn from the registration process.

Concerns over the transparency of the registration process soon increased, as a former political group affiliated with the ruling party turned into a CSO working in the field of asylum: it was approved to receive over €5 million (approx. US$5.5 million) in funding within a week.

Another initiative – the Deportations and Returns Bill – that was submitted to parliament in August 2021 contained provisions to restrict the operation of CSOs through criminal and financial sanctions for individuals and institutions.

On top of the ongoing criminalisation of solidarity towards migrant and refugees, we observed the first effects of these laws and regulations, such as the rejection of Refugee Support Aegean’s application for registration with the Ministry of Immigration and Asylum.

What’s next for Greek civil society?

The task force of civil society networks that was formed in response to the draft bill on the CSO registry did not dissolve after the bill was passed. It remains active and continues monitoring the implementation of the new legislation, pushing for changes to those articles that are found to create obstacles to the exercise of the right to freedom to association, and keeping all CSOs informed of any new developments.

In HIGGS we believe in joint actions, teamwork, and cooperation within civil society. We encourage various forms of networking – one of our mottos is ‘together we can do more’. This is our philosophy and to live up to it. Our programmes offer a variety of perspectives and promote unity and solidarity within the diversity of Greek civil society. The ecosystem of Greek CSOs is gradually entering its mature age. We expect advocacy to become a more core activity of CSOs, and we are working on it.

We view our experience of collaboration in the face of potentially damaging legislation as the beginning of a new area for Greek civil society – one in which the culture of cooperation makes all of us stronger.

Civic space in Greece is rated ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with HIGGS through its website or its Facebook and Instagram pages, and follow @HIGGS3HIGGS on Twitter.

 

UAE: ‘Many leaders remain silent in the face of systematic human rights abuses’

Kristina StockwoodCIVICUS speaks with Kristina Stockwood of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) about the current state of civic space in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the government’s efforts to improve its international reputation by holding the Expo 2020 event in Dubai.

GCHR is a civil society organisation (CSO) that provides support and protection to human rights defenders in order to promote human rights, including the rights to the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression.

What is the current state of civic freedoms in the UAE?

A dominant thread throughout GCHR’s coverage of the UAE is the stark difference between the progressive and forward-thinking image the UAE projects on the international stage and its despicable treatment of human rights defenders (HRDs) and others in civil society. Every single HRD active in the UAE has been imprisoned or driven into exile in violation of their right to the freedom of expression. The UAE cracks downs systematically on critical and independent voices who advocate for human rights in the country, both online and offline.

As GCHR shows in a recent report, the UAE authorities rely on torture to consolidate this oppressive climate. Key emerging patterns are the use of enforced disappearances following arbitrary arrest, detention to perpetrate torture with impunity, the punishment and further torture of those who dare to speak out about their conditions of detention, and the complicity of companies and the international community in the systematic perpetration of torture in the UAE. 

The UAE also continues to persecute HRDs in exile. In 2021, the UAE cabinet issued ministerial resolution 83, which added 38 people – including several HRDs and a researcher – and 13 entities to the government’s terror list. Also in 2021, it was revealed that one of the targets of surveillance under the Pegasus Project was Alaa Al-Siddiq, an Emirati activist and the executive director of ALQST for Human Rights, who was killed in a traffic accident in the UK in June 2021, where she had relocated to flee persecution.

Al-Siddiq’s father is one of the UAE94 – a group of prominent HRDs, judges, academics and students convicted and imprisoned following a trial that lacked the most basic international standards of fair trial and due process. They are due for release after 10 years in prison in 2022, but human rights groups fear that high-profile prisoners won’t recover their freedom, as the UAE uses so-called ‘Munasaha (rehabilitation) centres’ to keep prisoners locked up past the end of their sentences.

How is GCHR working to expose these human rights violations?

Exposing these human rights violations has been at the heart of GCHR’s work. We monitor the situation on the ground, produce reports, advocate internationally and campaign for the release of HRDs.

In January 2022, together with Human Rights Watch, we issued an urgent appeal to help Ahmed Mansoor, who is on GCHR’s Advisory Board. Mansoor was detained in March 2017 and for years has been held incommunicado, isolated from other prisoners, denied even a bed and mattress. After he wrote a prison letter that was published by regional media in July 2021, in which he detailed his flagrantly unfair trial and mistreatment in detention, the authorities retaliated against him by moving him to a smaller and more isolated cell, denying him access to critical medical care and confiscating his reading glasses.

In January 2022, along with several other CSOs led by MENA Rights Group we issued a joint appeal protesting against the UAE’s new Law on Combating Rumours and Cybercrime, which restricts civic space and free speech and criminalises acts that are protected under international law. We called on the UAE to immediately repeal or amend the law.

How is the UAE using Expo 2020 to divert attention and improve its international reputation?

Throughout the Expo, which started in October 2021 and ends on 31 March 2022, the UAE has made an effort to whitewash its image, projecting a country of tolerance that even promotes women’s rights. To that effect, a women’s pavilion was included at the Expo and Forbes held a big event for women.

The Women’s Pavilion at the Expo is designed to ‘reaffirm Expo’s commitment to gender equality and women’s empowerment’. But women in the UAE have no rights and no power, and have been imprisoned for their online activities. The head of the Expo himself is a prominent perpetrator of violence against women. In 2020, a British woman who was organising the Hay Festival in the UAE, Caitlin May McNamara, was assaulted by Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, commissioner-general of the Expo and Minister of Tolerance and Coexistence, after being lured to this residence on the false pretences that they would talk about the situation of Ahmed Mansoor.

Needless to say, not a single UAE HRD was invited to the Expo, an event whose organisers claim has the purpose of creating ‘a better tomorrow’ because that is what happens ‘when the world comes together’, as its slogan goes.

To what extent has the exposure of violations of the rights Expo 2020’s migrant workers challenged the UAE’s public relations machine?

The work of human rights groups to expose violations of the human rights of migrant workers building venues has been key regarding large events in the Gulf countries, such as the Dubai Expo and the World Cup 2022, which will be held in Qatar.

Migrant workers in the Gulf are subjected to massive human rights violations through the notorious kafala (sponsorship) system that strips them of their basic rights. Under this system, they have no right to move, travel or change work. They have little access to healthcare and no right to union representation or to form organisations. They are also denied the right to citizenship, even if they spend their whole lives working in these countries.

However, the plight of migrant workers has received more attention in Qatar than in the UAE, as the UAE uses its large PR machine to gloss over human rights violations.

The COVID-19 pandemic complicated things, as many low-wage migrant workers remained acutely vulnerable to infection. To make things worse, in late March 2020, the Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratisation issued an arbitrary and discriminatory decree allowing private companies to amend the contracts of migrant workers, put them on unpaid leave or force them to accept permanent or temporary salary reductions due to the spread of COVID-19. In April 2020, a letter sent by a coalition of 16 CSOs and trade unions called on the authorities to provide migrant workers with adequate protection during the COVID-19 pandemic.

How is civil society taking advantage of global media attention around Expo 2020 to advocate for human rights?

In October 2021, GCHR and over two dozen partners, including two Emirati CSOs which operate in exile – the International Campaign for Freedom in the UAE (ICFUAE) and the Emirates Detainees Advocacy Centre – organised the online Alternative Human Rights Expo to counter the narrative of tolerance promoted by Emirati authorities. The three themes of the Dubai Expo are mobility, sustainability and opportunity – none of which is freely available to HRDs in the region. We argued that ‘coming together to hear diverse voices’ and ‘create a better world’ is not something attainable in a place where people are locked up for speaking their minds.

At the Alternative Human Rights Expo’s main event, held online on 14 October 2021, over 25 human rights groups paid tribute to human rights defenders from the UAE and called for their release during the Dubai Expo. The event, hosted by GCHR’s Women HRDs Programme Manager, Weaam Yousef, and prominent activist Iyad El-Baghdadi, featured HRDs, poets, artists, musicians, writers and filmmakers from a dozen countries in the Middle East and North Africa and beyond. The aim of the event was to highlight the work of creative talents from the region, as well as that of imprisoned activists, whose work was read during the event. These included Ahmed Mansoor in the UAE as well as Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja in Bahrain, Alaa Abd El-Fattah and Sanaa Seif in Egypt and Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee in Iran. Of those, Sanaa Seif was freed in December. Over 900 people participated or watched the event.

As part of that campaign, GCHR and 80 international CSOs delivered a letter to the UAE embassies in Geneva and London calling for activists imprisoned in the UAE to be freed, and for justice for women who have been abused in prison or at the hands of Emirati authorities. The letter, which highlights the case of Ahmed Mansoor, was delivered on Ahmed’s 52nd birthday. Those present at the embassy also filmed a birthday video for him.

Additionally, on 8 March 2022, International Women’s Day, GCHR co-sponsored an event with the European Centre for Democracy & Human Rights, ICFUAE and ALQST titled ‘Women’s Solidarity in Human Rights Activism: Storytelling from the Arab Peninsula’, where Emirati HRD Jenan Al-Marzooqi spoke of the persecution of herself and her family that forced her to flee the country. Other prominent WHRDs from Saudi Arabia, Oman and Yemen also told their stories.

On 8 March, GCHR also published a press release in the context of our campaign calling on governments in the region, including the UAE, to ‘take serious measures to end the use of sexual and gender-based violence, curb online harassment of women, stop the use of surveillance to persecute women HRDs, stop reprisals against them and their families, and remove travel bans among other restrictions’.

ICFUAE and GCHR also created a petition calling on the UAE government to release Emirati HRDs who are arbitrarily detained and serving lengthy sentences simply for their human rights activities. We will deliver the signatures to the UAE authorities at the end of the Expo, and this will be a powerful message that Emirati defenders matter to people around the world.

What should international civil society do to help bring these issues into the global agenda?

Many CSOs have reported on the human rights violations happening in the UAE, yet many global leaders remain silent, at least in public, sometimes suggesting that they raise human rights violations behind the scenes. This includes government allies of the UAE and companies that hold events in the UAE. 

Following successful civil society advocacy, in September 2021 the European Parliament adopted a wide-ranging resolution calling for the immediate and unconditional release of Ahmed Mansoor and others in the same situation, including Mohammed Al-Roken and Nasser bin Ghaith, and all other HRDs, political activists and peaceful dissidents, and urging all European Union member states to suspend the sale and export of surveillance technology to the UAE.

On 15 March, 27 CSOs led by the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy wrote a joint letter to Formula 1 (F1) CEO Stefano Domenicali to raise human rights concerns ahead of the Bahrain Grand Prix, held on 20 March. They praised F1’s cancellation of its race in Russia but condemned the company for creating a ‘clear double standard’ over the participation of three race venues – Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE – in the war in Yemen. They called on F1 to use its platform to secure redress for victims whose abuse was connected to their races and review their policy on racing in Gulf states considering their participation in the war in Yemen, among other recommendations.

It is important for international civil society to continue to raise concerns about the UAE’s human rights record, both inside the country and in relation to the war in Yemen.

Civic space in the UAE is rated ‘closed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor. The UAE is currently on the CIVICUS Monitor Watch List, which identifies countries in which a severe and abrupt deterioration in the quality of civic space is taking place.
Get in touch with the Gulf Centre for Human Rights through its website or Facebook page, and follow @GulfCentre4HR on Twitter.

 

RUSSIA: ‘These protests are key to the preservation of Russian civil society’

Maria KuznetsovaCIVICUS speaks about the ongoing anti-war protests in Russia and the repressive government response with OVD-Info’s spokesperson Maria Kuznetsova.

OVD-Info is an independent civil society organisation (CSO) that aims to promote and protect human rights – and specifically the freedom of peaceful assembly – in Russia. It monitors protests and their repression and assists detained protesters through legal aid, online consultations, and bringing them food and water while in detention.

How big are the ongoing anti-war protests in Russia?

The protests were massive in the first two weeks of the war – we recorded protest-related arrests in at least 159 cities. Of course, the biggest protests were those taking place in major developed cities, basically Moscow and St. Petersburg.

People came out against the war for moral reasons, because they could not look at the horror of what was happening in Ukraine and not react: mass bombings, killings of civilians, violence.

Protesters are mostly people under 40 years old – because they are the ones who, thanks to the internet, get an accurate picture of what is happening, in contrast to the narrative that is pushed by censored state TV. Their demands to end the war are simultaneously, of course, demands to overthrow Putin. Because one is impossible without the other.

My opinion is that due to the deteriorating economic situation, another – quite different – wave of protests may be expected soon. This may start among the poorer sections of the population who have lost income and jobs, and among doctors and patients, who are already experiencing the consequences of shortages of life-saving medicines due to sanctions.

Do you think repression has dissuaded people from protesting in bigger numbers?

At the height of the protests, on 5 March, more than 5,500 people were detained in one day. Since the beginning of the war, nearly 15,000 people have been detained at anti-war protests. The police are very harshly suppressing the protests – for example, on Sunday 20 March in Moscow, virtually all protesters were detained, and many of them were arrested for five to 30 days.

In addition, 39 criminal cases have already been opened due to statements and protests against the war; some of the defendants are already in jail. All of this scares away potential protesters. They understand that they can get a prison sentence even for participating in a peaceful rally, and it is obvious that fewer people are coming out now. However, protest continues under different forms: people sign open letters, write on social media, quit their jobs. We have even seen several high-profile dismissals of journalists and editors from federal media channels.

Those who still venture out to protest are being assisted by several human rights organisations, including OVD-Info. We send our lawyers to police stations where protesters are held. When there are not enough lawyers or we do not have a lawyer in a given city, we provide online consultations. We accompany the defendants to court. In addition, there is an extensive network of volunteers who also come to police stations to bring detainees water and food so that they do not go hungry all night after they are detained.

Do you think the protests will lead to meaningful change?

I don’t think there is a chance that these protests will influence the politics of the current regime, and as a human rights project, rather than a political one, OVD-Info is not in a position to assess the prospects for regime change. What we know for sure is that the only possible path to peace in Europe is having a free Russia that protects human rights. We do not know when our country will turn that way.

Still, these protests are key to the preservation and future development of Russian civil society. By taking part in them, those who oppose the war will gain invaluable self-organisation skills and acquire the moral right to play a prominent role when the time comes to build a new Russia.

How have media restrictions imposed by the government affected the protests, and civil society work more generally?

In my opinion, what we are witnessing in Russia is the establishment of military censorship. Even calling the events in Ukraine a war is prohibited – this is punishable by an administrative fine, and in case of repeated violations it becomes a criminal case, which can result in up to five years in prison. A new crime has been included in the Criminal Code: that of public disseminating knowingly false information about the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation. You can get up to 15 years in prison if you’re accused of doing that.

The websites of almost all independent organisations have been blocked in Russia since the beginning of the war. Due to anti-war remarks, its founders were forced to shut down Echo of Moscow, a radio station. The online media Znak.com also closed due to pressures. Independent TV channel Dozhd left Russia and temporarily interrupted its broadcasts, which were viewed by millions. Almost all independent media outlets were forced to leave Russia. In addition, the government blocked Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, because they realised they were unable to effectively impose censorship on social media.

At the moment, military censorship makes it tough to continue any anti-war and independent civilian activity, because any statement or protest can result in a prison term. But people continue to protest regardless, and many celebrities are speaking out publicly. We have seen employees of propaganda channels getting fired, which suggests that people are so enraged by what is happening that they are willing to fight back despite the risks.

How have the sanctions affected your work?

I don’t have a clear answer just yet. It seems to me that so far sanctions have not affected our work so much, but the situation can always quickly deteriorate. In fact, OVD-Info has closed down all Russian donations, while international donations continue to be safe. 

For the time being, it is the shutdown of many social media platforms that has made our work much more complex: it is increasingly difficult for us to convey information to people, educate them on legal issues and provide them with legal assistance. It will be especially difficult for us if Telegram is blocked in Russia, because it is now our primary platform for communicating with detainees.

How can the international community help independent CSOs and human rights activists in Russia?

I think the international community should be more careful with sanctions, which should be targeted. I think that the idea of collective responsibility is wrong – in Russia, it is a concept reminiscent of Stalin’s mass deportations of whole peoples, such as the Crimean Tatars, to pay for some individuals’ cooperation with the Third Reich.

From a pragmatic rather than an ethical point of view, it must be noted that many sanctions that have been imposed are having negative side effects – they are harming the most progressive part of society that opposes the war, preventing it from receiving information and obstructing the work of the last independent media. For example, Mailchimp – a USA-based platform and email marketing service that is used to create and distribute email marketing campaigns – has blocked all its clients from Russia.

It is also essential to understand that the Russians and Belarusians that are now leaving their countries and arriving in Turkey, Georgia, Armenia and other parts of Europe are mostly opposition activists and independent journalists who face jail time in their homeland. But because they are Russians and Belarusians, they are facing massive discrimination. However, these activists and journalists are not responsible for their government’s actions – they are in fact the only hope that their countries will change, so it is essential to help them instead of discriminating against them as if they were the aggressors’. It is necessary to understand that not all Russians and Belarusians support the war in Ukraine.

Civic space in Russia is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor. Russia is currently on the CIVICUS Monitor Watch List, which identifies countries in which a severe and abrupt deterioration in the quality of civic space is taking place.
Get in touch with OVD-Info through its website or its Facebook and Instagram pages, and follow @ovdinfo on Twitter.

 

 

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