LEBANON: ‘This crisis should be handled with a feminist vision’

CIVICUS speaks to Lina Abou Habib, a feminist activist based in Beirut, Lebanon, about the civil society response to the emergency caused by the explosion on 4 August 2020. Lina teaches Global Feminisms at the American University of Beirut, where she is affiliated with the Asfari Institute, and chairs the Collective for Research and Training on Development-Action, a regional feminist organisation working in the Middle East and North Africa. She also serves on the board of Gender at Work and as a strategic Middle East and North Africa advisor for the Global Fund for Women.

Lina Abou Habib

Would you tell us about the moment of the explosion?

The Beirut explosion happened on 4 August 2020, at around 18:10 Beirut time. I was at home and I had known for an hour that there was a huge fire at the Beirut port. When the fire started getting bigger the sky was blackened by fumes. I was looking out, and the first thing I felt was a very scary earthquake-like feeling, after which it took a split second for a huge explosion to happen. Glass shattered all around me. It took me a couple of minutes to understand what had just happened. The first thing everyone was call our family and close friends just to make sure that they were okay. Everybody was in a state of disbelief. The explosion was so powerful that each one of us felt like it had happened right next to us.

What was civil society’s immediate response?

It is important to note that alongside the civil society response there was also an individual response. Individuals took to the streets in an attempt to help others. Nobody trusted that the state would help in any way. The state was responsible for what had happened. People took the responsibility for helping each other, which meant addressing immediate problems such as clearing rubble from the streets and talking to people to find out what they needed, including shelter and food. About 300,000 people had become homeless and lost everything in a split second. There was an extraordinary reaction by ordinary people to help: people with brooms and shovels started clearing rubble and distributing food and water. Anger turned into solidarity.

This was an amazingly empowering moment that still continues. As we speak, there are volunteers and civil society organisations (CSOs) who are basically holding the fort and not only engaging in immediate relief but also providing all sorts of support to distressed populations.

However, these acts of solidarity and care have also been criticised. The main criticism has been that such acts are unhelpful because they relieve the state from fulfilling its obligations and performing its duties. I understand this critique, but I don’t agree with it. To me, the acts of solidarity performed by civil society and ordinary people were our main success stories: stories of power and resistance that we should talk about. We need to highlight the immediate response provided individually by people who themselves had been hurt or had lost a lot. Migrant worker communities, who live in dire conditions of exploitation, racism and abuse, went out there to clear the rubble and help others. I don’t think we should ignore the significance of these acts of solidarity.

Lebanon was already undergoing deep economic crisis, which was further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the explosion. Which groups were impacted upon the most?

The worst effects were felt by those who were already in the most vulnerable situations. A clear example of multiple forms of discrimination overlapping and reinforcing one another is the situation of female migrant workers in Lebanon. This is not new; this situation is decades old. First, migrant women work in the private sphere, which makes them even more invisible and vulnerable. Second, there are absolutely no rules that need to be followed to hire them, so they are basically at the mercy of their employers. They are kept in quasi-slavery conditions based on so-called ‘sponsorship contracts’. The air that they breathe is dependent on the will of their employers and they are completely bound to them. In sum, this is a population of women from poor countries of the global south who work as domestic workers and caregivers, positions that make them incredibly vulnerable to abuse. There are no laws that protect them and that has always been the case. Therefore, they are the ones left behind when there is a security issue or a political crisis.

Three consecutive events have affected their situation. The first is the revolution that started on 17 October 2019, an incredibly important moment that was the culmination of years of activism, including by women migrant workers, who were supported, nurtured and mentored by young Lebanese feminists. As a result, in the midst of the revolution there were migrant workers who revolted against the sponsorship system, which deprives them of their humanity and exposes them to working conditions that amount to slavery, and demanded dignified work and a dignified life.

And then there were the economic breakdown and the COVID-19 pandemic, both of which hit as the protests were still ongoing. As a result of the economic crunch, some people choose to not pay their migrant and domestic workers’ salaries, or even worst, simply disposed of them on the streets during the pandemic.

And then the Beirut port explosion happened, which again affected migrant workers in particular. It was a succession of crises that hit migrant workers first and foremost, and particularly women, because they were already in precarious conditions in which they were abused, their labour taken for granted and then thrown away on the streets, forgotten by their embassies and ignored by the Lebanese government. 

As an activist and a feminist, how do you view the government response to the explosion?

There hasn’t been any responsible government response. I would not even call what we have a government, but rather a regime. It is a corrupt dictatorship, an authoritarian regime that continues to pretend to be democratic and even progressive. The regime says it embodies reforms, but it never follows through. For instance, 10 days into the revolution, in October 2019, the president addressed the nation and promised an egalitarian civil family law, which feminist activists have been demanding for decades. This came as a surprise, but it turned out that it wasn’t serious, as nothing has been done about it. The authorities just say whatever they think people want to hear, and they seem to be convinced that the public is too ignorant to notice.

So we need to position the response to the explosion against the background of the recent uprising. The government’s response to the revolution has been to not acknowledge the problems that people were pointing at: that it had emptied the public coffers, that it continued to exercise nepotism and corruption and, worst of all, that it was dismantling public institutions. The only government response has been to close the space for civil society and attack the freedoms of association and expression and the right to protest. I’ve lived in this country for most of my life, including through the civil war, and I think there hasn’t been a crackdown on freedoms of the magnitude we are seeing right now under this regime. We have never witnessed people being summoned by the police or general security because of something they said or posted on social media. This is exactly what the regime is doing and continues to do. The president is acting as if there was a lèse-majesté law and is not accepting any criticism; people who criticise him are paying with their freedom. It is the first time we hear about activists being detained for this reason.

In short, the regime hasn’t done anything significant in response to the explosion. Sending the army to distribute food aid packets is in no way significant. They are even refusing to give food aid items to non-Lebanese people who were affected. This exposes the various layers of corruption, bigotry and mismanagement that are at interplay here.

Following the explosion, people took to the streets again to protest. Do you think protests have made an impact?

On the Saturday following the explosion there were people protesting on the streets. I was there and I was scared because of the deployment of violence by the security forces.

In the face of so many calamities, the only reason why people are not massively on the streets is because of the COVID-19 pandemic. This has been a gift for the regime. It has imposed curfews, broke up the tents set up by the revolutionaries at Martyrs’ Square and arrested and detained people, all under the guise of wanting to protect people from the virus. But of course, nobody is duped. The levels of contagion are increasing rather than decreasing. It doesn’t help that the regime is so corrupt that we basically don’t have any functioning health services.

The constraints created by the pandemic and the fears for one’s health are seriously limiting people’s actions against the regime, but I don’t think this is going to stop the revolution. People have had enough. People have lost everything. And when you push people’s backs to the wall, there is nowhere else to go but forward. The regime will continue to use brutal force, it will continue to lie and mismanage funds and resources, but this is becoming totally unacceptable to an increasingly larger proportion of the population.

I believe that street mobilisation has been successful on several levels. One can disagree and point out that the regime is still in power, and this may be true; it will take a long time for it to fall. But one immediate success of the protests is that they shattered a taboo. There was a kind of halo or sanctity around certain leaders who were believed to be untouchable. Now it's obvious that they don’t enjoy that protection any longer. Although the regime is not ready to concede, they are just buying themselves some time.

The way I see it, a major gain has been the leadership role played by feminist groups in shaping the country that we want, the rights and entitlements we are claiming and the form of government that we want. Alongside 40 feminist organisations we have released a charter of demands. We put our heads together and have stated what humanitarian reconstruction needs to look like from a feminist perspective and are using this as an advocacy tool for the international community. The way we are intervening indicates that this crisis should be handled with a feminist vision.

Additionally, for the first time the LGBTQI+ community has been part and parcel in shaping the reform process, the transition process and again shaping the country we want, regarding both the form of state and human relations. And the voice of the migrant community has been amplified as well. To me, these gains are irreversible.

What support does civil society in Beirut and Lebanon need from the international community?

There are a number of things that need to be done. First, we need tangible forms of solidarity in terms of communications to amplify our voice. Second, we need to lobby the international community on behalf of the Lebanese feminist movement so that the Lebanese regime is held accountable for every cent it receives. To give an example, we received about 1,700 kilograms of tea from Sri Lanka, and the tea has disappeared; it appears that the president distributed it among the presidential guards. We need influence and pressure from the international community to hold this regime accountable. Third, we need to bring these voices to the attention of international mainstream media.

I want to emphasise the point that international aid should not be without conditions, as the ruling regime lacks transparency and accountability. Of course it is not up to civil society to rebuild, or to reconstruct the infrastructure. But if any cent has to go to the regime, then it must be given with conditionalities of transparency, accountability and due diligence. Civil society must be empowered to play a watchdog role. This means that CSOs must have the voice and the tools for monitoring. Otherwise nothing is going to change. International aid will vanish; it will only help the regime prolong its rule while the city remains in ruins.

Civic space in Lebanon is rated as ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Collective for Research and Training on Development-Action through its webpage, and follow @LinaAH1 on Twitter.

 

KAZAKHSTAN: ‘The quarantine became a sort of cover for the government to persecute civil society’

CIVICUS speaks to Asya Tulesova, an environmental and civic rights defender from Kazakhstan. On 8 June 2020, Asya was arrested and detained after taking part in a peaceful rally in the city of Almaty. She was released on 12 August 2020, but with restrictions on her freedom. Asya was profiled in CIVICUS’s #StandAsMyWitness campaign, launched on Nelson Mandela Day, 18 July, to call for the release of human rights defenders who are imprisoned, persecuted, or harassed for standing up for freedom, rights and democracy and calling out corrupt governments and multinational companies.

Asya Tulesova

Would you tell us about your background and your environmental activism?

For the past few years, I have worked for a civil society organisation, the Common Sense Civic Foundation, that focuses on community development. We work on environmental and educational projects aimed at improving the quality of life of local communities. In 2015 we launched our air quality monitoring project in Almaty with the aim of giving give people access to free, up-to-date air quality information in the city. The project had a considerable effect on people's understanding of the importance of the issue.

As I realised that air quality is a political issue, I tried running for the local council. However, my candidature was withdrawn due to minor discrepancies in my tax income declaration. This same reasoning was used to take down hundreds of independent self-nominated candidates all over Kazakhstan. We sued the central election commission but were unable to persuade the court to restore my candidacy regardless of the fact that we had all the evidence to support my case. My case is now being considered by the United Nations Human Rights Committee.

We continued our environmental activism by publishing articles, doing research on air pollution, participating in public events and organising public talks on the issue. In April 2019 my companion, activist Beibarys Tolymbekov, and I were arrested for holding a banner at the annual Almaty marathon; our friends Aidos Nurbolatov, Aigul Nurbolatova and Suinbike Suleimenova were fined for filming us holding the banner. As a part of a young activist movement, we wanted to draw people’s attention to the unfairness of the upcoming presidential elections and the lack of independent candidates. Beibarys and I received 15 days of administrative arrest; while under arrest I went on a hunger strike to protest against the court’s decision, and at some point I was punched in the stomach by my cellmate for refusing to comply with her demands to end my hunger strike. Our detention resulted in a series of protests around the country and a rise of youth political engagement. We continue our work in the hope that our efforts will bring more independent candidates to the elections. 

Being an activist in Kazakhstan is associated with a certain degree of constant pressure from the government and so-called law enforcement authorities. Many activists and human rights defenders, as well as journalists, live under intense scrutiny and are under constant surveillance and intimidation by or on behalf of law enforcement agencies.

What happened during the protest in June 2020 that led to your arrest? 

During the protest on 6 June 2020 I witnessed police brutality towards peaceful protesters. This wasn’t the first time; every ‘unauthorised’ peaceful rally we have had so far has been accompanied by the excessive use of force by the police. But this time, I decided to stand in front of one of the police vans filled with people unlawfully detained by the police in an attempt to prevent the van from leaving. I was attacked by several officers, who dragged me away from the van and, after I attempted to return, pushed me down to the ground. In such emotional state, I then knocked off a police officer’s cap in protest against the unlawful police actions and detention of peaceful protesters. It’s hard to articulate what was going through my head at that moment. I was definitely in a state of shock.

This was captured on video, and I was charged with “publicly insulting a representative of the authorities” under Article 378, part 2 of the Criminal Code, and with “non-dangerous infliction of harm to a representative of the authorities” under Article 380, part 1.

What was it like to be imprisoned? Were you afraid of contracting COVID-19?

I was in prison for more than two months. The detention facility I was placed in was located on the northern edge of Almaty. I was brought in at night and first placed in a quarantine cell for newly arrived detainees, where I spent over 10 days getting acquainted with the internal rules of the facility. After that I was relocated to a different cell.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, visits from family members and friends were forbidden. I was only able to speak to my mother twice a week for 10 minutes through a video call and receive visits from my lawyers every other week. The conditions in the facility were much better than those in the temporary detention facility at the police department where I spent two days prior to that. The cell was relatively clean and had two bunk beds for four people, a washbasin and a toilet. We would take turns cleaning the cell. Two of my cellmates smoked, in the toilet. We were fed three times a day, mostly porridge and soup. We were taken for ‘strolls’ five times a week in a specially designed facility, a cell with no windows and no roof. Our strolls would usually last 15 to 20 minutes so I had to write a complaint to the facility authorities so they would comply with their own internal regulations and allow a full hour for our strolls. We took showers once a week, 15 minutes per person.

A few times a week I would receive care packages from family and friends. Their support was very helpful in keeping my spirits up. I received a radio from Marat Turymbetov, also an activist, whose friend, activist Alnur Ilyashev, had been detained in the same facility for his criticism of the ruling party, Nur Otan. We would spend a lot of time listening to the radio waiting for news, but most news was about COVID-19. We would also hear occasional rumours about COVID-19 cases in the facility but nothing certain, so I wasn’t particularly afraid of contracting the virus. My mother, however, was very concerned about it and would send medicine to me every now and then. The pandemic has been very tough on our country, taking the lives of many.

This time around I personally haven’t experienced any major violations while in detention, apart from the non-observance of some internal rules by staff. I know other detainees spent months in the facility with no visits from their investigator, lawyer, or family members. I was suspicious at first when in the temporary detention facility, I was placed in a cell with the same woman who was with me in the special detention facility for administrative detainees a year earlier.

I can’t say that I feel I have been detained for a long time, but it was long enough for me to grow appreciation and compassion for activists and other people who have spent months and years in prison. For instance, human rights defender Max Bokayev has been in prison for over four years for supporting a peaceful rally against an illegal land sale to Chinese companies. During the quarantine, many activists and politicians were subjected to searches and detention, so the quarantine became a sort of cover for the government to persecute civil society. Among the detained activists were Sanavar Zakirova, who has been persecuted for her attempts to register a political party, and activists Abay Begimbetov, Askar Ibraev, Serik Idyryshev, Askhat Jeksebaev, Kairat Klyshev and many others.

What is your reaction to the outcome of your case?

I do not agree with the sentence I received, which is why we are going to appeal. The court should take into account the degree of danger to society that the acts I committed pose, which hardly constitute a criminal offence. I am, however, sorry for the lack of self-control and rudeness I showed. I am a firm believer in non-violent protest and my case is a great opportunity for us and the government to condemn violence on both sides.

What sort of support do activists like yourself need from the international community?

I am very grateful that my case has received international attention and support. It was an honour to be represented in the CIVICUS #StandAsMyWitness campaign. I am also very grateful to my mother, my lawyers, my family, friends and supporters from Kazakhstan and around the world, who came up with a lot of creative ideas to raise public awareness and bring much-needed attention to my case and the issue of police brutality in Kazakhstan. I personally was very inspired by one of the initiatives launched by my good friends Kuat Abeshev, Aisha Jandosova, Irina Mednikova and Jeffrey Warren, Protest Körpe, a simple and visually beautiful way of showing one’s demand for justice and human rights in a very gentle, caring and loving way. It is easy to join. Most of Protest Körpe messages are universal and relevant to many countries. So let’s make our messages heard! I feel that we can learn new creative tactics from Protest Körpe and other initiatives and adapt them to our local context. Wouldn’t it be great if such campaigns and movements could establish a network to share and build on each other’s experience?

Civic space in Kazakhstan is rated as ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Asya through Facebook.

 

 

POLAND: ‘The crisis of democracy and human rights will deepen’

CIVICUS speaks with Małgorzata Szuleka about Poland’s recent presidential elections, held under the COVID-19 pandemic, and the ruling party’s use of anti-LGBTQI+ rhetoric to mobilise its electorate. Małgorzata is a lawyer at the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights (HFHR) Poland, one of the largest and oldest human rights organisations in Poland and the region. HFHR Poland represents victims of human rights abuses in court proceedings, conducts research and monitors human rights violations. Since 2015 it has actively monitored the increasing rule of law violations in Poland. It works with partners in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, the European Union (EU) and the USA.

Małgorzata Szuleka

After rescheduling, the Polish elections were held in June and July 2020. What was civil society’s position on having an election during the COVID-19 pandemic?

The elections were originally scheduled for May 2020 and organising them posed a huge legal problem because there was no legal mechanism to postpone them. The only way to reschedule them was to announce a state of emergency, as provided for by the constitution. No elections may be organised during a state of emergency or within the next 90 days of it ending. From a constitutional perspective, an official declaration that the country was experiencing an epidemic would give the government the prerogative to introduce the state of emergency. This would automatically extend the term of office of the president until after regular elections could be scheduled, once the epidemic was over. However, the government did not follow this process. The elections were rescheduled and the run-off vote between the two leading candidates was held on 12 July 2020 on very dubious legal grounds. However, this wasn’t questioned by neither the government majority, nor the opposition.

Civil society organisations (CSOs) first pushed the government to organise the elections in a proper way, urging it to announce a state of emergency. Once this didn’t happen, CSOs tried to raise the issue of international monitoring, mainly in terms of fairness and financing of the campaign. The problem was that the election was expected to be free but not fair. Public media was biased towards the candidate supported by the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, President Andrzej Duda, and extremely critical and unprofessional towards any opposition candidate. Even though no state of emergency had been declared, many fundamental rights such as the freedoms of assembly and access to information were limited. These were major concerns.

There was also the problem of the Supreme Court confirming the validity of the elections. On 12 July, President Duda was re-elected for a second term by a tight margin. He received 51 per cent of the vote while the opposition Civic Coalition contender received 49 per cent. Turnout was barely above 68 per cent, and more than 5,800 complaints were submitted regarding irregularities in the process. The Supreme Court ruled that 92 of those complaints were justified but had not influenced the final result, so it declared the results valid. Sadly, this decision completely ignored the problem of the constitutional and legal grounds for organising the elections in the first place.

Were measures adopted to protect people during the campaign and voting process? Did the pandemic have any impact on turnout?

The organisation of the campaign involved sanitary measures regarding social distancing and mask use. But these provisions were not fully respected on both sides. For campaigning purposes, the government loosened some restrictions; for example, even though face mask use was mandatory, pictures were published of the prime minister not wearing one in public. Also of concern was the fact that many public authorities engaged in political campaigning alongside President Duda. Public institutions were instrumentalised by ruling politicians. The government security centre, responsible for coordination and information in case of natural calamities or danger, sent out mass text messages on election day. Every voter received a message that said that people over 60 years old, pregnant women and people with disabilities could vote without waiting in line. This might have been used to mobilise the core electorate of the ruling party. This is just one example, but it could be an indication of the role played by official institutions to tilt the playing field in favour of the PiS party.

Was media coverage during the election fair?

Public media coverage was absolutely unfair. The rest of the coverage, mainly by private media, was relatively good; it definitely was not as bad as public media coverage, which was used for propaganda and enhanced President Duda’s campaign.

One of elections complaints brought to the Supreme Court specifically referred to media coverage. It stated that public television supported the incumbent while systematically discrediting his rival, and that public institutions and officials repeatedly violated correct conduct by supporting only one of the candidates. But the problem with the entire institution of election complaints is that you need to prove not only that the alleged irregularity happened, but also that it had an impact on the election results. In presidential elections such as this one, this is very difficult to prove. Additionally, the electoral code doesn’t regulate the work of the media, so it’s hard to make the legal claim that the media should operate differently. And if you do, it is also difficult to prove that particular coverage of a particular candidate, or the lack of coverage, resulted in a particular election result. We can intuitively assume this, particularly in view of such tight results, but it is very difficult to create a solid legal case.

What does President Duda’s re-election mean for democracy and human rights in Poland?

It is a continuation of a very worrying trend. Out of all possible campaign issues, President Duda chose to focus on stoking homophobia. The campaign took place in a context of a years-long backsliding of the rule of law, in the middle of a crisis of relations between Poland and the EU, during a huge healthcare challenge and on the verge of an economic crisis that will affect everyone in Poland. But none of these issues were the focus of the political campaign and public discussion. President Duda mainly spoke about LGBTQI+ people posing a threat to our Christian traditional heritage, equating homosexuality with paedophilia. The issue was narrowed down to this divisive, outrageous and dehumanising narrative by the PiS party. It was a very pragmatic move from PiS spin doctors because it mobilised the very core of the electorate. All of a sudden LGBTQI+ groups and communities became the scapegoat for everything that is wrong in Poland. It is outrageous how much this issue was politicised and how it was used to dehumanise this minority group. It was painful and heartbreaking to watch.

And the campaign was far from the end of it. President Duda is just a representative of the ruling PiS party, so he will say whatever he needs to keep them aligned. This is just a matter of calculation and internal power struggles. In June, the PiS party targeted LGBTQI+ people. In July, it targeted victims of domestic violence by starting discussion on withdrawing from the Istanbul Convention. In August, it proposed to register CSOs that are financed from abroad. Now I don’t know who is going to be their next enemy. It’s not only about being homophobic but rather about this governing majority always needing an enemy to confront or blame.

We just entered a phase in which there will be no elections for the next three years so we can expect a huge consolidation of power and the government doing everything that it dreams of, such as creating pressure on CSOs, further polarising the media, targeting specific minority groups and escalating the conflict with the EU. We can expect all of this to happen over the next three years. The only thing that can stop them is pragmatic evaluation about whether this is needed at this time or whether there might be something more important to do. But I think the crisis of democracy and human rights in Poland will deepen.

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

Get in touch with the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights-Poland through its website or Facebook page, and follow @hfhrpl and @m_szuleka on Twitter.

 

#UN75: ‘The COVID-19 pandemic showed that multilateral institutions are essential’

To mark the 75th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations (UN), CIVICUS is having conversations with civil society activists, advocates and practitioners about the roles the UN has played so far, the successes it has achieved and the challenges ahead. CIVICUS speaks to the UN advocacy lead of an international civil society organisation (CSO), who responded on condition of anonymity, about the opportunities and challenges faced by CSOs engaging with various UN bodies.

UN photo

In which ways do you think the UN has made a positive difference?

The UN has made many positive differences over its 75 years, and it’s making a difference now. From my perspective, a significant recent reaffirmation of the UN’s importance, which is a kind of inverse reflection of recent failures or shortcomings, is that the UN Secretary-General (UNSG) has quickly responded to the human security aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

One of my longstanding critiques of the UN has been its lack of public leadership at the top. It’s been the approach of the current UNSG, who’s chosen backdoor diplomacy over outspoken advocacy. I won’t deny he’s in a difficult situation, but nonetheless he hasn't been forthright enough in holding major states to account for human rights violations.

I think the pandemic changed things in a way we hadn’t seen in a long time. The UNSG finally did what he should have been doing as a general rule, which is to say that this is not about politics or having to tiptoe around the sensitivities of certain member states – this is about telling the world that the only way we will overcome this crisis is by coming together, and that this requires an immediate suspension of hostilities globally. That is aspirational and idealistic, but it’s also technically correct. 

Also the World Health Organization (WHO), despite obvious challenges, essentially showed what it’s there for and its relevance to the general public. Of course the UN Security Council (UNSC) let the UNSG down as a political body, but still the pandemic showed that UN agencies and multilateral institutions more generally are essential and that we need them, both in the context of a public health crisis and to organise a global response to any global crisis.

The obvious long-term success of the UN has been to build multilateralism and establish an international rules-based framework for human rights, sustainable development and the protection of civilians. The framework is there, and the challenge is its implementation. Not only are we currently not seeing implementation, but we are also seeing a steady erosion of these international norms and standards, which has taken place over the past few years. China and Russia are becoming more active in conflicts around the world, either directly or indirectly, and have become emboldened in eviscerating the UN or remoulding institutions to serve their visions, while those states that would traditionally protect and even champion these norms are either less willing or less empowered to do so. The UN made much progress over six or seven decades in building this framework, but now it’s under severe stress.

How have you engaged with the UN, and what challenges have you encountered?

Our work focuses on protecting civilians in armed conflicts, so our UN engagement is almost entirely in relation to the UNSC, and UN agencies with a focus on security and peacebuilding. We tend to engage with the Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and the General Assembly (UNGA), mostly when we identify that the UNSC is completely paralysed, which unfortunately is happening increasingly often. But in previous roles I have worked across a wide range of UN agencies, including the UNHRC, the UNGA and other agencies that work on climate change and education, so I’m aware of the comparative opportunities available for civil society engagement.

The means of civil society engagement with the UNSC are much more informal than those with the UNHRC. And I think there are quite a few advantages to not having formal processes for civil society engagement, because the absence of a formal process can result in more effective engagement. At the UNHRC, there is an agenda item and 500 CSOs queue up to give a two-minute statement, which no policy-maker listens to, and you end up with this process of artificial participation that is not very productive. With the UNSC, many CSOs don’t see where the opportunities lie; they think it’s not for them. This means there are fewer CSOs looking for an entry point, so it’s a less crowded field.

Working at the UNSC requires you to build direct relationships with the states that are on the UNSC. You don’t maintain a high public profile. You build relations with the missions, and through that process you often end up having more direct and meaningful influence. So the absence of a formal process can often result in more effective CSO engagement. True, it may also be more difficult, although it varies depending on the composition of the UNSC when it comes to the elected members. Some of them don’t have a long history of engagement with civil society, are not very interested in listening, or have very little capacity. But there’s always some states that prioritise civil society engagement and recognise that the only way the UNSC has legitimacy is by reflecting the experiences and perspectives of those directly affected. I would emphasise that one of the successes of the UNSC in the past 20 years has been to open up space for civil society briefers, particularly on women, peace and security issues. Fewer speakers means they tend to have more weight: you get the 15 UNSC members to listen to this one person whose time is unlimited and who is very focused on the protection of civilians or other issues. In terms of public participation, that is a sign of progress.

Of course, there’s also the fact that we have to engage with the five permanent UNSC members whether we like it or not, because they are there to stay and they have the veto. And in that respect the situation is currently very bad. From our perspective, the current US administration is not on the right side of things and is not consistently championing accountability for war crimes. France and the UK are inconsistent across countries, and China and Russia are at least consistent in their positions, but for all the wrong reasons. China is opening up to international engagement with civil society, which I think is part of a wider strategy. Five or six years ago, China wouldn’t think it needed to engage with civil society and appeared not to recognise the legitimacy of international human rights CSOs, but now its ambassadors have started agreeing to meet with civil society groups collectively. It may be a public relations exercise, or China may have gained enough confidence to confront international CSOs directly. It’s a clear shift in its foreign policy. Russia, to its credit, has long done the same, and sees value in engagement to some extent, although the dynamic can be a difficult, adversarial one.

How have you managed these challenges?

Collective advocacy often works best with the UNSC. When civil society can form quick coalitions of humanitarian organisations, human rights organisations, local partners, faith leaders and youth representatives and present a few key asks that are consistent across these groups, it builds credibility with UNSC members and increases the chances that it will act promptly. There are about 30 CSOs that work consistently on the UNSC. They have different priorities and a variety of messages, so they certainly engage individually as well. But the message is more powerful when it’s expressed collectively. For instance, if something goes wrong in Yemen and the UK is the penholder it is way more powerful when 12 organisations engage the UK on the same points collectively than the 12 organisations complaining individually. 

What things are currently not working and would need to change?

The one thing that needs to be reformed fundamentally, which is the very core of the UN and has been a problem since day one, is the veto. The UNSC is clearly not fit for purpose in this regard; its composition and balance of power doesn’t reflect the world we now live in. There is no reason why France or the UK should have a veto – or any state for that matter. The inherent problem of the UN is that it was built as part of an agreement amongst the winning powers after the Second World War that they would hold the reins of power, and there is no way to dismantle that without their collective agreement. That is not going to happen with China, Russia, the USA or even the UK. France, to its credit, is at least openly supportive of voluntary processes to check misuse of the veto.

I don’t want to sound too pessimistic, and I wouldn’t if I were speaking about other things, such as progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals. But the UNSC is power politics in its purest form and no amount of citizen participation will change it. The only way to circumvent the veto would be to dismantle the UN and start from scratch – unless somehow we found ourselves in a parallel world in which these five countries were led by enlightened leaders who at the same time realised they should give up that power for the sake of humanity. But that couldn’t be farther from our current reality, when the veto power is actually being misused, by China, Russia and the USA, as a weapon to discredit the UN.

Apart from this unsurmountable problem, other things have been changing for good. For instance, we are now seeing climate change and security on the UNSC agenda. While China, Russia and the USA seek to block use of the very words ‘climate change’, Germany, Niger and a number of other states went on to create an informal working group on climate change, although to place the issue on the UNSC agenda, they agreed to call it ‘environmental degradation’ instead. This obviously should have happened decades ago, but at least it’s happening now and it’s progress.

What lessons for international cooperation can be drawn from the COVID-19 pandemic? What should change so we will be better prepared when the next crisis strikes?

During the pandemic, civil society supported and coordinated engagement towards an unprecedented call for a global ceasefire. The initial statement by the UNSG was highly ambitious to the point of being unrealistic, but he was absolutely right both in terms of what should happen in the world and in taking that leadership and not consulting first with Donald Trump, Xi Jinping, or anybody else. It was courageous and correct. It momentarily reinvigorated the role of the UNSG and the UN as a whole.

While the UN institutional response from the top down was good, the UNSC was an absolute failure. China and the USA and engaged in hostile and juvenile behaviour at a time when the world’s future rested on the UN being effective.

On the other hand, the UNGA responded reasonably well, taking the initiative despite not being able to meet physically. In early April it passed a resolution calling for international cooperation and multilateralism in the fight against COVID-19. Mexico was also very strategic in pushing a resolution on international cooperation to ensure global access to medicines, vaccines and medical equipment to face COVID-19, adopted by consensus in late April. In view of the challenges that the UNGA experienced, however, I think one procedural lesson learned was the need for the UN be better prepared to work virtually in the event of another crisis.

An assessment of the performance of other multilateral institutions like the WHO lies outside my area of expertise, but we all read about the allegations that it wasn’t sufficiently aggressive with China early on. This is currently under independent review, which suggests as least that basic checks and balances are in place.

 

COVID-19: ‘We need a new social contract founded on rights and the principle of shared prosperity’

Owen Tudor

CIVICUS speaks about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and emergency measures on labour rights, and the civil society response, with Owen Tudor, Deputy General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). Recognised as the global voice of the world’s working people, the ITUC works to promote and defend workers’ rights and interests through international cooperation among trade unions, global campaigning and advocacy within major global institutions. The ITUC adheres to the principles of trade union democracy and independence and encompasses three regional organisations in Africa, the Americas and Asia and the Pacific, while also cooperating with the European Trade Union Confederation.

What have been the major impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on labour rights?

The ITUC surveyed its national trade union affiliates regularly in the first few months of the pandemic, and we quickly identified that, while many countries were seeing positive engagement between governments and unions, others weren’t. In many countries, like those in Scandinavia and the rest of Europe, and often building on existing forms of social dialogue, governments, employers and unions worked together to develop measures to tackle the pandemic and its effects on workplaces. That also happened in some countries where such cooperation has been less common, such as Argentina, Georgia, Nigeria and the UK. At a global level, the International Labour Organization (ILO) stressed the importance of social dialogue as one of its four pillars for action on the pandemic, alongside stimulating the economy and employment, supporting enterprises, jobs and incomes, and protecting workers in the workplace.

But in some countries, rogue employers and neoliberal governments thought they could use the pandemic to restrict workers’ and unions’ rights, such as limits on working time, or security of employment. In countries such as Croatia and Lithuania, we campaigned in support of our affiliates to push back against those changes, but we weren’t successful everywhere. In India, for example, state governments implemented a widespread deregulation of employment protections.

Has this led to any changes in union organising?

In far too many countries, jobs have been lost and unemployment has soared. That has an inevitable impact on union organising. But in several countries, including those that have seen membership reductions in the recent past and those where membership is already strong, the key role played by unions in defending employment and wages and campaigning for decent health and safety at work has led to membership gains. Bluntly, working people have seen more clearly the importance of union membership to protect them against management inadequacies and violations of their most fundamental rights.

In some cases, the pandemic has accelerated the experience of virtual organising – over Zoom or other internet platforms. And that technology has in some cases led union organisers to change their point of view, from explaining the benefits of membership to listening to what potential members want. Again, this just accelerated a trend, from offering people a model that solves their problems to letting workers define what works for them. As one Australian union leader put it, “finally we started contacting our members the way they wanted to be contacted.”

How have unions worked to defend rights and help their members and communities during the pandemic?

The daily work of unions intensified with the pandemic. Unions represented workers threatened with being laid off, pushed for adequate severance pay, sought expanded access to social protection and raised the concerns of women workers who faced even greater discrimination and of migrant workers denied equal access and equal treatment. In many cases unions won breakthroughs previously not thought possible, and we now need to defend those gains for the long term.

Unions have been actively involved with international institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Health Organisation (WHO), with national governments on every continent and with employers from the workplace to the multinational boardroom to ensure that workers and their jobs are protected. From negotiating national short-term working schemes in Germany, to ensuring contracts are honoured in the global garment industry, and arranging sectoral policies for the safe return to the workplace in Belgium, unions have been busting a gut to ensure workers’ interests were recognised. Sadly, whenever we hear about community transmission of COVID-19, it’s often a workplace that people are talking about, such as in hospitality, healthcare or meat processing plants. Unions have been emphasising the need for occupational health to be as important as public health, including the provision of personal protective equipment as well as access to paid sick leave.

Unions have also been negotiating fiercely with employers to stop redundancies, which have taken place, disgracefully, even in companies that were bailed out with taxpayers’ money. In some countries, employers have been prevented by law from laying workers off. We have negotiated arrangements for homeworking, which is becoming more common than ever, even after the pandemic has subsided. A new teleworking law in Argentina was negotiated with unions, providing innovations like workers deciding if they want to revert to working in their workplaces.

What has the pandemic told us about underlying economic and labour problems and the changes that need to happen?

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, massive inequality – including income disparities, racial injustice and gender discrimination – was already driving an age of anger, characterised by civil unrest and distrust in democracy. Along with the destruction resulting from extreme weather events due to climate change, the risks to economies and societies were already clear. Added to that, we face the choices associated with the best and worst impacts of technology, devoid of a rights base.

The pandemic has highlighted the cracks that were already present in the social contract. Inadequate healthcare provision made the early weeks of the pandemic particularly worrying, with fears that hospitals would be overrun. Similar funding gaps in care for older people and appalling employment arrangements required workers to shuttle between residential facilities, unable to take sick leave when they showed symptoms. Insecure employment and inadequate social protection forced many to keep working while infectious to put food on their families’ plates. The failure to provide adequate personal protective equipment was just the most visible sign of occupational health and safety shortcomings.

For the economy as a whole, the ILO’s dire predictions for hundreds of millions of job losses among the formal labour force were dwarfed by the number of informal sector workers whose livelihoods were wrecked. In each of these areas of systemic failure, it was women whose jobs were most vulnerable and whose health was least protected, with lockdowns forcing many into additional unpaid childcare and some into the trap of violence and abuse.

We need to build back better, including a new social contract for recovery and resilience that provides job protection and a universal labour guarantee whether you’re a full-time employee at Amazon or a precarious Uber driver. Occupational safety and health must become a fundamental right at work, like freedom from slavery or the right to strike. We need adequately funded, quality public healthcare, education and water, as part of universal social protection. And we need to regulate economic power, with the freedom of association and the right to bargain collectively, minimum living wages and mandated due diligence in supply chains for human rights and environmental standards.

Unions and the millions of members we represent can help deliver all these through collective bargaining with employers, social dialogue with governments and engagement in international and multilateral institutions.

What do governments and businesses need to do to work better with unions, and what role can the international community play?

Governments and businesses need to recognise the vital role that unions play in representing working people – not just at elections, or when pay deals are negotiated, but all year round, and in every corner of the economy. They need to respect the fundamental rights and freedoms that unions need to operate, including the freedom of association, the right to bargain collectively and the right to strike. When they make decisions that affect millions – if not hundreds of millions – of people, they need to abide by the slogan of ‘nothing about us, without us’ – and that means working positively with unions.

At the same time, we face a crisis of multilateralism, often driven by nationalist, populist politicians but in part the result of the collapse in public trust for globalisation driven by the rapacious profit-seeking behaviour of global multinational corporations and powerful technology companies.

The world is facing a convergence of crises, yet global institutions established to underpin and reinforce rights, equality, inclusive growth and global stability are at their most fractured. They need to be reinforced and refocused on responding to the needs of people and the planet.

The WHO has proved itself a necessity in the global response to COVID-19, but even so, science must be the basis of managing health risks and ensuring universal access to treatment, without political compromise.

The World Trade Organisation presides over a global model of trade that has failed both people and their environment. And Bretton Woods institutions have strayed far from their mandates by promoting neoliberal structural reform and austerity, the interests of dominant countries and corporate greed. This must change.

The ILO, with its unique tripartite system, is as necessary today as it was when it gave birth to the social contract based on a mandate of social justice. Its constituents need to be as committed to ensuring a global floor of rights and shared prosperity as its founders were 100 years ago in 1919, and as was reaffirmed in the Declaration of Philadelphia in 1944.

Working with our allies in broader civil society, unions want to construct a new social contract founded on those principles. If we can do that, we can create a better economy, a better society and a better world.

Get in touch with the International Trade Union Confederation through its website or Facebook page, and follow @ituc and @Owen4ituc on Twitter.

 

SERBIA: ‘The political crisis will deepen as a large number of people lack representation’

CIVICUS speaks with Ivana Teofilović about the causes of recent protests and the government’s reaction to them, as well as about the elections held in Serbia under the COVID-19 pandemic. Ivana is public policy programme coordinator at Civic Initiatives, a Serbian citizens’ association aimed at strengthening civil society through civic education, the promotion of democractic values and practices and the creation of opportunities for people’s participation.

Ivana Teofilovic

Why did protests erupt in Serbia during the COVID-19 pandemic, and how did the government react?

The immediate reason for the mass and spontaneous gathering of citizens in July 2020 was the announcement of the introduction of a new curfew, that is, another 72-hour ban on movement. After the president’s press conference ended, dissatisfied people began to gather in front of the National Assembly in the capital, Belgrade. Although the immediate reason was dissatisfaction with the management of the COVID-19 crisis, people also wanted to express their unhappiness about numerous other government measures and their impacts, and particularly with the conditions in which the recent parliamentary elections were held.

In response, the security forces used unjustified force in dozens of cases and exceeded the powers entrusted to them by law. Their violent response to spontaneous peaceful assemblies was a gross violation of the right to the freedom of peaceful assembly and an unwarranted threat to the physical integrity of a large number of protesters. The protests were marked by the use of a huge amount of teargas, which was indiscriminately thrown into the masses of peaceful demonstrators. As a result, many protesters had health issues for days afterwards. Apart from the fact that unjustifiably large quantities of teargas were used, the public's attention was captured by the fact that the teargas fired was past its expiry date.

The media and citizens also reported and documented many cases of police brutality, including that of three young men who were sitting quietly on a bench and were repeatedly beaten by a gendarmerie officer with a baton. In another incident, a young man was knocked to the ground and hit with batons by 19 officers, even though two members of the Ombudsman’s Office were on duty near the scene, precisely to control the conduct of the police. Additional disturbances and acts of violence were perpetrated by a large number of individuals in civilian clothes. At the time it could not be determined whether they were police in civilian clothes, or members of parapolice forces or criminal groups, but many clues point to them being members of hooligan groups connected with the authorities and working on their orders.

Media representatives also played a very important role in the protests. In this context, many media workers behaved professionally and reported objectively on the protests, often becoming victims of police brutality or attacks by members of hooligan groups infiltrated among protesters to incite rioting. According to the Association of Journalists of Serbia (NUNS), as many as 28 journalists were attacked while covering protests, and 14 suffered bodily injuries, which in six cases required urgent medical attention. According to a statement issued by NUNS, the most seriously injured was Zikica Stevanovic, a reporter of the Beta news agency.

However, media outlets that are close to the government either ignored or distorted the real picture of the protests by disseminating lies about who organised, funded and participated in them and by ignoring or denying cases of obvious police brutality. Journalists, analysts and civil society activists who publicly supported the protests and spoke critically about the government and the president were often the target of tabloid campaigns, and were smeared by the holders of high political office in an attempt to discredit their work.

Bureaucratic measures were also used against them, for example through their inclusion on a list compiled by the Ministry of Finance’s Directorate for Prevention of Money Laundering, which required banks to look into all the financial transactions they made over the past year. The associations and individuals who were targeted published a joint statement with over 270 signatures to call on the authorities to urgently make public the reasons for any suspicion that these organisations and individuals were involved in money laundering or terrorist financing. They also made clear that these pressures would not deter them from fighting for a democratic and free Serbia.

Violent police reaction, indiscriminate brutality, non-objective reporting and government retaliation further motivated people to protest. As a result, people took to the streets in even greater numbers in the following days. Protests also began to take place in several other Serbian cities besides Belgrade, including Kragujevac, Nis, Novi Sad and Smederevo.

Has civil society experienced additional challenges to continue doing its work under the pandemic?

Under the state of emergency imposed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but also after the state of emergency was lifted, civil society organisations (CSOs) faced numerous difficulties that greatly hindered their work. During the first weeks of the state of emergency, some CSOs that provide services to vulnerable people were unable to perform their activities due to the ban on movement, a difficulty that was only gradually and partly overcome over time as special permits were issued to certain categories of people.

Another challenge was posed by the Regulation on Fiscal Benefits and Direct Benefits, adopted in response to the economic impacts of the pandemic. This regulation did not extend exemption from value-added tax (VAT) to food, consumer goods and services donated to the non-profit and humanitarian sector to support socially vulnerable groups. For this reason, a group of CSOs sent the Ministry of Finance a proposal to extend the VAT exemption.

The biggest challenge for CSOs was financial sustainability, which was especially endangered by the suspension of the competition for co-financing projects of public importance, both at the national and local levels. In addition, while the provisions of the Regulation on Fiscal Benefits and Direct Benefits were insufficiently clear when it came to CSOs, they unequivocally excluded informal citizens’ initiatives, and thus jeopardised their survival.

In addition, the right to the freedom of expression was especially endangered during the pandemic. Challenges included restrictions faced by the press to attend and ask questions at Crisis Staff press conferences, the disregard of media representatives by officials in government bodies and institutions, and the persecution of media outlets that pointed to negative consequences during the pandemic. These restrictions opened up opportunities for the dissemination of unverified information. The lack of timely and factual information led to the further spread of panic and it became clear that in addition to the pandemic, Serbia also faced an ‘infodemic’.

What are the views of civil society about the government response to the pandemic, including the conditions under whichthe recent elections were held?

Despite the very unfavourable position they found themselves in, CSOs played a significant role during the COVID-19 crisis. CSOs had a significant role to play in correcting government failings, as they put forward numerous quality proposals for overcoming the crisis. In many situations it was CSOs, due to better training, that took over the roles of certain civil services. The general impression is that the state was not ready for the crisis, and therefore did not have enough capacity to provide a better response. 

Due to its closed nature, the government used the need of urgency and efficiency as a pretext to bypass dialogue. In adopting some measures, there were frequent violations of laws and the constitution, and of people’s rights, particularly the right of journalists to do their work. Economic measures were not adopted in a timely and effective manner, which endangered many CSOs and their activists, ultimately having their greatest impact on people as users of CSO services.

Regarding the parliamentary elections, which were held on 21 June after being postponed from their original date of 26 April, there is still an unanswered question regarding the government’s responsibility for conducting an election process under the pandemic. There is suspicion that the decision to hold the election was politically motivated and irresponsible. This was reinforced by the fact that in the weeks following the election, the number of COVID-19 infections and deaths drastically increased. It seems that the efforts made by some CSOs to create conditions for free and democratic elections have not yielded the desired results.

What were the main issues that got in the way of a free and fair election?

Beyond the pandemic, the major concern about the elections was that they were dominated by the ruling party, including through pressure on critical journalists and media outlets and control of mainstream media, which lack a diversity of opinions and balanced coverage and are used for campaign purposes.

Media coverage during the election campaign was slightly more balanced than in previous elections, because the government wanted to prove that complaints from the public and the political opposition regarding poor election conditions and the captivity of the media were baseless. In principle, candidates were treated equally by public media, although public officials campaigning on a daily basis also received a lot of additional coverage. On top of this, members of the opposition who had decided to boycott the elections and therefore did not present candidates did not have room to present their arguments on national television.

The unequal treatment of candidates was especially visible in national commercial television channels, which provided logistical support to the ruling party and its coalition partners. This problem was exacerbated by the passive stance adopted by the Electronic Media Regulatory Body (REM), which played an almost imperceptible role during the election campaign. In May 2020, REM changed its methodology of monitoring the media representation of political actors, counting every mention of a political option as proof of media representation. This led to the conclusion that the opposition Alliance for Serbia was the most represented party. But in reality, the Alliance for Serbia, which boycotted the elections, did not receive any media coverage on national television; rather it was the most frequent target of attacks by the ruling party and its allied media. In this area, another problem is the uneven normative framework: REM’s regulations relating to public media services are legally binding, but those relating to commercial broadcasters are drafted in the form of recommendations and have no binding effect, and there are no effective safeguards against violations.

What are the implications of the election results for human rights and democracy in Serbia?

The ruling Serbian Progressive Party, truly a right-wing party, won over 60 per cent of the vote, claiming approximately 190 seats in the 250-seat parliament. Their coalition partner, the Socialist Party of Serbia, came second with about 10 per cent of the vote, adding approximately 30 seats to the coalition. As a result, the National Assembly was left without opposition representatives, opening additional space for unlimited and legally unhindered exercise of power by the ruling party. The past four years are proof that the mere presence of the opposition in parliament is not a sufficient barrier to arbitrariness, as the government has perfected mechanisms to make parliamentary procedures meaningless and restrict the freedom of speech of opposition representatives. But some opposition legislators, through their initiatives, public appearances and proposals, managed to draw attention to numerous scandals and violations of the law by state officials.

The protests that came after the elections seem to point towards further political polarisation and a deepening of the political crisis, as a large number of people lack representation and feel deprived of the right to elect their representatives without fear through free and democratic elections. The latest attempts to deal with civil society, journalists and prominent critical individuals by promoting investigations of money laundering or terrorist financing speak about deepening polarisation. The development of human rights requires coordination and cooperation of CSOs and state bodies as well as social consensus and political will, so this is certainly not contributing to an improvement of the human rights situation in Serbia. On the contrary, it is leading to an increasingly serious crisis, the aggravation of inequalities and injustices and more frequent protests.

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

 

CHILE: ‘This historic constituent moment was achieved by citizens’

CIVICUS speaks with Marcela Guillibrand De la Jara, Executive Director of the Chilean Volunteer Network (Red de Voluntarios de Chile) and General Coordinator of Now It’s Our Time to Participate (Ahora Nos Toca Participar). The Volunteer Network is a national platform that brings together Chilean civil society organisations (CSOs) that promote voluntary action. Now It's Our Time to Participate is an initiative of social organisations gathered in the New Social Pact (NPS-Chile) that seeks to contribute to strengthening democracy and social cohesion by promoting citizen participation in the plebiscite on a new constitution scheduled for October 2020 and in the constituent process that the plebiscite is expected to trigger. The campaign focuses on citizen training, the creation of spaces for dialogue and the generation of proposals to feed into the constituent process.

Marcela Guillibrand

In late 2019, a referendum was called in order to trigger a constituent process. To what extent was this the victory of a mobilised society?

In October 2019, Chile reactivated its political and social life, collectively and throughout its territory. Citizens took to the streets to meet, to speak and take part in politics, as they had not done for a long time. This is how specific and unconventional participatory experiences emerged, locally rooted and with a local identity, mixed with expressions of discontent and frustration towards the structural inequality that had developed and manifested in our country for a long time.

All this was initially motivated by young people’s dissatisfaction with an increase of 30 pesos (approx. US$0.33) on the price of the ticket used in the Chilean capital’s transportation system, the Metro. In reaction to the increase, demonstrations took place, initially in the form of fare evasion but eventually embracing slogans such as ‘It's not 30 pesos, it's 30 years’, a reference to the time that we have been living in a democracy – since our democratic transition took place in 1990 – and the feeling, shared by a large part of the population, that we have not been included in the decision-making process. This was fuelled by high levels of mistrust in institutions, great political disaffection and the reaction against a model that pushed our country towards more individualistic views and forms of participation in all areas.

Faced with a level of mobilisation that did not relent, on 15 November 2019 political parties across the spectrum signed the ‘Agreement for Social Peace and a New Constitution’. As a result, citizens were given the opportunity to decide if they want a new constitution through a plebiscite that will be held on 25 October 2020. In the plebiscite, citizens must also select the mechanism that would be used to draft a new constitution: a constitutional convention, a body fully elected for the purpose of drafting the constitution; or a mixed constitutional convention, which would include both current Congress members, who would make up 50 per cent of the body, and representatives elected exclusively for this task, who would make up the other 50 per cent. A large part of society views this process as opening up a unique opportunity for us to choose freely the Chile we want. Although technically what gave rise to this opportunity was an agreement between various political groupings, this historic constituent moment was achieved by citizens.

Within this process, civil society has also made historic progress on gender issues. Various social organisations that have long worked very hard to promote and defend women’s rights pushed the demand for gender parity in the constituent process, and managed to impose it thanks to the echo they found among various political groups represented in Congress. If the option in favour of drafting a new constitution wins in the plebiscite, the gender parity rule will apply in the election of constitutional delegates. The rule, however, will only be fully operational if the constitutional convention alternative prevails, since in that case all members of the constituent body would be elected in a single election. If the mixed constitutional convention alternative is chosen, the parity rule would apply to the half of the body that will be elected, but not to the half that will be made up of legislators who already occupy congressional seats.

What stance has Chilean civil society taken regarding the prospect of a constitutional reform process?

As the plebiscite date approaches, interest on the subject has increased. We have had localised quarantines for more than five months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the organisations with which we interact have had their attention focused mainly on the survival of their programmes and supporting their target populations, since economically the pandemic has hit them very hard. Even so, little by little they have shown growing interest in constitutional issues. For our part, we have stayed connected with them and we have worked together to offer them a platform that contains citizenship training materials that they can use and to coordinate various spaces to conduct training through digital platforms and other mechanisms suited to reach a variety of territories, such as radio and text messaging.

It is in this context that we launched Now It’s Our Time to Participate, an initiative of the New Social Pact (Nuevo Pacto Social) network, which brings together just over 700 CSOs. The initiative seeks to guarantee the training of citizens and citizen participation in the context of the constituent process that will likely take place. Our focus is on activating citizens, providing them with training tools and jointly generating spaces for participation and dialogue to regain prominence in decision-making in our country. For this, in the run-up to the plebiscite, we have organised a range of key content in several sections – citizen participation, constitution and constituent process – that we have made available to citizens and CSOs through our web platform, www.ahoranostocaparticipar.cl, as well as on social media and through other means. On the basis of this content we have developed a range of training options that include accessible materials in various languages, such as Aymara, Mapudungun and Rapa Nui, as well as in Creole. The idea is that all the people who wish to can find answers in these materials about the constitution and the likely constituent process, in order to be able to take part in the plebiscite in a free and informed manner and thus contribute to achieving the most massive vote in Chilean history.

The plebiscite had originally been planned for April before being postponed to October due to the pandemic. Have there been any conflicts or disagreements regarding the postponement and the new date?

The health scenario created by the pandemic forced the relevant institutions to move the date of the plebiscite to October. The section of civil society with which we interact understood that this change was necessary based on a higher common good, people’s health. At the moment we take for granted that the plebiscite will take place in October, since the institutions that could make the decision to change the date have not yet done so, so we continue to work based on that date. Currently, issues related to the implementation of the plebiscite are being discussed. They focus firstly on health safeguards, but also on how to promote citizen participation in this process, which will undoubtedly have very different characteristics from what we are used to. Intersectoral working groups have been set up to work on the issue. First, the Senate set up a forum to receive recommendations and analyse the comparative experiences of other countries that have been in the same situation. Then the Electoral Service kept the forum to continue working along the lines of guaranteeing a safe and participatory plebiscite. Various CSOs have been invited to participate, including Now It's Our Time to Participate. Jointly with these organisations, we have produced a document with recommendations that range from health issues to campaign regulations, and also includes issues such as access to information and citizen capacity development, which is what we work on. This space continues in operation.

Are measures being taken so that people’s participation in the campaign and vote is not undermined by the effects of the pandemic?

The current pandemic scenario is naturally forcing us to adopt safeguards. The electoral advertising phase kicked off on 26 August, so now it is possible to disseminate campaign materials in public places that are expressly authorised by the Electoral Service, as well as on the media. Debate is taking place with great force on social media, which given the need to take precautions, avoid crowds and physical contact and respect sanitary restrictions decreed by the authorities, is currently the main space to gain visibility.

What to do to guarantee everyone’s right to participate on the day of the plebiscite is something that has been under discussion. As a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic, some places in our country remain under confinement, multiple sectors are quarantined due to the presence of active cases, and there are municipalities that had initiated a deconfinement plan but then had to back off due to new outbreaks of the virus.

How do we guarantee the right to participation of those people who are infected with COVID-19? What alternatives do we have? These are the kind of questions that are being debated by both the public and the relevant authorities who are in a position to respond to these demands.

Along these lines, alongside various CSOs we are promoting a series of recommendations that address not only the sanitary aspect – so that COVID-19 patients can vote – but also issues such as ensuring access to timely information and citizen capacity development to all those people who have historically been excluded from participation for multiple reasons, including due to not having adequate information channels to receive content, or content not being available in a variety of languages. In this sense, it is important that every effort be made to guarantee the right to participation, not only to those who at this particular time might not be in a position to exercise it for health reasons, but also to those who have historically found themselves in a more vulnerable situation, such as older adults, Indigenous peoples, rural populations, women, LGBTQI+ people and migrants.

Civic space in Chile is rated as ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Now It’s Our Time to Participate through its website, Instagram or its Facebook page, and follow @ahrnostoca and @marbrandd on Twitter.

 

 

NIGERIA: ‘The global anti-racist protests renewed the call for police accountability’

CIVICUS speaks to Nelson Olanipekun, a human rights lawyer and the founder and team lead of Citizens’ Gavel, a Nigerian civic tech organisation that works to increase the pace of the delivery of justice by promoting access to justice, citizens’ engagement and the use of digital technologies. Citizens’ Gavel was founded in 2017 in reaction to the lack transparency and accountability in the justice sector.

Nelson Olanipekun1

What kind of work does Citizens’ Gavel do?

Citizens’ Gavel is a civil society organisation (CSO) based in Nigeria. It was established three years ago to tackle the slow pace of the delivery of justice, promote accountability, and provide legal support. Our main goal is to increase the effectiveness of the delivery of justice through tech, advocacy, and strategic lobbying, and to reduce human rights violations through policy and legal advocacy. At the moment we are working jointly with other CSOs on legal reform. In doing so, we are trying to become a major player in policy-making processes that affect the fundamental rights of Nigerians.

We work with cases involving issues that range from mass incarceration to the lack of digitised processes in the justice sector. The justice delivery process in Nigeria is one of the slowest in Africa and it results in a high percentage of people incarcerated while awaiting trial. About 70 percent of the people who are in prison are awaiting trial; only 30 percent have been convicted. In 2017 we filed a class action suit for more than 500 people who were awaiting trial in prison in Oyo State. These people had already spent several years in prison, although the law establishes that people can be held for a maximum of 28 days before being taken to court. We also digitised cause lists in over 30 courts across Nigeria, and focused on improving cooperation among stakeholders in the justice sector.

We provide pro bono legal representation for pre-trial detainees who can’t afford a lawyer. We have developed programmes and apps for human rights abuse victims and their families to reach out for legal help easily. One of them is Podus, a tech platform that enables victims of pre-trial detention to connect with the pro bono lawyer nearest to their location. This platform was created specifically for young people, who don’t have easy access to lawyers or justice programmes. We have over 160 lawyers across 24 states in Nigeria and a rapid response legal team of seven lawyers. So far we have resolved 1,500 cases. Another tech-for-justice app we developed is Justice Clock, a tech platform that helps calculate the amount of time inmates spend in detention and the number of days suspects spend on trial vis-a-vis the appropriate provisions of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act and other laws. The platform also offers a space where actors in the justice sector – the judiciary, the police, prosecutors and prison officials – can stand at par with international best practices, and in doing so can make their work easier. We have worked hand in hand with Ogun State to successfully deploy the Justice Clock so that the justice sector, specifically the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Commissioner for Justice of Ogun State, ensures that it respects the constitutional time limits for which inmates awaiting trial can be imprisoned.

We track cases that involve sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), take cases of police brutality, monitor anti-corruption campaigns and anti-corruption cases to provide relevant information to the public, and advocate for people living in extreme poverty and connect them through tech. Our concern about this population originally arose from the growing number of poor people who are imprisoned while awaiting trial. If they don’t receive any help, poor defendants spend a long time in jail for minor offences, just because they cannot afford to either pay bail or bribe the police. They are also vulnerable and can be coerced into confessing to crimes they did not commit and end up spending even longer periods in prison.

Citizens’ Gavel also works on police brutality. What is the situation in Nigeria, and how did the global protests triggered by the death of George Floyd in the USA resonate locally?

Police brutality is a big issue in Nigeria and we have worked on it for some time. In April 2019, for instance, we challenged the Nigerian Police Force to conduct mental health assessments on officers who had committed abuses or killings, or otherwise face legal action.

The global protests triggered by the death of George Floyd renewed the call for police accountability in Nigeria and people started sharing stories of their encounters with police officers. Coupled with pre-existing local issues, the US incident that resonated globally enhanced the local voices who were speaking up against police brutality. We were able to contribute by addressing the complaints that citizens reported to us and continuing to work to ensure culpable officers are held accountable.

In what ways have human rights issues worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic?

As the pandemic started there was an increase in police brutality related to the enforcement of lockdown measures and compliance with sanitary protocols. Interactions between citizens and police officers increased and resulted in more complaints against police officers. By April 2020, it appeared that police officers had killed more people than COVID-19. Additionally, the brutalities committed by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad Unit of the Nigerian Police Force continued during the pandemic, and the authorities continued failing to prosecute officers who committed torture and violent crimes, mostly against young men from low-income backgrounds.

Another longstanding epidemic, that of SGBV, flourished under the pandemic. Before the pandemic, about 30 percent of women and girls between the ages of 15 and 49 had experienced sexual abuse. While preventing outbreaks of the virus, lockdown measures represented a heightened threat to the safety of girls and women, as victims of SGBV remained locked in with their abusers. Between March and April 2020, reports of SGBV increased by 149 percent. The lockdown also compromised the availability of and access to services, as many centres and shelters for victims of SGBV closed or reduced the range of services they provided. As a result, these essential services were lacking precisely when survivors needed them the most.

In response to this situation, Citizens’ Gavel increased the number of SGBV cases we manage. We are doing as much as we can, taking into account that physical meetings and legal interventions were suspended and our team members had to work remotely for several months. Fortunately, this was relatively easy to pivot to because we are a civic tech organisation and our staff had already been trained to use online tools.

What kind of support from international civil society would help your work?

We would appreciate training opportunities to enhance our skills to better serve the local communities we work with. We would also like to know about the strategies that work best to curb human rights abuses in other environments.

Citizens’ Gavel is big on using tech to solve some of the local justice issues and has been able to develop some tech tools; however, we would like to learn more about technologies that work in other contexts. Accessing international platforms through which we can hold the government accountable is also key to our strategy.

Civic space in Nigeria is rated as ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Citizens’ Gavel through its website or Facebook page, and follow @citizen_gavel on Twitter.

 

 

POLAND: ‘We invented new forms of protest because we had to’

CIVICUS speaks to Klementyna Suchanow, an activist, author and researcher based in Warsaw, Poland, about the recent announcement by the Polish government that it will begin the process to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention on Violence against Women. Klementyna is one of the founders of the Polish Women’s Strike and the International Women’s Strike. The Polish Women’s Strike is a grassroots feminist movement founded in 2016 to defend women’s rights against the government's plan to ban and criminalise abortion. Under the COVID-19 pandemic, the movement has remained united and active via a Facebook group and continues to mobilise for women’s rights in Poland.

Klementyna Suchanow

What has the situation of gender rights in Poland been over the past few years?

We are under a conservative government and while I would never say it was paradise five years ago, the situation for women’s and LGBTQI+ rights has recently worsened. Every day you witness more verbal and physical attacks against marginalised groups. Divisions have been created along political lines and the main targets of aggression have been immigrants and LGBTQI+ people. During the campaign for 2019’s European Parliament election and this year’s presidential election the main focus has been on hate against LGBTQI+ people. The wave of hatred is very intense and dealing with it is a challenge. 

The situation of women and women’s rights movements is slightly different. Our new strand of popular feminism is very inclusive and pragmatic. This is why so many young people have joined us in recent months. We see younger generations become more politicised and aware. So the women’s movement is in a very strong position. It is the only movement that has succeeded in forcing the government to take a step back from its idea to ban abortion in 2016, and then later around other issues. It looks like our anger scares them, but they still keep doing things to worsen our situation.

In sum, women are experiencing setbacks in our legal situation but our power keeps growing. I am not sure if this is the case with the LGBTQI+ community, because they are a minority group and are more exposed. The situation of LGBTQI+ people is definitely getting worse on all fronts.

Have there been further regressions on gender rights during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Taking advantage of the pandemic, the government and other groups have made several attempts to roll back women’s sexual and reproductive rights. In May 2020, the Polish parliament proposed a bill that would remove the legal obligation for medical facilities to refer patients to other facilities if they refuse to provide abortion care based on their staff’s personal beliefs. Under current Polish law, a legal abortion can only be performed if the mother’s life is at risk, the pregnancy is a result of rape, or the foetus has a serious deformity. About 98 per cent of abortions fall under the latter category, but a bill was proposed in May to eliminate this clause. In June, new provisions in the Criminal Code imposed harsh prison sentences on those who support women by providing them with abortion care.

The amendments to abortion laws during the pandemic came about through a civic project submitted by a fundamentalist organisation. We organised protests, which was a slightly crazy thing to do, because how do you protest during a pandemic when you are not allowed to gather? That is why we got creative: we invented new forms of protest because we had to. We staged ‘queueing protests’, standing two metres apart in a queue outside a shop close to the parliament building, to comply with lockdown regulations, while holding signs and umbrellas. This happened in several cities, not just in the capital, Warsaw. As we were not allowed to walk freely, we also organised ‘car protests’. We interrupted traffic and blocked Warsaw’s main square for about an hour.

These protests were quite effective. The amendments did not proceed and are now ‘frozen’. They were sent to a parliamentary commission, but the commission is not working on them. They have been neither rejected nor approved. But this also means that they might come back suddenly at any point in the future, and we will have to deal with them again.

From the very beginning this government has been clear that it does not support women’s rights and does not care about violence against women. Since the government came into power, funding to centres that help women has been cut and these centres have had to resort to crowdfunding or are surviving on private donations, because they have no access to state funding anymore. However, some progress has also taken place, as with a recently passed law, which was proposed by a leftist party, that empowers police officers to issue an order to forbid perpetrators of violence from entering the household of the victim for 14 days. This has helped immediately separate victims from perpetrators.

On the other hand, over the past several months we have seen announcements from the authorities that they are thinking about pulling Poland out of the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, known as the Istanbul Convention. In the beginning we didn’t take it too seriously. But it is always like this: first they test the waters to see how far they can go, and if they don’t find too much resistance they start pushing forward. During the presidential campaign and election, the topic was not raised, but only a week afterwards it became an issue. Many serious developments, such as arrests of activists, took place right after the election.

Now the situation is becoming serious. Announcements have been made by several ministers and the president has approved the idea to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention. There is also a lot of propaganda on state media to convince people that this Convention is about so-called ‘gender ideology’. However, surveys show that over 60 per cent of the population is against leaving the Convention compared to only 15 per cent who support the idea. Half of those who oppose leaving the Convention voted for the ruling party. It is weird that they are pushing this so far because it’s against the views of their own voters.

As someone who was at the forefront of the2016 women’s strike in Poland, how do you feel about the current situation?

We are so used to hearing bad news that we weren’t surprised with this latest announcement. The situation in Poland is such and so many bad things happen every day that you become immune to bad news.

During the pandemic everything has been highly political. Instead of focusing on taking care of people’s health, everything became politicised. The presidential election was supposed to be held in May, and there was a lot of discussion about whether it should be held; it was finally postponed to late June. The ruling party knew that it was losing popularity because the health system is not efficient enough and the minister of health himself made huge money by supplying masks and medical equipment. This is why the ruling party pushed to have the election as soon as possible, before it lost too many votes. And instead of taking care of our safety and lives, the ruling party focused on its own political agendas. The attempts to ban abortion were very upsetting and disappointing because you expect more responsibility from your government at such a critical time.

I knew people were tired of mobilising, so I was surprised to see so many come out to defend the Istanbul Convention, which became a national topic of discussion in the media and everywhere. A lot of positive energy has been created around this and is giving us the strength to try and stop it.

We have been protesting for five years now. Protest has its own dynamics: you have to feel the moment and decide how to react; sometimes you give it a try and it doesn’t work out. It’s always an experiment. But right now, we feel that there is real energy and a momentum we need to ride on. There is a lot of interest from foreign media, and this topic has become the focus of attention. This is slightly strange because every time we tried to do something on violence against women in the past, it was very hard to get people to mobilise on the streets. There is something about violence that makes it difficult to translate feelings into street action. While many people experience it or know somebody who has been a victim, they don’t like to react to it. Many times in the past we failed when organising things on the topic of violence, but this time people took it up. We might now have a chance to defend the right to a life free from violence and make this a problem for the government.

Do gender rights activists in Poland currently experience any restrictions on their right to organise, speak up and mobilise?

I am a writer and artist, and as a result of my activism I am cut off from state grants. There are no state institutions that want to work with me right now because if my name shows up on their list, it becomes a problem for them. You could also be arrested or be taken to court by a right-wing legal foundation such as Ordo Iuris. Of course, there is also hate speech: the government uses your name and your image for propaganda on state media, and you can also be attacked by trolls on social media. Police can hurt you, as happened to me at one protest in 2018. This situation came about gradually, but at this point there is a wide range of forms of repression that you can experience. For the time being, however, I haven’t heard of feminist activists facing physical attacks from civilians.

I am one of the activists who started taking direct action against the government, so there are a lot of things that I am being accused of. Ordo Iuris does not like me because I wrote a book exposing the international fundamentalist network that it is part of. I am on the list of their enemies, but so far, I have not been sued by them. They say they are working on their list of accusations against me, because there are so many. During our latest protest, members of Ordo Iuris approached a police officer and tried to convince him that I should be requested to show my identification. But the police in Warsaw know us, they know our faces, they knew that I had not done anything illegal during the protest and refused their request.

In which ways can civil society hold accountable an increasingly authoritarian government such as Poland’s, and what support from international civil society does it need to do so?

Regarding the Istanbul Convention, we are trying to convince the international community that European funds should be allocated bearing in mind the actual human rights compliance records of each member of the European Union (EU). A new instrument introduced in the EU established that funding should be linked to adherence to democratic principles and practices. We are trying to convince the Council of Europe, the source of the Istanbul Convention, to introduce similar measures towards the governments that are relinquishing their people’s rights. It’s all about linking funding to human rights compliance. Money is the only language governments will understand. Six Polish cities are currently not receiving European funds following their declaration of so-called ‘LGBTI-free zones’, which is considered an act against human rights. We would like to raise this question, together with Turkish women, who are facing a similar battle against their government’s initiative to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention. You cannot be destroying human rights, like Hungary and Russia are doing, and still be treated by the Council of Europe like anyone else, as a partner in the conversation. So, this is a new approach that we are trying to make people understand.

We want international civil society organisations to lobby local politicians so they become aware that the issues of human rights and funding need to be considered together. The Council of Europe also needs to understand this so we can set a precedent and in the future women here and in other countries will be protected. If we have an authoritarian government that does whatever it wants, even if citizens don’t agree, we need to have some protections from abroad. All we find in Poland is repression, so we need somebody from outside to be on our side and not leave us alone.

Civic space in Poland is rated as ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Polish Women’s Strike through its Facebook page and follow @strajkkobiet and @KSuchanow on Twitter.

 

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

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

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

   Patrick Poon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

#BEIJING25: ‘We are outraged at discrimination and are turning our claims into action’

In the run-up to the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action, due in September 2020, CIVICUS is interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about the progress achieved and the challenges ahead. Focused on eliminating violence against women (VAW), ensuring access to family planning and reproductive healthcare, removing barriers to women’s participation in decision-making and providing decent jobs and equal pay for equal work, the Beijing Platform for Action was adopted at the United Nations’ (UN) Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995. After 25 years, significant but unequal progress has occurred, not least as the result of incessant civil society efforts, but no country has yet achieved gender equality. 

CIVICUS speaks to Viviana Krsticevic, Executive Director of the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL) and a member of the Secretariat of the Gqual Campaign, a global initiative seeking to promote gender parity in the composition of international organisations.

viviana Krsticevic

How much of the promise contained in the Beijing Platform for Action has been translated into actual improvements?

We still have a long way to go to ensure that women can live autonomously without the burden of discrimination. Clearly, there are disparities and different effects among women due to age, economic situation, skin colour, ethnicity, migrant status, rural condition and several other situations that partly define our experience. Global figures for disparities in education, access to health, property and positions of power show the enormous disadvantage that women are at in most societies and the differential weight of inequality.

For instance, according to data from UN Women updated to the first semester of 2020, only 6.6 per cent of heads of government worldwide are women, as well as 20.7 per cent of those in ministerial positions; likewise, women hold 24.9 per cent of all parliamentary seats. The under-representation of women is also reflected in other areas, such as access to education: globally, 48.1 per cent of girls are not attending school. It is also visible in the labour market, since women receive 23 per cent less income than men. The same can be said about the prevalence of gender-based violence: the UN Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that 87,000 women were victims of femicides worldwide in 2017, and that more than half – 50,000, or 58 per cent – were murdered by their partner or a member of their family.

In other words, there is a long way to go, but we have made significant progress in the 25 years since the Beijing Conference. Some important examples are the progress, made both through legal channels and on the streets, in rejecting sexist violence and femicide, the recognition of the differential effects of violence affecting Afro-descendant women, the policy changes aimed at tackling maternal mortality, advances in gaining access to government or legislative positions, the greater valuing of care tasks and the development of legal frameworks to deal with workplace harassment, among others.

In part, these advances were possible thanks to synergies between national-level change processes and international goal-setting and rights-recognition processes. In this sense, the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG5) on women's equality, agreed globally at the UN level, is one of the key tools to achieve respect for individual autonomy and the collective development of communities. To advance this goal agreed upon by governments, there are a series of institutional spaces that promote it at the international and regional levels.

In addition, there is the fact that many women from various sectors, in Latin America and the world, are outraged at discrimination and structural violence and are turning our claims into action. Initiatives such as #NiUnaMenos, #SayHerName and #LasTesis, among many others, have been examples of this. Engaging in analysis, protesting and making proposals are key to ensuring that discriminatory structures are overcome.

Why is equal gender representation important, and what is the situation in international institutions?

One of the most significant arguments of women and other movements in search of representation is that of equality, since often the absence of women in decision-making sites is not the result of their own choice but the effect of glass ceilings, implicit discrimination and the segmentation of labour markets, among other factors. On top of this, there is the argument of the impact of equal participation in terms of enriching debate, innovation and due diligence in decision-making and improving the legitimacy and sustainability of certain processes, among other possible beneficial effects of the inclusion of women in decision-making spaces. In the same spirit, several innovative international conventions have included clauses to promote gender equality and representation. UN General Assembly Resolution 1325 on peace and security also includes language on the need for women’s participation in peace processes.

This recognition stands in contrast with the limited participation of women in decision-making sites, both nationally and internationally. The norms and mechanisms established in most of these spaces do not ensure the participation of women in conditions of equality or equal representation.

At the international level, in the spaces where decisions are reached on war and peace, the evolution of international criminal law, the scope of human rights, economic law and environmental law, and various other key issues, women are underrepresented at extreme levels. For instance, the International Court of Justice currently includes only three female judges (19 per cent) and historically it has only included four women out of a total of 108 magistrates (3.7 per cent). Only one of the seven current members of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights is a woman (14.3 per cent), and in the International Criminal Court there are only six women out of a total of 18 members (33 per cent). Finally, 10 of the 56 special mechanisms of the UN to date have never been led by a woman.

In other words, women are on the fringes of the decisions that are made on most of the issues that are most significant for the future of humanity in the areas of politics, justice and peace. This reality contrasts with the recognition of the right to participation in the international arena under conditions of equality enshrined in Article 8 of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, widely ratified worldwide, and with the aspirations of balanced or equal participation proposed in various spaces of the UN system and other institutions.

How did the Gqual Campaign originate, what are its goals and what has it achieved so far?

Taking into account the reality of glass ceilings and the drastic regressions that have occurred recently in the composition of some bodies, a group of women and men convinced of the value of gender-balanced and diverse spaces joined in an initiative to promote gender parity in justice and monitoring institutions at the international level. With this objective in mind, we launched the Gqual campaign in September 2015. From this platform we promote individual and institutional commitments to gender parity in international representation, the development of research, standards and mechanisms to promote gender equality in international monitoring and justice institutions, vibrant and timely debate on the issue to advance the equality agenda, and the creation of a community of discussion and action around the issue.

Among the campaign’s actions are the monitoring and distribution of information on available positions in the sphere of international justice. We send letters and post information on networks calling attention to opportunities and disparities, we promote academic research, and we make proposals to modify the procedures for the nomination and selection of those who occupy positions in justice and monitoring institutions at the national and international level. Among our most interesting initiatives is a ranking that includes the number of men and women in these positions, by country. We also hold meetings of experts to contribute to the development of specialised documents. Additionally, we create synergies with selection processes in judicial spaces at the national level and participate in debates on representation at the national and international levels, in order to advance the broader agenda of political and social change towards equality.

I would like to invite you to join the online campaign and to follow and interact with it on social media. Since the launch of the campaign, we have made progress in debating the issue and have had several significant achievements, including resolutions by the UN and the Organization of American States on gender balance in the composition of international bodies, the systematisation of information on the composition of positions at the UN level disaggregated by gender, and excellent research that supports the international obligations of states and international organisations, among several others. By working for women's access to international spaces in conditions of parity, the Gqual Campaign promotes several of the commitments expressed in the SDGs: equality, access to justice, the fight against poverty and commitment to peace.

What support from international civil society is needed to continue promoting the campaign?

The greatest support that international civil society could give to the campaign would be to join the debate on the importance of ensuring women’s equal participation in international monitoring and judicial institutions. Depending on their possibilities, each person, organisation or institution might help advance more specific agendas at the local or international level in synergy with the campaign’s objectives. They can do so, for example, by encouraging their country’s government to monitor its nationals who occupy elected positions, doing field research on selection processes, writing about constitutional obligations or those derived from international law to guarantee equal access to international representation, running public awareness campaigns, or contributing to the campaign’s blog or writing about it in local newspapers. Given the structural inequality and the inertia that makes some governments reluctant to act, civil society and citizens must demand that the authorities ensure that women are nominated and considered for decision-making positions at the international and national levels. Civil society can also help drive the debate by collecting data and publishing analyses and studies.

I want to emphasise that due to the nature of the campaign – which arose from the initiative of women who advocate for equality and who mostly donate their time to move it forward – we are grateful for any contribution of time or donation aimed at supporting the campaign’s work and initiatives. We want a more just, equal and peaceful world, and for that we need women to intervene on an equal footing in making the decisions that concern us all.

Get in touch with Gqual Campaign through its website or Facebook page, and follow @GqualCampaign, @cejil and @mundopenelope on Twitter.

 

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

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

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

Burundi Elections

 Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

SRI LANKA: ‘Media control gave the government a definite advantage’

CIVICUS speaks to Sandun Thudugala, Head of Programmes at the Law and Society Trust (LST), about the legislative elections held in Sri Lanka on 5 August 2020, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. LST is a legal research and advocacy organisation founded in 1982 in Colombo, Sri Lanka, with the goal of promoting legal reforms to improve access to justice, the justiciability of rights and public accountability.

Ahead of the August 2020 elections, the CIVICUS Monitor documented that human rights lawyers and journalists in Sri Lanka faced arrests, threats and harassment. A report by the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, published in May 2020, also showed that civil society faced challenges in registering and operating along with various barriers to protest.

Sandun Thudugala

What was the situation for civic freedoms and civil society ahead of the elections?

As in many other countries, the situation of civic freedoms and the space for civil society has always been in a vulnerable situation in Sri Lanka. Even under the previous government, which was supposed to be more supportive towards civil society and the human rights agenda, efforts to introduce new draconian laws to control civil society and the undermining of basic freedoms in the name of counterterrorism continued.

The situation got worse with the election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the new president in November 2019. His election campaign, which was built on the ideas of Sinhala Buddhist supremacy, disciplined society and enhanced national security, was supported by an overwhelming majority, especially from the Sinhala Buddhist community. This result was seen as a mandate given to the government to undermine basic freedoms and civic space in the name of national security and development.

There have been signs of an increased militarisation of every aspect of society and the undermining of democratic institutions, such as the appointment of members of Presidential Task Forces – which are accountable only to the president – to handle key governance functions. There has also been a clear message of unwillingness to cooperate with the state’s international obligations, including by complying with UN Human Rights Council Resolution 30/1, which the previous government had co-sponsored and which was aimed at promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka after the 1983-2009 internal conflict, as well as with local human rights mechanisms.

There have been increased surveillance of civil society activities and arrests of social media activists. This has clearly reflected a trend of undermining civic freedoms and civic space before the elections. The situation was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The need to deal with the virus has been used as an excuse to increase militarisation and the concentration of power in the hands of the president.

What were the main issues the campaign revolved around?

The government led by newly elected President Rajapaksa, of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna party (SLPP), was seeking a two-thirds majority in parliament to be able to amend the current constitution and give the president additional powers. That’s been the major election campaign goal of the SLPP. The need to have a strong government to protect the aspirations of the Sinhala Buddhist majority, defend national sovereignty and foster economic development were therefore among their major campaign themes. The popularity the president gained after winning the presidential election was used to mobilise voters to support the SLPP.

The main opposition parties were divided, and their internal conflict was more prominent in the election campaign than their actual election messages. One of their major promises was to provide economic assistance for poor people who were most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns.

Issues such as the need to strengthen democratic governance systems, justice for war victims, longer-term solutions to ethnic issues or the root causes of rural poverty, indebtedness and inequality were not highlighted during the election campaign by any of the major parties

Was there any debate around whether the election should be held during the pandemic? 

The government wanted to conduct the election as soon as possible. It was willing to hold the election in April 2020, as planned, even at the height of the pandemic. Almost all opposition parties were against holding the election in April. The Election Commission subsequently decided to postpone it to August 2020 due to the health risks it might entail. By August, the situation had got considerably better and there was no major opposition to conducting the elections, which took place on 5 August.

As far as I know, online voting was not considered as an option for this election. I do not think that Sri Lanka has the infrastructure and capacity to adopt such an option at this moment. More than 70 per cent of eligible voters cast votes and apart from the people who are still in quarantine centres, people experienced no major barriers in casting their votes. There were however incidents of some private factories denying leave for their employees to vote.

Was it possible to have a normal campaign in the context of the pandemic?

Health guidelines were issued by the Election Commission, which imposed significant controls on election campaigning. No major rallies or meetings were allowed, but the government and the main opposition parties violated these health guidelines by convening public rallies and other meetings openly, without any repercussions. It was clear that the parties with power had a clear advantage in overstepping certain rules. Additionally, candidates from major political parties, who had more money to use for electronic and social media campaigns, had a definite advantage over the others.

Due to its control over state media and the support it received from most private media, both electronic and print, the government had a definite advantage over the opposition during the election campaign. The smaller opposition political parties were at the most disadvantageous position, as they did not get any significant airtime or publicity in mainstream media.

This surely impacted on the election results, in which the SLPP, led by President Rajapaksa and his brother, former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, won 145 seats in the 225-member parliament. The opposition Samagi Jana Balavegaya party, which was established in early 2020 as a breakaway from the right-wing United National Party, won 54 seats. The Illankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi party, which represents the Tamil ethnic minority, won 10 seats, and 16 other seats were split among 12 smaller parties. As a result, on 9 August, Mahinda Rajapaksa was appointed Prime Minister of Sri Lanka for the fourth time.

Was civil society able to engage in the election in a meaningful way? 

Apart from being engaged in election monitoring processes, the engagement of independent civil society in the election was minimal. This is a drastic change when compared to the 2015 election, in which civil society played a key role in promoting a good governance and reconciliation agenda within the election campaign. Divisions within the opposition and the COVID-19 context made it difficult for civil society organisations to engage effectively in the process. Some organisations tried to create a discourse on the importance of protecting the 19th amendment to the Constitution, which curbed presidential powers while strengthening the role of parliament and independent institutions and accountability processes, but didn’t get any significant spaces within the media or any other public domains to discuss these issues.

Civic space in Sri Lanka is rated as ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Law and Society Trust through its website or Facebook page and follow @lstlanka and @SandunThudugala on Twitter.

 

COVID-19: ‘Refugees paid a heavier price during a crisis that many believed impacted on us all equally’

CIVICUS speaks about the situation of climate refugees and increasing challenges under the COVID-19 pandemic with Amali Tower, founder and executive director of Climate Refugees. Founded in 2015, Climate Refugees defends the rights of people displaced and forced to migrate, including across borders, as a result of climate change. It documents their cases to shed light on protection gaps and legal voids and advocates for human rights-based solutions and the creation of legal norms and policies that protect people affected by climate-driven migration and displacement.

Amali Tower

Your organisation is called ‘Climate Refugees’, although the term is currently not supported by international law. Why is that? Do you think this is something that should be officially recognised?

You’re right, the concept does not exist in international law, but drivers of migration are increasingly intertwined, as has been the case in the context of refugee flows and internal displacement resulting from conflict and persecution. It’s no different in the context of climate migration, except that for so many millions, this isn’t purely an environmental issue – it’s a justice issue. For many populations dependent on the land, climate changes have impacts on survival and livelihood, with impacts beyond the individual, to the family, community, local livelihoods, business and so on. If climate is a factor that contributes to migration, it is likely after years of causing deep losses and suffering, intertwined with economic losses and impacts as well as political ramifications. For instance, we can see this playing out among subsistence farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa, Central America and many other regions. In this context, someone displaced by the impacts of climate change is also displaced by economic and political factors because the political situation and economic systems in many of these countries are deeply embedded in the environment.

Further, it’s important to remember that climate change impacts and climate migration and displacement aren’t future risks. They are a reality for many right now, and that reality is playing out in some of the most fragile places in the world for the most impoverished and vulnerable populations who had very little to role in contributing to climate change in the first place.

This is why we approach this as an issue of equality and justice. Coming from a refugee protection background where I interviewed and provided services to countless refugees fleeing conflict and persecution, based on the legal definition, I’m wholly aware of the controversy and backlash this may cause. I agonised about this decision, but ultimately, I couldn’t reconcile the definition with years of testimonies from people fleeing multiple drivers, who referred to years of environmental devastation at home more than to the war we all knew was ongoing.

So ultimately, I settled on the term ‘climate refugees’ to provoke conversation. To emphasise the political responsibility of climate change. To raise awareness of its ability to impact on, one might even say persecute, some people more than others. To contribute, provoke and challenge policy. To highlight the needs by giving voice to those affected and to help seek their legal protection. Ultimately, to present this as an issue of equality.

There’s a lot of discussion, and some might even say confusion, in the migration field about terminology. There is no consensus on appropriate terms so there are many terms being used, like climate-induced migration, environmental migrants and others.

I think we have to be cautious to not simplify the message. Nor be too clinical in our terminology about the underlying issues and very real suffering millions are bearing. We need to help policy-makers and the public understand there are mixed drivers in complex situations. Refugees have often moved as a result of conflict and drought – just look at Somalia. Others may move to seek safety and better livelihood opportunities, as we are seeing in Central America.

We need to make clear that the line between ‘forced’ and ‘voluntary’ migration is often misunderstood, if not false.

In sum, we use the term ‘climate refugees’ to draw attention to the political responsibility of rich countries, certain industries and others to ensure fairness, compensation, protection and equality on many levels, because the solutions must also be multi-faceted.

What kind of work does Climate Refugees do? 

Climate Refugees is a research and advocacy organisation that generates field reports and engages in policy-making to view climate change through a human lens and help include and amplify the voices of communities whose livelihoods and security have been impacted on and who have been displaced or forced to migrate. The climate change conversation can otherwise remain largely abstract and clinical, rather than focused on its impacts on real human beings and entire communities.

Alongside producing field reports from climate displacement hotspots, we provide education and raise awareness of the impacts of climate change on human mobility right now and in ways not necessarily always explored, through two publications: SPOTLIGHT: Climate Displacement in the News, which, as the name implies, is a roundup of global news and expert analysis of climate change impacts on migration, human rights, law and policy, conflict, security and so on, and PERSPECTIVES: Climate Displacement in the Field, which includes features on a variety of topics related to climate-induced migration and displacement, featuring expert commentary and stories from people on the move.

Our aim with these publications is to be informative and provide stories from people on the move and expert analysis through a climate justice lens that highlights the disproportionate impacts of climate change on marginalised and disenfranchised populations who are the least responsible for climate change. I think a large part of why I formed this organisation is to have the conversation I think many of us want to have – that this is primarily an issue of justice and equality and our solutions need to keep that focus front and centre.

Have climate refugees been hit particularly hard by the COVID-19 pandemic and associated restrictions? What is being done about it? 

The COVID-19 pandemic provides a good example of rights violations increasing during a crisis – and an emphatic disproof of the assertion that ‘we are all in this together’. Refugees and migrants certainly paid a heavier price during a global pandemic that many believed impacted on all human beings equally. Social distancing is hard to achieve for displaced persons who live in crowded settlements, whether formal or informal, urban or rural, refugee camps or crowded migrant housing. Refugees and migrants were denied the freedom of movement, the right to health and the right to information to a higher degree than other populations and experienced more impediments to access their rights.

It’s not about pointing out any one country, because the point is that vulnerable populations that we should have been further protecting in a pandemic actually became more vulnerable just about everywhere. In Lebanon, refugees were held to tighter curfew restrictions that even impeded access to health treatment. Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar refugee settlement in Bangladesh were forced into an encampment and denied their rights to communication and right to health. Many countries where migrants are grouped in crowded housing, like Malaysia, detained migrants. The USA denied asylum-seekers the right to seek asylum and violated the principle of non-refoulement, returning them at the border with no hearings, deported COVID-positive asylum-seekers, and in the process, also exported the virus to Haiti and Central American countries. The USA also continues to detain thousands more people, mostly from Central America, who are fleeing climate change impacts in addition to violence and persecution, denying their freedom of movement, and arguably in some cases, denying rights to seek asylum, due process and the right to health.

As cyclone Amphan was about to hit the Bay of Bengal in May 2020, at the height of the pandemic, we saw populations in affected areas being relocated ahead of the disaster, which saved lives, but also meant that social distancing could not be enforced during displacement, and vulnerability to the virus became a major concern.

I am afraid the situation will be no different as the climate crisis worsens. It will disproportionately affect the most vulnerable populations in the world, and once again, a situation where it should be pertinent to think that ‘we are all in this together’ will make us realise that some of us l have the means to escape the worst of the impacts of climate change while some will limited social protections and many others, already in extreme poverty and on the margins of society, will fall in deeper and will have no escape from multiple levels of impacts.

Is the issue of climate displacement receiving enough attention? Has any progress been made in shaping an international legal framework to protect people who are displaced by climate change?

We’re certainly seeing more media attention paid to climate change impacts, including migration. But as the issue becomes part of everyday conversation, there’s also a chance that important nuances are lost. I would say some advances have been made in the area of climate displacement – that is, displacements as a result of disasters like floods and storms. We have data that tells us how many people are displaced each year by disasters – an average of around 25 million – and the nature and type of these displacements are less murky in terms of causal factors.

But climate migration is far trickier, since drivers of migration, whether internal or across borders, are increasingly intertwined. And when there are multiple drivers it’s hard to disentangle what role a single driver plays, or how much of the resulting phenomenon – in this case migration – can be attributed to one cause, namely climate change. Science and technology in the area of climate attribution are improving, increasingly enabling experts to determine just how much climate change is a factor in every situation. But generally speaking, in many parts of the world the environment is also an economic and political issue, so at this point it’s fair to say that climate change is certainly contributing to migration.

That said, much of the discussion of a legal framework is stalled in conversations that revolve around migration being largely internal, as well as doomsday displacement projections. The international system is hesitant to push conversations that will securitise migration even further and states are reticent to take on commitments that increase migrant or refugee protections even further.

So for now, advancements are limited to non-binding commitments by states in the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, which includes some measures dealing with environmental migration across borders. The Platform on Disaster Displacement is a state-led initiative doing good work on the protection of people displaced across borders by disasters and climate change.

Earlier this year, the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Committee also looked at the case of an individual from Kiribati who claimed to be a ‘climate refugee’. He took his case to the human rights body on the basis that the denial of his asylum claim by the government of New Zealand violated his right to life under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The UN found that countries may not deport individuals who face climate change-induced conditions that violate the right to life.

What else should be done so that the problem is not only recognised but also mitigated? 

Some fear that talking about a looming migration crisis due to climate change runs the risk of fuelling current hostility and xenophobia towards migrants and refugees. I definitely see the point and acknowledge that risk, but I also think it’s equally true that to those who are xenophobic towards migrants and refugees, what drives their migration is not the issue. So we have to be careful to find that delicate balance when we talk about these things, because we truly don’t know how it will play out, but what we do know is that the trajectories and outlooks are generally not so great, there’s a lack of political will, and the conversation isn’t too focused on a human rights framework that protects affected communities, including migrants. So on this latter point, it’s not about being an alarmist about the numbers – it’s about sounding the alarm about our need to do better to fill some vital gaps in rights and protections.

There’s a lot of focus on what we shouldn’t call people, how we shouldn’t frame the issue, but not enough focus on how we should protect vulnerable populations.

Countries that are already struggling with extreme poverty are now struggling with extreme weather, and there is an inherent unfairness at play here in not recognising that climate change was not created by all equally, and nor will the impacts of it be felt by all equally.

A lot more could be done in the way of adaptation. Adaptation is very costly, and the countries bearing the burden of climate change impacts now don’t have the capacity to also bear those financial costs. Many regional experts tell us that much of the international finance and response directed at them is focused on climate mitigation, rather than climate adaptation.

We need to build community resilience to withstand the effects of climate change, and in some contexts, this might also mean building up stronger public and governance institutions and strengthening capacities to withstand the complex stresses that climate change impacts are placing on societies.

Adaptation can entail innovation, infrastructural development and social changes, all of which can be very costly, and adaptation planning needs to respect human rights and enable choices, including the choice to migrate, which may not necessarily present as a totally voluntary choice. The point is that safe pathways for migration, when conditions don’t allow people to stay, are part of how we safeguard the human rights of climate change-impacted populations.

Are there enough connections being made between advocacy efforts on behalf of migrants and refugees and climate activism?

From my vantage point, it feels like there are few connections between these two movements and I feel like there is great potential for stronger advocacy together. For example, just broadening the climate migration conversation to discussions of a movement, rather than being largely a research and policy conversation, would be a welcome step to engage the public in something that I fear many feel is too large to understand, let alone address. 

At the same time, there are many who are concerned and interested and desire to be a part of the solution. So we keep in mind that, yes, we are trying to inform policy, but we also want to make information more easily accessible to engage and bridge that movement with the public to approach this as an issue of climate justice because that’s how we see it.

Get in touch with Climate Refugees through their website, Instagram and Facebook page, and follow @Climate_Refugee and @TowerAmali on Twitter.

 

DOMINICAN REPUBLIC: ‘We are part of a global anti-racist movement’

CIVICUS speaks with Elena Lorac, coordinator of Reconoci.do, an independent and plural civic network made up mainly of young Dominicans of Haitian descent. Reconoci.do defends human rights and promotes the real, full and effective integration of Dominican people of Haitian descent into Dominican society. With a presence throughout the Dominican Republic, Reconoci.do upholds the vision of a multicultural country where diverse people coexist with dignity, without stigma or discrimination, and their fundamental rights are respected by society and protected by the state.

Elena Lorac

When and why was Reconoci.do founded, and what are the organisation's goals?

Reconoci.do is a movement of Dominicans of Haitian descent, mostly young, fighting for our right to nationality and for access to all the rights that derive from this belonging: civil, political and social rights, and rights as basic as the right to work, to housing, to education and health, which are systematically denied to us.

Our movement was formed in late November 2011, in reaction to a resolution by the Central Electoral Board that suspended “temporarily” the validity of our birth certificates and identity papers, that is, in a context in which, instead of seeing progress in the recognition of our rights, setbacks were taking place and historical exclusion was being institutionalised 

Until 2010, the Constitution of the Dominican Republic recognised as nationals all persons born in the country’s territory, with the exception of diplomats and persons considered to be ‘in transit’, an expression that in principle referred only to those who had been in the country for a few days. For eight decades, under these definitions, the state provided a Dominican birth certificate, identity card and passport to the children of Haitians born in the country. However, in the 1990s nationalist groups began to promote a restrictive interpretation that was eventually translated into a new Migration Law. Under this law, passed in 2004, temporary foreign workers and undocumented migrant workers were classed as foreigners ‘in transit’, meaning that their children would no longer have access to Dominican nationality because of having been born in the country. The Central Electoral Board, the body that manages the civil registry, began to apply this law retroactively, and in 2007 it institutionalised this practice through two administrative decisions that prevented the issuance or renewal of identity documents to children born in the Dominican Republic of Haitian immigrants who were in an irregular migratory situation. In 2010, the new constitution denied the automatic right to nationality to children born in the country to immigrant parents in an irregular situation. Finally, in September 2013, ruling 168-13 of the Constitutional Court established that people born in the country whose parents had been undocumented had never had the right to Dominican nationality. The ruling was applied retroactively to all people born between 1929 and 2007, effectively stripping four generations of their Dominican nationality, mostly people of Haitian descent, who for eight decades had been registered as Dominican.

These legal changes institutionalised a historical exclusion that was perpetuated by policies of hatred, racism and xenophobia promoted by nationalist groups. From the dominant perspective, everything that comes from Haiti is foreign, alien and impossible to assimilate. Thus, people like me, born in the Dominican Republic to Haitian parents, are treated as foreigners. Because we were born in the Dominican Republic, the Haitian state does not consider us Haitians either. And in any case, we are talking about people who may have never been to Haiti, who have grown up here and speak Spanish; many younger people in fact don’t speak any Creole at all. Lack of recognition is excruciatingly painful.

To resolve the situation created by the Constitutional Court, and in response to domestic and international advocacy efforts, in 2014 Law 169-14, the Special Naturalisation Law, was passed. This law established a special regime for people considered “descendants of foreigners in irregular migratory status,” based on the distinction between two groups. For members of ‘Group A’, which included those who in the past had been registered in the Dominican civil registry, the law recognised their Dominican nationality and ordered the Central Electoral Board to hand over or return their identity documents. On the other hand, those in ‘Group B’, who, although having been born in the country, having always lived there and maintaining no link with their parents’ country of origin, had never been registered, were given a period of 90 days to register as foreigners, with the possibility of obtaining Dominican nationality through naturalisation within a period of two years. This distinction is completely arbitrary, and it is common to find families with siblings belonging to either group, as well as families that, having registered their children, lost their papers as a result of some natural disaster and could not initiate the naturalisation process due to economic hardship, being located far away from administrative offices and unable to pay the fees that the process involved. Only a few thousand people in Group B have managed to achieve nationality in this way. There are currently some 133,000 young people who are stateless.

I have obtained my identity card as a result of Law 169-14; it was given to me when I was 27 years old. My years of personal development and education and the early years of my productive life were cut short because I did not have an ID and therefore could not attend university. Several of my fellow activists are in the same situation. Some have been able to advance through college and even graduate, while others were not so lucky.

Have you brought the issue of Dominicans of Haitian descent to the attention of regional or international human rights forums?

For decades the international community and domestic civil society have been advocating at both the national and international levels, to denounce abuse, discrimination and structural racism in the Dominican Republic.

Jointly with other civil society organisations (CSOs), we work assiduously within the inter-American system, for example participating in hearings of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). In 2014, the IACHR granted precautionary measures to members of our movement who had been threatened or attacked. Also in 2014, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights issued a ruling that forced the state to give us our nationality back. But the Constitutional Court did not recognse this ruling. The Dominican state does not abide by the decisions of the Court.

The state does not recognise that there is a problem to be solved. Today our struggle is much more complex than it was at the beginning because now there is a feeling that the situation has been resolved, but it has not. The vast majority of young people in this situation come from bateyes, which are ghettos or communities that were established during the time of sugarcane production around the end of the 19th century, when the Dominican Republic and Haiti reached an agreement to bring Haitian braceros to work in the country. These people, sometimes by deception and even by force, were taken directly to the bateyes, small villages located in the vicinity of sugarcane plantations. Young people who come from these places, which are located far from the cities, are in a very vulnerable situation. The vast majority have nothing; we are talking about families who have not had legal documents for generations, and without papers they cannot study or work. Those of us who manage to finish high school and intend to go to university usually encounter what I experienced: it was when I decided that I would go to university that I found out that, although I did have my birth certificate, I did not qualify because I was the daughter of Haitian parents. This was a huge blow for me, and it is just the same for tens of thousands of young people. You are suddenly told that you do not exist, and this entails enormous psychological trauma. The state blames our parents or grandparents, when in fact it was the state that brought them to work in sugar production – but given that the industry no longer exists, they want us to disappear as well.

These injustices block our prospects. They leave us without a future. That is why our movement arose from places like this.

What were the implications of this situation in the context of the health crisis caused by COVID-19?

The lack of recognition of something as basic as nationality creates enormous difficulties in accessing other basic rights such as health and social aid. The pandemic has magnified the difficulties faced by these vulnerable populations, confined in bateyes where there is no production or work. Many of these young people are chiriperos, that is, day workers, employed sporadically to do whatever is available, and the pandemic left them with nothing. They do not have access to any of the social aid programmes developed to alleviate the effects of the pandemic because they do not have IDs and do not appear in government records.

To what extent is the situation faced by people of Haitian descent in the Dominican Republic the result of racism?

This situation is the result of structural racism from beginning to end. The problem of access to nationality in the Dominican Republic has exclusively affected people whose parents or grandparents came from Haiti; this is not a general problem for foreigners. It is a reflection of structural racism because it is the Dominican people of Haitian descent, or those who are perceived as such due to the colour of their skin, who experience this violation of their human rights. This was recognised by the IACHR after a visit to the country, when it confirmed that it had not received any complaint from a descendant of non-Haitian foreigners who had experienced difficulties in being recognised as nationals, getting registered in the civil registry or receiving identity papers.

In the Dominican Republic it is believed that all blacks are Haitians. If I am black and have curly hair I am constantly questioned even if I have identity papers, and if I am unable to produce an ID, I can be deported because I am assumed to be Haitian. There have been cases of black Dominicans who have been deported because of their skin colour. Dominican women of Haitian descent who do not have papers and go to a hospital to give birth are treated as foreigners, fuelling the myth that Haitian women are occupying all beds in our hospitals, when most of these women are not Haitians but Dominican black women of Haitian descent.

Dominicans are a black population that does not see itself as such. There is obviously a problem of systemic, state-sanctioned, and unrecognised racism.

Thus, with the passing of time, as a movement we realised that the problem of nationality that mobilised us in the first place was not just a problem of papers, IDs and registry records, but also and more deeply a problem of identity and racial discrimination that goes back to the historical context of our ancestors.

We are therefore a movement that not only fights for the recognition of nationality and the rights of Dominicans of Haitian descent, but also shares the struggles of all anti-racist movements and mobilises against all forms of discrimination. This is why we stand in solidarity and support all kinds of expressions seeking to guarantee the rights of women, of sexual minorities and of all minorities who are stigmatised and discriminated against.

 

How did the US Black Lives Matter protests following the murder of George Floyd resonate in the Dominican Republic?

In reaction to events in the USA, we joined other CSOs to organise a commemoration. It was not strictly a protest demonstration, as restrictions on public gatherings had been imposed in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, and we respected the mandated quarantine. And it was not only a demonstration of solidarity either, as George Floyd’s death had resonated in our context, where we have experienced similar situations of police abuse.

Along with other CSOs we organised an activity in memory of George Floyd. The idea was to make a ritual gesture, a collective wreath. Our convening slogan was ‘A Flower for Floyd’, and it was a call for each person to bring, whenever possible, a flower and place it as part of the offering. Our account of Floyd’s death also made reference to police and institutional violence many black people, both migrants and Dominicans, experience in the Dominican Republic, so as to highlight that this is a situation we are also going through.

 

Have you received threats or experience aggression from anti-rights movements?

There are several ultra-nationalist groups that are mobilising in reaction to our demonstrations and events, basically to intimidate us and boycott our activities. Ever since the Constitutional Court ruling was issued, the climate has become more favourable for hate speech and numerous acts of hostility against us have taken place. Many members of our movement and other organisations that fight for the rights of Dominicans of Haitian descent have been subjected to attacks, both verbal and physical, which have been reflected in numerous human rights reports. As a result, in some cases we have had to request IACHR protective measures for some colleagues. Even Dominican people who are not of Haitian descent but express solidarity with us are treated as traitors to the homeland. These expressions have become more common because they have not been firmly condemned by the authorities.

Every time we demonstrate on the issue of nationality and racism, there are always counter-demonstrations, and since the police never protect us, these groups generally prevail and we are forced to suspend or terminate our activities. This was the case with the event we planned to honour George Floyd.

Since the moment we announced the Flower for Floyd event, several ultra-nationalist groups threatened us through our Facebook page. They accused us of wanting to generate violence and of boycotting the country by bringing up issues that are not of its concern. We received such levels of threats that many people thought that we would not be able to carry out the activity. Days before the event, the leader of one of these anti-rights groups, Antigua Orden Dominicana, threatened us through a video in which he warned that if we carried it out there would be bloodshed, since the event would take place in Independence Park, dedicated to the Fathers of the Nation, which they would not allow.

On the day of commemoration, 9 June, these groups were present. It was not the first time that this happened. In 2017, during an activity that we carry out every year to mark the anniversary of ruling 168-13, they also showed up and a similar situation ensued.

On 9 June, these groups came to attack the activists that were taking part in the event, and when the police finally intervened it was to detain our fellow activists Ana María Belique and Maribel Núñez, along with another person who was participating in the event. Every time we hold a protest related to the issue of nationality and racism, the state comes in and represses us.

What kind of support would you need from international civil society and the global anti-racist movement?

We consider ourselves part of a global movement. Many times we have been told that the Black Lives Matter movement was caused by something that happened in the USA and that it was not our concern; however, as vulnerable and stigmatised people we understand that this is an issue that directly affects us and that we must address.

What we need is more support to disseminate information about the current situation in our country. The state has been consistently telling the world that there are no stateless people here, that there is no racism or xenophobia, that everything we say is a lie and that we are on the payroll of international CSOs who want to harm the country. What we seek is visibility and help to denounce the terrible realities experienced by Dominicans of Haitian descent. We do not have enough resources to publicise our cause, and international solidarity is what allows us to carry out our struggles and make them known worldwide.

International support is one of the things that has helped us get ahead. We have had support from groups of the Dominican diaspora in New York. One of them, We Are All Dominican, has supported us since 2013. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, they helped us ensure food and other basic needs for more than 250 families for three months. All support is welcome, whether it be expressions of solidarity, contributions to dissemination or protection for human rights defenders.

Civic space in the Dominican Republic is rated as ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Reconoci.do through their website or Facebook page, and follow @reconoci_do and @juagemis on Twitter.

 

COVID-19: ‘We need public policies that reduce and redistribute unpaid care work’

CIVICUS speaks about the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on gender inequalities and civil society responses with Gala Díaz Langou, director of the Social Protection Programme of the Center for the Implementation of Public Policies for Equity and Growth (Centro de Implementación de Políticas Públicas para la Equidad y el Crecimiento, CIPPEC). CIPPEC is an Argentinian civil society organisation dedicated to producing knowledge and recommendations towards the advancement of public policies aimed at fostering development, equity, inclusion, equal opportunity and solid and effective institutions.

 

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

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

 

TURKEY: ‘If we withdraw from Istanbul Convention, it means we don't believe in gender equality’

In the run-up to the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action, due in September 2020, CIVICUS is interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about the progress achieved and the challenges ahead. Focused on eliminating violence against women (VAW), ensuring access to family planning and reproductive healthcare, removing barriers to women’s participation in decision-making and providing decent jobs and equal pay for equal work, the Beijing Platform for Action was adopted at the United Nations’ (UN) Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995. After 25 years, significant but unequal progress has occurred, not least as the result of incessant civil society efforts, but no country has yet achieved gender equality.

 

MALAWI: ‘Civil society expects new gov. to place rights at the top of its agenda’

CIVICUS speaks with Michael Kaiyatsa, acting Executive Director of the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR), about the recent presidential election in Malawi, which were held in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and led to a change of government. The CHRR is civil society organisation (CSO) aimed at supporting and promoting democracy and human rights in Malawi. Its mission is to contribute towards the protection, promotion and consolidation of good governance by empowering rural and urban communities to exercise their rights. Founded in 1995 by former student exiles who returned home to the promise of a new democracy, it operates through two core programmes: Community Mobilisation and Empowerment and Human Rights Monitoring and Training.

MichaelKaiyatsa 

Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic and a political crisis, the presidential election was held in Malawi in June 2020. What was the role of civil society and the judiciary in ensuring that the election took place?

I think it is fair to say that judges and civil society-led protests paved the way for the fresh presidential election to be held. The election that was held on 23 June 2020 was a rerun ordered by Malawi’s Constitutional Court, which ruled on 3 February 2020 to overturn the 21 May 2019 presidential election, citing massive irregularities.

In the May 2019 presidential contest, the incumbent, Peter Mutharika, was declared winner, in the first-past-the-post system, with 38.57 per cent of the vote. However, the opposition claimed the poll had been fraudulent. They cited, among other things, the alleged use of Tippex correction fluid to change vote tallies. Dr Lazarus Chakwera of the Malawi Congress Party and Dr Saulos Chilima of the United Transformation Movement petitioned the Constitutional Court, seeking to overturn the presidential election results. The two cited widespread irregularities, including the use of Tippex and missing signatures on some result sheets.

The Constitutional Court’s historic ruling, later validated by the country’s Supreme Court, represents a noteworthy illustration of the independence of the judiciary in Malawi’s maturing democracy. However, key to the ruling was not only the independence of Malawi’s judiciary but also months of civil society-led mass demonstrations. The protests were so sustained and vigorous that they could not be ignored by key democratic institutions like the judiciary. The Human Rights Defenders Coalition, an influential civil society grouping, courageously brought thousands of people to the streets on a regular basis to campaign against the botched outcome of the May 2019 election. This was particularly important because it significantly increased the pressure on the judiciary and other key democratic institutions to do the right thing.

This is not to underrate the role played by the judiciary. The judges really stood up to defend democracy. Prior to the Constitutional Court ruling there had been several attempts to bribe the judges to ensure that the ruling went in former President Mutharika’s favour: one prominent banker was arrested in connection with the bribery case. There were also numerous threats to the independence of the judiciary prior to the rerun, including a government attempt to force out senior Supreme Court judges through early retirement just days before the rerun. The judges could have easily succumbed to such intimidation and ruled in favour of Mutharika, but they did not. Instead, they stood firm and delivered a radical judgement that has changed the way Malawi is governed.

Civil society successfully challenged a decision by the former government to impose a lockdown. Why did civil society object to it when other countries around the world were implementing similar measures?

Civil society wanted the lockdown to be put on hold until the government could come up with some way to protect the country’s poorest and most vulnerable people. Civil society groups were unhappy that the government did not outline a social safety net for vulnerable people during the lockdown, which prompted the Human Rights Defenders Coalition and other CSOs to seek a stop order from the court. It is a fact that many people in Malawi operate on a hand-to-mouth basis.

It is also important to note that the civil society challenge came after thousands of informal traders in the cities of Blantyre and Mzuzu and in districts like Thyolo had taken to the streets to protest against the lockdown with placards that read, ‘We’d rather die of corona than die of hunger’. Many of these vendors are daily wage earners and a lockdown could have badly affected them. There was also growing suspicion among civil society and the citizenry that the government was trying to use the lockdown to justify the cancellation or postponement of the elections.

How was the election turnout? Were there worries that Malawians would not come out to vote for fear of contagion?

There were worries that Malawians would not come out in their numbers to vote because of health concerns caused by the pandemic. It was feared, for example, that with the need for limited exposure to large groups and social distancing, citizens might be less likely to leave their homes to vote because of concerns for their own health and that of their family members. There was also a major risk that those deterred from voting would be disproportionately from older age groups or people with underlying health conditions. The legitimacy of the contest might therefore be undermined by unfair restrictions placed on certain segments of society and thus by their uneven participation. 

These fears were partly realised. The voter turnout was lower than in the previous election. Of the 6,859,570 Malawians registered to vote in 2020, 64.8 per cent voted. This was down from May 2019, when 74.4 per cent of registered voters participated. But the low turnout could also be attributed to inadequate voter and civic education campaigns. Unlike in previous elections, most CSOs were unable to conduct civic and voter education due to resource challenges. The uncertainty of polling dates made it difficult for CSOs to mobilise resources. The previous Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) did not give people confidence that the elections would take place within the stipulated 150 days. The official date for the polls was fixed only around two weeks before the elections, so mobilising resources to conduct civic and voter education at such short notice was not easy.

However, it is also true that some Malawians may have avoided the polls because of the growing COVID-19 pandemic. By election day, there were 803 documented cases and 11 recorded COVID-19 deaths in Malawi so some people – possibly older people and those with pre-existing health conditions – may have stayed away.

What were the challenges of organising elections during a pandemic?

The experience in Malawi has shown that organising elections during a pandemic can be very challenging. The prevention measures outlined by the government do not allow gatherings of more than 100 people. However, most political parties ignored this restriction and held campaign meetings exceeding this number.

A key challenge faced by the MEC during this fresh election was the need to put the health and safety of voters first while ensuring the integrity of elections. The MEC usually has a voter education budget that is utilised ahead of each election. However, given that this fresh election was not budgeted for earlier, the MEC faced financial challenges, which deepened as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, which required the procurement of personal protective equipment, adding further budgetary constraints.

The MEC also experienced significant challenges with the production and distribution of voting materials. Malawi imports many election materials from other countries. As Malawi was gearing up for the fresh election, many countries were on full or partial lockdown in the wake of the pandemic. This impacted on election preparations, as some suppliers found it difficult to transport goods internationally. Because of all this, there were significant delays in the printing of ballot papers, which was done in Dubai.

Another challenge was that political parties were not able to monitor the ballot printing process, as has always been the case, due to COVID-19 related travel restrictions. A further important consequence of the pandemic was the absence of international election observers. With international travel restrictions imposed worldwide, the ability of international observers to observe the election was dramatically restricted. And as already mentioned, the pandemic affected voter turnout.

Now that the rerun election has led to the ousting of the incumbent and a new president, what does civil society expect from the new government?

Civil society has many expectations of the new government. One of the key expectations is that the new government will place the promotion and protection of human rights at the top of its agenda and strengthen the fundamental freedoms of all Malawians in line with international human rights standards. It is also hoped that the government will move to protect the space for civil society. The fresh presidential election took place amidst concerted government attacks on civil society and the judiciary. It is our expectation that the new government will fulfil its election promise to protect civic space and allow CSOs to operate freely.

In its 2019 election manifesto, the Malawi Congress Party, which leads the Tonse Alliance (‘Tonse’ meaning ‘all of us’), a grouping of nine political parties formed weeks before the fresh poll to unseat Mutharika, promised to support the operations of local and international human rights CSOs through a permissive and enabling policy and institutional and legislative framework and to facilitate the progressive development of a civil society that is fully capable of holding the government accountable and defending citizens’ rights. It is our hope that the new administration will walk the talk on this promise and withdraw the oppressive NGO Act (Amendment Bill) of 2018, which contains a number of provisions that could pose a threat to CSOs’ ability to operate. The proposed legislation would raise the penalty fee imposed on a CSO in breach of the law from the current US$70 to US$20,000. It would also impose a seven-year jail term on CSO leaders found in breach of the law. So, for example, if you delay submitting a report to the NGO Authority, you could be fined US$20,000 and the directors of the organisation could be sent to prison for seven years. This is a ridiculous provision. It is a provision that can only be found in authoritarian states. We also hope the new administration will scrap the new fee regime, which is repressive and quite high for CSOs, and revert to the old fees. The new fees that CSOs have to pay to the NGO Board were increased in January 2018 from US$70 to US$1,400.

What support will civil society in Malawi need from international civil society to help sustain Malawi’s democracy?

One thing that is urgent now that elections are out of the way is for civil society to sit down and develop an action plan and roadmap, which can include a robust mechanism to check on the government's actions. In this regard, CSOs need the support of international CSOs, particularly to develop their capacities to hold the new government to account on its commitments. CSOs also need financial support to reinforce their role in local governance and accountability. Financial sustainability is crucial for local CSOs if they are to become resilient, effective organisations. International CSOs and donors have a key role to play in helping local CSOs become more sustainable. Finally, CSOs need moral support from international CSOs to be more effective. During the campaign for electoral integrity, local CSOs received overwhelming support from international CSOs through media statements and letters to authorities. It is our hope that this support will continue as we embark on the arduous task of checking the new government’s actions, especially in addressing corruption and the longstanding culture of impunity for human rights violations.

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

Get in touch with the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation through its website or Facebook page, and follow @CHRRMalawi on Twitter.


 

 

DOMINICAN REPUBLIC: ‘The times ahead may bring positive change’

CIVICUS speaks about the recent elections in the Dominican Republic, held in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, with Hamilk Chahin, coordinator of the Citizen Manifesto for Electoral Transparency, and Addys Then Marte, executive director of Alianza ONG. The Citizen Manifesto, a civil society-led multi-stakeholder initiative, was launched in December 2019 to monitor the 2020 municipal, legislative and presidential elections and foster the consolidation of democratic institutions. Alianza ONG is a network that encompasses 40 Dominican civil society organisations (CSOs). Founded in 1995, it is dedicated to promoting sustainable development through initiatives to strengthen civil society, intersectoral dialogue, training and dissemination of information, political advocacy and the promotion of solidarity and volunteering.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the electoral landscape was quite complex. What was the situation as of March 2020?

DominicanRepublic FlagIn recent years, the ruling party, the Dominican Liberation Party (PLD), accumulated a lot of power in all state institutions, affecting the quality of democracy. The PLD was re-elected for several terms and political elites settled into their positions and got used to exercising power for their own benefit and to the detriment of the interests of the community. Little by little and inadvertently, society also accepted this situation. In this sense, the exceptionally efficient handling of communication mechanisms by successive governments helped a lot. In addition to good international alliances and good luck in managing the economy, advertising and propaganda structures made the perpetuation of the government easy.

Fortunately, in every society there is a seed that is practically impossible to uproot: that of civil society. At times it may lay dormant or in hibernation, but at some point something happens that causes it to get moving. In our case, it was the extreme confidence of our rulers in having their power assured, which led them to increasingly blatant practices, to the point that the citizenry, which for the most part had long tolerated them, at one point said ‘enough’ and went into a state of effervescence. The first important manifestation of this change was the Green March Movement, which began in January 2017.

Born out of popular outrage over the Odebrecht scandal, which involved senior officials from three successive Dominican governments, the Green March Movement encompassed a broad spectrum of CSOs and focused on street mobilisation. It all started with a modest protest walk that we organised through a CSO called Foro Ciudadano (Citizen Forum), which kicked off a great mobilisation phenomenon whose main achievement was to end citizen indifference, to force the middle class out of its comfort zone, in which people expressed criticism without taking action. Opposition parties began to ride on these dynamics. Given that it thought it controlled all power resources, the government initially paid little attention. But the phenomenon far exceeded marching: signatures were collected, community meetings were held, various forms of mobilisation were promoted. It was a state of awakening driven by dignity. Citizens lost their fear of speaking up and this puzzled the government.

How did the 2020 electoral process begin, and how did Citizen Manifesto form?

The beginning of the electoral process was also the beginning of the end of the incumbent government. In October 2019, parties held their primary elections; they were the first primaries to be carried out under new electoral and political party legislation and were managed by the Central Electoral Board (JCE). While the PLD opted for open primaries, allowing the participation of all eligible voters, the main opposition party, the Modern Revolutionary Party (PRM), held closed primaries, allowing the participation of its members only. The candidacy of Luis Abinader, who would eventually be elected president, emerged clearly from the PRM primaries. In comparison, as a result of the PLD primaries, Gonzalo Castillo became the official candidate only by a small difference over three-time president Leonel Fernández.

The primary elections of the ruling party were much more than a candidate selection process: what was at stake in them was the power of the president, Danilo Medina. In office since 2012, Medina had been re-elected in 2016, and had made some unsuccessful attempts to reform the constitution to be re-elected again. Leonel Fernández, as party president, had opposed these manoeuvres, so Medina did not endorse him when he decided to run in the primaries. It became apparent that the government resorted to state resources to support Medina’s designated heir; as a result, the PLD underwent division and Fernández joined the opposition. The primaries were highly contested and there was a lot of manipulation. They left a bitter taste among the citizenry: faced with the possibility that fraud had been used to thwart a primary election, many wondered what would become of the national election.

It was then that many CSOs began to think about what to do: we connected with each other and with political actors, we shared information and our assessments of the situation. We decided to express our concern and demand fixes from the institutions and entities responsible for organising the elections, starting with the JCE and also the Superior Electoral Tribunal and the Attorney General's Office, which are responsible for prosecuting crimes and irregularities. This is how the Citizen Manifesto initiative began to form. It included actors from the business, religious, labour, union and peasant sectors. We campaigned to draw the attention of society to the need to defend and monitor the process of democratic institutionalisation ahead of the elections. And above all, we advocated with political figures. We met with party representatives, and as a result the Citizen Manifesto had the support of all sectors. This turned us into direct interlocutors of the JCE.

When were the elections originally scheduled?

The electoral cycle included a series of elections: municipal elections, scheduled for February, and national elections, both presidential and legislative, initially scheduled for May. In the municipal elections, a new dual voting system was used for the first time, which consisted of a fully electronic voting system for urban areas with a higher population density and a manual system for rural areas. As a consequence of the Citizen Manifesto’s requests to bring some guarantees and certainty to the process, the electronic voting system also had a manual component in the stage at which the ballots were counted; we also successfully demanded that the vote counting process be recorded and a fingerprint and QR code capture system be introduced.

Although security measures were strengthened, there were serious problems with the implementation of the new software. On 16 February, several hours after the vote had started, the JCE discovered that there was a problem with around 60 per cent of the electronic voting machines and decided to suspend the municipal election across the country.

This caused a crisis of confidence, and thousands of people took to the streets in almost daily protests. On 17 February, a demonstration outside the JCE headquarters demanded the resignation of all JCE members. Discontent also affected the government, as many protesters believed that it had tried to take advantage of machines not working properly. On 27 February, Independence Day, a massive demonstration was held to demand the investigation of what happened and urge greater transparency in the electoral process. The Dominican diaspora in several countries around the world organised solidarity demonstrations in support of democracy in their country.

Municipal elections were rescheduled and held on 16 March, and the electronic voting was not used. By then the COVID-19 pandemic had already begun but suspending the election a second time was not an option. That is why the Dominican Republic declared its state of emergency quite late: the government waited for the elections to take place and three days later it passed a state of emergency and introduced a curfew.

In April, as the situation continued, the electoral body decided to postpone the national elections until 5 July, after consulting with political parties and civil society. There was not much margin for manoeuvre because sufficient time was needed for the eventuality of a run-off election, which would have needed to take place before 16 August, when the new government should be inaugurated. Of course, there was talk of the possibility of a constitutional amendment to postpone inauguration day, and civil society had to step in to deactivate these plans and help put together an electoral process that included all necessary sanitary measures. Fortunately, the media provided the space that CSOs needed for this; we had a good communications platform.

As elections took place during the pandemic, what measures were taken to limit contagion risks?

As civil society we tried to force the introduction of adequate sanitary measures. We urged the JCE to follow the recommendations of the World Health Organization and the Organization of American States to convey the certainty that the necessary measures would be taken and the elections would take place. It was a titanic effort, because we have not yet had an effective prevention and rapid testing policy in the Dominican Republic; however, it turned out to be possible to impose sanitary protocols, including disinfection and sanitation, the distribution of protective materials and physical distancing measures.

The truth is that the great outbreak of COVID-19 that we are experiencing today has not happened exclusively because of the elections; it seems to be above all the result of two-and-a-half months of disorganised and irresponsible campaigning carried out mainly by the incumbent party. The government tried to profit from the pandemic and the limitations imposed by the state of emergency. However, this may have played against it. The waste of resources in favour of the official candidate was such that people resented it. It was grotesque: for instance, just like in China, the measure of spraying streets with disinfectant was adopted, but while in China it was a robot or a vehicle that went out on the streets at night and passed through all the neighbourhoods, here we had an 8pm parade by a caravan of official vehicles, complete with sirens, flags, music – a whole campaign show. People resented it, because they saw it as wasting resources for propaganda purposes instead of using them to control the pandemic effectively.

Was the opposition able to run a campaign in the context of the health emergency?

The conditions for campaigning were very uneven, because public officials enjoyed a freedom of movement beyond the hours established by the curfew and opposition parties complained that the incumbent party could continue campaigning unrestricted while they were limited to permitted hours. Access to the media was also uneven: propaganda in favour of the official candidate was ubiquitous, because it was one and the same as government propaganda. In this context, a specific ad caused a lot of discomfort: it said something like ‘you stay home, and we will take care of social aids’, and included the images of the official candidates for president and vice-president.

The pandemic was used politically in many ways. At one point the fear of contagion was used to promote abstention; a campaign was launched that included a drawing of a skull and said, ‘going out kills’. While we were campaigning under the messaging ‘protect yourself and get out to vote’, the government’s bet was to instil fear among the independent middle class, while planning to get their own people out to vote en masse. The negative reaction they provoked was so strong that they were forced take this ad down after a couple of days.

Likewise, the state was absent from most policies implemented against the pandemic and left the provision of social aid and prevention in the hands of the ruling party candidate. Often it was not the government that carried out fumigations, but the candidate’s companies. It was jets from the candidate’s aviation company, not state or military planes, that brought back Dominican citizens who were stranded abroad. The first test kits were brought from China by the candidate, with of course large propaganda operations.

With everything in its favour, how was it possible for the government to lose the elections?

The PRM candidate, Luis Abinader, prevailed in the first round, with more than 52 per cent of the vote, while the official candidate came second with 37 per cent and former President Fernández reached only nine per cent. The division of the incumbent party as a result of the allegations of fraud in the primaries had an effect, because if the party had been united and not affected by this scandal, the results could have been different.

Faced with the fact that a single party had ruled during 20 of the past 24 years, citizens showed fatigue and searched for alternatives. Citizens expressed themselves not only through mobilisation and protest, but also through a process of awareness raising that took several years. Very interesting expression platforms emerged, such as the digital medium Somos Pueblo (We are the People), whose YouTube broadcasts played a very important role. With the government campaigning on the streets and citizens isolated by the pandemic, creative strategies were also employed to overcome limitations and protest without the need to leave our homes, such as through cacerolazos (pot-banging actions).

The interest in participating to bring about change was reflected in the election turnout, which exceeded 55 per cent. Although well below the 70 per cent average recorded in the elections held over the past decade, the figure was noteworthy in the context of the pandemic. Given the incumbent government’s mismanagement of the pandemic, people have high hopes in the new government. If we can overcome this challenge, the times ahead may bring positive change in terms of strengthening institutions and deepening democracy.

Civic space in the Dominican Republic is rated as ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

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

Get in touch with Alianza ONG through its website or its Facebook page, and follow @AlianzaONG and @AddysThen on Twitter.

 

SINGAPORE: ‘Opposition parties were given unfavourable coverage by the state media and had difficulty accessing voters’

CIVICUS speaks to human rights defender Jolovan Wham about the recent elections in Singapore, which were held in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. The CIVICUS Monitor has documented the use of restrictive laws in Singapore against civil society activists, human rights defenders, lawyers, independent online media outlets and members of the political opposition, who face prosecution, including through defamation suits and contempt of court charges.

Jolovan Wham

 

Has there been any disagreement around whether elections should be held, when, or how?

Yes. Opposition parties were largely against it as the COVID-19 pandemic had not abated and holding the elections might pose a public health threat. They were also concerned that physical rallies and door-to-door visits would be disallowed, which would hinder their campaign efforts.

And indeed, it was more difficult to connect face to face with voters when a one-metre distance had to be maintained during walkabouts and door-to-door visits. Everyone had to give their speeches and connect with voters online.

Some changes were introduced so elections would proceed in the context of the pandemic. Voting time was extended by two hours to take the longer queues caused by social distancing into consideration. But the possibility of online voting was not discussed. And older people and those who were frail may have not participated for fear of getting infected with COVID-19.

What was the state of civic freedoms ahead of the elections?

The ruling People’s Action Party’s (PAP) control of all public institutions is a major civic freedom issue. It means it gets to shape the political discourse according to its agenda and set the rules of the game to its advantage. For example, the elections department, which draws electoral boundaries, reports to the prime minister himself. Most civil society groups are afraid of engaging in the elections in a meaningful way for fear of being seen as ‘partisan’. If a civil society association is associated with an opposition party, it may lose funding, support and patronage for its work.

A recent report by the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Parliamentarians for Human Rights documented structural flaws that prevented the election from being fair, including the prime minister’s broad powers over the entire electoral process without any effective oversight. The environment in which the Singaporean people were able to exercise their right to participate in public life was heavily restricted. Key opposition candidates had been targeted with lawsuits by members of the PAP, and voters in opposition-led constituencies fear reprisals for not voting for the PAP. Fundamental freedoms, which are intrinsically linked to free elections, are limited as the government controls the media and uses restrictive laws against dissenting and critical voices.

How did this affect the chances of the opposition?

Opposition candidates and parties had to rely solely on social media to get their message out, because of unfavourable coverage by state media. They also had difficulty accessing voters because of the PAP’s monopoly, manipulation and control of national grassroots groups, unions and organisations, on top of the difficulties involved in holding physical rallies in the context of the pandemic.

The elections were held on 10 July. The PAP secured 83 parliamentary seats but faced a setback as the opposition made minor but historic gains. The Workers’ party, the only opposition party in parliament, increased its seats from six to 10 – the biggest result for the opposition since independence. The PAP popular vote dipped to 61 per cent.

What were the main issues the campaign revolved around?

For the PAP, the campaign revolved around smearing opposition candidates, accusing them of peddling falsehoods and of having nefarious agendas and engaging in character assassination. Scaremongering tactics were also used: the electorate were told that only the PAP could get Singaporeans out of the COVID-19 pandemic and that having more opposition members in parliament would thwart these efforts.

Opposition parties, on the other hand, focused on telling the electorate that they were in danger of being wiped out of parliament as they held fewer than 10 elected seats out of almost 90. Issues such as the high cost of living and immigration were other key issues raised by the opposition.

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

 

ARGENTINA: ‘We must stop attempts to go back to the injustices of the pre-pandemic era’

CIVICUS speaks about the COVID-19 crisis and civil society responses with Sebastián Pilo, co-director of Civil Association for Equality and Justice (Asociación Civil por la Igualdad y la Justicia, ACIJ), a civil society organisation (CSO) dedicated to defending the rights of the most disadvantaged groups and strengthening democracy in Argentina. Founded in 2002, ACIJ aims to defend the effective enforcement of the National Constitution and the principles of the rule of law, promote compliance with the laws that protect disadvantaged groups and the eradication of all discriminatory practices, and contribute to the development of practices of participatory and deliberative democracy.

Sebastien Argentina

What impact has the COVID-19 pandemic had on people’s rights in Argentina?

Notwithstanding the good results in terms of health yielded by lockdown measures, the pandemic has hit the most vulnerable populations especially hard. To cite just a few examples, the impact of contagion has fallen significantly on the inhabitants of informal settlements. Institutionalised older adults have also suffered the pandemic in a particularly cruel way. In addition, cases of domestic violence have presumably increased under lockdown conditions.

The fact that people whose right to adequate housing is not being fulfilled are being asked to ‘stay home’ is a clear example of the gap between constitutional promises and reality, as well as the interrelation between the right to health and other fundamental rights. In this regard, in mid-March, as mandatory lockdown had just begun, alongside other CSOs we submitted a document to the City Government of Buenos Aires warning of the lack of adequate public policies for people living on the streets, a group especially vulnerable to the pandemic. Although the city government announced measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, the actions were mainly aimed at controlling the circulation of this population, but not at guaranteeing their access to adequate hygiene and health conditions. The causes that lead to people becoming homeless are structural and linked to the lack of public policies guaranteeing all people access to decent housing. The actions taken during this emergency should be a starting point to build long-term policies to change the precarious conditions in which thousands of people live in our city.

More generally, in the context of the pandemic the multisectoral initiative Habitar Argentina has called for the implementation of a national emergency policy on habitat, aimed not only at improving the living conditions of people who are already on the street, but also suspending – for six months or until the pandemic is over – all evictions and judicial decisions that may expel more people onto the streets or worsen their sanitary conditions, as well as implementing specific policies for families who rent, have mortgages or live in precarious housing. It also calls for the implementation of protection mechanisms for women, children, adolescents and sexual minorities or gender non-conforming people who experience violence regardless of the type of housing or territory they inhabit.

What obstacles has ACIJ faced to continue operating in this context, and how have you overcome them?

Our biggest obstacle was linked to lockdown measures and the consequent impossibility of maintaining, under the same conditions, our territorial presence in the communities with which we work. This forced us to increase our efforts to continue in contact – virtually or through authorised sporadic physical presence – with community leaders and promote actions aimed at providing the special protection that the context required.

Thus, for example, along with Fundación Huésped and TECHO, we organised a series of training sessions targeted at grassroots leaders, who have historically been key to solidarity networks in their neighbourhoods. Staring on 5 June, we held five meetings to provide them with information on prevention measures against COVID-19 and other diseases present in their neighbourhoods, legal information pertaining to compulsory lockdown, guidance in the event of institutional or gender-based violence and prevention measures for community soup kitchens, and to let them know about the public assistance programmes that were established during the pandemic. More than 90 social leaders from the provinces of Buenos Aires, Chaco, Córdoba and Tucumán took part in these meetings.

A virtual assistant with specific information was also developed to answer queries from inhabitants of poor neighbourhoods and a series of communication pieces were distributed through community WhatsApp and Facebook groups.

What other actions have you undertaken to defend the rights affected under the pandemic, and what have you achieved?

Among the most relevant actions that we have undertaken during these months, I would highlight the following.

First, regarding the inhabitants of slums and informal settlements, we promoted a special protocol of action against COVID-19, the creation of a web platform that geo-references resources and helps identify the urgent needs of these inhabitants and a precautionary measure so that the state would provide free internet access for the duration of lockdown measures.

The internet access development came in response to a lawsuit that we filed with other CSOs in order to enable the continuity of schooling for all students within the framework of distance education measures established during the emergency. The precautionary measure issued in early June forces the Government of the City of Buenos Aires to provide all students who attend public schools or privately operated schools with zero fees and who are in a socially vulnerable situation – those on city or federal welfare, scholarships, subsidies, or social programmes, or those who live in slums – an adequate device – a laptop, notebook, or tablet – to access the internet and carry out schoolwork in order to guarantee the continuity of learning. Likewise, the government is obliged to install in all the slums and informal settlements within the city the required technological equipment for wireless internet transmission, similar to that which it currently maintains in squares and public spaces, in sufficient quantity and adequate locations in order to provide a minimum standard of free wireless connectivity. In the event that there are technical impediments to this, the local government must provide a mobile device with data to allow internet access to every family including children or adolescents who attend primary-level educational establishments.

This measure is key because not only does it seek to reverse the existing inequality in terms of access to educational equipment, but it also recognises internet access as a fundamental right that is instrumental – and, in this context, essential – for the exercise of other rights such as rights to education, health, information or access to justice.

Second, regarding people with disabilities, among other things, we denounced the reduction in assistance coverage, carried out a campaign to show the effects of confinement on people secluded in mental hospitals and launched a web platform to foster access to rights.

The discapacidadyderechos.org.ar platform was launched in early July and seeks to help people with disabilities demand the fulfilment of their rights to health, education, work, independent living and social protection. The platform centralises information regarding rights, benefits and services recognised by current regulations, and outlines how to claim these rights in cases of noncompliance by insurance and prepaid medicine companies and the state and where to go for free legal advice and sponsorship. The site has a total of 120 document templates, including administrative notes and document letters, that each user can adapt to their situation. In addition, it has a specific section that provides information on the rights of people with disabilities in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It should be noted that the process to develop the site included the participation of people with disabilities and their families, who tested the platform and made suggestions for its improvement. It was also based on the advice of specialists in digital accessibility and usability.

Third, for vulnerable groups in general, alongside a coalition of academic institutions and CSOs, we started an initiative to disseminate legal information to clarify the scope and impacts of emergency regulations and contribute to the legal empowerment of various disadvantaged groups, and we made a regional call to highlight the role of justice in the face of the crisis. We also prepared a document highlighting key information about injustice in tax matters and ideas to contribute to a fiscal policy that respects economic, social and cultural rights in the context of the pandemic.

What would you say has been the key to obtaining these achievements?

I believe that the achievements obtained in this context are fundamentally explained by the combination of three variables: first, the entire ACIJ team was mobilised by the need to make a significant contribution from our institutional role, and adopted the necessary flexibility to react to the crisis in an appropriate way. Second, for a long time we have worked closely with affected communities and groups in relation to the issues that are at the core of our work, and this has been key to us knowing first-hand the obstacles that people in vulnerable situations face in accessing their rights. Finally, the combination of strategies of public policy advocacy, court action on collective conflicts and community empowerment resulted in larger impacts than those that would have been obtained in the absence of this interconnection of strategies.

What role should civil society play in overcoming the pandemic and building a better post-pandemic ‘new normal’?

The first thing that civil society must do in this context is to show very clearly the injustices that characterised the world that we had before the pandemic: political inequality as a structural condition of low-quality democracies; economic inequality as underlying violations of economic, social and cultural rights; and a model of production of goods and organisation of territories that was environmentally unsustainable.

Given that the pandemic has deepened pre-existing inequalities and has had greater impacts on the lowest-income people, the current priority should be to strengthen public systems for the protection and promotion of human rights of the groups most affected by the pandemic. In this context, it is essential to guarantee resources to fund adequate health and social protection policies. Hence, together with other CSOs in the region, we published a statement urging states to implement mechanisms to achieve a globally progressive tax system; evaluate existing tax exemptions to determine which ones should be eliminated because they are unjustified and inequitable; not to approve new tax privileges, except in urgent cases, where effectiveness is proven and preferably for the benefit of vulnerable populations and small businesses; and reform and streamline the process of approval and review of tax expenditures, increasing transparency, identifying beneficiaries, adding impact evaluations and subjecting them to independent scrutiny.

It is essential for civil society to help us imagine a new direction: the moment of crisis is also a moment of opportunity if it stimulates our ability to think of different ways to relate to each other as a political community, and to instil new values for the reconstruction of fairer societies.

Finally, we must accompany those who will go through the most difficulties to find survival strategies and satisfy their basic needs, while also looking for participation spaces to make our voices heard in public decision-making spheres and countering the foreseeable attempts to go back, in the post-pandemic stage, to the injustices and privileges that characterised the pre-pandemic era.

Civic space in Argentina is rated as ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with ACIJ through its website or Facebook page, and follow @ACIJargentina and @piloofkors on Twitter.

 

HUNGARY: ‘Trans people are having our rights being taken away’

 

A new law in Hungary, passed at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, prevents trans people from legally changing their gender. CIVICUS speaks to Krisztina Kolos Orbán, Vice-President of the Transvanilla Transgender Association, a Hungarian organisation that advocates for trans people’s rights. Founded as a grassroots initiative in 2011, Transvanilla is the only organisation registered in Hungary with an exclusive focus on transgender rights and gender non-conforming issues. It drives advocacy on gender recognition and trans-specific healthcare at the national level. It also monitors discrimination and violence based on gender expression and gender identity and facilitates community gatherings and other events to raise the visibility of transgender issues and transgender people in Hungary.

Krisztina Kolos Orban

What has been the situation of LGBTQI+ rights in Hungary over the past few years?

In 2012, ILGA Europe ranked Hungary ninth among 49 European countries regarding the rights of LGBTQI+ people, but in 2019 we had regressed to 19th and in 2020 we have further dropped down to 27th. This past year Hungary’s rating has declined the most, and there are various reasons. In 2012 things looked pretty good on paper, but since then new measures were introduced as the human rights landscape has changed. Hungary has not moved forward or followed international recommendations. The other factor has been the huge backlash that we have experienced over the past couple of years. Previously this government had not taken rights away from people, although it had certainly tried, and we knew that it was not LGBTQI+-friendly. But now we are having our rights being taken away. 

If we focus on transgender rights, gender identity is a specific ground mentioned in our legislation on both anti-discrimination and hate crimes, which appears to be rather good. But this only exists on paper, as no hate crimes based on gender identity have been taken to court thus far. Similarly, there have been very few cases focused on anti-discrimination because the law is not being implemented. There is no national action plan to combat discrimination based on gender identity.

Therefore, transgender rights were never guaranteed by law. When it comes to legal gender recognition and trans-specific healthcare there were no laws or national guidelines. However, practices had improved. Since 2003, transgender people have been able to change their birth certificates, gender markers and first names based on a mental health diagnosis; no other medical intervention was required. Back then this was amazing. The government promised to create legislation but failed to do so. Until now, no government even addressed the issue. As a result, no legislation backed these administrative procedures, which were not even published on the government's website. But for the time being things were okay because the practice was reliable and procedures were rather trans-friendly. Those who provided the required documentation were able to change their birth certificates and it was relatively easy and fast. But the fact that the practice was not protected by legislation was not a minor detail. We see it now that the practice has become illegal. It has been a huge step backwards. 

In 2020, new regulations that only recognise the sex assigned at birth and prevent transgender people from legally changing their gender and obtaining new documentation were passed by parliament by a 133 to 57 vote margin. They are contained in article 33 of an omnibus bill that was introduced on 31 March and approved on 19 May. Article 33 contradicts not just international and European human rights standards but also previous rulings by the Hungarian Constitutional Court, which has previously made it clear that changing your name and gender marker is a fundamental right for trans people. The Commissioner for Fundamental Rights issued a report in 2016 and another in 2018 that stated that the authorities need to enact proper legislation because this is a fundamental right.

This law change fits into the fight against gender led by the Christian Democratic party, which is part of the governing coalition. This party has already banned gender studies and has argued that there is no such thing as gender, as in the Hungarian language there are not even separate words for ‘sex’ and ‘gender’. But in the past year, it has resorted to using the word ‘gender’ in English so as to be able to attack gender as a concept. So this is part of a larger attack against so-called ‘gender ideology’. The protection of what the new law calls ‘sex at birth’ is a part of this. For the past six years we have worked to come up with legislation on these issues, and initially we thought the authorities wanted to tackle it as well, but after a while it became obvious to us that our initiatives were being blocked along the way. 

It is difficult to engage with the authorities. We don’t get much information from them. We cannot get to those with decision-making authority; we can only talk to low-ranking officials, who are obviously afraid to give us information. There is no public discussion and civil society is not involved. We were not consulted regarding these specific changes to the Registry Act. The proposal came from the government, and specifically from the Christian members of the government coalition, and was supported by civil society organisations (CSOs) that promote so-called ‘family values’. Timing also raised a lot of questions. Why was it so important to address this issue in the middle of a pandemic? Why now, and why in this way?

What are the main restrictions that the Hungarian LGBTQI+ community experiences on their freedoms to organise, speak up and protest?

In Hungary there is an NGO law that requires CSOs to register if they receive foreign funding, if their income is above a certain amount. The threshold is relatively low, so many CSOs, including us, must register. There is a list of foreign-funded CSOs that is published and publicly available. It is no secret that we seek foreign funding because we cannot access funds in Hungary. The government refers to CSOs, and particularly to those that criticise the government, as ‘enemies’ of the Hungarian people. This has obviously affected LGBTQI+ organisations too. 

This is not just rhetoric. In practice, the government does not consult with CSOs that are independent or that they don’t like, including us. Instructions to marginalise these organisations come from the top levels of government, and while some lower-level officials might want to try to engage with us, they are not allowed to do so. How can CSOs conduct advocacy or engage with the authorities if public officials are banned from any contact with us?

Additionally, most media are controlled by the government, and the rest tend to have a neoliberal perspective, which usually makes them difficult to access for organisations that do not follow their agenda, like Transvanilla.

Our freedom to conduct our legitimate activities is also being challenged. Last year, for instance, there were several attacks against events organised around Pride month. A speed-dating event for pansexual people that had been organised by Transvanilla was interrupted by far-right activists. We couldn’t continue the event and the police didn't protect us. Far-right activists video-recorded participants for over an hour and we were not allowed to close the door. They were obviously acting illegally but the police took no action against them. In other instances, venues were ruined or damaged by far-rights activists. This was a new development – in the past, our events had received police protection when such things happened. 

Year after year there have also been attempts to ban Pride events, but the courts have declared that these events cannot be banned. It’s a constant fight. The authorities have fenced off Pride routes on the pretence of protecting marchers, but this was obviously an attempt to restrict their movement.

How did the LGBTQI+ community react when the new law was passed?

It was a traumatic event because it was a clear attack against us. This amendment only affected trans and intersex people who would like to change their gender markers and trans people who don’t want to change their gender markers but would still like to change their name, which is no longer possible in Hungary. But the whole community now feels like second-class citizens, like outcasts who the government does not respect. 

Personally, as a non-binary person, it had a huge effect on me, because I was already far from being recognised in my documents and now I am a lot further away from that. Many of my friends who were in the process of changing their legal gender recognition are in a limbo.  At least a hundred applicants’ cases had already been suspended in the past two and a half years, as requests were not being evaluated. Those people have now lost all hopes. They are frustrated and devastated. 

There is also fear because we don’t know what is next, what else is coming to us. Even though the law can be challenged, it might require many years. And even if we get rid of this law, the situation may not improve. Some people are suicidal, and many people want to leave the country. A big part of the community is just suffering silently and has no voice. While some activists have emerged from this situation and these activists are gaining visibility, the vast majority are suffering at home, alone. People were already isolated before, and it will not get any better. From now on, more people will hide their identity.

Since 2016 there have been problems with administrative procedures, so increasing numbers of people who began to transition may look different from the sex registered in their documents. And if someone is openly and visibly transgender it becomes difficult to find a job; discrimination is part of everyday life. And now it is becoming more serious. We have seen a rise in discrimination, not just in employment but in everyday life. In Hungary you often must present your ID papers, so you have to out yourself all the time. People don’t believe you and you are questioned. For example, recently a trans person was trying to buy a house and the lawyer who was drawing up the paperwork raised questions about their ID document because it didn’t match their gender description.

Given the restrictions on peaceful assembly imposed under the COVID-19 pandemic, what sort of lobbying and campaigning have you been able to do to stop Article 33?

Transvanilla is very strategic: we only engage in activities that might have an impact. Therefore, we did not focus on the Hungarian context. In parliament the opposition is powerless because Fidesz, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s party, has two thirds of the seats and can thus win any vote. We also knew that we could not mobilise enough people – the masses would not be out on the streets because of the pandemic, so this wasn’t even an option. If this had not happened during the pandemic, other organisations might have tried to organise protests. Until the amendment was introduced, Transvanilla was not publicly highlighting the issue of legal gender recognition because we were doing silent advocacy. On 1 April, when we found out about the initiative, we called on international actors to raise their voices publicly and to engage in multilateral dialogue with our government on this issue.

We grabbed international attention and many international voices were vocal against the proposal. In April 2020 we also turned to Hungary’s Commissioner on Fundamental Rights and we asked him to do whatever he could to stop the amendment. We of course engaged with international and national media. We launched a petition and managed to get more than 30,000 signatures. We now have another petition that is addressed to the European Union (EU) and we hope it will have an effect.

So, we resorted to the ombudsperson, who could have intervened but didn’t, and we put international pressure on the government, which sometimes works but this time did not. The law was passed, and the day it came into effect we launched two cases at the Constitutional Court. The court could turn them down for whatever reason, but we hope that it will not. At the same time, we are putting pressure on the Commissioner for Fundamental Rights because he has the power to request the Constitutional Court to look into the law, and if he does, then the court must do so. Pressure is very important, and many international actors are helping, including Amnesty International Hungary, which has launched a campaign. We have 23 cases before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), all of which deal with gender recognition, and the applicants are represented by our lawyer. The government and the other parties involved were given time until June 2020 to settle these cases, and if they didn’t, the Court would move forward for a decision. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the deadline for the government was pushed to September 2020, which is not good news for us. But based on ECHR practice, we are confident that it will respect transgender rights. We will also take more cases to this court and represent people who are specifically affected by this law. We want to put pressure on the Court to make a decision as soon as possible.

We also continue to engage with EU human rights mechanisms, the Council of Europe and the United Nations. We got CSOs to sign a statement to put pressure on the European Commission (EC), which so far has been silent on this. We want to make sure that what happened in Hungary doesn’t happen in other countries, so we have created a civil society alliance to convey the message that if other governments try to do the same, they will face huge resistance. And of course, we keep trying to engage with the ministries, although we have sent them letters and have received no response. 

How can an increasingly authoritarian government like Hungary’s be held accountable for its actions? 

We have tried to engage directly with the government to hold it accountable, but it has not worked so far. We represent a minority group and cannot fight this government alone. But international institutions do sometimes influence the government's actions. We hope that a court decision from the ECHR or the Constitutional Court would have an effect. 

Unfortunately, what we have seen since 2010 is that the way it is designed, the EU cannot take definitive action against a country, especially if it is not alone. And this is the case here, as Poland and Hungary always back each other. People believe that the EU lacks political will to take action. We cannot repeat often enough that the EU should cut off funding, because Hungary is living on EU money and if it cuts off funding the government would start to behave differently. But the EU refuses to do it. 

The EU should act not only on this specific legislation but also on other, bigger issues related to the rule of law and fundamental rights in Hungary. It should do something about its own member states, or else it should not pass comment on any non-EU country. The fact that the EC fails to mention Hungary explicitly is outrageous. When the Authorisation Act was passed in late March, giving Prime Minister Orbán extra powers to fight the pandemic, EC President Ursula von der Leyen made a statement that was clearly about Hungary, but did not mention it by name, and then Hungary was a signatory to the statement. The EC’s Commissioner for Equality was recently asked to condemn Hungary for the anti-transgender amendment and she refused to do so; instead, she decided to speak about trans rights in general. This is something that we cannot accept.

The EU should not just speak up, but also act on Hungary and Poland. If the EC keeps refusing to address the situation on the ground, then we really don’t know where else to go. Thus far, the government has followed ECHR decisions, but it has stopped following Hungarian court decisions just this year, which is very worrying. In 2018 there was a Constitutional Court decision in the case of a transgender refugee that required parliament to enact legislation on legal gender recognition for non-Hungarian citizens, which it has not yet done.

What support do Hungarian CSOs need from international civil society?

It is important to attempt to unify the different movements and to act as bridge between them and I think international CSOs can play a role in this. As a trans organisation we are responsible for trans people, but trans people come in all sizes and shapes – there are migrant trans people, Roma trans people, disabled trans people – and we all have to come together. Also, while trans people are currently under attack in Hungary, we don't know which vulnerable group is next on the list, and I think international CSOs should focus on everyone. They also need to assist in raising awareness in international institutions – in Hungary, for example, international pressure is important because Orbán still sometimes cares about how Hungary is perceived. So the engagement that comes from the international community is helpful. International civil society can also assist in presenting good examples, because the better the situation is in other countries for trans people, the more shame it can bring to the Hungarian government. But if other EU countries start to follow Hungary, then the government will get away with this. Organisations like CIVICUS can bring CSOs together.

Civic space in Hungary is rated as ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor. Hungary also currently features on our Civic Space Watchlist.
Get in touch with the Transvanilla Transgender Association through its website and Facebook page, or follow @Transvanilla on Twitter and @transvanilla.official on Instagram.

 

 

TUNISIA: ‘The official response has failed to consider the gendered aspects of the pandemic’

In the run-up to the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action, due in September 2020, CIVICUS is interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about the progress achieved and the challenges ahead. Focused on eliminating violence against women, ensuring access to family planning and reproductive healthcare, removing barriers to women’s participation in decision-making and providing decent jobs and equal pay for equal work, the Beijing Platform for Action was adopted at the United Nations’ (UN) Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995. After 25 years, significant but unequal progress has occurred, not least as the result of incessant civil society efforts, but no country has yet achieved gender equality.

CIVICUS and the Arab NGO Network for Development (ANND) speak to Ramy Khouili, director of the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (Association Tunisienne des Femmes Démocrates, ATFD). Founded in 1989 by the autonomous feminist movement in response to state feminism, ATFD promotes gender equality in all areas, from the political sphere to socio-economic rights, including women’s sexual, bodily and reproductive rights, and fights against all forms of discrimination and violence against women.

Tunisia Interview

What is the situation of women’s rights in Tunisia? How much has been achieved so far?

About a month after independence in 1956, the Code of Personal Status was enacted. Up until now, it is still seen as the most progressive and revolutionary personal status code in the region because it abolished polygamy, instituted civil marriage and abolished repudiation and many forms of degradation of women. Ever since then, we had a very peculiar situation, as state feminism prevailed in the public sphere. We lived under a dictatorship for almost 50 years, but Tunisia was always praised as a good example when it came to women’s rights in the region. That praise took women hostage, denying them the right to real equality. So an autonomous feminist movement was founded and it made it its mission to denounce that the situation was not as good as the regime presented, which caused it a lot of trouble.

Following the 2011 revolution there was a comeback of Islamist and conservative groups, and women’s rights were thus threatened. Between 2011 and 2014, during the process to draft a new constitution, the Islamist majority tried to impose a new concept of ‘complementarity’, instead of equality, between women and men. It took a lot of efforts from civil society organisations (CSOs) and street mobilisations to challenge this. As a result, Article 21 of the Tunisian Constitution now clearly states that women and men are equal before the law and prohibits any form of discrimination.

It took a social movement to come up with a Constitution that is widely hailed as the most progressive in the region. A last-minute addition, Article 46, recognises the role of the state in fighting violence against women, establishes that the state has a responsibility to promote and protect the rights of women and prohibits any regression in women’s rights.

Since then we have achieved many further legal changes. An anti-human trafficking law was passed in 2016 and an anti-violence law was approved in 2017, which was the first of its kind in the region and was mostly written by civil society activists and feminist organisations. In terms of political representation, the law on political parties enacted in 2011 established that all electoral lists must have gender parity. 

What challenges remain?

On the ground, the situation is different from the law, as inequalities are still very present. Many discriminations persist in practice. Statistics are alarming. Half of all women have been victims of some form of violence. Socio-economic crises have worse impacts on women than on men. Among women, the unemployment rate is almost double the rate for men. Women’s access to land is limited: only four per cent of women own land, although they make up almost 90 per cent of the agricultural labour force. 

For a long time, Tunisia was known as the good example when it came to family planning and reproductive health, as family planning and reproductive health programmes were established in the 1950s and 1960s, and women were granted abortion rights in the early 1970s, even before many European countries. But since the revolution, we have noticed that state authorities have taken a step back when it comes to social services, especially in the areas of education, health and sexual and reproductive health. Access to contraceptives and abortion is becoming more limited, and unmet needs in terms of sexual and reproductive rights are increasing, which is alarming.

In 2019 we submitted, along with other Tunisian CSOs, a shadow report tracking progress towards the goals of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action and laying out the challenges ahead. Our report presented a very different view from the Tunisian government’s. One of our biggest concerns is that Tunisia is a Muslim-majority country and that when the Beijing Platform for Action and Action Plan were adopted, the state of Tunisia submitted a declaration – common to other Muslim-majority countries – saying that it would not commit to any measures that might contradict the values of Islam. Article 1 of the new Constitution states that Tunisia is a Muslim country. That declaration is still in place. Although the state of Tunisia has lifted most of its reservations on the Convention for the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women, it didn’t lift its reservations on the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. So challenges remain both in law and practice.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated those challenges, and what is civil society doing to address them?

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic the ATFD issued a warning to the Tunisian authorities stating our concerns about the period of lockdown, when many women would have to stay at home with their aggressors. We were right, as the number of instances of gender-based violence kept rising under lockdown. The Ministry of Women Affairs said that the amount of calls received through the emergency phone line set up by the government had multiplied fivefold. In our counselling centres we also witnessed a peak, as the number of women who were victims of violence and sought our help increased. The situation got more difficult as people started getting more aggressive. But at the same time, it became much more difficult to go to a police station or seek health services, so access to services decreased. Women have felt isolated and compelled to continue living with their aggressors during lockdown.

Most of the courts were also closed during lockdown and we had to lobby with the high council of the judicial system and the Minister of Justice to include cases of violence against women amongst the emergency cases they were tackling during lockdown. Fortunately, they accepted. 

Access to sexual and reproductive health services was also affected because women could not get out and seek these services for fear of the virus. We had to collaborate with the Minister of Health and Women Affairs to find solutions for this situation and we are now trying to find a way to ensure the continuity of reproductive health services.

In addition, the socio-economic rights of women have been further impacted upon. Due to the economic crisis that came with the pandemic, many women lost their jobs, or are not getting paid. Many women in Tunisia work in the informal sector so they could not continue their work and were left without any income. This is affecting their ability to take care of themselves and their families. We have been working with a group of women domestic workers on a study about the situation of domestic workers in Tunisia. The situation is really alarming because domestic workers cannot work during lockdown and have no other source of income. Although the informal sector represents a large part of the economy, the relief measures adopted by the government only apply to the formal sector. In addition, government aid was given to families, but according to Tunisian law it is men who are the head of the family, so money goes mostly to men. In cases of conflict, violence or separation, women won’t have access to government aid.

We have done a lot of advocacy with the authorities because the official response has failed to consider the gendered aspects of the pandemic. We have worked with most ministries. We met with most ministerial departments to raise awareness. We sent policy papers and open letters. We continued to deliver services in our counselling centres, which are still operating. We also adapted these services to be delivered by phone. We launched a campaign on violence against women during the pandemic, which was followed by thousands of people and was a big success. As a result, the Middle East and North Africa region department of Facebook got in touch with us and now we are working in partnership with them to increase audiences for future campaigns. We will also establish communication channels with Facebook to report violence and hatred on social media.

What restrictions on the freedoms to organise, speak up and protest have you faced during the pandemic, and what are you doing to overcome them?

We haven’t faced restrictions from the government, although our presence in the public space has been affected because it is not possible to hold demonstrations. Demonstrations are something that we are used to doing, because it works to occupy the public space and say, ‘we are here and we are asking for this and that’. This is something we now cannot do, but we are moving to a new phase of the lockdown and it might soon start to get a little easier, so we are thinking of new ways to protest while respecting social distancing. We are reflecting on how to adapt our mobilisation tactics. We are focusing on social media as well as traditional media to communicate our messages and talk about the problems we face, to reach out to the highest possible number of people. We are also attempting to diversify our ways of communication to reach out to different categories of target groups.

We are also establishing a coalition with the journalists’ trade union, the Tunisian League of Human Rights and other organisations to work on the human rights impacts of response to the pandemic.

Many donors and partners have been very flexible because it was obvious that we could not continue acting as if nothing had changed. We had to adapt many of our activities, postpone others and relocate budget towards social aid. Most of our partners were very understanding and we have had good discussions with them to readjust our plans to the situation created by the pandemic. However, we also had issues with donors who decreased salaries for this period.

Besides tackling the urgent issues, we are also in a process of reflection internally and with our partners and allies. We want to see some positive change as a result of the pandemic. We want a more just and equal society in which everyone feels included. The pandemic has revealed some underlying issues that the government chose to ignore for a long time, but that now will need to be addressed, such as a failing healthcare system.

What support does Tunisian civil society need from the international community?

The main form of support is to work together. We have to work together because we have the knowledge from the ground, while international organisations have bigger networks and are able to work in a variety of contexts and have access to international mechanisms and the ability to influence the international agenda. For an effective partnership, we must work together to influence both the national and the international levels. The pandemic has shown us that some of the big issues cannot be tackled at the national level, but that we should also work at the international level and in collaboration with regional networks. If the two are put together I think we can achieve greater impact. 

Civic space in Tunisia is rated as ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women through its Facebook page and follow @atfd_tunisie on Twitter and femmes_democrates on Instagram.

 

 

COSTA RICA: ‘Once legal change achieved, public policy should continue to focus on structural exclusion’

On 26 May 2020, Costa Rica became the first country in Central America to recognise same-sex marriage. CIVICUS speaks with Herman Duarte, a lawyer practising in Costa Rica and El Salvador and the director of Simple Legal Consulting as well as the Latin America Liaison Officer of the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Committee and the founder and president of Foundation Igualitxs. Fundación Igualitxs is a leading think tank working on LGBTQI+ rights in Central America, focused on promoting equal civil marriage across the region. It works towards this goal by conducting strategic litigation at the national and inter-American levels, promoting its ideas in academic circles and partnering with high-level international allies.

Herman Duarte

What roles have civil society and the government played in the process leading to the legalisation of same-sex marriage in Costa Rica?

Costa Rica is a constitutional democracy structured as a unitary state with three branches of government – legislative, executive and judicial – that are in principle independent. At least in theory, the principles of the rule of law and equal legal treatment of all citizens are respected. But Costa Rica is also a confessional state: its constitution expressly recognises Catholicism as its official religion. In recent decades, evangelical congregations have expanded in number, reaching nearly 3,800. By 2017, more than 80 per cent of the population identified themselves as Catholic or evangelic; clearly, Costa Rica is culturally a conservative country.

In the context of a decades-long struggle by the LGBTQI+ rights movement, the kickstart came from the Government of Costa Rica, which in May 2016 asked the Inter-American Court of Human Rights for an advisory opinion regarding the patrimonial rights of same-sex couples. This consultation opened a window for all interested parties to present their arguments, which more than 90 very diverse actors did, including states, international organisations, civil society organisations (CSOs), universities and individuals. Hearings took place on 16 and 17 May 2017 and we took part in them.

The momentum generated by this event was reflected in the organisation of the First Equal Marriage Congress, held in San José, Costa Rica, in November 2017, which brought together more than 54 speakers from all over the region. In January 2018, the Inter-American Court published its decision, which stated that state parties should regulate the status of non-heterosexual families, opening the doors of civil (non-religious) marriage to same-sex couples. A group of 60 LGBTQI+ organisations in the region celebrated the decision as the most important in the history of LGBTQI+ rights to date.

At that time great discussion was elicited around whether the opinion of the Inter-American Court was binding for Costa Rica. The Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice of Costa Rica settled this debate in August 2018, when it argued that the sections of the Family Code that limited civil marriage to heterosexual couples were unconstitutional. The ruling gave the Legislative Assembly 18 months to amend legislation; otherwise, all restrictions would be lifted automatically, and as of 26 May 2020, any couple could marry with no obstacles in Costa Rica. And so it happened, since there was no legislative consensus to create new legislation.

On the path to the entry into force of the Court's ruling, important civil society campaigns were developed to increase social acceptance to accompany legal change.

Did you face backlash from anti-rights groups?

Conservative reaction has been brutal. It is important to understand that the LGBTQI+ community has framed its struggles around the demand for recognition of their human dignity and their equal value as human beings and that religious groups have mobilised as identity groups – groups whose identity is defined in a narrow, not universalistic way, in opposition to an enemy. These groups channelled resentments brought about by legal changes that advanced equality and gave hope to those who had felt displaced by them, leading to the rise of religious political parties.

In such context, the 2018 presidential elections became some sort of referendum on the rights of LGBTQI+ people, and specifically on equal marriage. An evangelical pastor, Fabricio Alvarado, then the lone congressman from an evangelical party, ran for the presidency, exploiting conservative people’s feelings of outrage and fear at the Supreme Court ruling. The candidate was noted for his incendiary statements; he declared, for example, that homosexuality was “caused by the devil.” This is how he climbed to the top of pre-electoral polls: in just one month, he went from three per cent to 17 per cent of voting preferences, and came first in the first round of the presidential elections, winning 14 of the 54 legislative seats as well. This represented a 1,300 per cent increase in the legislative presence of his political party.

The runoff presidential election revolved around the rights of the LGBTQI+ population. The runner-up, Carlos Alvarado, was the candidate of the incumbent party and was favourable to LGBTQI+ rights. His position eventually prevailed, but the elections forced us to confront the enormous power achieved by evangelical churches. Carlos Alvarado’s victory can be explained by several factors, one of which was the formidable mobilisation of civil society. Among the civil society campaigns that had an impact was that of the Coalition for Costa Rica, which sought to generate an informed and inclusive debate, disseminating the candidates’ proposals so that citizens could deliberate before voting, and ‘For all families’, a campaign that Igualitxs launched a week before the elections to spread an inclusive message and demand equal treatment for the LGBTQI+ population.

The deep division created around the elections has had consequences. Politicians who use religion to polarise society continue to abound. They protest because they think that the government is biased towards addressing the problems of the LGBTQI+ population. This tension has increased with the entry into force of equal marriage and the proposal of bills to censor hatred and discriminatory speech.

Do you think that the legal change has been accompanied by a change in attitudes? What is civil society doing to promote acceptance of LGBTQI+ people?

Legal change is one thing and cultural change is another. Legal change has offered human rights progress and has been a way to achieve the universal application of the law. It has been the result of a decades-long struggle by the LGBTQI+ community. But there is still homophobia, discrimination and violence against LGBTQI+ people. Once legal change has been achieved, public policy should continue to focus on structural exclusion. Because legal change by itself does not necessarily improve the feeling of belonging to a community. As the political theorist Bikku Parekh explains, while citizenship is a matter of status and rights, membership is achieved when one is accepted and feels welcome. And there is still much to do for this to happen. People’s attitudes do not change automatically just because a law is implemented. The law sets an objective parameter of what is allowed, but much more work needs to be done to modify the parameters of what is considered normal or morally acceptable.

Therefore, to prepare the ground for legal change, in the 18 months between the publication of the Supreme Court ruling and the entry into force of the decision, more than 35 local CSOs developed the ‘Yes, I accept’ campaign, calling for recognition of the equal dignity of all human beings. This campaign was accompanied by the media, by companies that are part of the advertising union, unions such as the Business Development Association, the United Nations and embassies such as those of Canada and the Netherlands.

The campaign featured testimonies from LGBTQI+ individuals, couples and families, as well as their relatives, neighbours and friends, with the aim of promoting acceptance and changing perceptions of what it means to be an LBGTQI+ person in Costa Rican society. It was activated nationwide, with videos that were broadcast for months not only on social media but also on national television. It is the best campaign that has ever been developed on the subject, and we owe it to Mrs Nisa Sanz, president of the CSO Familias Homoparentales, and Gia Miranda, the campaign’s official spokesperson.

The videos appeal to emotion and generate empathy. They led thousands of people who were not politically involved to give up their sacred right to privacy and stand up to exist as a reality rather than an abstraction. It put a human face on the abstract idea of ‘gays’, as presented by newspapers. By telling people that they would not be rejected, it created the conditions for them to lose their fear, since most LGBTQI+ people suffer some type of rejection in their daily lives, regardless of their social status. As a result, an active citizenry took part in the campaign, making it known that with or without a pandemic it would not take a step back from ground that had been won. This was decisive in making legislators who were trying to sabotage equal civil marriage understand that it would not be possible for them to stop it.

This was one of the most important civil rights campaigns in history, and will remain in memory as a light that shone amid the darkness of the pandemic. Just one day before access to civil marriage took effect for all adults in Costa Rica, the Catholic Bishop of Alajuela delivered a message that said: “We are glad that there are different types of human relationships, different ways of being a family, and I think that where there is a demonstration of affection and family love, in a way God manifests himself, and we have to favour this.” Although not necessarily reflecting the position of the entire institution, the words of this religious representative were the result of the excellent work done by activists to achieve the cultural change that was necessary to gain acceptance of LGBTQI+ people.

It is remarkable how Costa Rica went from criminalising homosexuality in the 1970s and closing gay bars deemed to be ‘perverse’ and persecuting gays with raids under the pretence of public health in the 1980s, to requesting an advisory opinion from the Inter-American Court in 2016 and, after a presidential election focused on the issue, appointing a presidential commissioner for LGBTQI+ affairs in 2018 and recognising equal marriage two years later.

We have just left behind another unjust law. And many people have understood that the fact that the union and life plans of two same-sex adults receive legal protection does not affect them in any way – if anything, it validates the institution of marriage in which they are also part – and that there is nothing wrong with being gay, and in any case no one ‘becomes gay’ as a result of this normalisation.

 

What is the regional significance of the progress achieved in Costa Rica?

Central America is one of the most hostile regions in Latin America for LGBTQI+ people. Murders of homosexual and trans people are frequent in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Costa Rica, as the first Central American country to approve equal marriage, should be a model for the entire region. The advisory opinion of the Inter-American Court is valid for the 20 countries of the Americas that recognise its jurisdiction. Panama could soon follow the path of Costa Rica: an unconstitutionality demand based on the ruling of the Inter-American Court has been filed, and the Iguales Panamá Foundation is coordinating the participation of international and domestic civil society in the process that is taking in Panama’s Supreme Court.

The Igualitxs Foundation has also long been working along the same lines in El Salvador, my country of origin. Salvadoran civil society has made immense progress. Based on the regressive leanings of the Legislative Assembly regarding equal civil marriage, for a decade and a half our efforts have focused on filing demands for the restrictive articles of the Family Code to be declared unconstitutional. I filed one of those lawsuits, titled Equality Lawsuit, on 11 November 2016. Shortly afterwards, several CSOs, such as Asociación Entre Amigos, Comcavis and Hombres Trans El Salvador, as well as numerous independent activists, filed a similar lawsuit.

As in Costa Rica, conservative sectors reacted strongly. In the Legislative Assembly they rushed to start the ratification process of an exclusionary constitutional reform that had been stagnant for years, and that would give constitutional status to the restrictive definition of marriage that we were questioning in the Family Code, which would effectively ban same-sex marriage. In the face of this, we requested a precautionary measure against the constitutional reform process and got the Supreme Court to stop it. It was as a result of this demand that the Igualitos movement was created, which would later become the Igualitxs Foundation.

The two unconstitutionality demands filed in 2016 were eventually admitted in August 2019, and in January 2020 a justice of the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court announced that the court would shortly rule on this issue, and admitted that this is one of the court’s major outstanding overdue decisions. So we may be close to achieving our goal.

What support does civil society advocating for LGBTQI+ rights need from international civil society?

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the situation is becoming increasingly difficult. States have their resources committed to fighting the pandemic, CSOs face budgetary constraints and the crisis is affecting everyone. In addition, many people are turning to faith to cope with the crisis and some religious groups are taking advantage and launching campaigns against LGBTQI+ people. However, it is still possible to take substantial measures and actions such as, in El Salvador, the approval of a bill that dozens of organisations are pushing for that would provide recognition to human rights defenders.

With regard specifically to our organisation, which has no funding and is entirely based on volunteering, we are taking it one day at a time, to regain the control that we have lost due to the pandemic. I think it is time to ask ourselves not only what we want and can get from life, but also what we can give back. This way we enter a zone of power, in which we retain agency despite limitations. Thus we leave our comfort zone to enter a growth zone. Starting from the acceptance of our reality, we need to do deep introspection to reinvent ourselves. This is the time to go back to believing that all of us have the potential to do great things and leave a mark if we act not to obtain flattery and gain popularity, but out of the satisfaction that comes from doing what is right and just, achieving positive impact in the world.

Civic space in Costa Rica is rated as ‘open’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Let in touch with Fundación Igualitxs through its website and Facebook page.

 

 

MEXICO: ‘Violence against women is a historical pandemic’

CIVICUS speaks with Wendy Figueroa, director of the Red Nacional de Refugios (National Network of Shelters), a Mexican civil society organisation (CSO) that has been active for more than 20 years. The National Network brings together 69 centres dedicated to the prevention, care and protection of victims of family and gender-based violence throughout Mexico. It carries out comprehensive, multidisciplinary and intersectoral work from a gender, human rights and multicultural perspective. It focuses on public policy advocacy, enhancing the visibility of the problem of family and gender-based violence through campaigns and a media presence, and providing free and specialised comprehensive care for women and their children who experience family and gender-based violence.

Wendy Figueroa

How has gender-based violence in Mexico been influenced by the COVID-19 pandemic?

In Mexico, violence against women is a historic pandemic. It did not just emerge with COVID-19; what the pandemic has done is make the situation more apparent and profound during lockdown. The ‘stay home’ measures to mitigate COVID-19 mean that hundreds of women are in a situation of greater risk and vulnerability. Gender-based violence is magnified under the pandemic precisely because within lockdown, women are overloaded with care tasks, domestic work and the responsibility to optimise the resources available in their home: all of this, of course, while under pressure from the aggressor who lives with them.

How has the National Network responded?

We have reinforced the activities and interventions that we have been conducting for many years. What characterises the work of the National Network is that, although our work has been constant, our experience in approaches to prevent, attend to and eliminate violence against women, boys and girls has adapted and been enriched with time. These approaches are updated according to the needs of women, boys and girls – and so our responses in this period of lockdown have also been enriched and strengthened in several ways.

First, the Network has a telephone helpline operating 24 hours a day throughout the year, and we also provide assistance through social media. We have strengthened these, increasing the number of professionals who provide care through these two communication spaces. We also implemented a WhatsApp number as we have seen that when more time is spent in lockdown, women in situations of abuse have fewer possibilities to make external contact. So, text or social media messages have become an extremely important vehicle for women to send us a message whenever they get the chance.

In several cases, these messages have resulted in rescue operations. During confinement, women have had to leave at the first opportunity when their aggressor is not at home, and as a result rescues have increased exponentially. In just two months we have carried out 19 rescues, compared with just around one per month during the equivalent months in 2019. To achieve this, we have had to be creative and have established alliances with some private companies such as Avon and Uber to arrange logistics and transportation.

Second, our information, awareness and prevention campaigns have focused on three moments that women who experience abuse go through, in order to share strategies of what to do before, during and after a violent event. We also share strategies to reduce risk situations with children at home and to establish safety plans. We have carried out an inclusive and multicultural campaign, with messages in sign language for deaf women, and messages for Indigenous women in three languages: Mayan, Náhuatl and Zapotec.

Given that COVID-19 makes pre-existing forms of discrimination and inequalities deeper and more visible, and that women are to a greater degree in this situation of vulnerability, we have also created material aimed at society at large. We promote among the public the establishment of solidarity support networks to make gender-based violence and violence against children more visible, so that people can denounce situations of violence and participate in the construction of a zero-tolerance culture.

Third, we have carried out the ‘isolation without violence’ campaign, aimed at the government, underscoring the urgency and necessity of creating cross-sectional, resourced public policies that address the consequences and impact of COVID-19 for women from gender, human rights and multicultural perspectives. As the quarantine is lifted, these polices must guarantee access to justice, health services and financial compensation, among other rights.

Fourth, we have carried out specific actions within the shelters, emergency centres, transition houses and external centres that make up the Network, implementing protocols to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 infection. We have used our creativity to provide assistance through various digital platforms to keep accompanying all the women who take part in our comprehensive programmes. Attention hours within these spaces have been staggered and quarantine rooms established so that we can continue to take in the women and children who require support without any obstacle or discrimination due to COVID-19, as for us it is extremely important to put human rights at the core of our actions.

We are seeking international and private sector funding to strengthen our network of emergency and transition houses. Emergency houses are the step prior to entering a shelter and we are currently using them to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 infection in shelters: instead of the usual three days, stays have been extended to last the 14 days of quarantine. As for transition houses, they are extremely important because they are the spaces available for women leaving shelters who lack a home or solid support networks. In these transitional spaces they put into practice the plans that they developed during their stay in the shelters and start moving towards independence. But as a result of the economic impacts of COVID-19, the employment agreements that we had for these women have been cancelled. In this context, transitional houses allow women to continue with their process and avoid frustration and re-victimisation.

Have you faced additional restrictions on the freedoms to organise, speak up and mobilise during the pandemic?

Generally speaking, of course there have been limitations on mobility as a result of the ‘stay home’ campaign. In response, we have channelled much of our assistance through social media and over the phone. But we have not neglected face-to-face care: there are some cities where we operate in which there is no alternative available to the external attention centre of the local CSO that belongs to the National Network, and in those cases we have continued to provide face-to-face assistance, while taking all necessary precautions to reduce the risk of contagion. We also continue operating and providing in-person care, where necessary, in all our protection spaces: emergency houses, shelters and transition houses. And we continue to mobilise when necessary.

The freedom of assembly is limited, but it is not forbidden for us to take action in the face of femicides and other rights violations. We continue operating according to our model and on the basis of our guiding principles, namely human rights and women’s lives. We have reorganised to follow social distancing when possible but, above all, focusing on the needs of the families we assist.

How has the feminist movement adapted when transitioning from mass protests to social isolation?

We have transformed our ways of protesting, our ways of raising our voices, of joining together in sisterhood to seek justice, substantive equality and respect of all the rights of women and children. We have used digital platforms and technology to keep communicating, networking and proposing actions. Feminist movements did not go silent as COVID-19 arrived: through all these digital media and platforms we have held talks, webinars, solidarity meetings, encounters to express our feelings and exercise solidarity. We have held feminist exchanges to support our sisters’ economy and offer our professional services as psychologists, doctors and lawyers over social media.

We have also continued making statements. We recently produced, along with 42 other feminist groups, a video that accompanies a letter that gathered over 6,000 signatures to demand that the Mexican federal government and the 32 state governments implement urgent and priority actions to guarantee the life and safety of all women, girls and boys in our country. In the face of the minimisation of violence against women, we launched the We Have Other Data campaign, which has had quite an impact. And we have also echoed the voices of the women who are victims of violence and have sought our help. So we are definitely and fully present and we will continue to be.

What needs to change after the pandemic, and how can we work together to bring about that change?

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted all of our country’s underlying problems: those of an extremely unequal access to health, education, information, justice and rights restitution. From my perspective, the post-pandemic era can be a great opportunity to reengineer our systems of care, protection and security to ensure that everyone has both legal guarantees and actual opportunities to lead a life free of violence – and particularly those groups in a situation of greater vulnerability, including women, girls and boys, older people, migrants and people with disabilities.

We need state policies that guarantee equal access to all rights for all people. These state policies need to have a designated budget. And they must be state-level policies rather than government policies because this is not a problem of the current administration – it is a historical problem. Government policies are typically dismantled every time the government changes, even in the case of affirmative action policies that are producing good results. This is why it is essential to move towards intersectoral state policy with a guaranteed budget. These must include gender, human rights and multicultural perspectives so that no one is left out. These policies must be the responsibility not just of the federal government, but also of our 32 states and of society itself, and of course of CSOs as well, so we can advance towards a society where sexist violence is not justified and normalised, as is unfortunately currently the case.

All people in all sectors have to work to achieve cultural change, starting with ourselves to identify our own discriminatory acts and violent actions, as well as how we reproduce social mandates and naturalise violence. This is why I believe that change needs to take place at all levels before it is really possible to speak of a true transformation.

What support does the National Network need from the international community?

We need the international community to know the human rights regression that our country is going through. It is important for information to reach international organisations because the state of Mexico has signed and ratified the Convention of Belém do Pará (the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment, and Eradication of Violence against Women), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the Beijing Platform for Action, and it is in breach of all these conventions. Mexico has already received many international recommendations in this regard but is not addressing them with real actions.

On the contrary, the government is often complicit in the violence. When they ignore and even deny that women experience violence in their homes and that this problem has increased during lockdown, the authorities do nothing but re-victimise the victims. Likewise, austerity policies are affecting programmes and communities. Since 2019 shelters have been in a regrettable, constant struggle to defend their budget, showing the benefits and impact they have on Mexican families. So we also need support in the form of donations to strengthen our national network and establish more emergency houses and transition houses, which play an extremely important role in closing the cycle of violence and delivering true citizenship and protection of human rights.

Civic space in Mexico is rated as ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the National Network of Shelters through its website and Facebook page, or follow @RNRoficial on Twitter.

 

MALAWI: ‘Girls need protection against COVID-19, and against endemic violations of their rights’

CIVICUS speaks with Ephraim Chimwaza, Executive Director of the Centre for Social Concern and Development (CESOCODE), a Malawian reproductive health and women’s rights civil society organisation (CSO). CESOCODE works to eliminate all forms of gender-based violence (GBV) against adolescent girls and young women and to promote their human rights and wellbeing through advocacy, research, education, training and the provision of basic reproductive health services. 

Ephraim Chimwaza picture

What is the situation of young women and girls in Malawi?

In Malawi, half the population lives below the poverty line. Girls face more obstacles than boys in accessing education and job opportunities, and many girls don’t know their legal rights. Lack of access to opportunities also drives child marriage, which is another major factor that hinders the rights of girls.

Malawi has committed to eliminating child, early and forced marriage by 2030 in line with target 5.3 of the Sustainable Development Goals, and has also ratified several international instruments to that end, but still, 42 per cent of girls in Malawi are married before the age of 18 and almost 10 per cent are married before they turn 15. Among some ethnic groups, arranged marriages are commonly used to create alliances between families. Throughout the country, poorer families often marry off their daughters to reduce their financial burden or in an attempt to offer them a chance at better life. In other cases, they marry them off if they get pregnant, to avoid bringing dishonour to their families. Some parents in desperate situations also force their daughters to have sex in exchange for money or food.

Violence against young women and adolescent girls is commonplace. One in four girls has experienced recent violence by a partner, but few seek help. Social acceptance of sexual and other forms of violence against women and girls is pervasive, even among young people. Not surprisingly, adolescent girls continue to bear the brunt of the HIV epidemic. The number of girls aged 10 to 19 years who are living with HIV is on the rise, as adolescent girls account for nearly three in four of new infections. 

How do you help address these challenges?

We have been active since 2009, focusing on promoting girls’ rights and specifically on ending child marriage. To that end, we work with communities and their leaders to encourage girls to stay in school.  We offer girls a safe space to access sexual and reproductive healthcare, and we provide counselling to girls who are affected by GBV.

We are also members of a global initiative called Girls Not Brides, which includes more than 1,300 CSOs from over 100 countries committed to ending child marriage and enabling girls to fulfil their potential by increasing access to health, education and opportunities. Through that partnership, we bring child marriage and related violations of girls’ rights to global attention, contribute to building an understanding of the issues and call for changes in laws, policies and programmes that will make a difference in the lives of millions of girls.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic specifically impacted on girls in Malawi, and how have you managed to continue your work?

The COVID-19 pandemic is having a negative impact on girls in Malawi. We are already seeing it in the communities that we serve. The social distancing measures imposed by the government have led to school closures. As health facilities and mobile clinics also suspended their operations, access to sexual and reproductive health services, which was already limited, decreased further. Under lockdown, cases of GBV and sexual abuse have increased, but reporting has decreased. Most girls are unable to go out and report GBV and have to keep living with their abusers and fearing for their lives.

Our programmes and activities have been affected by the social distancing measures imposed by the government to diminish the risk of COVID-19 infection. We have been unable to conduct physical meetings with girls and provide them with vital services like condoms and contraceptives. Girls cannot move out from their homes to attend meetings, workshops or conferences, as all public gatherings have been banned to uphold social distancing.

However, we have continued to reach out to girls through various means.

First, we are reaching out through social media and mobile apps. We are using online platforms such as Facebook and mobile applications such as WhatsApp to disseminate messaging about public health and domestic violence prevention. We have developed a Bluetooth mobile-to-mobile messaging service, which allows us to check in with girls and for them to let us know if they are at risk. We have also produced a short podcast focusing on domestic violence against girls. This includes a version in sign language, so that we can ensure girls who are deaf or hard of hearing aren’t excluded.

Second, we are using community radios and television to provide tailored messaging and talk show content to reach out to girls in their homes with GBV prevention messages. These also include sign language interpretation.

Third, we continue our community engagement work, spreading messages via word of mouth or loudspeakers. We use our vehicle to drive around the communities and disseminate information about GBV prevention and the promotion of girls’ rights, including the prevention of child marriage.

Fourth, we are distributing printed outreach material that lays out the dangers of violating the rights of girls and explains where to report violence against girls. We do this through flyers and brochures as well as by hanging posters in places where girls frequently pass by, such as shops, water kiosks and mini markets. These materials are always written in the local language and include pictures to make content easier to understand.

As a result, we have been able to continue our work and we have not abandoned the girls who rely on us at a time when they may need us the most.

What do you think is the key to the good results you obtained?

I think there are three main factors that account for the good results that we have obtained.

First, we have kept community leaders and other key stakeholders engaged with a policy of zero tolerance for GBV against girls. We conducted online meetings and shared podcast programming with relevant stakeholders who work with girls that teaches positive and healthy relationship skills to prevent violence against girls and promote reproductive health for girls during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Second, we have identified low-cost tools to keep girls engaged and have continued to empower them during the pandemic. We have done this both by using new technologies where available and accessible, and by reaching out in other ways to girls in communities with no access to social media.

Third, we have pushed for the integration of GBV prevention messaging into COVID-19 prevention materials for healthcare providers to reach out to girls and provide them with full support and protection – not just against the coronavirus but also against endemic violations of their rights.

Civic space in Malawi is rated as ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Centre for Social Concern and Development through its Facebook page.

 

LEBANON: ‘Change begins by handing over the mic to grassroots feminist organisations’

In the run-up to the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action, due in September 2020, CIVICUS is interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about the progress achieved and the challenges ahead. Focused on eliminating violence against women, ensuring access to family planning and reproductive healthcare, removing barriers to women’s participation in decision-making and providing decent jobs and equal pay for equal work, the Beijing Platform for Action was adopted at the United Nations’ (UN) Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995. After 25 years, significant but unequal progress has occurred, not least as the result of incessant civil society efforts, but no country has yet achieved gender equality.

CIVICUS and the Arab NGO Network for Development (ANND) speak to Hayat Mirshad, a feminist journalist and activist and head of communications and campaigning with The Lebanese Women Democratic Gathering (RDFL), a feminist and secular civil society organisation (CSO) that advocates for women’s rights. Founded in 1976 and based on volunteerism, RDFL is one of the oldest feminist organisations in Lebanon. It advocates for the elimination of gender-based violence (GBV) and all forms of discrimination and seeks to achieve full citizenship for women. It has held many successful campaigns, including the #NotBefore18 campaign, launched in 2017, which led to the Lebanese parliament introducing a bill, currently under parliamentary consideration, to set the minimum age of marriage at 18.

HayatMirshad

 

JAPAN: ‘The vulnerability of the homeless is the result of contemporary society’s built-in social exclusion’

CIVICUS speaks to Tsubasa Yuki of Moyai Support Centre for Independent Living about the situation of homeless people amid the COVID-19 pandemic in Japan. Founded in 2001, the Moyai Support Centre supports homeless people by creating a community space and providing advice and rent guarantees for those seeking housing.

In Japan it is illegal to beg on the streets and there is little sympathy for homeless people, who are commonly stereotyped as running away from gambling debts. Tokyo’s preparations for the Olympic Games, originally planned for 2020 and now postponed to 2021, prompted the removal of homeless tents around railway stations and parks. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Moyai Support Centre started an online petition to request permission from the Tokyo Olympic organisers and the city government to use the Olympic Village as a homeless shelter. 

Tsubasa Yuki

Can you tell us about the work of the Moyai Support Centre for Independent Living?

Our programmes for supporting homeless people are threefold, and most of them are not exclusive for people in homelessness. Firstly, we have a consultation service, Seikatsu-Soudan. Every Tuesday, around 20 people visit our office asking for immediate help. In most cases, they are seriously impoverished and need public assistance. In those cases, we provide them with accurate information about social welfare services and support their application processes.

Secondly, we provide rent guarantees for homeless people seeking secure housing. After applying for public assistance, people are usually allocated to shelters and then start searching for apartments, and this is where we come in. We have provided rent guarantees for more than 2,000 people in total. However, insurance issued by private companies has recently become more common. So we advise our visitors to use those private companies if they can, and often our representative provides his phone number as an emergency contact when they apply for private insurance.

Thirdly, we have a community space. It is often the case that even after getting secure housing, formerly homeless people do not have any place to be when they go out. So we have a café, Salon de Café Komorebi, which opens every Saturday. This café is managed by our staff alongside many volunteers, including formerly homeless people. Unfortunately, the café is currently closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

What was the situation of homeless people in Japan before the pandemic?

Some general trends can be identified. In Tokyo, and probably in other Japanese cities, there are at least 1,000 rough sleepers, most of whom are male and relatively old, with an average age around the mid-50s. They usually combine multiple strategies for survival: they are day labourers, seek other informal jobs, scavenge and eat at soup kitchens. In the case of Tokyo, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government (TMG) has a public employment programme through which rough sleepers can gain a monthly cash income of around 20,000 yen (approx. US$190). Rough sleepers are mostly single males, but many of them form some kind of community in which they share useful information and, less frequently, jobs.

In addition to rough sleepers, at least 4,000 people use cyber cafés and other facilities to spend the night in. Most of them are employed in the most insecure part of the labour market – they are cleaning staff, security officers, construction workers, or have transportation jobs. While they may seem to have relatively more secure housing than rough sleepers, the truth is that cyber cafés are segregated into compartments and as a result, these people usually don’t have any communities they belong to.

What specific challenges have homeless people faced during the pandemic?

The most striking point is that many community-based and faith-based organisations and other groups suspended soup kitchens due to fear of spreading the virus. This has made it really hard for rough sleepers to get enough food and vital information about the virus and the public services available to them.

In addition, public employment services stopped in April 2020 and as a result, rough sleepers have lost their major source of cash income. Cash incomes from the informal economy, including scavenging, also declined because of the lockdown and stay-at-home policies.

In April, the TMG requested that many enterprises in the service economy suspend their business. Cyber cafés and similar facilities were also requested to stop operating. Although this was not mandated by law, many enterprises followed the policy. As a result, people living in cyber cafés lost their places to sleep. Many of them also lost their jobs and incomes due to economic decline prompted by the lockdown policy.

How have the Moyai Support Centre and other civil society organisations (CSOs) responded to the situation? 

Many CSOs have had to stop their activities as well. We closed our café in April 2020. But at the same time, we extended our consultation services. Currently, in addition to the Tuesday consultation service, we have set up a soup kitchen and provide consultation services in front of the TMG office, together with another civil society group, Shinjuku Gohan Plus. In April alone, we distributed more than 600 packages of food and provided consultation services to more than 150 people.

As well as providing direct services to people in need, we have started a petition so we can use the Olympic Village set up for the 2021 Tokyo Olympics as a shelter during the COVID-19 pandemic. So far, the petition has collected more than 50,000 signatures.

Under the pandemic, the TMG made 2,000 hotel rooms available as shelter for those expelled from cyber cafés, and more than 800 people have been using them. But it is not clear whether this policy will be extended after the state of emergency ends. The Olympic Village can be the next place to accommodate them.

In July and August 2020, we will have elections for the TMG. We are trying to tackle the shortage of decent shelters for people facing homelessness by making the issue one of the major topics in the coming election for Tokyo’s governor. As it is connected both to issues of the Olympics and COVID-19, it is now attracting a great deal of attention from people inside and outside Tokyo. So we are now planning to submit a petition and deliver an open questionnaire letter to candidates in the election. They will be obliged to express their stance and opinions on the issue of homelessness in Tokyo. 

But we understand these are only temporary solutions. Be it at hotels or the Olympic Village, these are only temporary shelters at best. The next step for us is to support homeless people to find secure housing, that is, get their own apartment. This is challenging even for people who have successfully applied for and received public assistance. We are trying to reach them in shelters and support them in finding apartments.

But this cannot be done solely by CSOs like us. This mass transition from shelters to apartments can only be successfully accomplished with the help of willing and conscientious owners and landlords. The next goal for both CSOs and public entities should be to gain their support.

What lessons have you learned so far around the COVID-19 pandemic and its impacts on homeless people?

The current situation reveals that soup kitchens and other voluntary activities played a vital role as an information centre for homeless people, and especially for rough sleepers. People in that situation have scarce access to important information about COVID-19 and related policies and services. Some of them gain information from radio and newspapers but these media are not available to all rough sleepers. Thus, for many of them, voluntary activities are almost the only source of accurate information.

Further, while it might be common knowledge that homeless people are particularly vulnerable to disasters, it is worth noting that homeless people and those working in insecure jobs have been the first to be affected by the pandemic, and the hardest hit. Stay-at-home policies might be one of the most effective strategies against the pandemic, but they presuppose that people have secure housing and a certain amount of savings. For those people with no secure housing, employment status and savings, it is almost impossible to follow the policy. In addition, homeless people are not eligible for any of the compensation or temporary income support that is available to other people. The vulnerability of the homeless is the result of contemporary Japanese society’s built-in social exclusion.

Civic space in Japan is rated as ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Moyai Support Centre for Independent Living through its website.

 

ASIA: ‘Under the pandemic, racism against Indigenous peoples has intensified’

CIVICUS speaks to Gam Shimray, Secretary General of the Asian Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP), about the situation of Indigenous groups in Asia amid the COVID-19 pandemic. AIPP is a regional federation of Indigenous peoples’ movements in Asia that works to promote and defend Indigenous peoples’ human rights, including land rights and cultural rights. Because of their subordination and distinctiveness from mainstream culture and politics, Indigenous peoples are subjected to gross human rights violations, systematic racism, discrimination and dispossession. As a result of the denial of their rights to land, territory and resources, many Indigenous peoples are among the most disadvantaged and vulnerable groups.

Gam Shimray

Can you tell us about the work of AIPP?

The work of AIPP is guided by our belief in universal human rights and the inherent right to self-determination of all peoples, including Indigenous peoples. The rights to self-determination and self-government are a social necessity for the continuity of Indigenous social processes and self-development.

While our advocacy work is primarily focused on the regional and global levels, linkages with country-level processes are built through our members and networks. AIPP consolidates a common position of Indigenous organisations for regional and global advocacy. For this, we focus on building capacity in communities, consolidating Indigenous movements and setting a common agenda for collective campaigning and advocacy at the country level.

AIPP also focuses on building leadership and promoting distributive leadership across Asia, including among women, young people and persons with disabilities.

What was the situation of Indigenous peoples in Asia prior to the COVID-19 pandemic?

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the political situation in Asia had been deteriorating, particularly in the past few years. We have seen an increasing clampdown on civil society and the restriction of democratic space for public debate and opinion formation in several Asian countries. Some public intellectuals attribute this trend to the retreat of political leadership from democracy and human rights.

The transitions to democracy from authoritarian governments in recent decades, such as the Philippines in the 1980s, Indonesia in the late 1990s and Nepal in the 2000s, have remained incomplete. Other countries, such as China, Laos and Vietnam, have de jure one-party systems, and Cambodia has a de facto one. In Myanmar, the military still holds a grip on the government, while Thailand’s tradition of high tolerance is yet to produce a stable democratic modern state. Further, rising populism is posing a serious threat to democracies. In India, the world’s largest democracy and arguably one of Asia’s strongest, we are seeing a continuous assault on autonomous institutions, from the judiciary to the central bank and the free press, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s populist government.

The result is that in the last few years, most of the human rights defenders killed have been Indigenous peoples. They lost their lives defending their rights, homes, lands, territories and resources.

These problems are also evidence of deeper and underlying issues that relate to the inadequacy of political and institutional capacity to address effectively the challenges of democracy and human rights in Asian countries. We are faced with moral and political questions that call for serious examination of the erosion of human rights standards and practices and the weakening of political and institutional capacity to respond to present social and political issues. The suffering experienced by poor people during the COVID-19 pandemic is evidence of this.

What challenges have Indigenous groups and activists faced under the pandemic?

Issues and challenges vary across countries as the situation differs. One of the main challenges relates to the fact that most governments in Asia initiated countrywide lockdowns without much preparation, leading to chaos. The situation was simply overwhelming, and we could not respond to the needs of activists, communities, or migrant labourers.

Migrant workers, refugees and stateless persons suffered the most, and those without ID cards struggled to prove their citizenship, which they needed to receive government aid. Most migrants and refugees lack proper documentation and errors in registration abound. Those left out from national registries are denied national ID cards.

Under the pandemic, racism against Indigenous peoples has intensified. The situation has been worst in India, where people from the north-eastern part of the country have been thrown out of their hotels and rented houses. They have been denied the ability to buy food from grocery shops and board public transport. They have been spat on and taken into custody without an explanation. Many people, including women, have been beaten up for no reason, and many in cities across India are living in fear.

In some countries, governments are using the situation as a cover for conducting military campaigns, grabbing land, granting permission for large-scale development projects, rolling back protective rights and weakening environmental laws and safeguards. Several activists and community members have been killed or jailed under trumped-up charges in countries such as Bangladesh, India, Myanmar and the Philippines. Community leaders have also been stopped by police and security forces from carrying out relief work and helping starving communities.

These incidents are grave in nature and there is extraordinarily little that we can do about them, as people cannot go out and protest or campaign, and can hardly access the courts. In India, e-petitions are allowed, and urgent matters are still heard by courts through video conferencing, but most communities are not familiar with such complicated processes and many do not even have proper internet access.

How have AIPP and other Indigenous rights organisations responded to the situation? 

The first thing we did was reach out to our members and networks to gather information from the ground. We also responded to those reaching out to us for support. Our first action was to provide or mobilise relief, and particularly food for those in critical need, in different areas through our members and networks. Our outreach also focused on sharing information concerning Indigenous communities. This was necessary because misinformation has been overwhelming, leading to panic-driven reactions from communities. We shared appeals to communities calling for humane responses and disseminating good practices that communities could implement.

The situation is complicated because it is not just about responding to the pandemic. Indigenous peoples face multiple underlying issues. The least we could do was register our protest and conduct our campaigns through digital channels.

The COVID-19 pandemic has unfolded many hidden issues and poses new challenges. So we are assessing and making efforts to take the next steps to cope with the longer-term impact of the pandemic. In this regard, we have also formed a regional network for COVID-19 response, which is in the process of expansion. We will be coming up with a preliminary regional assessment report soon, which will help us plan better. We can already see that capacity building will be crucial as we adapt to what is called the ‘new normal’.

What further support do Indigenous groups need at this time?

The support that Indigenous communities need is enormous as the impact is going to be long term. But few things that must be stressed are the following.

First, we need to set up COVID-19 response cells with designated funds at the local level, with a team of designated nodal officers to coordinate with state or provincial authorities and civil society organisations to monitor Indigenous issues and provide the necessary support. The response team should also coordinate with the appropriate authorities to cater to the special needs of women, children, older people and persons with disabilities in Indigenous areas.

Second, we need to ensure that appropriate guidelines and instructions are issued to provincial and local authorities on measures to be taken for Indigenous peoples to deal with COVID-19 and lockdown, including on ensuring compliance.

Third, it is critical to raise awareness and ensure access to healthcare. It is important to prepare community-friendly information materials that clearly explain the nature of the disease, quarantine and containment measures and testing, helping dispel myths. Coordination between health department workers and traditional healers is needed to ensure that Indigenous knowledge systems are part of these response mechanisms. Localised and separate quarantine strategies encouraging natural environment and community participation should be promoted. COVID-19 care centres can be set up at the community level, managed by community healers and nurses. 

In remote areas, mobile health units should be deployed involving community healers and health workers. Special attention should be given to areas with migrant workers who have returned home. Testing and quarantine facilities should be immediately provided to them. Access to health services in case of emergencies, including transportation, should also be provided. Access to safe water for cleaning and drinking is another critical need that should be ensured. 

Ensuring food security and incomes and protecting livelihoods is also crucial given the known evidence of undernourishment in many Indigenous areas. Over at least the next six months it will be necessary to distribute free rations of nutritional food to everybody, irrespective of people’s migratory status or whether they have an ID card. 

Lastly, it is urgent to strengthen non-timber forest produce (NTFP)-based livelihoods by urgently devising effective institutional mechanisms for collection, storage, procurement and sale. Dependence on NTFP is high across Asia. Financial and logistical support should be provided directly to the communities to help generate sustainable livelihoods. Communities living in protected areas must be allowed to have access to forests for livelihood purposes. 

What lessons you have learned so far about the situation of Indigenous people under the pandemic?

Under the pandemic, the situation has been overwhelming, and the measures imposed by governments have led to acts of brutality from police and security forces. We saw hundreds of poor people die of starvation and those venturing out in desperation brutalised by the police.

The potential impact was looking grim, and had we not put our trust in the people and the communities, the efforts we made would have been far less successful. Relief work had to be efficient and putting our trust in community volunteers to do the job was the key to success, for instance in Malaysia and Thailand. Whatever resources were generated were transferred to them and they reported back on the actions carried out through phone or other means available to them.

Further, in our observation, several communities responded very well to the situation by initiating village lockdowns, regulating visits, quarantining returnees, or self-isolating themselves despite having little information or no appropriate resources and equipment. There were fears too but communities were quick in overcoming them and improved their responses. Communities have not just received relief from us or others, but some of them also contributed food for other communities in need. Most of those communities had worked with us and had successfully managed their food production systems and natural resources. They were not worried about food shortages; rather, their leaders used the opportunity to create awareness about the importance of improving local production and sustainable resource management. Personally, this has been inspiring.

We have also been inspired by communities organising themselves and using local healing practices and medicine to improve immunity and resistance to the disease, or establishing food exchange systems with little or no help  from the state, at a time when state-run programmes were not functional or did not arrive in time. Most importantly, this showed that devolution and community empowerment can be more effective in dealing with the crisis if resources and support are provided to such self-governing local institutions. 

Spontaneous community responses came almost naturally because these are historically self-governing communities. Looking forward, trusting people and empowering communities will enable the state to deal more efficiently with public health crises and their long-term impacts.

Get in touch with the Asian Indigenous Peoples Pact through its website and Facebook page, and follow @aippneton Twitter.

 

MALAYSIA: ‘Migrants are amongst the first to be victimised and discriminated during the pandemic’

Adrian PereiCIVICUS speaks to Adrian Pereira, the Executive Director of North South Initiative (NSI), about the situation of migrant workers in Malaysia amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

NSI helps build advocacy and leadership capacities among migrants, refugees and stateless persons, both documented and undocumented, so they can claim their rights. It also monitors labour and immigration-related abuses by authorities, employers and local workers and ensures that migrant organisations are connected to a strong solidarity network and are able to cooperate with other civil society organisations (CSOs) and trade unions.

There are estimated to be somewhere between three and six million migrant workers in Malaysia. Migrant workers are set up for exploitation by a combination of unscrupulous recruitment agents and employers, harsh immigration policies, unmonitored supply chains and a lack of enforcement of labour protections. They are subjected to passport confiscation, low pay in violation of minimum wage laws, poor living conditions, punishment by fines, high recruitment fees and debts to recruitment agencies and employers, forced labour, human trafficking and salary deductions. A report on the ability of migrants and refugees to access civic freedoms, produced by CIVICUS and Solidarity Center in collaboration with NSI, showed that the rights to the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression in Malaysia are severely restricted for these vulnerable minorities.

 

What was the situation of migrant workers’ access to healthcare prior to the pandemic?

Malaysia removed subsidies for migrant workers to access public healthcare in 2016. Given that migrants rely mostly on public medical services, this measure resulted in declining quality and access to healthcare by migrants, both documented and undocumented, as the high cost of private alternatives usually deters them from getting any healthcare. Despite migrants and their employers and agents paying billions of Malaysian Ringgit per year in levies, taxes and other payments, they are not getting their money’s worth in healthcare.

Those who are undocumented are only able to access private healthcare, because if they try to access public healthcare, immigration authorities will be informed, and they will come to arrest them. Over the years, brutal enforcement by police, immigration and customs forces and the People’s Volunteer Corps towards undocumented migrants has made them even more fearful of seeking medical treatment.

There are also cultural competency gaps between medical practitioners and migrants, which make it difficult for them to get proper healthcare. Domestic workers who don’t have days off and are locked indoors have an even more difficult time in accessing healthcare.

One positive step in 2019 was the inclusion of documented migrants into the national social security system, ensuring much higher compensation and better healthcare in the event of work-related accidents and illnesses. But for non-work-related accidents and injuries, private insurance offers minimal coverage. 

What additional challenges have migrant workers faced since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic?

Many migrant workers, and especially undocumented and informal ones, have lost their source of income. As a result, they can’t pay for food, rent and medicines, unless they have tested positive for COVID-19, in which case their quarantine and care is covered by the government. Only migrants who provide government-sanctioned ‘essential services’ are able to work. But their safety really depends on whether the companies permitted to operate comply with rules set by the government. The rules are meant to ensure workers are safe from the risk of COVID-19 infection and can continue to work. But there is almost no one to monitor this consistently.

The government has announced an economic stimulus package that sadly has marginalised migrant workers. There is a worker’s salary subsidy to ensure companies don’t have to retrench workers, but this does not apply to migrant workers. Previously, migrant workers were also excluded from the Workers Insurance Scheme under the national social security body, which would ensure a safety net for workers who were retrenched. The Movement Control Orders (MCOs) imposed by the government to restrict travel that came into force on 18 March have made it difficult for migrants to travel to access basic services, food, banking and other essentials. In Enhanced MCO areas, service providers can’t even enter. Informal sectors are sacking and abandoning the migrants who worked for them, particularly undocumented migrants and refugees. 

Employers are forcing migrant employees to resign or take unpaid leave. Employers are taking advantage of the MCOs to not pay their workers. NSI received reports of at least two cases of unpaid salaries way before the MCOs were imposed. One had been unpaid since December 2019 and another since February 2020.

There is also fearmongering going on, with fake messages and misinformation online putting migrants at risk of backlash from Malaysians. The government pledged not to arrest and detain migrants who come forward for COVID-19 testing. But there is still a lot of fear among migrants and hence many are not coming forward. Some sectors that are very economically aggressive are forcing the government to allow them to reopen so workers can go back to work. We have seen this in the Sabah state palm oil sector.

The European Union (EU) is also putting both migrant and Malaysian workers at risk of forced labour by asking Malaysian personal protective equipment (PPE) manufacturers to ensure production continues during the pandemic. The EU has offered tax incentives to Malaysian companies to supply PPE. Further, small and medium enterprises that have been hiring undocumented workers for many years have abandoned their workers, claiming they are short on cash. 

How have you and other CSOs responded to the situation?

We are coaching migrant leaders to ensure their communities have access to networks that provide services and can provide accurate information about needs to those who are providing services. Some public networks, such as the ‘Care Mongering Malaysia’ group, are proving a platform for Malaysians to reach out to help migrants and refugees in need. This is an online platform that links those who need help with those who can afford to provide the service. Also, Sikh temples are providing groceries and packed lunches. 

Other CSOs working hard on the ground to provide groceries include BERSIH2.0, Beyond Borders, Dapur Jalanan, Engage, Geutanyoe Foundation, HOPE, Liga Rakyat Demokratik, Malaysian Trades Union Congress, Our Journey, The Patani, Refuge for the Refugees, Tenaganita and also migrant and refugee community organisations.  Migrant workers can call them when they need assistance with food.

We are forming a network to ensure services can be delivered in the long term, as we foresee the problems continuing for many months to come. Many migrant workers will remain and will need aid, so we are developing a supply chain to support them.

We are ensuring migrants receive accurate information from global bodies such as the International Organization for Migration, United Nations (UN) Development Programme and UN Refugee Agency and also from the various government agencies related to health, labour, security and welfare. This includes providing information via infographics on counselling services and on health issues in different languages. 

We are also fighting misinformation related to migrant workers and refugees. There has been a lot of fearmongering blaming them for the spread of the virus.

We are also encouraging migrants to seek medical treatment if they are sick and monitoring employers who are taking advantage of the current situation and committing labour offences, particularly as the MCOs have partly restricted lawyers from providing legal representation and legal aid.

Other CSOs are providing counselling, delivering groceries, doing fundraising, monitoring human trafficking, providing gender-sensitive and maternity-related services and catering to women’s needs.

What further support does Malaysian civil society need at this time?

We need cash to support migrants’ needs, including to pay for groceries, bills, rentals and safe repatriation home after the MCOs. We are also seeking funding opportunities because as long as the MCOs apply, we are unable to conduct physical meetings, and most fundraising is based on this. We also need legal aid services for those who are being retrenched unfairly and detained unjustly.

What lessons have you learned so far from the pandemic?

We have seen that the government has barely consulted CSOs before implementing policies and this is not in line with good governance principles. Also, there is overkill in punishing those who violate MCOs, including people who are forced to breach the MCOs due to livelihood issues. Further, the over-securitisation of migration over the years has now caused a backlash against migrants, who have been neglected.

Migrants are amongst the first to be victimised and discriminated against during the pandemic as they are neglected and don’t have strong safety nets. A capitalist system that operates on the basis of mega global supply chains and mega businesses does not have a proper risk-management plan that ensures accountability and transparency. Malaysia also has a problem with statistics, as it has been doctoring the numbers of those in poverty and has failed to address the problems resulting from the huge number of undocumented workers due to the meddling of the deep state.

The civic rights of migrants have been suspended under the MCOs and Enhanced MCOs, and this in turn has weakened their bargaining power to gain their rights. There has also not been enough cooperation between migrants’ countries of origin and Malaysia to ensure the safe repatriation of those who want to return home, which poses a high risk of infection for everyone. We have received reports that under the MCOs, migrants are forced to use irregular passages to travel home. Embassies have turned to Malaysians for assistance for their citizens.

CSOs are also not as united as I had assumed in building consensus in dealing with the problems, as they have struggled to cope with this. At the same time, some Malaysians who may have been biased against migrants have, in this time of need, showed compassion and responded in solidarity to migrants’ struggles. As has become clear, in the long term, the economic contributions of migrants ended up benefitting everyone except migrants themselves.

Civic space in Malaysia is rated as ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the North South Initiative through its website and  Facebook page, and follow @nsinitiative11 on Twitter.

 

POLAND: ‘People are more understanding and supportive of LGBTQI+ issues than politicians’

 

Following our 2019 special report on anti-rights groups and civil society responses, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their experiences in facing anti-rights backlash and their strategies to strengthen progressive narratives and civil society responses. CIVICUS speaks about recently established ‘LGBT-free zones’ in Poland with Bart Staszewski, a young LGBTQI+ activist. Bart works as a freelance videographer for various civil society organisations and is a co-founder and board member of the Lublin Equality March Association (LEMA), an organisation that he defines as ‘an LGBTI NGO inside the LGBT-free zone’. For the past eight years, Bart has also taken part in the struggle for marriage equality led by the Love does not Exclude Association.

Bart Staszewski

Photo by Przemyslaw Stefaniak

What challenges do the LGBTQI+ community and its organisations face in Poland?

I think the main problem is homophobia, which is growing due to the regressive government at all levels, from the national level to the very local. Governments at these different levels are using the same hate speech that we have already seen in Russia, in exactly the same wording, for example accusing LGBTQI+ organisations of disseminating ‘homo-propaganda’. We are also facing growing homophobia on public TV, which disseminates what are basically ‘fake news’ stories about us. They have even used our Facebook posts against us. For instance, during the campaign for parliamentary elections in 2019, some of us were not so positive about a candidate who happened to be the only gay candidate and wrote about it on Facebook. Quotes from our Facebook posts were then used in a campaign against this candidate, to show that even gay activists opposed him.

They also produced a documentary, ‘Invasion’, which stated that the Polish LGBTQI+ movement is sponsored by the Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros, who according to them is paying people to attend Pride events; this is why, according to them, so many people are attending our events. They filmed this thing by having people pose as volunteers with LGBTQI+ civil society organisations (CSOs) and bring a spy camera into Pride marches. According to Polish law, CSO volunteers have to get paid a small fee, somewhere between €5 and €8, when travelling outside the city. They used this to create a story that LGBTQI+ organisations are bribing people into attending Pride marches. They do this because while homophobia is on the rise, the LGBTQI+ movement is also growing, and our events are in fact getting the biggest turnout ever, so they are looking into new ways to defame us, including by saying that people are in it for the money.

But it is not just the government and the state media. The LGBTQI+ movement is not as afraid of the government as we are of anti-rights organisations like Ordo Iuris, a right-wing legal foundation that offers legal assistance to municipalities that are curtailing LGBTQI+ rights. They are a think tank for anti-LGBTQI+ rights and anti-women’s rights policies, supporting reinforcing marriage laws as pertaining to the union of a man and a woman, total abortion bans and divorce bans. This group is quite well connected to the government; for instance, one of its prominent members was Poland’s Secretary of State under the previous right-wing government. They are also connected to Agenda Europe, a pan-European, Christian fundamentalist network that seeks to restore ‘natural order’ and that offers an umbrella for many right-wing organisations across Europe. They say they receive no funding from the government, but they are very well funded.

They have people who teach in schools and universities and who are running a series of campaigns against us. All of their advocacy and campaigns have turned us into easy targets. Many activists, including myself, have received death threats for denouncing homophobia. Last year the police raided the home of a woman who had created rainbow marriage stickers, like it was such a big deal. I am getting used to the idea and getting ready for something like this to happen to me too. The government has unleashed this with its homophobic rhetoric but now does not take responsibility for its consequences.

What are the so-called LGBT-free zones, and how are they impacting on the LGBTQI+ community?

A third of Polish municipalities have adopted resolutions ‘against LGBT propaganda’ which are essentially unwelcoming of LGBTQI+ people and practices – although the way they put it, it is as if being an LGBTQI+ person was some ‘foreign ideology’. As a result, these municipalities have become so-called ‘LGBT-free zones’. Local governments in these municipalities have issued non-binding resolutions in which they pledge to refrain from taking any action to encourage tolerance of LGBTQI+ people. While they do not have material implications in practice, their symbolic effect is huge, as they stigmatise LGBTQI+ people in a way that legitimises further attacks against us.

In other words, ‘LGBT-free zones’ are the formalisation of homophobia, the institutionalisation of prejudice. They confirm homophobes in their beliefs and encourage them to turn them into action. The hooligans who throw stones at us during Pride marches every year will now feel empowered because the law now tells them that they are ‘protecting Christian values against homo-propaganda and ideology’. Families that don't accept their LGBTQI+ kids will now feel more confident about their hateful decisions. Teachers will feel uncomfortable when teaching content on LGBTQI+ issues in schools, now that they know that local politicians are against it – and they are the ones who make decisions on school funding. Some teachers have even asked us if they are allowed to teach anything at all related to LGBTQI+ issues after the new policies were put in place.

An increasing number of citizens are more confident than ever that homophobia is good and something to be proud of. The idea that is being disseminated is that there is something wrong with LGBTQI+ people and you’d better be careful around them. Homophobic billboards have gone up in major cities across Poland, accusing homosexuals of molesting kids, associating them with paedophilia.

Can you tell us about your campaign to challenge ‘LGBT-free zones’?

Last year, as local governments were declaring ‘LGBT-free zones’ one after the other, I started thinking about how else to call attention to this given that the media was definitely not interested in homophobia as a problem. Our first campaign was in Lubin, where we created a billboard campaign called ‘Love is Love’. While it received some attention, in the end nothing changed and more ‘LGBT-free zones’ were introduced. I thought we needed to try something new. I wondered what I could do to highlight this problem. Along with my boyfriend we came up with the idea to order signs to place in ‘LGBT-free zones’, but then thought that the signs would not be enough: we needed human stories behind them, we needed to show the real people behind this struggle and inside these zones.

So I came up with another, very simple idea. I asked LGBTQI+ individuals that I knew in municipalities that had been declared ‘LGBT-free zones’ to participate in the project. It was key that the participants were from those areas, either still living there or – if we could not find any LGBTQI+ resident – that they had at least grown up there. I asked them if I could take a few photos of them with the signs, and honestly, I initially thought that this would be just an art project, something for an exhibition. I took the first photos of LGBTQI+ people standing behind the ‘LGBT-free zone’ signposts in December 2019. I asked photographers and art people to participate in the project, but nobody seemed to be interested; they told me that it was repetitive and ‘nothing new’. In December the European Parliament voted in favour of a resolution to condemn Poland’s ‘LGBT-free zones’ and also the Polish Ombudsman made declarations about it. It was already January 2020 and I felt that nobody was interested in my project so I just uploaded some photos to Facebook page, and then created a webpage, in the hope of triggering some debate in Poland. I never imagined it would lead to a worldwide response.

Did you get any feedback from the people you photographed regarding the ways in which anti-LGBTQI+ rhetoric and policies are affecting their lives?

Initial reactions depended a lot on how much interest in politics people had. Some of them had not really thought about the amount of homophobia they had been coexisting with. One of my project’s participants, Kate, who was about 18 years old, first told me she did not feel anything had changed after her town had been declared an ‘LGBT-free zone’. But then I asked her how she felt in the small city that she lived in: could she hold hands with her girlfriend, go to a dance with her and dance together as a couple? And she said she could definitely not; she could not even imagine herself going out onto the street with her girlfriend. She was so deeply submerged in homophobia that she didn’t even notice it was happening.

Homophobia can be invisible, but statistics do not lie. Many young people are committing suicide, and two-thirds of them are LGBTQI+ people. Many members of the LGBTQI+ community have suicidal thoughts and depression. Some people are being kicked out of their homes and families for being gay; their own parents view them as diseased. And all of this is happening in silence. The people behind the hate campaigns against us would never know about it. 

Another person who joined my project later spoke to a foreign journalist that I put her in contact with, and just a week later she got death threats over Twitter and Facebook, because the name of the village she lives in appeared in the news report. Now people want to burn her house down. Such is the severity of hate.

As the ‘LGBT-free zone’ campaign took off, several politicians from right-wing parties, as well as Ordo Iuris, appear to have notified the Prosecutor’s Office that by running it I have committed a criminal offence, but I have not yet received any official notification. For the time being, it seems that they are focused on preparing lawsuits against the Atlas of Hate, a map of anti-LGBTQI+ government resolutions in Poland put together by other LGBTQI+ activists.

What kind of support from the international community and from civil society around the world do Polish LGBTQI+ activists need?

Of course financial support is something that we always need, because right-wing CSOs are quite well funded, and we are not. But besides funding, we also need to put pressure on our government and the European Union (EU). European countries that have already enshrined LGBTQI+ rights and equality should support us loudly rather than quietly. This is the only thing that is working with this government. They are scared of the EU and of what other countries will say. So we need diplomacy where ambassadors tell the Polish government that they will lose funding if Poland carries on in this way. They need to constantly ask the Polish government about this and put pressure on them.

We need a well-organised campaign. People can create petitions – I have seen quite a few, and it was a big surprise to me that many of them were launched by private individuals in France and Germany – but after one week, they are dead. In France, 10 CSOs sent a letter to President Macron to ask him to speak up loudly against ‘LGBT-free zones’ during his visit to Poland. But he didn’t say a word about ‘LGBT-free zones’ or the situation of LGBTQI+ people. Maybe he said something in private, but not in front of the media. We need big CSOs to do something about this.

Fortunately, we are already growing in solidarity. Last year we had the biggest turnout at a Pride march in Poland. My association conducted a survey that showed that even when homophobia is at its highest in Poland, people are more supportive than ever and are marching for equality and in support of same-sex civil unions. Our biggest problem is with the politicians and not the citizens. People have the internet, they have HBO and Netflix, they are more understanding and supportive than politicians. Things are slowly changing for the best, and we need to make sure they keep going that way. But we need international support to do so, or we will end up like Hungary or like Russia in the hands of Vladimir Putin.

Civic space in Poland is rated as ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Lublin Equality March Association through its website and Facebook page, or follow @marszlublin and @BartStaszewski on Twitter.

 

 

Letter from Jail: West Papuan activists speak about their prosecution in Indonesia

CIVICUS has received letters from Dano Anes Tabuni and Charles Kossay around their arrest and detention.

Political activists Dano Anes Tabuni, Charles Kossay, Ambrosius Mulait, Isay Wenda, Ariana Lokbere and Surya Anta Ginting - were accused of supporting separatism and arrested between 30th and 31st August 2019 by the Jakarta Regional Police Force after organising a peaceful pro-independence protest on West Papua in front of the Presidential Palace in Jakarta.

They were all subsequently charged with “rebellion” (makar) under Articles 106 and 110 of the Criminal Code. Article 106 of the Criminal Code authorises the authorities to sentence a person “to life imprisonment or a maximum of twenty years imprisonment for makar with the intent to bring the territory of the state in whole or in part under foreign domination or to separate part thereof”. Their trial is ongoing, and they are currently being detained at Salemba detention center in Central Jakarta

The Indonesian authorities have used these criminal code provisions to prosecute dozens of peaceful pro-independence political activists in West Papua over the last two decades. Despite continued promises by President Joko Widodo to address the grievances of West Papuans, they continue to face discrimination, exploitation and repressive actions by the Indonesian security forces.

Letters from Dano Anes Tabuni and Charles Kossay:


To all who are in solidarity with us everywhere in the international community.

Some time ago, in August [2019] while the Indonesian people were celebrating the annual Independence Day, at the same time all Papuans including Papuan students were hurled with racist remarks. These acts have hurt us and offended the dignity of the Papuan people.

In response to these remarks, all Papuans including students carried out peaceful actions in several regions in Indonesia, as we carried out in Jakarta.

But after expressing our opinions in public we were discriminated against, arrested and imprisoned. This occurred even though our demonstrations were peaceful and without violence, did not cause damage of public facilities and did not affect the government which operated as usual.

We have faced all forms of oppression as a people that are voiceless and have been weakened in all aspects of life.

Myself, as a Papuan political prisoner in Salemba prison, request for support from all actors so that the West Papuan problem that continues to affect our humanity can be resolved properly and all those of us in detention can be released.

-- Charles Kossay


The law in Indonesia can be bought with money, as long as we have a lot of money. The ‘Pancasila’ (state ideology) values that are admired by the world have never been implemented in our society. If I have a lot of money, then I can buy Indonesian law to defend all of Papuan political prisoners. Social justice is for all Indonesian people from Aceh to Ambon, so it is only natural that Papua political prisoners should also get justice.

I was imprisoned because there are causes and consequences. What about the perpetrators of racism in Surabaya who should have been punished by law in accordance with Law No. 40 of 2008, concerning the elimination of racial discrimination? Instead, I and my friends were accused of treason, and are facing a sentence of 20 years to a lifetime of imprisonment, even though we did not commit any crime.

I hope that the international community will be able to defend me together with my friends and all Papuan political prisoners because we want the violence to end in Papua. We defend justice, peacefully and with dignity. We also understand that ending racism, discrimination, terror, murder, rape, kidnapping, torture and injustice will on happen when there is independence for the people of West Papua. Because of that the international community as well as Indonesians who care about humanity must support the independence of the Papuan nation.

I believe all international and national engagement must lead towards the right of self-determination for the people of West Papua.

-- Dano Anes Taibuni


Civic space in Indonesia is rated as Obstructed by the CIVICUS Monitor

 

WOMEN’S RIGHTS: ‘At this pace, it will take us nearly a century to reach equality’

In the run-up to the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action, due in September 2020, CIVICUS is interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about the progress achieved and the challenges ahead. Focused on eliminating violence against women, ensuring access to family planning and reproductive healthcare, removing barriers to women’s participation in decision-making, providing decent jobs and equal pay for equal work, the Beijing Platform for Action was adopted at the United Nations’ (UN) Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995. After 25 years, significant but unequal progress has occurred, not least as the result of incessant civil society efforts, but no single country has yet achieved gender equality.

CIVICUS speaks with Serap Altinisik, Head of Plan International’s European Union (EU) Office and EU Representative. Previously, in her role as Programme Director at the European Women’s Lobby (EWL), Serap led EWL’s 50/50 Campaign, ‘No Modern Democracy without Gender Equality’, across Europe. She also recently became a member of the CIVICUS Board.

Serap Altinisik

A quarter of a century later, how much of the promise contained in the Beijing Platform for Action has translated into real changes? What needs to be done now so that Goal 5 on gender equality of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is achieved by 2030?

2020 marks the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action – the most visionary agenda for girls’ and women’s rights. 2020 also marks the countdown of a decade left to achieve the SDGs.

Over the past decades there has been some clear, measurable progress towards gender equality. For example, 131 countries have enacted 274 legal and regulatory reforms in support of gender equality, maternal mortality has decreased by at least 45 per cent, primary school enrolment for girls and boys has almost equalised and approximately 25 per cent of seats in national legislative bodies are held by women, a number that has doubled over the past few decades.

However, 25 years after UN member states committed to achieving gender equality and five years into the SDGs, no country has fully achieved the promise of gender equality. If governments continue at this pace, it will take us nearly a century to reach that goal.

To achieve SDG 5, I agree with UN Secretary-General António Guterres, who has called for a decade of action on meeting the SDGs, and wants to make this the century of gender equality. Retrospectively, gender inequality is one of the things that will shame us the most about the 21st century.

Governments have to invest in consistent gender equality, which consequently means not only enacting laws and regulations but also implementing gender-responsive budgeting consistently. Research shows that where investments are consistent, girls’ and women’s rights are on the rise. However, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. When adopting regulations and laws, governments need to use a life-cycle approach to address the specific needs of women in each stage of a woman’s life. If we wish to measure and increase progress and learn from data, then data has to be disaggregated according to age, gender, disability and ethnicity, among other things.

Nonetheless, the most persistent factors that are holding back girls and women to lead, decide and thrive equally as boys and men are social norms, stereotypes and sexism. Studies and experiences of girls and women showcase that household-level practices in many countries subordinate women even when they are educated, even when they are in the workforce and even when they serve in government. Given that the personal is political, as the slogan from the feminist movement of the 1960s put it, gender equality and girls’ and women’s rights have to be a priority in politics, economics, practices and social norms – and this starts at home. It cannot be an add-on if the goal is to achieve the promise of gender equality fully by 2030.

Looking back on 2019, what would you say have been the main successes and challenges in the struggle for gender equality and women’s rights?

The rise of authoritarian leaders and the establishment of right-wing governments are preparing a fertile ground for violence and discrimination against girls and women. Therefore, we have seen pushbacks, with attacks on hard-won gains in girls’ and women’s rights in both the global north and global south in recent years. Conflict and humanitarian crises have become more complex and protracted over the past years, and women and girls have found themselves facing the most risks. Unfortunately, discrimination, poverty and violence are still in the lives of girls and women worldwide. It seems that misogyny accompanied with racism is on the rise, while the space for civil society is being increasingly crushed.

Yet across the world girls and women are raising their voices, collaborating and showing solidarity, and are not willing to wait for change and gender justice any longer. In this, women’s rights organisations and feminist leaders are playing a vital role!

I am aware that by only mentioning a few successes, I might not do justice to so many other success stories. Nevertheless, for me the main successes have been diverse and inspiring, such as, for example, the first ever woman leading the European Commission since its existence; Sudan's female protesters leading the pro-democracy movement; young women leading the environmental movement; girls and women resisting across the continents. They are challenging the status quo and are at the forefront in highlighting that another world is possible.

Their actions are changing not only laws and regulations and bringing new deals to the centre – such as the European Green Deal by the EU and the ambition to have equal representation across EU institutions – but they are also shifting social norms and are contributing to the ‘new normal’ in which girls and women can shape the world, too.

You have been personally involved in the Fair Share initiative. What would be a ‘fair share’ of women representation and female leadership, and why is it important that we achieve it?

Fair Share of Women Leaders is a civil society organisation that seeks to test and showcase new forms of governance that reflect feminist values and principles and overcome some of the pitfalls of power imbalance, hierarchy and bureaucracy of traditional governance mechanisms. We push for proportionate representation of women in leadership roles in the social sector – a goal that we want to achieve by 2030 at the latest.

Although women make up nearly 70 per cent of the global social impact workforce, they hold less than 30 per cent of the top leadership positions in their organisations. This lack of diverse voices in key decision-making positions undermines the impact organisations have towards achieving SDG 5. In the wake of #MeToo and a number of sexual abuse scandals in civil society, many organisations have had to rethink their strategies. Our sphere needs to start systematically promoting women’s leadership as a lever of change.

Of course, I have to acknowledge that a lot is positively changing within civil society. Some civil society organisations have committed to developing an organisational and leadership culture that values gender equal representation, diversity and participatory decision-making, but we have still ourselves a long way to go to achieve gender equality. We have to live up to our values if we want to be legitimately asking for positive change in the world. We have to be the change if we wish to see it.

To push for this change, Fair Share monitors the number of women in leadership to hold civil society accountable, promotes feminist leadership and mobilises men and women to create feminist organisations, and seeks to create opportunities for women from diverse economic and social backgrounds, nationalities and ethnicities who are currently less likely to be in leadership positions.

Get in touch with Plan International and its European Office through its websites, and follow @PlanEU and @SeeRap on Twitter.

 

EGYPT: ‘There's been severe deterioration in the rule of law & respect for human rights’

CIVICUS speaks about recent protests in Egypt and their repression with a woman activist and protester who, for security reasons, asked to remain anonymous. The space for civil society in Egypt is severely restricted: laws limit legitimate civil society activities and detention and intimidation are routinely used to silence human rights defenders and journalists. The protests that took place in September 2019 resulted in mass arrests and the criminalisation of protesters.

egypt protest 1024x683

What were the main drivers of the September 2019 protests in Egypt?

The trigger for the September 2019 protests came in the form of a series of viral videos shared by the Egyptian actor and construction contractor Mohamed Ali, in which he accused the authorities and the armed forces of corruption and the squandering of public funds. While President Abdul Fattah El-Sisi ultimately addressed the videos in some form, more videos by Ali and others  followed; a broader conversation on the role of the military in Egypt’s economy also ensued.

On 20 September, and partly in response to Ali’s call for demonstrations against Sisi, hundreds took to the streets in the capital, Cairo, and Alexandria, Suez and other cities. As part of this wave of demonstrations, more protests took place on 20, 21 and 27 September. They occurred within a broader context in which many Egyptian citizens were also bearing the brunt of austerity measures and subsidy cuts and were increasingly affected by an escalating crackdown targeting independent, peaceful expression.

What was the response of the government to the protests?

Immediately following the protests and for days afterwards, the Egyptian authorities carried out a widespread arrest campaign that not only targeted people who were present at the demonstrations, but also lawyers, political activists and advocates more broadly. Local civil society organisations (CSOs) estimate that at least 3,763 people were arrested. Many of these people were ordered into pretrial detention in cases involving alleged charges of belonging to a terrorist organisation and spreading false news; a number of them remain in detention.

In the wake of the protests, Netblocks reported restricted use around Facebook Messenger, BBC News and social media CDN (content delivery network) servers. In Cairo, the authorities blocked some roads and temporarily closed some metro stops, particularly those close to Tahrir Square.

What has been the state of democracy and human rights in Egypt under the current regime?

Increasingly since 2013, there has been a severe deterioration in the rule of law and respect for human rights in Egypt. Authorities are using the law to consolidate authoritarianism. This is reflected in new legislation that restricts rights and re-writes the relationship between civilians and the state; the prosecution of peaceful advocates using overly broad anti-terrorism legislation; and the introduction of amendments to the constitution allowing executive influence and interference in the functioning of what are meant to be independent state institutions, including the judiciary and the prosecution.

The use of extended pretrial detention periods as a punitive measure, the sentencing of individuals in mass trials, and a spike in death penalty sentences continue to take place. Detention conditions remain poor; instances of torture and deaths in detention as a result of inadequate access to medical care abound.

The situation of minorities leaves much to be desired. Though the authorities passed a Church Construction Law in 2016 and built the region’s largest church in the New Administrative Capital, Egypt’s Christian minority population continues to suffer from sectarianism, finds it difficult to access justice amid reconciliation sessions that favour the majority faith, and often faces obstacles in building and licensing churches in the areas in which they actually reside. While the state has made some initial attempt to compensate the ethnic Nubian minority, their constitutionally recognised right to return to their ancestral lands remains unfulfilled.

Although Egypt is performing better on a number of economic indicators, austerity policies and subsidy cuts have impacted on the economic and social rights of particularly marginalised civilians, affecting key issues such as housing, education, health and work.

How has the new NGO law impacted on the freedom of association?

In August 2019, Egypt’s new NGO Law went into effect. However, its implementing regulations have not yet been issued, which is making it difficult to understand the degree to which the law is in force – and if it is not, which law and implementing regulations are – and to assess the implementation of the law and its impact on civil society. According to the law, implementing regulations were required to be issued within six months, but this deadline passed in February 2019. Media reports suggest however that the regulations are now expected to be issued in mid-March 2020.

Egypt’s 2019 NGO Law does away with penalties involving jail time, as well as the National Agency to Regulate the Work of Foreign NGOs, a security and intelligence-heavy body created by the 2017 NGO Law to approve and monitor foreign funding. However, the law furthers significant restrictions on the activities of CSOs, places bureaucratic constraints on registration and creates expansive oversight and monitoring authority for government actors.

While it may be early to report on the precise impact of the new law, there is no doubt that its passing has already contributed to some self-censorship, as CSOs have reported being uncertain regarding what legal schemes govern their work and have also raised concern about the law’s broad restrictions. The law was passed in an environment characterised by travel bans, asset freezes and the prosecution and arrest of members of civil society. These trends are only expected to continue. It is important to note that the NGO Law is not the only piece of legislation governing civil society: the media law, the cybercrime law, the counter-terrorism law and the Penal Code are all examples of laws that contain provisions potentially implicating associational activity as well.

At this point, what can international civil society do to support civil society in Egypt?

In some cases in the past, the Egyptian authorities have targeted CSOs engaging with international civil society and subjected them to various forms of reprisal. At other times, international connectivity, collaboration and work with networks has been a form of protection for Egyptian civil society. Accordingly, some organisations are able, willing, or well-positioned to engage with international civil society, while others may not be; this often ends up being a very contextualised and determined on a case-by-case basis.

In cases in which international support can be of benefit to a particular Egyptian CSO, there are a number of clear needs: the creation of long-term and technical training opportunities and resources; systematic network building to expand access to decision-makers; and the provision of in-kind and financial support. Together, this programming has the potential to amplify the voices of, strengthen and provide protection for domestic CSOs that can often be under-resourced, cut off from the international community and subjected to government restriction.

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

 

GHANA: ‘Work in the corner of your community has a potential to cause change at the top’

Following a year marked by massive mobilisation on the climate emergency, CIVICUS is interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about the main environmental challenges they face in their contexts and the actions they are taking. CIVICUS speaks with Perk Pomeyie, a climate organiser, environmental advocate and artivist affiliated with the Ghana Youth Environmental Movement (GYEM), a youth-led environmental group that advocates and campaigns for a sustainable environment and a just world for the current and future generations. GYEM seeks to build an inter-generational network to find solutions to environmental challenges and confront the climate crisis. It focuses on bottom-up solutions and encourages the co-production of knowledge through participatory approaches.

Perk has recently been selected to take part in CIVICUS’s Youth Action Lab, a pilot co-creation initiative that works on year-long projects with grassroots youth activists based in the global south to support their movements and help them become more resilient and sustainable by building solidarity and networks, strengthening capacities, engaging with policy processes and facilitating resources to support their movement.

Perk Pomeyie

 

Can you tell us more about the work that you do?

My work is part of the broader work of GYEM, a leading youth-led grassroots movement in Ghana. GYEM works by organising and coordinating young people from different backgrounds and empowering them with the tools, techniques and technology to run disruptive campaigns on environmental issues. GYEM addresses key ecological challenges such as poor waste management, various forms of pollution, deforestation and the impacts of climate change in different communities and regions of Ghana. It specialises in running high-impact training for non-violent direct action (NVDA) campaigns, which target state actors and decision-makers from both the government and business sectors.

GYEM is composed of a youth-led Steering Group that mobilises logistics creatively, forging partnerships with other grassroots activists and community-based organisations to influence environmental change from the bottom up. It employs digital organising via social media and other NVDA tactics to deliver campaigns that challenge the status quo and offer both transformational and incremental community-led solutions that bring together scientific and Indigenous knowledge systems. GYEM also hosts the largest annual youth-led environmental summit in Ghana, Power Shift, which brings together grassroots activists from across the country to share ideas and collaborate on campaigns in various parts of Ghana.

We do much of our work in collaboration with several other organisations, including Rocha Ghana, an environmental civil society organisation (CSO) focusing on practical conservation interventions in important ecological habitats and improving the ability of target communities to adapt to current trends in climate change; the Green Africa Youth Organisation, a youth-led gender-balanced advocacy group that focuses on environmental sustainability and community development; 350 Ghana, a leading environmental grassroots CSO affiliated to 350.org, aimed at mobilising and empowering young people in partnership with key stakeholders to champion the need to reduce our carbon emissions and promote renewable energy systems; and WaterAid Ghana, a CSO focused on providing people with clean water, decent toilets and sanitation.

I am based in Accra, Ghana’s capital, but I work with diverse communities in different locations depending on the environmental challenge being addressed. Some of these include low-income groups who reside in informal settlements and are disproportionately affected by the impacts of plastic pollution and flooding. Another group I work with are frontline communities who face the impacts of climate change, such as drought, water stress and food insecurity. I also work in high schools and university campuses with student volunteers, aged between 12 and 25, who are passionate about the environment and require training and capacity to take action. Finally, I engage with CSOs working on various Sustainable Development Goals nationwide. Most of these are youth groups with leaders and members between 18 and 35 years old, working on initiatives and projects in areas such as conservation, plastic recycling, water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) and climate mitigation and adaptation.

What have been the biggest successes you have achieved?

We have had several high-profile victories. In 2016, the government backtracked on a project, proposed in 2013, to build a coal-powered plant in a community called Ekumfi Aboano. The plant was going to pose health and environmental risks to the people there, and especially to children and women. We designed campaign messages, organised the community for NVDA and marched repeatedly. As a result, the government engaged GYEM in a discussion and halted the coal plant project in 2016.

Secondly, in 2016, WaterAid Ghana approached GYEM in search of support to create awareness of WASH-based climate adaptation interventions. They wanted young people to design a campaign to draw the government’s attention to WASH issues in local communities and informal settlements, and tackle them as part of adapting to climate change. I contributed with my design work and communication strategies to a year-long campaign that reached more than 10,000 young people. This resulted in the National WASH Forum, which brought together local communities and political actors to work jointly towards the goal of addressing WASH problems as part of climate adaptation strategies.

In 2018, I worked with other activists in an urban poor settlement in an area called Pokuase, to raise awareness about a water source in the community that was being threatened by road construction and other building work. This water source was vital because it served the community during the dry season. For the first time, attention was drawn to the impact of human activities on the river.

Did you take part in the global climate mobilisations in 2019?

Yes, in late 2019 I championed the first #FridaysforFuture and #SchoolClimateStrike campaigns in the northern region of Ghana. I organised and coordinated strikes in Damongo and Tamale. I designed creative graphics and campaign materials, which attracted more than 200 schoolchildren and young people to these global campaigns. This was important because it was the first time that children and young people in that part of Ghana came out in large numbers to raise their voice on the impacts of climate change and demand urgent action from their leaders. Northern Ghana is currently experiencing the worst impact of climate change in the form of droughts and food insecurity.

Ours was one of the many #FridaysforFuture events that were held in Ghana. I think we’ve been successful in mobilising because we’ve used innovative approaches. Personally, I’ve used my skills in design thinking and graphic design and my expertise in non-violent communication and direct action. I communicate to reach my target on various social media platforms, while also mobilising communities for action on the ground with context-relevant messages to address specific environmental challenges.

Before that, in March 2019, I helped bring together hundreds of grassroots activists from Ghana and activists from the International Youth Climate Movement from other parts of Africa, to campaign for climate justice and urgent climate action, during the United Nations (UN) Africa Climate Week. I think this has been so far the most important achievement of my work as an activist. This high-profile conference was hosted in Accra and was attended by African governments, international organisations and business leaders. During this week, I coordinated an NVDA training session for hundreds of young people, while leading a mass rally of about 300 activists to the summit venue to deliver a strong message to heads of governments, businesses and stakeholders of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change to act on the climate emergency.

I consider this as an important achievement because as a grassroots activist in Ghana, this was the first time I gained a strong personal conviction that my work in the little corner of my community has a potential to cause change at the top, if supported with the right tools, capacity and resources.

What support do activists like you need from international actors, including international civil society?

Personally, my work is self-financed. I use some income from my part-time self-employment as a graphic designer to support my activism. I design marketing materials for individuals and campaign banners for CSOs and get paid for it. I use a percentage of this to fund my work. Sometimes, family and friends also donate to support my work if I make a request. I have also financed my work through crowdfunding to help coordinate and implement projects and high-profile campaigns. So one area in which activists like me need support is in generating sustainable resources.

We also need more opportunities to connect and network with other activists from the global south who may share similar solutions to particular challenges in their respective contexts, to interact with multiple actors and to learn to navigate complex policy processes in the areas in which we work.

Civic space in Ghana is rated as ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Ghana Youth Environmental Movement through its Facebook page and blog, and follow @gyemgh on Twitter.

 

ETHIOPIA: ‘For civil society, 2019 has been a new beginning’

In 2019, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed Ali, “for his efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation, and in particular for his decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighbouring Eritrea.” CIVICUS speaks with Bilen Asrat, Executive Director of the Ethiopian Civil Society Organizations Forum (ECSF), about the prospects for democracy in Ethiopia. Established in 2013, the ECSF is a non-partisan, independent and inclusive civil society body comprising various civil society groups, networks and consortiums operating at the federal and regional levels, focusing on the common concerns and challenges faced by civil society in Ethiopia.

bilen asrat

 

What has been the progress towards democracy in Ethiopia in 2019? Has the space for civil society improved?

During 2019, there have been a lot of changes in the state of democracy and human rights, which has been reflected in a wider space for independent civil society and opposition political parties. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was appointed in April 2018 after his predecessor resigned as a result of anti-government protests. Although he was a member of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, the party in power since 1991, Prime Minister Ahmed pledged to reform the authoritarian regime, and repressive terrorism and media laws were repealed. Imprisoned journalists were released and the environment for the media improved. The new government also released political prisoners and legalised opposition parties, some of which had been labelled terrorist organisations and banned. In July 2019, a well-known human rights lawyer was appointed as the head of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission. Once political change became apparent, a lot of politicians that had been living in exile came back to Ethiopia.

The positive change that started in 2018 has continued. For Ethiopian civil society, 2019 has been a new beginning. In February 2019, the draconian 2009 Charities and Societies Proclamation was amended. This law imposed a lot of restrictions on civil society, especially when working for human rights, democracy and good governance. The new law changed the classification of civil society organisations (CSOs) and only distinguishes between local and international CSOs. It lifted restrictions on funding for CSOs and allowed for the re-entry of international organisations into Ethiopia. The old law stated that organisations receiving more than 10 per cent of their funding from international donors were to be considered foreign international organisations, and could therefore not undertake any human rights-related work in the country.

The scope of action for CSOs has now widened because unlike the old law, the new proclamation does not provide an exhaustive list of the permitted activities of CSOs, so it does not set a limit to the activities that civil society can engage in, except for those that are against criminal law. This is more consistent with the right to the freedom of association, which means that anyone can form an association to pursue any legitimate objectives, without restriction.

Do limitations apply to CSOs promoting LGBTQI+ rights?

The scope of legitimate civil society activities does not include the promotion of LGBTQI+ rights, because this is considered to be against ‘public morals’. Homosexuality is illegal in Ethiopia; it is a crime under the Criminal Code and it is punished with imprisonment. It is also not accepted by the majority of the population, so there is not much of a perspective that the law will change in that regard.

In other words, restrictions do not apply anymore to CSO activities in the areas of human rights and democracy, but the establishment of CSOs to promote the rights of LGBTQI+ people is still not allowed, because they would be promoting an activity that is considered a crime by our Criminal Code.

Was civil society consulted in the process of developing a new law?

Yes, we were consulted. Before the new law was passed, there were several consultations across Ethiopia’s nine regions, and over 1,000 CSOs were engaged in the process. In fact, the initial document for the draft law was produced by civil society itself. We submitted it to the former prime minister and various governmental offices, pointing out the challenges posed by the previous proclamation and recommending specific changes, and eventually it was our recommendations that were turned into law – including for instance the right to appeal against the decisions of the regulatory agency in front of a court of law.

We only have one objection to the new proclamation: we think that the agency that has the mandate to regulate civil society should be accountable to the legislative body, and not to the executive. We expressed this during the consultations, and when the Office of the Attorney General finalised the draft and submitted it to the Council of Ministers, we raised our concerns to parliament. But the government didn’t accept our recommendation and decided to keep the regulatory agency under the executive branch.

How did civil society receive the news that the Prime Minister had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize?

I think the news was well received. Prime Minister Ahmed got many congratulatory messages from civil society and communities, as the peace processes started to have visible effects both in Ethiopia and in Eritrea. Ethiopian military forces stationed abroad were brought back to the country, laws started changing and hellish prisons where horrible human rights abuses took place were shut down.

I think the Nobel Peace Prize is fulfilling two purposes. First, it is an acknowledgment of the Prime Minister’s contribution to ending the 20-year conflict between the two countries and an encouragement to continue along the peacebuilding path. 

Second, the award is an expression of support for the Prime Minister’s project to build a democratic nation, opening up political competition, allowing for the growth of an opposition and a multiparty system, promoting an active civil society, and striving for greater equality. Prime Minister Ahmed has brought women on board: he appointed a cabinet that was 50 per cent female and for the first time a woman was appointed as president of the Supreme Federal Court.

What do you think are the main challenges ahead?

The main challenge is that communities have been unable to exercise their rights and their power for too long, and when all these spaces suddenly open up there is a danger that they will be put at the service of power struggles. Political competition in Ethiopia takes place mostly along ethnic lines, as political parties tend to represent specific ethnic groups, so groups are still competing with each other. Democratisation is moving forward in a context in which conflict persists. There are some states that are still under a state of emergency, experiencing internet blackouts and ethnic clashes. The social situation is also delicate because of the high unemployment and poor economic performance.

What role can society play in overcoming those challenges?

Civil society has a great role to play in bringing democracy to Ethiopia, especially in terms of building peace by establishing dialogue and reaching some form of consensus among religious leaders and local communities. If a certain degree of peace is not achieved internally, democratic elections become impossible. So the first task for civil society to undertake is internal peacebuilding.

Most CSOs are developing these kinds of activities. They are starting to engage, but it’s taking time, because we are still in trauma due to our past experiences. Until very recently civil society was not allowed to work on peacebuilding or reconciliation, and it was a very dangerous thing to do. Over time, most of the experienced people with the right skills for the tasks ahead migrated to the private sector or left the country. This opening is a new phenomenon and to be up to the task we need to reassess the situation, revise our strategic plans, gain new skills and produce training materials.

We are building up our own resilience while trying to engage in these very necessary activities. This is where our allies in international civil society could help us. Ethiopian civil society needs support for capacity building and training, developing advocacy tools and learning about best practices and replicable successful experiences. International organisations could also help us to bring different stakeholders to the discussion and reach a consensus about the democratisation process and the required human rights protections. National elections will be held in August 2020, so we only have a few months to work to ensure elections are a peaceful democratic process. 

Would you say the upcoming election will be a key test for the democratisation process?

Yes, because we have not yet had a free and competitive election. Prime Minister Ahmed was appointed by the parliamentary body that resulted from the 2015 election, which was tightly controlled by the ruling party and marred by coercion and intimidation.

In August 2019, parliament – whose current members are all from the ruling coalition – passed a new election law, and opposition parties complained that some of the changes made things more difficult for them and threatened to boycott the election. So the process is by no means without obstacles, and it will be a test for all of us, including for civil society, which needs to work to keep the authorities accountable to the community and make sure that the democratisation process succeeds.

But first and foremost, the election will be a test for the government and the ruling party to keep their promise that if they lose, they will relinquish power. Even before we get to that point, it is already testing their willingness to open up the media space and make sure that fair conditions for competition are met.

Progress is being made in that regard. The Electoral Board now has a new structure and is chaired by a former opposition party leader, a woman, who had been imprisoned and exiled for her political ideology and came back after reforms were initiated.

How hopeful you are about the future?

I believe the best is yet to come. But as civil society, we have a lot of work to do to make it happen. We need to work hard to build a democratic, transparent and accountable system in Ethiopia. We need to keep watching and make sure the government remains committed to protecting democracy and human rights. We need to watch closely and make sure it includes women’s issues in their agendas. We expect these elections to be the most democratic and peaceful that we have ever had, with more female candidates than ever before, and we expect the losing and winning candidates to shake hands and accept the people’s will.

I also think this change has happened because of the sacrifices many people have made. Many people have died for this to happen. Now it’s time to use only our hearts, not weapons, to achieve change. We will not be able to do all of this by ourselves, so we need solidarity and support from regional and international organisations. An authoritarian regime could be held together in isolation, but democracy will need a lot of help to grow and survive.

Civic space in Ethiopia is rated as ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Ethiopian Civil Society Organizations Forum through its website and Facebook page.

 

#UN75: ‘There is often a lack of transparency on how civil society’s inputs are reflected in UN work’

2020 marks 75 years since the founding of the United Nations (UN). CIVICUS is speaking with civil society activists, advocates and practitioners about the roles the UN has played so far, the successes it has achieved and the challenges ahead.

CIVICUS speaks to John Romano, Coordinator of the Transparency, Accountability and Participation (TAP) Network, a broad network of civil society organisations that works to ensure that open, inclusive, accountable and effective governance and peaceful societies are at the heart of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and that civil society actors are recognised and mobilised as indispensable partners in the design, implementation of and accountability for sustainable development policies. The TAP Network engages specifically around Goal 16 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which seeks to “promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.”

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Overall, what would you say have been the greatest successes of the UN in its 75-year history?

Overall, I think that the UN has remained a steady, positive influence on maintaining a relative state of peace around the world since its inception, and it provides for a useful venue for addressing international issues in a concerted way. In many ways, the UN has succeeded in its first objective of saving succeeding generations from the scourge of war, and objectively I think it has played an influential role in this achievement to date.

The establishment of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was also another crowning achievement of the UN, as well as the SDGs and the 2030 Agenda.

The meeting of the UN’s High Level Political Forum (HLPF) on Sustainable Development, which was held in July 2019 under the theme ‘Empowering people and ensuring inclusiveness and equality’, and included an in-depth review of SDG 16, and the SDG Summit, held in September, were two highlights of 2019. They helped to mobilise a wide range of stakeholders to explore ways to help advance the SDGs on a scale that hadn’t been seen since the adoption of the 2030 Agenda in 2015.

What things are currently not working and need to change?

There are many things the UN can do better, and in many ways this is no fault of the UN itself, but instead represents a failure of its member states and reflects on the state of multilateralism today. The UN is often very good at being responsive to crises and big international issues that represent immediate threats faced by the international community. However, it severely lacks more proactive and preventative measures to help make sure that efforts are being made to ensure that some of these crises or issues do not arise in the first place.

There are also many governance-related issues that the UN should tackle to improve its effectiveness in ensuring that international issues are addressed in ways that prevent conflicts of interest, and shield decisions from being co-opted due to an imbalance of decision-making structures or representation.

I’ve only noted two initiatives focused on issues around multilateralism and pushing for that kind of change lately: the UN2020 Initiative, a civil society coalition calling for government leaders and civil society to come together on occasion of the UN’s 75th anniversary and work to come up with concrete proposals to revitalise the organisation, and the Alliance for Multilateralism, a government-led network seeking to strengthen a rules-based multilateral order that has the UN at its centre. Launched by the French and German foreign ministers, this informal network seeks “to protect and preserve international norms, agreements and institutions that are under pressure or in peril; to pursue a more proactive agenda in policy areas that lack effective governance and where new challenges require collective action; and to advance reforms, without compromising on key principles and values, in order to make multilateral institutions and the global political and economic order more inclusive and effective in delivering tangible results to citizens around the world.”

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

There are many challenges related to how inclusive the UN itself is to the engagement of civil society and citizens. Currently, participation in UN processes is extremely limited throughout many important processes that civil society engages with, including around the SDGs. Entry points into many processes are scarce, but when opportunities for engagement arise, there is often an overall lack of transparency and clarity on how civil society’s inputs and engagement are reflected in the work of the UN and different processes. This can be very frustrating for many groups that work around the UN, and often getting any inputs reflected depends entirely on who you know, which inherently presents a bias towards larger organisations. The resulting lack of diversity sometimes also prevents new ideas from being injected into these spaces.

We have found ways to work around this by partnering with governments and UN missions, to have them champion our ideas, bringing them as their inputs into various processes. Given that the UN is responsive to its member states, finding governments to push your points and issues is a way to help ensure that these inputs are taken up. However, this type of engagement really is often limited to larger organisations that have the capacity to engage with UN missions, and particularly those that are based in New York. This in itself presents a clear bias in terms of who can engage and does not allow for a more broad and inclusive set of actors to contribute.

Get in touch with the TAP Network through its website and Facebook page, and follow @TAPNetwork2030 on Twitter.

 

COLOMBIA: ‘The protection of the environment is inseparable from the success of the peace process’

Following a year marked by massive mobilisation on the climate emergency, CIVICUS is interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about the main environmental challenges they face in their contexts and the actions they are taking. CIVICUS speaks with a young Colombian student, active in the climate movement, who for security reasons asked to remain anonymous. In addition to mobilising in the context of the #FridaysForFuture movement, the interviewee is part of Post-Conflict Children (Hijos del Posconflicto), a recently created group that seeks to render the experiences of people on the ground visible and defend the peace process in Colombia. On the crossroads of various struggles, the interviewee emphasises the defence of the peace process as a key to preserving Colombia’s environment and biodiversity.

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From your perspective, what is the most urgent environmental problem in Colombia?

The most urgent environmental problem is deforestation. Deforestation rates in Colombia are very high, and the situation has not improved following the signing of the peace agreements. That is because, in times of armed conflict, the Colombian guerrillas, mainly the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), controlled much of the jungle territory of Colombia. Of course, no one dared get into that territory: multinationals and oil companies did not have a presence there; nor did the industry of cattle-raising. After the peace agreements were signed and the guerrillas withdrew, the problem that has plagued Colombia since the 1950s – land distribution – increased.

Colombia has extremely regressive land distribution, with land property concentrated in very few hands. With the withdrawal of the guerrillas and the arrival of multinational corporations, land grabbing has increased. Lands are privately appropriated, deforested and used for raising livestock, while the local population continues to be displaced.

At the same time, there are still active armed groups operating outside the law, particularly far-right paramilitary groups, alongside the smaller guerrilla force of the National Liberation Army (ELN) and some FARC dissidents who refused to engage with the peace process. These armed groups are fighting over the territory with the aim of taking control of coca crops and expanding them, causing greater deforestation.

Therefore, both the continuation of the conflict in some territories and its termination in others are having a direct influence on deforestation. The peace process contains a series of mechanisms to counteract deforestation, but its effects will depend on whether it is effectively implemented. In that sense, the protection of the environment is inseparable from the success of the peace process.

What mechanisms in the peace agreements would help stop deforestation?

The peace agreements include two specific mechanisms to stop deforestation. The first one is comprehensive rural reform, aimed at distributing land in the Colombian countryside and enforcing respect for the uses assigned to the land – for example, by ensuring that if land is for agricultural use, it is not used for raising livestock. The second mechanism is the Programme of Substitution of Crops for Illicit Use, aimed at tackling the drug problem. It is important to understand that many poor peasant families have had to grow coca in order to survive; through this programme, the state is offering them economic incentives to transition towards other sustainable crops.

How does youth activism contribute to the effective implementation of the peace agreements?

The struggle for peace is taking place on all fronts. We do three things: we mobilise on the streets in defence of the peace process; we do educational work so that people understand why the peace process is so important; and we do advocacy in various spaces.

The context in which we do this work is quite difficult. As soon as he took office, President Iván Duque objected to the peace process and tried to modify all aspects that he did not agree with or that he claimed were not fair. If he succeeds, this would ultimately mean a deactivation of the process that resulted from the agreements and the need to start over from scratch. This was no surprise: his entire campaign revolved around the peace process and was based on the dissemination of lies about it. He won the elections by manipulating people’s fears; he told people that the agreements would enshrine impunity. He tried to scare us by telling us that if the left won, we would become a second Venezuela. He also lied regarding his plans for extractive industries: he stated that oil exploration and exploitation through fracking would not be authorised, but in late December 2019 he drafted a decree that would allow fracking.

As an activist for peace and the environment in Colombia, have you had any participation in the global movement for climate justice?

Yes, along with a small group, I joined the Fridays for Future initiative. But our participation was limited to a series of actions and strikes aimed at launching the climate movement in our country.

It has been quite difficult for us to elicit mobilisation around the global climate crisis. First of all, there is much ignorance. In Colombia, most people have no idea what it is being done to them; the current president took advantage of this to spread lies, run a disinformation campaign and win the elections. In a country where public education is of very low quality and only rich people are able to further their studies, it is very easy to lie to people and make them believe you. So, the first problem is ignorance. Add to that fear: in Colombia people are afraid to speak, organise and protest. Colombians live in a state of incredible anxiety due to the systematic murders of social and environmental leaders. Colombia is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for human rights defenders in general and for environmental leaders in particular.

All of this has limited climate mobilisation. Some isolated actions have been held, but there has not been a big national, high-impact demonstration. That is why we were surprised to find out that a massive school mobilisation took place in the south of the country, in the department of Huila, where we least expected it to happen due to the complex security dynamics in those territories. We managed to get in touch with the young people who mobilised in Huila and together we took part in a national meeting held in the department of Caquetá, also known as the golden door to the Colombian Amazon. At that meeting we managed to coordinate our work with the communities that live in Amazonian territory and so far we are in the process of raising the cause of the Amazon and initiating a resistance to defend our forest.

We are currently starting to bring all the environmental groups together into a single climate front. We hope this will inspire those who are afraid to join as well.

Have you had any participation in international climate forums?

We have been to a Latin American meeting of Fridays for Future that was held in Chile with the support of 350.org. It was a meeting of climate advocates to build a Latin American network and take the movement to the regional level. It helped us a lot to meet other young people from other parts of the region who were also mobilising, to discover that we could get together and feel that we had international support to do our job. It gave us some hope.

Right after that meeting, we began to try to form a national environmental network, travelling to as many territories as possible and enlisting young people from other Colombian regions. There is still a lot to be done, but we are growing exponentially because when a new group joins in, they reach out to three or four other groups. Throughout 2019 we focused on this process, touring territories, communicating our message to people and creating links. We believe that the next time we may be able to mobilise at the national level. We will do so on 24 April 2020, on the occasion of the next global strike.

What kind of support would you need to be able to hold in 2020 the mobilisation that was not possible in 2019?

Right now our window of opportunity is the national strike, the series of protests that have taken place in several Colombian cities since November 2019. In a country where people are afraid to speak, on 21 November last year millions of people took to the streets. It was one of the largest mobilisations Colombia has witnessed over the past 40 years. This is a unique opportunity. Within the framework of these protests, the environmental movement has also put forward its proposals and demands. We may not be able to mobilise people specifically around climate, but we can take advantage of these mass mobilisations and put our issues out there. If there are people willing to mobilise, we can approach them, tell them what is happening to the environment and communicate our demands so that they understand that our issues also concern them and they start mobilising for them as well. By doing this, we succeeded in getting the national strike committee to include the declaration of a climate emergency in Colombia among its demands. This has been a very big breakthrough.

Civic space in Colombia is rated as ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Fridays for Future through its website, and with the Colombian campaign by email or through its Facebook page, and follow @FutureColombia on Twitter.

 

ARMS CONTROLS: ‘Greater women’s participation in male-dominated mechanisms would increase prospects for peace’

CIVICUS speaks with Aaron Lainé, Policy and Government Liaison Officer, and Raluca Muresan, Programme Manager at Control Arms, a civil society coalition that advocates for greater controls in the international arms trade to end the human suffering caused by the irresponsible arms trade, and to stop arms transfers that fuel conflict, systemic armed violence, poverty and serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law.

Aaron Laine

It was quite surprising to hear that the 2019 Conference of States Parties to the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) would focus on gender. What is the connection between gender and weapons, and between women’s rights and gun control?

The thematic focus of the Sixth Conference of States Parties to the ATT (CSP6) on gender and gender-based violence (GBV) was the result of long-term efforts by progressive governments and civil society who called for more integration in the areas of sustainable development, women, peace and security and arms control. Building on the fact that the ATT is the first legally binding instrument to recognise the link between GBV and the international arms trade, efforts were concentrated on ensuring that governments recognise the importance of stopping arms transfers that perpetuate GBV and creating gender-sensitive arms control policies and programmes.

A gender perspective in arms control requires governments to examine how socially constructed gender roles affect policy decisions, particularly related to arms exports and controls. It also requires a better understanding of the gendered impact of armed violence and conflict, including of how women and men are impacted on, due to their sex or prevailing expectations about gender. It must be noted here that gender is not limited to women and girls but also includes men and boys and LGBTQI+ people.

While the body of evidence that connects women and peace and security with arms control policies is continually growing, several studies outline the disproportionate effect of irresponsible arms transfers and arms proliferation on women and children and the gendered impact of modern armed conflicts. While men and boys are both perpetrators and the primary victims of armed violence and conflict, women and girls bear a substantial and differentiated burden, including because of GBV, displacement and lack of access to medical care during pregnancy and childbirth due to the destruction of medical facilities. Research on the gendered impact of conflict also indicates that bombs, missiles, mortars and rockets, when used in populated areas, result in disproportionate casualties among women and children.

Therefore, Control Arms – along with other civil society organisations following the ATT process – has been urging governments to go beyond examining the risks that transferred arms may be used to commit violations of international human rights and humanitarian law, and look at the gendered impact of the use of weapons as part of a thorough examination of the potential for GBV facilitated by transferred arms. This is an essential component in reducing human suffering, the key purpose of the ATT.

While gender and GBV are beginning to be receive proper recognition by various United Nations mechanisms, including in disarmament forums, what is more important is to see meaningful action on the ground. In the case of the ATT, Control Arms hopes that states parties will base arms export control decisions on the recognition of the risk of commission or facilitation of GBV. The Control Arms practical guide on how the ATT can address GBV was specifically designed to help states parties implement GBV criteria effectively when conducting a risk assessment before authorising an arms export, and help push for meaningful change by using the ATT to address GBV.

Can you tell us more about the ATT and the role played by Control Arms in its negotiation and implementation?

The ATT, which was adopted in 2013 and entered into force on 24 December 2014, is part of the international response to the tremendous human suffering caused by the widespread proliferation of conventional weapons and poorly regulated trade in them. The ATT sets common international standards for the transfer of conventional arms and ammunition, with the express purpose of reducing human suffering. The ATT represents a significant paradigm shift in the world of arms control through its prohibitions on certain arms transfers (Article 6) and the establishment of a detailed export risk assessment mechanism (Article 7). Under these articles of the Treaty, states parties must determine if an arms transfer would violate specific international obligations or arms embargos or if the arms would be used to commit or facilitate genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, serious human rights or humanitarian law violations, to enable terrorism or organised crime, or to commit or facilitate GBV, and stop it in case it risks having any of these consequences. With the inclusion of Articles 6 and 7, for the first time in history, states are required to place international human rights and humanitarian law at the core of their arms export decisions.

The Treaty also sets out guidelines for importing, transit and transhipment states, requiring them to cooperate and share the information necessary to conduct the mentioned assessment.

Today, the ATT’s membership comprises 105 states parties and 33 signatories.

The Control Arms Coalition formed and launched a campaign in 2003 that tirelessly pushed for states to accept the idea of and negotiate the first global treaty to regulate the conventional arms trade. Since the adoption of the ATT in 2013, Control Arms has continued to push, first, for the 50 ratifications required for its entry into force, and then to hit a target of 100 states parties and for effective implementation. Through each stage of the ATT process, the role of civil society has evolved from primarily one of advocacy and awareness-raising to where we are today – where civil society plays an instrumental role in shaping the discussions and agenda of the Conferences of States Parties, advancing the Treaty’s universalisation and implementation, and ensuring transparency and accountability in the ATT through mechanisms such as the Control Arms’ ATT Monitor Report.

What does the Arms Trade Treaty say about GBV, and how could its provisions be used to protect women and children?

According to ATT’s Article 7.4, ‘[t]he exporting State Party, in making this [risk] assessment, shall take into account the risk of the conventional arms covered under Article 2.1 or of the items covered under Article 3 or Article 4 being used to commit or facilitate serious acts of GBV or serious acts of violence against women and children’.

The aim of Article 7.4 is to ensure that an exporting state party takes into account the risk that the arms transferred will be used to commit or facilitate acts of GBV, when conducting its export assessment outlined in Article 7.1. It is an explicit requirement aimed at reducing the historical tendency to overlook GBV.

In practical terms, if applied correctly, the ATT will help deprive human rights abusers of the arms that help facilitate violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law, including acts of GBV and violence against women and children.

What kind of advocacy work has Control Arms been doing in the area of GBV?

The Control Arms Coalition played a key role in advocating for the inclusion of Article 7.4 in the Treaty. Since then, Control Arms has sought to raise awareness about the importance of this provision, through bilateral and regional meetings, social media campaigns such as 10 Reasons to #StopGBV, and interventions and statements in ATT-related meetings.

Control Arms also produced a range of resources such as the Practical Guide on how to use the ATT to address GBV, a paper that provides interpretations on key terms from Article 7 and a factsheet on gender in the ATT. These resources were used in the first-ever training programme for export control officials on the implementation of the GBV criteria. Organised by Control Arms and the government of Latvia, the training session brought together representatives from 12 Central and Eastern European governments to learn in greater detail about the links between GBV and arms transfer decisions and the application of the ATT risk-assessment criteria that take these risks fully into account.

Do you think women’s participation in disarmament and arms control negotiations and processes could increase the prospects for peace?

Greater women’s participation in male-dominated disarmament and arms control mechanisms would without a doubt contribute to greater prospects for peace. Several studies, for example by the Council on Foreign Relations and a 2018 study by Jana Krause, Werner Krause and Piia Bränfors, highlight the positive impact of women in conflict resolution, concluding that “women’s participation in conflict prevention and resolution can improve outcomes before, during, and after conflict.” Similarly, gender equality among participants in international multilateral mechanisms can lead to more inclusive, effective and sustainable policy outcomes. This is relevant particularly for disarmament and arms control forums that have remained largely male-dominated and are stuck in an ideological window characterised by aggression, dominance, egotism and other characteristics of toxic masculinity.

A recent study by the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, Still Behind the Curve, outlines the state of gender balance in arms control, non-proliferation and disarmament diplomacy. Its main conclusion is that “the proportion of women participating in arms control, non-proliferation and disarmament diplomacy… has grown steadily over the last four decades, but women remain underrepresented.” This applies to the ATT as elsewhere: only 27 per cent of representatives at the 2018 Conference of States Parties were female.

Get in touch with Control Arms through its website and Facebook page, or follow @controlarms and @AaronLaineRicoy on Twitter.

 

AGAINST DISINFORMATION: ‘Enabling each to tell their story offers an opportunity to share our truths’

CIVICUS speaks to Chris Worman, Vice President of Alliances and Program Development at TechSoup, a non-profit international network that provides technical support and technological tools to civil society organisations (CSOs). TechSoup facilitates civil society access to donated or discounted software, hardware and services; supplies CSOs with the information they need to make smart decisions about technology; connects like-minded people, online and in person; and works on the ground to create social good solutions.

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What is TechSoup and what does it do?

TechSoup is a complicated beast. We are a network of civil society capacity-building organisations working together to help ensure civil society has the resources it needs. We are also a community builder and philanthropic infrastructure. Founded in 1987, TechSoup is primarily known for the first part, for helping CSOs get and use technology. To date, the TechSoup Global Network has helped more than 1.2 million organisations, primarily grassroots community-based organisations, access roughly US$12 billion in technology products and services and millions of hours of free training and support. We also sometimes build technology with civil society through the organisation’s apps division, Caravan Studios.

TechSoup then works through partnerships to help understand technology in context and community. This manifests differently depending on particular needs. The TransparenCEE programme brings together technologists and civil society to build tools and campaigns to encourage participatory democracy. A myriad of other projects through the TechSoup Network address everything from increasing internet access for rural farmers in Colombia’s demilitarised zone, to working on STEM (science, technology, education and mathematics) skills with teachers in rural Romania, to developing tools to support social services for Australia’s homeless people.

Finally, as philanthropic infrastructure, we provide a variety of tools and services, such as NGOsource, which leverages our network and community to help US foundations meet their regulatory requirements related to grantmaking across borders. Used by nearly 400 US foundations and common infrastructure for grantmaking abroad, in its first six years of operations NGOsource has helped lower the cost of international grantmaking by more than US$60 million and saved CSOs and funders more than 120 years of human labour by reducing duplicative due diligence processes.

What makes TechSoup necessary in the current tech environment?

We have been dwelling on two trends of the current – and coming – tech environment: contested digital space and the shift of technology to the cloud.

In terms of contested digital spaces – another way of saying ‘closing digital space’, manifesting as a combination of anti-civil society narratives, digital surveillance and policies that challenge rights online, or the lack of any relevant policy at all – TechSoup believes there is an urgent and critical need for CSOs to secure and build their digital reputations, and have the opportunity to join or lead digital campaigns that help build positive, pro-civil society narratives across digital media. The collective impact of individual CSOs that are more able to raise their voices online offers some hope of undermining anti-civil society narratives that would paint us all as foreign intermediaries intent on undermining culture and national identity instead of what we are – an important part of society, locally rooted and locally driven by community-based organisations intent on leaving the world better than they found it.

While increasing the capacity of individual organisations, we need to offer better tools to those who would join or lead digital campaigns. Our work with civil society to design and build the kinds of campaigns and tools they might hope to use to organise their communities from online to offline has shown that through such work, organisations that adopt digital tools for campaigning purposes become more savvy consumers of technology in general, and more committed stakeholders in and advocates for building and preserving rights online – a critical element in bringing in organisations that might not be policy-focused into the struggle for better digital policies.

Finally, these tools, campaigns, practices and communities need to be carefully considered and crafted to ensure safety. As a colleague from a context with closing space recently noted, with the internet came easy surveillance. This is an important point and dovetails into the other main shift we see, the shift to the cloud. All on-premise tools – think everything that isn’t Google Suite or Microsoft O365 –will go away in the coming years. This is both really good and really less good news. On the less good side, most CSOs are not ready to be fully in the cloud due to connectivity issues. Further, for many the cloud is not a safe place due to issues relatred to bad policies or no policies, such as who can access data in the cloud and on what terms.

On the good side, moving to the cloud can lower costs while opening opportunities for CSOs to link data for evidence, to drive advocacy and support new tools. One good example of this is a project conducted by our Irish partner, Enclude, who worked with Irish social service organisations to design a fit-for-purpose case management solution. The tool they built together met, for the first time, the needs of participating organisations, thus lowering their costs to provide services. Perhaps of equal or greater importance, it allowed organisations to pool data and use that data to learn from each other and build evidence for advocacy.

So, whether we like it or not, we are all going to the cloud. This offers opportunities but also necessitates increased capacity to represent and build our communities online, and work to ensure the cloud is a safe place for us all. TechSoup has been working to address these issues in a variety of ways and is in the middle of growing our programmes in these areas from pilot phases to our entire global community, effectively building the infrastructure upon which we can link the million-plus organisations we serve to partners who have technology or policy training capacities and interests and might want to engage the grassroots organisations we reach.

What are the barriers that CSOs experience to access existing technologies?

For more than 30 years, our mantra has been ‘democratising access to technology’. The main barriers to doing so seem related to CSOs choosing and being able to use the best tools for their work. TechSoup tries to lower that barrier in two main ways. First, by being a trusted source for curation and education, helping CSOs know what technologies are available and how to use them through online communities and courses. Though historically we have been quite focused on corporate technologies, this is fast expanding into ‘tech4good’ through projects like our Public Good App House, where CSOs can begin exploring tools that are specific to each Sustainable Development Goal and were built for CSOs and audited for security purposes by us.

Second, we lower access barriers by helping reduce the price point. Through our technology donation programme we are able to offer technologies at an extreme discount – what our French partner used to call ‘solidarity pricing’. The discount makes technology accessible at a price point most can afford – more than 80 per cent of the CSOs we have served have fewer than five staff – while generating revenues that help us provide free or steeply discounted training and support.

 

What does the data that you have collected through your work tell you about the ways CSOs use or don’t use technology?

The data tells us CSOs use technologies in about as many ways, and at about as many levels, as there are shapes and sizes in civil society. Some organisations are incredibly advanced and teach us new things they have learned or developed every day. Many could use some guidance and support on things that could improve their operational efficiencies so they can spend more time on their programmes. Most, let’s face it, don’t care about technology as long as it works. And that is fine!

The challenge, perhaps, is that very few organisations are fully aware of the ramifications of their technical choices. For instance: do you know where all your data is right now? Who has access to it? When did you last change your passwords? Few are also aware of how deeply we rely on technological infrastructure that is owned, operated and accessible by actors who may have interests contrary to our own. This lack of understanding, and the potentially negative ramifications of it, are exacerbated by the acceleration towards the cloud and increasing digitalisation of society. There are excellent thought leaders in this space – such as The Engine Room and the Stanford PACS (Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society) and its Digital Civil Society Lab – and I think we are beginning to understand and work on how we can partner, contextualise and bring civil society into critical discussions about digital access and rights – individually, collectively and in relation to digital policy.

We have to. Technology does not seem to be going away and as the world digitises, civil society needs to understand, craft and advocate for digital rights. Civil society is and always has been the champion of human rights. We must do so in the digital space. It will take all of us but it must be done.

What are the typical needs of advocacy CSOs that you seek to respond to?

We primarily help in choosing and using tools, but also we are increasingly providing training on digital storytelling, digital marketing and analytics to make sure stories are reaching their intended audiences, and training on how to work in an online environment cluttered with misinformation. These skills are certainly important for advocacy but are equally relevant for digital community-building and fundraising – both helpful in building a local base in the face of closing spaces.

Digital security is another big area for many. We provide some tools and guidance but those who are truly threatened need a much more personal level of support to map risks and develop plans than we can easily do en masse. We are working on more there but are always happy to recommend partners.

A third area is supporting base-building needs. We are piloting a variety of ways to connect advocacy organisations to the ‘rest’ of civil society – at least the million-plus CSOs in our community. Doing so, however, presents an interesting exercise in framing, communications and community building. Very few of the community we reach would consider themselves advocacy organisations. Fewer still sit around dwelling on rights-based frameworks. Regardless, they do their best to support, defend and enable their communities in their own ways. They can be reached and invited to engage in solidarity with those who are more particularly vocal about rights but it takes work to meet them where they are. We have seen some incredibly encouraging examples of broader bases of support and hosts of unlikely allies when advocacy organisations have the tools to appeal to the broader community, and look forward to more work in this area.

You mentioned the fact that the online space is increasingly cluttered with misinformation. Why do you think misinformation is so easily propagated on social media, and what tools can civil society use to stop it?

A funder recently asked me: ‘won’t we soon have a tool that simply tells us what is fake news?’ Sure. But a lot of disinformation is either fun or empowering to those who propagate it, or both. Our job in civil society will be to help educate voters and policy-makers about why facts are important and disinformation is a threat. We could do that by spending all of our time trying to stop the spread of misinformation. Some people think that is the way to go and not they are not necessarily wrong. On the other hand, technology platforms across which misinformation is spread are much more able to do that than we are. They can incorporate tools that spot deep fakes, monitor stories that are going viral around key words and work with civil society to interpret and distinguish what is harmful and threatening and what is not. They already have human moderators doing much of that work around obvious issues, but they are not trained to know that, for instance, a certain cat meme or dumpling joke is actually a political smear. We know and need partnerships – some of which are emerging around elections in particular countries – to help platforms and civil society meet in the middle.

Another approach, and one that we work with through our programmes, is described earlier: helping CSOs have the tools to build their own narratives, better use analytical tools to understand when their narratives are working and whether they are reaching their intended audiences, and helping to form narrative communities. There are hundreds of trolls, thousands who spread their lies and millions who see it. There are millions of CSOs, hundreds of millions who follow or ‘hear’ them on social media. Enabling each to tell their story, and enabling the collective to coordinate in solidarity, offers an opportunity to flood the digital space with our truths. Once all are moving, we will have more messaging, more quickly, and tapped into more local realities than a handful of trolls could ever manage. If we incorporate analytical tools to understand what messages are working and coordinate around successful messaging across our communities, our collective weight will overwhelm opposition. Until the government shuts off the internet… worth trying until then!

We are building a repository of specific tools and successful campaigns, such as the one we have built at TransparenCEE, focused on digital campaigning. But there are a lot of great resources out there, produced by JustLabs, MobLab and others.

Can you tell us a success story from your recent work?

One of my favorite stories – one that opened my eyes – happened nearly 10 years ago when I was living in a small town in Romania. I had launched TechSoup Romania through a community foundation I had started a few years before. Some funders had supported us to run a convening of technologists and CSOs we were calling the ‘Local Philanthropy Workshop’, through which tech people and CSO people worked on digital storytelling, tools and projects.

On one of the first afternoons, the leader of a local environmental CSO and a tech guy were talking. The environmentalist was sharing that he wanted to make a map of illegal garbage dumps in the county. The technologist asked if he had them in a spreadsheet with geocoordinates. The environmentalist emailed him the list and three minutes later the technologist showed him a googlemap version of what he had been hoping for. The environmentalist walked it across the street to the newspaper and it ran on the front page the next day with an article about illegal dumping.

Three minutes of tech and advocacy campaign came true because the right skills came together at the right time. It is a simple story compared to some of the much larger and more complex ones that have come since, but perhaps more indicative of what success might look like for most of us. Big data and artificial intelligence, blockchain and machine learning, digital ID and quantum are all good and shiny and important for those who have the data, tools and resources to work with them. For most of us, I believe, simpler solutions supporting the resolution of local challenges – where communities and civil society come together – are perhaps more in reach and perhaps, in aggregate, more meaningful as we seek collectively to come to grips with the influence of technology on society, and learn how to navigate the good and the bad of it as the world digitises.

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

 

 

BANGLADESH: ‘Protecting water amounts to protecting basic human rights in all nations’

Following a year marked by massive mobilisation on the climate emergency, CIVICUS is interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about the main environmental challenges they face in their contexts and the actions they are taking. CIVICUS speaks with Sharif Jamil, an environmental activist and the General Secretary of Bangladesh Paribesh Andolon (BAPA), a platform that organises civil society movements against environmental degradation. Since 2009 Sharif has been involved with the Waterkeeper Alliance, a global network aimed at ensuring every community’s right to clean water, and he is currently the Coordinator of Waterkeepers Bangladesh.

 sharif jamil

 

What is the key environmental issue that you work on?

The Waterkeeper Alliance is a global platform and network that now includes over 400 organisations in 40 countries across the globe. We protect the water bodies that we all need and use, but that cannot speak for themselves. We call for people to respect water bodies and defend their rights, so when a waterkeeper speaks it is as if a water body spoke.

We focus on water, but we don’t work only on water, because if there is no rainforest there is no water, if there are no mountains there is no water: if you don’t preserve the environment and ecology as a whole, then the water is also in trouble. So our water protection movement is not limited to protecting water bodies. 

We have launched a global campaign because water does not respect borders, so it needs to be protected globally. Climate change and global warming are threatening the entire planet, and we need the planet to come out of this crisis as a whole.

While thinking globally, you are also acting locally. Can you tell us about the work you are doing in Bangladesh?

I started my activism 20 years ago. BAPA was formed in 2000 at an international conference on the environment in Bangladesh. The conference was held to discuss what we could do for the environment from the civil society level. It was agreed that civil organisations were doing good work but a platform was still needed for all of them to act as a unified pressure group, to bring the conflict to the table and apply pressure to come up with a solution. When BAPA started, we prioritised the issues directly affecting the environment in Bangladesh, but as rivers do not follow political boundaries, we realised that protecting water amounts to protecting basic human rights in all nations. That is why I also got involved with human rights organisations and members of a human rights group based in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and we are now tracking human rights violations related to ecological degradation.

Specifically in Bangladesh, in recent times, we are focusing our work on the conflict between fossil fuels, the energy system and environmental degradation. In 2010 the government updated a power system master plan required for the country to grow economically. The government decided to focus on industrialisation, so it formed a special economy zone authority and declared more than 100 special economic zones across the country. These were meant to attract investment from foreign investors and to facilitate the establishment of multinational companies in the country. Industry requires energy, so to foster industrialisation the government came up with a plan to produce the power that it estimated would be required up to 2030. In order to meet the requirement, it decided to increase dramatically the share of energy produced from coal, from 2.5 per cent of total electricity to over 50 per cent. The government made this decision just as the world was shifting away from coal because of global warming.

At this point there were civil society reactions, but initially we did not know enough. We lacked information, expertise and funding. But we worked hard to understand how much this master plan would impact on water and climate. With the collaboration of the Waterkeeper Alliance, in 2015 we organised an international conference in Dhaka, ‘Coal energy in Bangladesh: impact on water and climate’, and we came to understand that coal is more of a problem than a solution. The government’s plan identified three major hubs to establish coal-based power plants in the coastal region, and each of those hubs is threatening a unique ecological treasure.

One of them is the Sundarbans, a mangrove area in the delta formed by the confluence of the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers in the Bay of Bengal. The Sundarbans, a World Heritage Site, is the largest remaining mangrove forest in the world. It covers an area of about 10,000 square kilometres in both Bangladesh (60 per cent) and India (40 per cent) and it is the last habitat of the endangered Bengal tiger. The Sundarbans protects the entire nation from cyclone and storm surges because Bangladesh is a densely populated country and is highly vulnerable to global warming, climate change and extreme weather hitting the land from the Indian Ocean. Bangladesh is almost a flat country and is therefore affected by floods. The Sundarbans is a lot more than just a huge forest – it is also a barrier that protects all of our country’s land.

So we started protesting against the Rampal and Orion coal power-plant projects, located only around four kilometres away from the Ecologically Critical Area of the Sundarbans. We first started protesting against the coal-based power developments that were closest to home and then found out that on the other side of the Sundarbans, there were also huge numbers of coal-based power production plants going on in and around Payra, which were also threatening the Sundarbans as well as one of the rarest sea beaches where you can see the sunrise and sunset. And more importantly, thinking about the food security of our nation, the pollution that it causes threatens our national fish, hilsa. This is a fish that migrates from sea to freshwater and from freshwater to sea. The region is one of the major landing stations for this migratory fish and would be entirely destroyed by the coal plants.

What we are trying to do is to reach a balance and understand what we should do and how we can protect this environment while keeping development moving onwards, that is, how we can make development sustainable. But the most urgent thing to do is protecting our water and air from this kind of pollution. We have been organising people’s movements. We are trying to convince our government, doing research and presenting global data and studies to our policy-makers. We are also inviting global investors like China, Japan and the UK to review their strategies. Some of the biggest investors are phasing out coal in their own countries while funding its use in this poor, overpopulated nation. We want the global community to influence and engage global investors to keep development progressing while ensuring that it is done with renewable energy. The global community should understand that producing 5,000 megawatts in Australia is not the same as producing 5,000 megawatts in Bangladesh. We are an overpopulated deltaic country, with more than 1,084 people per square kilometre. 

Have you participated in global climate mobilisations?

I was the national coordinator of the climate march in Bangladesh in 2015, when the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP 21) was held in Paris, France. We took people out on the street and had a very good turnout. We held a procession together with other civil society organisations in the capital, Dhaka, and more than 30,000 people participated in the march.

More recently, in September 2019, we mobilised in the context of the global climate strike called by Greta Thunberg. Waterkeepers Bangladesh, Waterkeepers Nepal, the Nepal River Conservation Trust and BAPA jointly organised a series of events and activities in solidarity, including a mobilisation to protect the Himalayas by the banks of the Sunkoshi River in Nepal, near the source of the Brahmaputra and Ganges rivers, on 23 September, and another focused on protecting the Sundarbans, held at Katka Beach in the Bay of Bengal, near the source of the sea, on 29 September.

I also took part in COP 25 in Madrid, Spain, and joined the European Union’s 21st EU-NGO Human Rights Forum in Brussels, Belgium, both in December 2019. Discussions there revolved around building a fair environmental future.

So yes, Bangladeshi people are the victims of climate change, which they face every day, but they are also protecting themselves with their own knowledge and capacity, and reaching out to the global community.

A big problem is that many in the global community are ready to help people with adaptation, but no one is putting enough attention on mitigation. So we request help for Bangladesh not only regarding adaptation to climate change, but also for mitigation, to keep our forest, to protect the Sundarbans, to protect the water bodies. The truth is that if you don’t keep this place alive, the entire region will be in trouble.

The situation is urgent because water is depleting and there are no shared protocols. So we have started efforts within civil society, with people-to-people communication. We are working on the five countries – Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India and Nepal – to manage the entire Brahmaputra, Ganges and Meghna basins together on the basis of equity and trust. These countries should come up with a treaty or some form of consensus to deal with the problem of melting Himalayan glaciers. Bangladesh is a water-scarce country as we get only 20 per cent of total water over half of the year from upstream during the lean period. When a neighbouring country blocks all the water, water bodies die, agriculture collapses and the economy is destroyed.

Do you think international climate forums provide a useful space for civil society?

I have participated in many global talks; in September 2018 I was even invited as a speaker to the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco, USA. The problem with these forums is that sometimes good things are said, but actions do not match words. The government of California was one of the organisers of the summit in San Francisco, but California’s policies are all about protecting themselves while exporting fossil fuels to other countries. It’s irrational to think that you can save yourself alone. What you have to do to protect the planet from climate change is to keep fossil fuel underground. You cannot exploit mines in poor nations and then organise a nice summit to come up with recommendations to solve the problem you have created and that you do not have any intention to implement.

Still, we are invited to these forums and we attend. The former BAPA general secretary was a member of the Bangladeshi government team for the climate negotiations at three successive sessions of the COP. We try to help our government in the negotiations, for instance by providing data and analysis. True, our government still needs to change its mindset and understand that economic growth needs to be sustainable. Our government needs to conduct itself diplomatically while being firm in searching for funding for sustainable development. 

But we support our government in international negotiations because Bangladesh is a poor nation and there are many things that our government is not in a position to do or decide by itself; we depend on developed nations in many respects. We understand that responsibility falls on our government when it comes to changing its mindset and becoming more inclusive in its decision-making processes, but it is the responsibility of the global community to come up with a holistic approach to deal with a global problem.

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

 

 

DISINFORMATION: ‘The fact that profit drives content creation on the internet is dangerous to democracy’

CIVICUS speaks with Rory Daniels about the 2019 elections in the UK and the dangers that disinformation poses to democracy. Rory is a student, activist and writer intent on promoting the voices of those left behind by governments and globalisation. In the 2017 general election, he stood as a 19-year-old parliamentary candidate for the Liberal Democrats in the constituency of Llanelli. Since September 2019, he has been a member of Amnesty International's first Global Youth Task Force.

rory daniels

What role would you say disinformation has played in the recent elections in the UK?

As a candidate myself during the 2017 UK general election, I saw first-hand the role disinformation played throughout the campaign. Prominent newspapers often printed misleading headlines, biased websites attacked real journalists uncovering the truth and advertisements created by political parties lacked sources for statistics, featured heavily edited video footage and virtually never presented balanced arguments.

Then the 2019 general election saw all this take place again, plus more. There were doctored videos, highly misleading websites and even signs of foreign interference. A doctored video came from the Conservative Party, which later admitted to editing a clip of a speech given by Labour MP Sir Keir Starmer. The video they released made it look like he had struggled to answer a question about exiting the European Union, while in fact he had answered the question. The same party then changed the name of one of its Twitter accounts to ‘FactcheckUK’. Twitter responded by warning the Conservatives that this effectively constituted an act of deception, as the account was not impartial as users may have been led to believe. Clearly not satisfied with deceiving videos and social media accounts, the Conservatives then bought ads on Google that appeared as the top result for anybody seeking the Labour Party’s manifesto. These criticised the proposals in a heavily biased fashion.

The Labour Party also succumbed to disinformation. For example, their leader, Jeremy Corbyn, cited documents suggesting that the Conservatives would sell off large parts of the National Health Service to the USA in a post-Brexit trade agreement. It later transpired, however, that these documents were linked to a Russian disinformation campaign.

Which platforms do you think are the most vulnerable to disinformation?

It’s hard to say which platforms are more vulnerable to disinformation than others. In November 2019, I attended the World Forum for Democracy at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, France. The whole event revolved around the question of whether democracy is ‘in danger’ in the information age. It didn’t take long for me to see that vulnerabilities exist on any platform that possesses many users and is constrained by little regulation.

In addition, with disinformation it’s often more about the content than the platform. For example, I remember reading a recent analysis conducted by BuzzFeed which found that during the final months of the 2016 US election campaign, fabricated news stories reached a greater online audience than actual news stories.

What are the impacts of disinformation on democratic freedoms?

All democracies depend upon facts, truth and scrutiny. Voters need reliable information in order to vote rationally – that is, to have good reason to vote for a certain politician or policy instead of others – to challenge their own worldview or preconceptions, and ultimately to hold power to account.

In an age of disinformation, facts become indistinguishable from fiction, truth becomes impossible to discern among all the lies and scrutiny gets entangled in ideological polarisation. Where once there was the traditional media to keep the populace informed, now there is the internet – an unregulated mess of opinions, corporations and agendas.

On the internet, the business model is simple: more clicks equal more revenue. This means that often, websites will only seek facts and the truth if they bring greater profits. If not, they may decide to prey on fear, stereotypes, insecurity, hatred and division. Authors know that readers achieve greater levels of satisfaction when they read opinions that confirm their worldview, rather than challenge it. This leads to greater polarisation, as empirical evidence is disregarded in favour of the ‘facts’ that confirm readers’ previously held views.

We’ve already seen that if this occurs in a democracy, politics suffers. Voters develop apathy, because as they become overwhelmed by confusion and conflicting viewpoints, they switch off from political developments, while ‘establishment’ candidates lose out to populists who pedal quick solutions to complex problems. In short, rational, informed debate all but dies.

What are the forces behind disinformation?

Disinformation can be created by anybody at any time. State actors may intervene in foreign elections to tip the scales in their favour, while domestic activists may sow news stories that build support for far-right or populist actors. In other words, the ‘information war’ is fought from all sides.

Since the creation of the internet, we’ve also seen what some people call the ‘democratisation of disinformation’ unfold. This means that anybody, whether in place A or with budget B, can create and share intentionally misleading content with ease. As a result, what only a few years ago was seen as a tool that was largely positive for democracy – the 2010 ‘Arab Spring’ came to be known as the ‘Facebook Revolution’ – is today perhaps its greatest threat.

What is being done to combat disinformation, and what have the successes and challenges been so far?

A few months ago, I spoke at UNESCO’s Media and Information Literacy (MIL) conference in Gothenburg, Sweden. I did so because I believe that education can play an enormous role in addressing disinformation, and I also wanted to share some lessons I had learned from my 2017 parliamentary campaign. The conference was no doubt held in Sweden due to the country’s incredible push for MIL education in recent years, and after meeting many Swedish activists throughout the week, I can only applaud the valuable work they are doing in the field.

I’m also looking to address some of the negative consequences of disinformation. For example, as a member of the Global Shapers, an initiative of the World Economic Forum, I’m part of a team of young activists planning a ‘Unity Day’ celebration to take place in London on 19 May 2020. Crucially, in a time of increasing division and hatred, this will see politicians, thought-leaders, community organisations and others come together to champion values and ideas that unite us. I urge you to visit the Unity Day website if you’re interested in pledging to take an action, no matter how big or small, that celebrates unity and combats division.

Of course, trying to inform the debate about disinformation has not been easy. Still today, MIL education is woefully underprovided, sensible media regulations are too often labelled as censorship or attacks on free speech and social media platforms continue to constitute dangerous echo chambers.

What more is needed to combat disinformation?

Many of the causes of disinformation are structural by nature, and therefore I believe that many solutions must be too. We must finally recognise that the profit incentive driving content creation on the internet is dangerous to democracy and ultimately unsustainable, while tabloids that spew out sensationalist clickbait should be heavily regulated and severely fined if caught breaking the rules.

In addition, I’m of the opinion that media and information literacy is by far the most cost-effective and sustainable strategy to countering disinformation and restoring our trust in democracy. MIL education should be offered far beyond schools, also targeting older generations who are less likely to identify disinformation and more likely to share it in the first place. Ultimately, readers must know how to spot and avoid disinformation, or else all the regulations and structural changes in the world will not solve the problem at hand.

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

Get in touch with Rory through LinkedIn if you’re interested in the regulation of big tech companies, London Global Shapers’ Unity Day or his work more generally.

 

G20: ‘Civil society is treated as a second-class partner; its recommendations often go unheard’

CIVICUS speaks with María Emilia Berazategui, Transparency International’s Global Advocacy Coordinator, about the role of civil society in international and inter-governmental forums and the degree to which it can influence decision-making processes, and the successes achieved and challenges encountered in 2019 by the C20, the engagement group for civil society within the G20. Before joining Transparency International, María Emilia led the area of Political Institutions and Government at an Argentine civil society organisation, Poder Ciudadano. In 2018 she was appointed C20 Sherpa under the presidency of Argentina. In 2017 and 2019 she was a member of the C20 Steering Committee, and in 2018 and 2019 she was the co-Chair of the C20 Anti-Corruption Working Group.

Emilia Berazategui 

What is the C20, and why does it matter?

The C20 (Civil-20) is one of the G20’s official engagement groups, and it the natural space for civil society organisations (CSOs) to advocate at the G20 level.

There are two additional ways in which CSOs can participate in G20 processes: by attending the G20 Working Group meetings, as guests, to present thematic recommendations, and by being present at the G20 International Media Center when summits take place, which allows them to engage directly with the media covering the G20 summit and disseminate their messaging around key themes.

The C20 is a global civil society space, without a permanent structure and with a presidency that rotates annually, in line with that of the G20, for CSOs from all over the world – from grassroots and local groups to large international CSOs – to influence the G20 collectively. According to the recently adopted C20 Principles, its aim is to ensure that world leaders listen not only to voices representing the government and business sectors, but also to the proposals and demands of civil society, and that they are guided by the core values of human rights, inclusion and sustainable development.

Civil society engagement with the G20 matters because we are only 10 years away from the 2030 deadline to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, and the gap between the actions taken by governments and the measures that need to be taken to achieve them is immense. Most of the challenges we face – political polarisation and extremism, human rights abuses and civic space restrictions, extreme inequality, systemic corruption, gender disparities and gender-based violence, intersectional discrimination, the lack of decent employment, the health crisis and the negative impact of digitalisation and technology in our lives – not only remain unanswered but continue to deepen.

Governments and multilateral institutions have a central role to play in finding shared solutions to common challenges. World leaders need to come together urgently to find those solutions, and despite all of its challenges, the G20 is one of the few spaces that provides them with the opportunity to do so.

Sadly, in the last few years we have seen little evidence of any real progress from G20 leaders. Commitments are made in front of the world’s media but are quickly forgotten and rarely implemented once they return home. A recent report by Transparency International exposing issues of money laundering and anonymous company ownership found deeply troubling weaknesses in almost all G20 countries.

What can civil society contribute?

Civil society engagement with the G20 can help because civil society brings a set of unique skills to the table.

First, in trying to make sure that policy outcomes serve the common good, we hold governments accountable. So when governments commit to something, we will hold them to their promises. Sometimes they resist, but other times we succeed in strengthening champions inside governments who really want to get things done.

Second, we contribute our expertise. Civil society groups are not just watchdogs. We are innovators, technologists, researchers and policy experts who can help support policy implementation to achieve the best possible results. Civil society can also contribute to increased transparency and the credible evaluation of outcomes.

Third, civil society functions as a bridge, helping translate technical jargon into language people actually use, explaining what change means and bringing citizens’ perspectives back to decision-makers. Governments should talk to civil society about their plans so we can provide feedback on how those plans will impact on people.

Last but not least, civil society provides much-needed balance. One of the greatest weaknesses of the G20 is the lack of openness to having civil society represented at the same table where business interests sit. This raises the question of whether the G20 values the interests of corporations more than those of citizens. This certainly does nothing for trust, and it shows why people around the world believe that governments are too close to business or only act for the benefit of a few private interests.

How much space do international forums such as the G20 offer for civil society to influence policy-making in reality?

The G20 is often described as elitist, as a group of economic powerhouses – although not all the largest economies take part in it – trying to rewrite the rules of global economic governance, operating largely behind closed doors in an opaque way. It’s no wonder that many in civil society instinctively feel that we should oppose the G20 rather than engage with it.

The G20 invites a variety of guests to take part in its meetings, including representatives from different regional groupings, guest states and international organisations. However, its record of speaking to citizen groups and civil society is mixed at best. Despite all that we have to offer, we do not sit at the same table; we are treated as second-class partners and our recommendations and ideas on important issues often go unheard.

Experiences vary widely across the various working groups that comprise the G20. For instance, despite all the knowledge that civil society has on financial issues, the G20 International Financial Architecture Working Group has systematically closed its doors to civil society participation. On the other hand, we are lucky to have a standing item on the agenda of the Anti-Corruption Working Group, in which governments speak to business and civil society on the same footing. Still, while we appreciate this, we think that both this working group and the G20, in general, need to improve their engagement with civil society significantly.

Despite all these limitations and challenges, during 2019, when the G20 presidency was in the hands of Japan, civil society managed to influence the G20 in some areas including the protection of whistleblowers, making infrastructure spending more transparent and on gender and corruption.

In 2019, the G20 Anti-Corruption Working Group adopted two important documents: the High-Level Principles for the Effective Protection of Whistleblowers, which was much in line with civil society’s recommendations and included an unprecedented recognition by the G20 of the gender-specific aspects of whistleblowing, and a Compendium of Good Practices for Promoting Integrity and Transparency in Infrastructure Development, also aligned with civil society recommendations.

Through the Compendium, the G20 also recognised that transparency regarding who the ultimate owners of companies are is critical to the fight against corruption. In line with civil society suggestions, they recommended implementing company beneficial ownership registers to reduce the possibility of public funds being used to favour specific individuals or companies, and to identify conflicts of interest.

Overall, what would you say were the main successes of civil society engagement with the G20 during 2019?

In one word, the main success of civil society engagement during 2019 was its continuity. Civil society was able to maintain a similar degree of engagement with the G20 as it had in 2018, when Argentina chaired the G20. In 2018, and for a short period of time, civil society won access to some G20 Working Group meetings, although unfortunately, not to the working groups that are part of the so-called G20 Finance Track, and to the G20 Media Center. This allowed civil society to access, for the first time ever, some sessions that used to be held behind closed doors. In addition, we got G20 local representatives, including the G20 Sherpa, to attend the C20 in-person meetings.

Civil society's 2018 call for G20 delegates to move from words to action passed from Argentina to Japan. This had an echo on social media, through the hashtag #G20takeaction. In order to continue strengthening civil society participation and ensure an increasing impact within the G20, in 2019 the C20 agreed a set of principles that enshrined transparency, collaboration, independence, internationalism, inclusiveness and respect for human rights and gender equality as central pillars of the engagement group’s practice. This was a very important milestone in the C20’s history.

And what were the challenges and what needs to improve?

Despite these successes, there is an urgent need for the G20 to change the way it engages with civil society. At the G20, governments discuss policies that have a huge impact on our lives. As civil society, we should be allowed to bring to the table the voices of citizens, real and diverse. These are the people who will be affected by the public policies promoted in this forum.

The few times we have managed to gain access to G20 meetings, the experience has usually not been positive. We make great efforts to be there. After finding the resources and traveling many hours, we wait – sometimes for a very long time – outside the meeting room until they finally let us in. Once inside, we  share our ideas and recommendations as quickly as possible in order to ensure there is time for dialogue with the delegations, which itself is rarely an open and honest conversation. After a short while, we are diplomatically ushered out of the room so that, having ticked the civil society participation box, negotiations can continue.

The G20 still has a long way to go to ensure effective civil society participation. G20 leaders need to stop thinking that inviting civil society representatives to a couple of meetings amounts to the fulfillment of their obligation to consult widely and open themselves to scrutiny. They need to acknowledge the unique skills that civil society brings to the table and move towards more meaningful and sustained engagement with civil society.

They can do this in many ways. First, they can, and should, invite civil society as well as business representatives to additional sections of various Working Group meetings, to provide insights and guidance on a thematic basis, and not just during a single, short session dedicated to listening to all of our concerns. Additionally, they should share the agenda of those meetings with us. It may sound crazy, but more often than not we are invited and go to meetings without knowing what is being discussed, so we are not necessarily sending the most appropriate person or preparing the most relevant or detailed contribution.

Second, the G20 delegates should consistently meet with domestic civil society throughout the year, both prior to and after G20 Working Group meetings. This already happens in some G20 countries but not all of them.

Third, G20 representatives need to be more open and honest in their exchanges with civil society. When G20 delegates speak to civil society, mostly they only share limited information on what they are doing to address major global challenges, which sometimes simply amounts to propaganda. How about they asked us what we want to discuss and what information we’d like to receive? Or how about they provide honest and direct feedback on the proposals and recommendations we shared with them?

G20 leaders seem to be unaware that good communication and access to information are key. There is no permanent G20 website. Instead, every presidency establishes its own, which isn’t updated afterwards. The digital landscape is littered with redundant G20 websites. This makes documents hard to find for civil society, media and researchers seeking to inform themselves about G20 activities. In 2017, when Germany chaired the G20, the German government took an excellent initiative: it compiled all existing anti-corruption commitments in one location. This should be normal practice. For transparency and accountability, all G20 Working Groups should publish minutes and agendas of their meetings. And they should systematically consult with civil society so we provide an input into the draft documents they are planning to adopt and suggest key topics the G20 should focus on.

What changed in terms of civil society engagement when the G20 presidency passed on to Saudi Arabia for 2020?

Despite its limitations and weak engagement with civil society, the G20 has been a relevant space to bring our concerns directly to governments and advocate with them to tackle the most critical issues we face. Unfortunately, in 2020 the space for civil society engagement became significantly reduced when the presidency of the G20 and all its Engagement Groups, including the C20, passed to Saudi Arabia – a decision taken by G20 governments in 2017 in Hamburg, Germany.

Saudi Arabia is a state that provides virtually no space for civil society and where independent civil society voices are not tolerated. It systematically suppresses criticism from the media, regularly arrests and prosecutes human rights defenders, censors free speech, limits free movement and tortures and mistreats detained journalists and activists. This makes civil society participation ethically dubious.

In addition, the C20 principles emphasise a series of elements that the Saudi presidency is unable to provide, such as inclusion of a variety of truly independent civil society actors, from local to global, the transparency of decision-making procedures and the guiding values of human rights, gender equality and women’s empowerment. By participating in the very limited space that the Saudi government would be able to provide, we would only help launder Saudi Arabia’s international reputation. The Saudi government has already recruited expensive Western public relations advisors and spent millions of dollars to polish its tarnished image.

In response, an overwhelming number of CSOs from all over the world have joined their voices together and decided to boycott the C20 hosted by Saudi Arabia this year. At Transparency International we are looking forward to re-engaging fully with the C20 process next year, when the presidency will pass to Italy.

Civic space in Saudi Arabia is rated as ‘closed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Transparency International through its website and Facebook page, and follow @anticorruption and @meberazategui on Twitter.

 

 

PHILIPPINES: ‘If we don’t fight against the system, people will continue to die’

Following a year marked by massive mobilisation on the climate emergency, CIVICUS is interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about the main environmental challenges they face in their contexts and the actions they are taking. CIVICUS speaks with Jhewoung Capatoy, a young climate defender from the Philippines. Jhewoung is a community youth organiser with Young Bataeños Environmental Advocacy Network, a youth environmental organisation that promotes environmentally sustainable development and seeks to create awareness among youth to act to conserve the environment.

jhewoung capatoy

Why did you become an activist?

I come from the Lamao Limay Bataan community, which is about three hours away from the capital of the Philippines, Manila. I decided to get involved because local communities are suffering as a result of the establishment of coal-fired power plants. People are suffering from health issues and are dying as a result of environmental disasters. And people who speak up against this are also getting killed. Being an activist is dangerous, but if no one speaks up and acts against this, the situation will become normalised. If we don’t fight against the system, things will continue to be the way they are: people will continue to die and the impacts of the climate crisis will become unbearable to our communities. Most likely, a lot more people will die.

Deep down, one reason why I’m doing this is that I have lost people who were very dear to me. I went through an experience that marked me for life when I was in first grade, about seven years old, in 2004. A flash flood killed two neighbours who were also my close friends. Flash floods were caused by the construction of an energy plant in the area. Later on, when I started high school, I got in touch with a youth organisation that worked to protect Mother Nature. I got involved because I didn’t want to lose anyone else. I had realised that my friends had been killed by a corporation that only cared about making money, and by our own government, which colluded with the corporations and allowed everything to happen. Together, corporations and government are too powerful and if nobody stood up against them, they would be able to kill whoever they want. If nobody fought for it, our community would likely be gone in the near future.

However, being an activist also meant that I would continue to lose people. Soon after I got involved one colleague, a well-known climate defender, Gloria Capitan, was killed. She led the fight against coal-fired power plants because the pollution caused by these corporations in her area were causing people serious respiratory problems and other issues. We believe that both the corporations we were protesting against and our local government are responsible for her killing. We know who shot Gloria Capitan, but the police did not listen. They tried to cover everything up and have the case dismissed.

Can you tell us more about the work that you do?

We organise campaigns to educate people about the effects and impacts of dirty industries and how corporations are threatening our right to a secure environment. We organise people and we protest, mostly against coal-fired power plants. We also try to reach policy-makers and bring human rights violations to the attention of human rights bodies. We were once able to reach the Philippines Commission on Human Rights, which investigated what was happening and issued a resolution that acknowledged that these corporations were causing human rights violations in our community, as well as in other communities that have dirty industries in the Philippines. That was one of our greatest achievements because if the resolution is eventually disseminated to the public, we can find a way to hold corporations accountable and bring some reparation to the affected communities.

Did you take part in the global climate mobilisations in 2019?

Yes, our youth organisation, Young Bataeños for Environmental Advocacy Network, participated in the global climate strike in September 2019 by holding a local event. There also was a mobilisation in Manila, but we decided to protest locally, staying in the place where the coal-fired power plants are having their worse effects. The reason why we mobilised is that we want to hold these corporations, as well as the government that lets them have their way, responsible for what they are doing to our communities.

We had been mobilising and protesting since before the global strike, but the global climate strike was a good opportunity to put our issues out there. It was very useful as a framework because it was a global call to make corporations responsible for emissions. But we chose to participate in this global call from our own local communities, without going to demonstrate in Manila, in order to communicate that the reason why we are fighting is that the people in these communities are suffering the worst effects of global warming and the climate crisis. It is the rich of the global north who profit from these big corporations that emit carbon gases, but it is always us, the poor communities of developing countries, who suffer the worst environmental impacts of these industries.

True, people in developed countries are striking and mobilising, and it is good that they have called attention to what is happening, but let’s always remember that the impacts of the climate crisis are extremely unequal. The impacts that people in the global north are facing are not as devastating as the ones we are suffering in the Philippines. That’s the reason why we are mobilising: because it is us who are experiencing the consequences of their actions. It is not even a matter of choice really. We are a poor country in which people are dying due to the climate crisis, so we are fighting for our lives.

Have you had any participation in global climate forums?

Our youth organisation has not been able to take part in any international gathering. We basically have no access to that kind of spaces. Our organisation is local and no one has yet given us the opportunity to be under the spotlight. It would have been good if we had been invited because that would have meant an opportunity for us to represent people at the grassroots level. It is important to advocate for the environment, but you also have to make sure that you are representing the people who are most vulnerable. It is not enough not be there just because you believe that the climate crisis is happening. People should represent the real experiences and those who are negatively impacted by climate change.

The very people who are suffering the most from the climate emergency should be given the opportunity to speak for themselves. They should be invited to these forums so they can tell the world about their experiences. Those forums are big and impersonal and it would be important for participants to hear the stories of the people who are living in the areas where climate change and dirty industries are having their strongest impact. They are the ones who can really tell what’s happening, beyond what the media is covering, which is far from enough.

What support does your movement need from international sources, including international civil society?

Taking part in global networks is very useful for us. For instance, we’ve asked young people from Taiwan, who were participating in the 2019 Climate Action Summit, to send letters to our national and local governments to urge them to stop giving permits for corporations to increase their operations. Our government has planned to authorise two dozen new coal-fired power plants by the year 2030, so we are asking young people from other countries who are better connected to put pressure on our government. Letters coming from outside the country would mean a lot because they would show that our stories are not staying inside the country, that people from the outside world are listening and reacting to the pain and the suffering of the people in the Philippines.

International organisations like CIVICUS could also help amplify our stories and attract the attention of our government. This then could make our government rethink the path they have taken in generating energy.

It would be an even bigger help if the international community could help us financially in order to continue with our work. As climate activists, working with the local communities that are directly affected by climate change is always a challenge. I have had to leave my comfort zone, drop out of school and be away from my family. I stay in a community where there is little internet access or transportation. I go to work kilometres away from my house, to organise people, to give them updates and reassure them that I am with them for real. I do it because people need someone they can lean on, someone they can trust their stories with, someone they feel could help them.

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

Get in touch with the Young Bataeños for Environmental Advocacy Network through its Facebook page.

 

LEBANON: ‘Increased popular awareness is irreversible, it will remain despite any setbacks’

CIVICUS speaks with Ziad Abdel Samad, Executive Director of the Arab NGO Network for Development (ANND), and Zahra Bazzi, ANND Programmes Manager, about the protests that began in Lebanon in October 2019, the changes achieved and the challenges encountered. ANND is a regional network that brings together nine national networks (encompassing 250 organisations) and 23 civil society organisations (CSOs) in 12 countries. It was established in 1997 and since 2000 has had its headquarters in Beirut, Lebanon. It promotes the role of civil society and the values of democracy, human rights and sustainable development in the region, and advocates for socio-economic reforms aimed at sustainable development and gender justice, with a rights-based approach.

Ziad Abdel Samad Zahra Bazzi

What triggered the protests that began in October 2019?

The protests were motivated by the direct repercussions of the economic and monetary crisis on the Lebanese population, but had deep roots in a structurally flawed economic system and wicked political practices and corruption embraced by successive governments for decades. The few months before the eruption of the revolution saw a looming economic crisis with an increase in government debt and questionable monetary and financial engineering coupled with a decrease in GDP growth, as well as a rise in unemployment, reaching approximately 16 per cent among the general population, and more than 45 per cent among young people, along with growing poverty and increases in the prices of essential commodities. One week before the protests, direct signs of a financial crisis had started to show, including strikes at petrol stations and the inability of the government to access new credit to import wheat and other basic goods, in addition to the eruption of roughly 100 nationwide wildfires and forest fires that destroyed massive green areas and some houses.

Following the late adoption of the 2019 budget in July, the negotiations over the 2020 budget were being finalised in October with a clear aim of increasing state revenue at any cost and reducing the enormous deficit of 11 per cent to escape the crisis. The cabinet meeting held on 17 October suggested a new set of austerity measures, including additional indirect taxation, without envisioning the anger of the Lebanese people and the massive protests that would spread through the country that same day.

Protesters have shared a clear vision with clear demands of the political and economic systems they want to achieve: the resignation of the government – which happened on 29 October 2019; the formation of a new government comprising people independent from the ruling parties – indeed a new government was formed on 22 January 2020, although it does it not conform to the key demands of the revolution; and the holding of democratic parliamentary elections based on a new democratic electoral law. In addition, there were demands to pass laws on the independence of the judiciary, take action to recover assets and other socio-economic demands.

How did the government react to the protests?

Since the first days of the uprisings, political parties and various elements of the regime felt threatened by the imminent change protesters were calling for, which would jeopardise the power they have held for decades. They reacted to this by using excessive force, teargas, rubber bullets, arbitrary detention and arrests, especially after December 2019.

Since the beginning of the protests, several human rights violations were committed against protesters. On 23 November, five young people – including two minors – were arrested and detained by the security forces for taking down a banner belonging to a political party. On the same day, supporters of the Amal and Hezbollah movements violently clashed with peaceful protesters in Beirut and other regions to denounce the closure of roads. Violence increased, a fact that was firmly condemned by United Nations’ experts and special rapporteurs, who called on the Lebanese government to respect the right to the freedom of expression and protect protesters.

The postponement of parliamentary consultations from 9 to 16 December, and then again to 19 December, was accompanied by increasing violence and clashes among protesters, supporters of political leaders and the security forces and army. The most violent clashes were recorded between 10 and 16 December: on 10 December, protesters toured in their cars outside the houses of the previous ministers of public works and transportation, denouncing the poor infrastructure that had caused enormous floods on main roads and highways, locking citizens for hours in their cars. Protesters were attacked ferociously by men in uniforms of the Internal Security Forces, but who were affiliated with some political parties. Cars were vandalised, and protesters and journalists were dragged out and beaten indiscriminately.

On the nights of 14 and 15 December, security forces clashed with supporters of political parties who provoked and attacked them in different ways. Security forces also arbitrarily attacked protesters gathered in Beirut, and fired teargas and rubber bullets at them, in retaliation against the acts of some. These two days of violence ended with the arrest of 23 people, some of whom showed signs of torture after their release. More than 76 protesters reported experiencing some form of attack, either by security officials or as a result of the rubber bullets fired against them. More severely, a few reported being dragged inside the parliament building and beaten by the security forces inside. A few reported the theft of money, legal documentation, or phones.

Violence continued until the night of 16 December, with supporters of political parties attacking the people gathered in squares in Beirut and in the south, and burning down tents and cars. This came in response to a video, probably intentionally spread on social media, of a young man from Tripoli cursing the Shia faith.

Clashes between protesters and security forces and riot police were especially intense during the attacks protesters made against banks, and during protests and attempts to remove the massive walls and blocks unlawfully put in front of parliament, and more recently in front of the Government Palace.

Following the arbitrary arrest of protesters, on 15 January 2020 hundreds gathered outside the detention facility to call for their release, and were subjected to excessive force by the riot police, including the indiscriminate firing of teargas. Journalists and TV reporters were directly attacked by riot police. Footage was leaked showing the security forces beating detainees while transporting them to a detention facility. Some released detainees shared stories of torture and abuse inside detention facilities.

Recent statistics released by the Lawyers’ Committee to Defend Protesters in Lebanon show that between 17 October 2019 and 31 January 2020, around 906 protesters were arrested and detained, including 49 minors and 17 women. Roughly 546 protesters were subjected to violence at the protests or in detention facilities.

When and how did the protests become a ‘revolution’?

The protests are widespread across the country. They are decentralised and remain non-sectarian. As Lebanese people overcame their religious and political divergences and joined forces in an attempt to achieve real change, they made the biggest post-war civil movement in Lebanon. This change had been long-awaited, particularly by civil society, which has tried to promote partnerships and engage in policy-making at various levels for years, despite the lack of serious and effective channels for doing so. Although the term ‘revolution’ has been contested by many, protesters and activists, among others, have insisted on calling the process a revolution, particularly after the increased violence and the death of two martyrs, Hussein Al-Attar and Alaa Abou Fakher.

Although key demands have not changed since the beginning of the protests, more demands were added as the process evolved, especially relating to the socio-economic and financial situation. More importantly, demands started off and remained socio-economic, but were always directly linked to political change.

What role have CSOs played during the process?

CSOs have played an important role in the revolution, which has benefited from their accumulated knowledge, communication skills and organisational capacities. Most of those organisations participated in the protests since day one, but their role went beyond protesting. CSOs are leading in coordinating the protests and organising daily discussions at various squares in Beirut and other regions. These meetings address politics, law, socio-economic policies and human rights. They address people’s concerns and ensure the availability of solutions and alternatives. Participation in discussions has steadily increased and has involved a variety of sectors of society, including young people, women, the private sector, academics, and students. However, protest camps have faced challenges following the destruction and burning of their tents in Beirut and across other areas.

It seems that women and young people are playing increasingly prominent roles in protest movements worldwide. Has this been the case in Lebanon?

While women in Lebanon have been at the forefront of every important political moment in our country, they have been particularly active during the revolution. Slogans and demands related to women’s rights have been very clear and evident, including the right to pass their citizenship to their families, a civil personal status law and protection from violence, Women have organised in groups, or participated individually, to form human shields at the forefront of protests to prevent violence, lead the marches and host discussions on women’s issues.

Feminist and women’s marches were held outside Beirut, in north and south Lebanon particularly. These were bold actions that were not very common prior to the revolution. Feminists were also able to engage critically with the slogans of the revolution and to place their discourse on the table. They were able to draw attention to many patriarchal connotations in slogans, even in the national anthem. In addition to being active alongside men, and sometimes alone, closing roads and occupying squares and public facilities, women cooked meals and offered them to protesters and sitters to support them, and initiated cleaning and recycling campaigns on a regular basis. More importantly, on many occasions, they formed a shield on the front rows between protesters and security forces to minimise the clashes.

The revolution also witnessed very active participation by young people and youth groups. These formed the backbone of the protests, as for years young people have been eager to take part in decision-making and political life. In Lebanon, people below the age of 21 are not eligible to vote in parliamentary and municipal elections, and yet they found a space in this revolution to participate and make their voices heard. As such, young voices and concerns were loud during the protests. Young people were particularly concerned with unemployment, immigration, and the brain drain and suggested bold demands, including calling for the downfall of the regime and all its political leaders without exception and the establishment of a secular system promoting social justice and gender equality.

The revolution has been an opportunity to revive the student movement in Lebanon. Despite all the efforts made prior to the revolution to form a nationwide student movement, in the absence of a national student union the student movement was fragmented and weak. However, after 17 October, student clubs in private universities such as the American University of Beirut, Notre-Dame University and Université Saint-Joseph participated heavily in the protests in and off-campus, forming marches from universities to the main protest squares, and even setting up their own tents in downtown Beirut. Other private universities such as the Lebanese American University and the Lebanese International University held protests on and around campus. The Lebanese University (LU), Lebanon’s national university, saw the biggest student protests. The LU Student Coalition was particularly active in the revolution, from setting up a tent for protesters in Riad Al-Solh square, in downtown Beirut, to hosting various discussions, joining efforts with other student clubs and leftist groups.

Younger school students also had a role in the revolution. Along with university student groups, they took a big part in civil disobedience actions and general strikes. Students closed their schools and universities and protested in front of the Ministry of Education and other public administration offices for many days. As 6 November marked Students’ Day, students all across Lebanon were revolting for a better future. A banner raised by one of the students says it all: “On this day I won’t be learning history, I will be writing it.”

What have protests achieved so far, and what remains to be done?

Within 100 days, the revolution has had an impact on the authorities and also at a popular level.

First, it overthrew the so-called presidential settlement – an agreement among regional and internal forces and other actors – that led Michel Aoun to become president and produced a parliament based on an unconstitutional electoral law. This led to the rise of a new political majority and the formation of a coalition government including seven major political parties. This came at a high price, including the conciliation of regional and local powers, frequent disruption of the work of parliament and government, and very intense pressures especially on the political and security levels.

Second, it overthrew the government, that is, the executive power. This was the settlement’s weakest component, as the prime minister was the weakest among power holders such as Hezbollah, the Amal Movement, and the Free Patriotic Movement.

Third, the revolution interrupted two parliamentary sessions and blocked the adoption of equivocal draft laws listed on the agenda. Mobilised citizens had never been able to cancel a parliamentary session before.

Fourth, it caused disruption within the ruling coalition and among the authorities, as seen in the resignation of the government and the confusion that prevailed in the process of forming a new government, especially when two candidates for the role of prime minister had to be let go for failing to meet the minimum requirements demanded by the revolution, along with other reasons. During this lengthy process, acute differences and contradictions were revealed between allied parties, despite the fact that they belonged to the same block.

Above all, the revolution has increased popular awareness, which has been reflected in thousands of initiatives and discussions. Decentralised protests have taken place across all cities and villages from the far south to the far north and east, and have included all social and age groups. This diverse and inclusive revolution has contributed to breaking the rigid sectarian and regional political discourse, disrupting traditional loyalties and breaking down barriers between social groups and regions. Some people think that this positive shift cannot be considered complete, but there is indeed a consensus that it is a very important and irreversible change, which will remain despite any setbacks. We must be confident that significant progress has been made regarding popular awareness and the ability of social movements to carry out direct political action in the streets.

The revolution has achieved certain gains during the first round and is preparing for the next round, in which new laws and policies need to be adopted as soon as possible to overcome the ongoing financial and economic crises and set a base for a new and fairer economic paradigm.

How connected is Lebanese civil society with its counterparts around the world, and what support does it need from international civil society in order to continue its struggle?

Lebanese civil society is very rich and diverse, and it is connected to its counterparts around the world through different channels. It is indeed very active on the advocacy front and takes part in numerous international advocacy platforms.

In these critical times, the country is going through, civil society is avoiding seeking any support from foreign counterparts, in order to refute all conspiracy theories and accusations that politicians and their affiliates have made against protesters and the revolution. In order to lessen all the claims fabricated against our genuine and national revolution, Lebanese civil society is very reluctant to receive any support that could amount to or be interpreted as intervention by any foreign actor. However, it would welcome solidarity actions and statements, especially those that denounce human rights violations committed against protesters.

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

Get in touch with the Arab NGO Network for Development through its website and Facebook page, or follow @ArabNGONetwork on Twitter.

 

#UN75: ‘The UN cannot afford to miss opportunities for civil society engagement’

2020 marks 75 years since the founding of the United Nations (UN). CIVICUS is speaking with civil society activists, advocates and practitioners about the roles the UN has played so far, the successes it has achieved and the challenges ahead.

CIVICUS speaks to Angie Pankhania, Acting Executive Director of the United Nations Association – UK (UNA-UK). Founded in 1945, UNA-UK is devoted to building support, both political and financial, for the United Nations among policy-makers, opinion-formers and the public. Its actions are based on the belief that a strong, credible and effective UN is essential to build a safer, fairer and more sustainable world.

Angie Pankhania

Overall, what would you say have been the greatest successes of the UN in its 75-year history?

The UN was set up primarily to prevent another world war. This, by far, is the UN’s biggest success in its 75-year history and in doing so the UN has saved millions of lives, and also helped humanity progress in so many other ways, such as by fostering technical advancement it has achieved economic prosperity and advances in health in addition to reducing world poverty and preserving everyone’s basic human rights.

Beyond that, the UN makes positive differences every day, from the UN Mine Action Services clearing thousands of landmines every year to the dozens of war criminals who have been brought to justice through UN processes – including, in 2019, Congolese warlord Bosco Ntaganda – to the thousands of people the UN feeds and houses every day, and the most important – but least measurable –  work of providing a forum for the nations of the world to resolve their differences diplomatically rather than resorting to wars.

What things are currently not working and need to change?

At a time of global uncertainty, the UN is needed now more than ever. Public support for the UN is vital if our ambitions for a better, more sustainable and fairer world are to be realised. The UN must do all it can to protect civil society space, both inside and outside the UN. Determined work here will not only help strengthen public understanding and support for the UN but also motivate individuals, society and businesses to play their part to help us collectively take action to avert global challenges such as climate crisis, protection of everyone’s human rights, end poverty and hold our world leaders to account. For these reasons, the UN cannot afford to miss opportunities to strengthen engagement with civil society.

There are several civil society initiatives focused on strengthening citizen engagement. Among them is Together First, a campaign led by a coalition of over 150 civil society organisations, launched in 2018. It is a fast-growing movement of global citizens, experts, practitioners, civil society activists and business leaders from all regions of the world. The campaign calls for ideas on global governance reform and brings new voices to the decision-making table. Those ideas that offer the most promising realistic and implementable solutions will be taken forward with the hope of transforming how the world reacts to global challenges. UNA-UK provides the secretariat for Together First.

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

The main challenge is always that the UN is a collection of individuals representing member states, and some of those states don't always have the greater good at the heart of their actions. This is often the bottleneck when it comes to solving some of the world’s problems and it is important to bear this in mind when communicating why the UN can sometimes be seen to underperform. The famous US ambassador Richard Holbrooke once said that blaming the UN itself when it fails is like blaming the stadium when a sports team loses.

As for the staff who keep the organisation running: we generally find them to be hardworking, diligent and idealistic – doing wonderful work, day after day, despite near-impossible demands and woefully insufficient resources. But of course, it's not without its frustrations. We've come across situations such as parts of the UN contacting us because they want to get in touch with other parts of the UN and don't know how, or UN staff acting in an entitled manner. And of course, in our campaigning work we've come across very serious issues, particularly the problem of sexual exploitation and abuse by UN peacekeepers, which is the subject of our ongoing Mission Justice campaign.

These issues cannot be downplayed, but nor must they obscure the good work that the UN does, particularly at a time when multilateralism is very much under threat as a result of the dissemination of a sceptical political culture. But as a critical friend to the UN, we feel that the best way we can help the UN is not to sweep these issues under the carpet, but to help them resolve the underlying problems. We do feel that the UN needs to change – in its recruitment processes, in its accountability mechanisms, in its diversity, in how it measures and rewards success and above all in how it involves civil society. Our Together First Campaign aims to take forward ideas that offer the most promising realistic and implementable solutions for change with the hope of transforming how the world reacts to global challenges.

Get in touch with UNA-UK through its website and Facebook page, follow @UNAUK on Twitter, and get involved in the Together First campaign.

 

COLOMBIA: ‘Citizens are outraged and tired of the policies that have plunged them into poverty’

CIVICUS speaks with Alexandra González Zapata, coordinator for democracy and social protest at the Solidarity Committee with Political Prisoners Foundation, and a member of the Campaign to Defend Freedom. The Solidarity Committee Foundation is a Colombian civil society organisation that works to defend the rights to life, freedom, physical and moral integrity, decent, fair and impartial treatment and other rights of people deprived of liberty, prosecuted for political crimes and criminalised for participating in social protest. The Solidarity Committee Foundation is a member of the Campaign to Defend Freedom, which focuses on denouncing arbitrary detentions, judicial persecution and the criminalisation of social protest in Colombia. A network made up of social, student, cultural, community and human rights organisations, Defend Freedom works in a coordinated manner to challenge the illegal use of force as a mechanism of persecution against those who, individually or collectively, demand and promote human rights through social mobilisation in Colombia.

alexandra gonzalez zapata

What triggered the 2019 protests in Colombia, and why did they escalate?

Outrage has been building up little by little in Colombia. Even as it was inaugurated in August 2018, President Iván Duque's government did not enjoy wide margins of legitimacy and support. The electoral results showed that a broad segment of the citizenry rejected traditional power and all that it represented: policies in favour of war, privatisation and indebtedness. This discontent increased as the government announced a series of policy measures, including among those who had voted for Duque.

The government's proposals were aimed at eliminating the state pension fund Colpensiones, raising the retirement age and lowering the salary for young people to 75 per cent of the minimum wage, among other measures. A widespread atmosphere of indignation emerged as a result, yielding a unified call for mobilisation on 21 November 2019.

What few expected by then was that the mobilisation would continue over the days that followed 21 November. On that day some acts of vandalism were committed, which the national government tried to use as an excuse to criminalise social protest and adopt measures to restrict freedoms, including a curfew. In response to this, citizens went out to demonstrate freely. We really do not know which was the first neighbourhood or the first block to start banging pots and pans on 22 November, but what we do know is that this dynamic expanded throughout the capital city, Bogotá, as well as other cities around Colombia, shifting the narrative that had prevailed on the media, which was all about vandalism, towards a public discourse that highlighted citizen outrage and social demands.

How have these mobilisations managed to be sustained over time? How are they different from others in Colombia in the past?

From 2013 onwards, social mobilisation in Colombia has been on the rise. In 2013 there was an agricultural strike that lasted for more than 20 days and managed to keep several major national roads closed. Then came the agricultural strikes of 2015 and 2016, and the so-called ‘mingas for life’, marches and protests of tens of thousands of Indigenous peoples, and the student strikes of 2018 and 2019.

In other words, we’ve seen numerous massive and sustained mobilisations over the past few years. What is different about the ongoing national protests in comparison to past mobilisations is that they have been characterised by a majority participation of urban citizens and mainly middle-class people. This caused them to be viewed not as the actions of a particular group of people – Indigenous peoples, peasants, or students – but instead as the work of outraged citizens who are tired of the policies that have increasingly plunged them into poverty, even though the country keeps flaunting positive economic growth indicators. Hence its massive and sustained character.

What do the protesters demand, and what response do they expect from the government?

The National Strike Committee has submitted a list of petitions around 13 major issues: guarantees for the exercise of the right to social protest; social rights; economic rights; anti-corruption; peace; human rights; the rights of Mother Earth; political rights and guarantees; agricultural and fishery issues; compliance with agreements between government and social organisations; withdrawal of legislation; the repeal of specific laws; and reform of the law-making process.

On the first item, guarantees for the right to social protest, protesters urge the government to dismantle the Mobile Anti-Riot Squadron (ESMAD) and refrain from establishing any other similar force. They demand that those responsible for the death of Dylan Cruz, an 18-year-old who was shot dead in the head while running unarmed to escape ESMAD in the early days of the protest in Bogotá, be brought to justice and held accountable.

On the second item, social rights, protesters demand an end to labour subcontracting, the establishment of an interest rate for mortgage loans that is fair and correlated to people’s real incomes and the repeal of the tax that is currently used to finance the electricity company Electricaribe.

So far the government has shown no willingness to enter into any real dialogue and negotiation; instead, it insists on beginning ‘exploratory dialogues.’ Protesters expect the government to convene a negotiating table as soon as possible to address the substantial issues that have been raised.

How did the government react to the protests? What human rights violations were committed by the security forces?

On 15 November 2019, six days before the first protest was scheduled to take place, the national government made the decision to involve the army in control and security operations in Bogotá. Nine Brigade XIII contingents were deployed and more than 350 soldiers took part in monitoring, patrolling and security controls in Bogotá. This militarisation still persists in the city. The presence of a ‘riot squad’ of the national army, according to information released by the authorities, is particularly concerning. It should be noted that, except in exceptional circumstances, military forces should not intervene in operations to control, contain or even guarantee the celebration of social mobilisations.

In addition, as confirmed by the authorities, starting at 6am on 19 November, 37 raids were carried out in the residences and workplaces of media professionals throughout Colombia. To date, 21 of those raids have been declared illegal after undergoing judicial scrutiny, because they did not comply with legally established requirements, including being based on reasonable suspicion. According to information provided by the authorities, the raids involved people who were thought to be prone to committing acts of vandalism during the protest. However, it was mainly people linked to artistic groups, alternative media and social movements. Among the items seized were posters, brushes and paintings.

Also on 19 November, the Ministry of the Interior issued Decree 2087/2019, establishing new measures for the maintenance of public order. Article 3 made “a very special call to district and municipal mayors, so that in their duty to preserve public order in their respective territories, they comply [with the provisions of the Law] in matters of public order.” This call prompted the authorities of at least eight cities – Bogotá, Buenaventura, Cali, Candelaria, Chía, Facatativá, Jamundí and Popayán – to declare curfews. These affected the exercise of the rights to free movement and social protest for all citizens, even though acts affecting public order had been extremely localised.

Throughout the protests, the authorities made an improper and disproportionate use of force. Although Resolution 1190/2018 states that “the use of force must be considered the last resort of intervention by the National Police,” in most cases ESMAD has intervened without any apparent reason to do so. On 22 November it intervened in Plaza de Bolívar, where more than 5,000 people had assembled, although the demonstration was completely peaceful. On 23 November, Dylan Cruz was killed as a result of an unjustified intervention by ESMAD during a peaceful mobilisation. Although the weapon uses was among those authorised, the ammunition fired by ESMAD caused the death of this young man because of improper use, since according to international standards this type of weapon can only be fired at a distance greater than 60 metres, and only against lower extremities; otherwise, it is deemed to entail lethal risk. Strikingly, on a video recorded live by the Defend Freedom Campaign, an ESMAD agent can be heard encouraging another one to shoot, saying: “Shoot anyone, just anyone, come on daddy.”

During the protests more than 300 people were injured, including 12 who had eye injuries. Some young people were injured by firearms shot by the police, including Duvan Villegas, who might remain paralysed as a result of a bullet hitting him in the back. Another young man lost his right eye in Bogotá after being hit by a rubber bullet fired by the ESMAD, and two other people could face the loss of their legs due to the impact of teargas canisters thrown by the police from close range.

Overall, there were 1,514 arrests during the protests, 1,109 of them in Bogotá. Out of 914 people who were arrested, 103 (6.8 per cent) were prosecuted for allegedly being caught in the act of committing violence against a public official; however, arrest procedures were declared illegal in a high number of cases, both because there were not enough grounds for conducting them and because they were accompanied by physical violence against detainees.

The rest of the people who were detained (93.2 per cent) were transferred for protection or by police procedure. According to the law, detention in these cases is justified when the life or integrity of the person or a third party is at risk or danger. However, in practice an abusive use of this power was made, since these were mostly administrative detentions, used as a mechanism of intimidation and punishment against citizens who were exercising their right to protest. Therefore, these were mostly arbitrary detentions.

In some of these cases, cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment was documented during detention, particularly in Immediate Attention Commands or police stations. Cases came to our attention of people who were forced to undress, others who received electric shocks through electrical control devices and some who had broken bones in their hands as a result of baton charges or being kicked.

Additionally, in Bogotá, more than 620 people who were transferred to the Protection Transfer Centre were punished with police appearance orders, in many cases for the crime of disruption, for having obstructed transport. This mechanism, which results in fines amounting to around 200,000 Colombian pesos (approx. US$60), was used indiscriminately and has affected the exercise of social protest.

How has civil society organised in the face of these abuses?

In 2012, the Defend Freedom Campaign was established. Through its Verification and Intervention Commissions, recognised in Resolution 1190 of 2018, the campaign does on-site monitoring of social mobilisation, documents cases of arbitrary and excessive use of force by police authorities, arbitrary detention and transfer for protection and various forms of repression and abusive use of police power against protesters and human rights defenders, and it systematises the information collected. The campaign also promotes the creation of a National Network of Civil Society Commissions for Verification and Intervention in situations of social mobilisation.

Likewise, through a joint demand, the National Process of Guarantees, the Agrarian, Peasant, Ethnic and Popular Summit and the Defend Freedom Campaign have obtained verifiable commitments from the national government and the government of Bogotá to establish public policies aimed at enforcing respect for the freedoms of individuals, communities and social organisations that promote and defend rights. The most important of these were Decree 563/2015 (Protocol of Action for Social Mobilisations in Bogotá: For the Right to Mobilisation and Peaceful Protest) issued by the Office of Bogotá’s Mayor and Resolution 1190/2018 (Protocol for the coordination of actions to respect and guarantee peaceful protest) issued by the Ministry of the Interior.

What immediate measures should the Colombian government adopt in response to the protests?

First, the government should convene the monitoring mechanism (‘Mesa de Seguimiento’) to respect and guarantee peaceful protest, as a space for negotiation and dialogue that should define mechanisms to guarantee the right to protest, as envisaged in Resolution 1190. Likewise, the government should immediately suspend the use of 12-calibre shotguns by ESMAD members, due to their high impact on people’s physical integrity and life. Second, it should refrain from pursuing stigmatisation and criminalisation campaigns against those who engage in social protest. Third, the government should initiate a negotiation process with the National Strike Committee to address its demands. And in response to the substantive demands made by the National Strike Committee, the government should start by withdrawing its proposals for labour and pension reform that are due for congressional debate, and initiate a broad and participatory process towards the formulation of new laws concerning those issues.

Do you think the response of the international community has been adequate? How could international groups and organisations support Colombian civil society and contribute to safeguarding civic space in the country?

I believe that the international community and the United Nations system were able to issue a timely warning regarding the risks of repression of social protest. The call made by human rights organisations in the USA to urge their government to start a moratorium on the sale of US riot weapons to Colombia was also timely.

However, it would also be important for Colombian civil society to receive longer-term support to undertake medium-term strategies that allow for a deeper and more detailed follow-up of the human rights situation, and particularly to help make progress in judicial investigations for the human rights violations allegedly committed during the protests.

Civic space in Colombia is rated as ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Solidarity Committee Foundation through its website and Facebook page, or follow @CSPP_ on Twitter.
Get in touch with the Defend Freedom Campaign through its website and Facebook page, or

 

 

SDGs: ‘Gaps in data coverage are most likely to exclude the poorest people’

Claire MelamedCIVICUS speaks to Dr Claire Melamed, CEO of the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data, an open, independent, multi-stakeholder network aimed at harnessing the data revolution for sustainable development. Its network includes hundreds of data champions representing the full range of data producers and users from around the world, including governments, statistics agencies, companies, civil society groups, international organisations, academic institutions and foundations.

Why is data important?

Data can help governments improve policy-making and service delivery, including aligning budgets with needs. It can also help citizens and civil society groups to have a voice: to make better decisions and hold leaders accountable for their actions. Private companies use data to build capacity and drive entrepreneurship and innovation. In other words, data is a major potential driver of sustainable development. The problem is that very important decisions affecting development around the world are often based on incomplete, inaccessible, or simply inaccurate information.

If you’re missing in the data, then you’re missing in the decisions on budgets and policies that are made with that data. A government is not going to build a road or a school or a hospital for people that it doesn’t know are there, and it’s not going to solve a problem it can’t see.

Of course, not all governments want to solve those problems, and data is also an important tool for civil society advocates who want to highlight problems or put a spotlight on inequality. We’ve all been asked ‘show me the numbers’, and it’s really important that advocates can do that.

What is the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data and what work do you do?

The Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data is a growing network of hundreds of partners from governments, multilateral institutions, civil society, the private sector, the United Nations (UN), and academia. What they have in common is a desire to use data to help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). We’re coming up to our fifth birthday in September 2020.

We help governments, civil society groups and others who want to use data to improve their work to find the best solutions to their problems, and then put them into practice. Data is not only about numbers and platforms, it’s also about people, relationships and institutions. So we put a lot of effort into working with governments, the UN and others over the long term, so that good innovations are adopted in a sustainable way that builds trust and respects people’s rights, while also solving practical problems and helping governments deliver.

One of the things we focus on is how data can better represent the lives of the people who are the least powerful. This is partly about making sure that everyone is represented in the data. Through the Inclusive Data Charter we bring together a wide range of actors to make specific plans and commitments to improve their data on the most marginalised people.

We also believe that people can represent themselves through data. We recently worked with a group of civil society organisations to publish a guide on citizen-generated data (CGD), which is about people collecting data that represents their own experiences and what they think is important, and then feeding that into government systems to influence decisions about budget and policies. It’s already being tested in Kenya, working with the National Statistical Office, and we would love to work with other groups to use it and make it better.

How available is the data required to monitor progress towards the SDGs?

The availability of data on the SDGs is highly variable. In general, issues such as health and education, which were included in the monitoring framework of the Millennium Development Goals, have better data coverage than new issues such as the environment or governance. However, even for those issues where there is some data, it is often out of date or has gaps in coverage. Gaps in coverage are most likely to exclude the poorest people.

A large number of the indicators relating to civic space and participation are still ‘tier 2’, meaning that the data is not yet regularly produced. This is the case with SDG 16.7 (‘ensure responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision making at all levels’), 16.10 (‘ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms, in accordance with national legislation and international agreements’) and 17.17 (‘encourage and promote effective public, public-private and civil society partnerships, building on the experience and resourcing strategies of partnerships’). There has been progress in developing methodologies, but the next step is for countries to begin to collect the data regularly and use it to inform their policy-making.

We have been working with civil society groups to increase the use of CGD for the SDGs. The guide to CGD that I mentioned is being tested in Kenya is one example of a tool that will be useful in increasing civil society voice in SDG monitoring and delivery.

How would you assess state reporting on SDG commitments, given their universal and interdependent nature?

It is highly variable. No country is yet collecting all the data that is needed, and in some cases there are gaps that are limiting the ability of civil society to hold governments to account.

Over the past couple of years, we have provided support to a number of countries, including Costa Rica, Kenya, the Philippines and Sierra Leone, to define their priorities and make plans to improve their data in key areas. We’re already seeing improvements in how governments are using data for agriculture, environmental management, water and other areas.

We are working with the World Bank Group, the UN and the Sustainable Development Solutions Network on the ‘Data For Now’ initiative to scale up the use of real-time, dynamic, disaggregated data to achieve and monitor the SDGs. We aim to put tested methodologies to use to give governments and civil society groups the information they need to make the right decisions to achieve the SDGs. ‘Data For Now’ is working with governments to increase the timeliness of data in different sectors, including Bangladesh, Colombia, Ghana, Mongolia, Nepal, Paraguay, Rwanda and Senegal.

Are current pressures on multilateralism impacting on progress on SDG commitments?

Most definitely. The crisis of multilateralism is having a negative impact, in two ways. There are some goals, such as those on climate, which can only be achieved through multilateral action, which is particularly difficult in the current political climate. Additionally, if multilateralism is seen as less important, then the effect of peer pressure and the influence of global norms will be reduced, weakening government incentives to take actions on the SDGs.

Get in touch with the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data through their website, where you can also sign up to the newsletter ‘Our World in Data’, or follow @Data4SDGs and @clairemelamed on Twitter.

 

LGBTQI+ RIGHTS IN UGANDA: ‘Intolerance is fuelled by anti-rights groups and leaders’

Following our 2019 special report on anti-rights groups and civil society responses, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their experiences of backlash from anti-rights groups and their strategies to strengthen progressive narratives and civil society responses. CIVICUS speaks with Pepe Julian Onziema, Programme Director at Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG). Formed in 2004, SMUG is a civil society umbrella organisation focused on advancing LGBTQI+ rights and supporting and protecting LGBTQI+ people in Uganda. SMUG advocates for policy reform and helps to coordinate the efforts of 18 LGBTQI+ organisations in the country. These organisations provide a variety of services to the LGBTQI+ community, including medical attention, counselling, guidance and economic empowerment programmes. SMUG works closely with local, regional and international human rights organisations and activists to end discrimination and ensure equal treatment of and respect for all LGBTQI+ people in Uganda.

pepe Onziema

What is the situation of LGBTQI+ rights in Uganda?

I would say it’s very unpredictable, but also not okay. At some level everything is mixed up; you can’t just look at one thing and say, okay, we are making this progress, because somehow when you make progress you also move backwards on another front. So generally speaking, I would say the situation is confusing and unpredictable. The only aspect in which we have made consistent progress is in the area of HIV/AIDS, working through the Ministry of Health.

The situation of LGBTQI+ people is difficult, and I wouldn’t be able to say whether it’s because of social attitudes or discriminatory laws. People’s social attitudes towards LGBTQI+ people are affected by the law, but on the other hand the law is what it is because of people’s religious views and the influence of religion over politics. But if I had to say which the biggest problem is, I’d say it’s social attitudes and widespread lack of acceptance. If this changes, I am sure the law would follow.

In Uganda, LGBTQI+ people experience all kinds of attacks and violence, but this depends much on where you live. In popular areas trans women and gay people, or people thought to be gay, both male and female, are attacked from motorbikes or taxis. In the suburbs and expensive urban areas there is a bit more safety. However, a lot of new apartments have been built and many people are moving in, and then if your neighbour finds out or suspects that you are an LGBTQI+ person, then they can go tell the landlord, who will usually feel the pressure to throw you out without even paying back your rent. Everything is based on suspicion, spying and resentment. There is no need for any evidence of someone being gay, so people panic. There is a lot of gay panic because if anyone just mentions that someone else is LGBTQI+, it is to be expected that action will be taken, including physical violence. They can beat up the accused person or use extortion and blackmail. This is especially common with trans people, who are accused of impersonating someone else, adopting a fake identity.

We’ve worked a lot to raise awareness, informing people that even under our regressive laws, being gay is actually not a crime. It’s subtle, but the law talks about acts that are not permitted, rather than about identities that are not allowed to exist. There is more awareness of this now, but this awareness has made intolerant people more clever: they know they cannot denounce someone just for being gay, so they go on and invent stories. They tell the police false stories about things that gay people have done, so the police have to come and arrest them.

Although the law does not ban the existence of gay people, there is certainly no law that protects the rights of gay people. While laws guarantee the right to life, to the freedom of association, and so on, when it comes to LGBTQI+ people those do not fully apply. We don't have access to all those rights as anyone else.

Are LGBTQI+ civil society organisations allowed to function, or do you face restrictions? How do you manage to get your work done?

LGBTQI+ organisations are not allowed to register. They are denied formal recognition as civil society organisations (CSOs). That is the case with my organisation, Sexual Minorities Uganda, which was founded in 2004, so it will soon be turning 16 years old, and is still unregistered. Our right to associate is limited in several ways, but we’ve been persistent and consistent in challenging the government. We take advantage of legal loopholes and organise ourselves as a loose group. We have sued the government on the basis that the constitution grants us the right to the freedom of association. We’ve found the court system is not terribly fair, but still, it does not always work against us, and we have won several cases.

In the past few years, the High Court has issued several progressive rulings, stating that the fundamental rights recognised in the constitution, such as the right to personal liberty, the right not to be subjected to torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, and the right to privacy, apply to all citizens. As a result of a High Court ruling on discrimination, it is now possible for LGBTQI+ people to file cases against employers who have fired or harassed them, or landlords who have evicted them. So we’ve seen some progress within the justice system, and this has given us the courage to continue going to the courts to fight when the government wants to impose further restrictions.

As well as the lack of legal recognition, we face restrictions in our daily work. For instance, when we hold a workshop or some formal function for the community, we are usually raided by the police. The Minister of Ethics and Integrity has been particularly notorious and shameless in shutting down our meetings. He has gone on radio and other media to say that he would never allow LGBTQI+ organisations. So we try to keep up our work by doing it through collaborations with other CSOs, but there’s only so much we can do, because when they learn that we are working with us then somehow they also become targets by association.

Who is behind these restrictions? Is discrimination and violence against LGBTQI+ people fuelled by political or religious leaders?

Absolutely. The intolerance enshrined in the law and expressed in social attitudes is fuelled by anti-rights groups and leaders. This backlash was particularly intense around 2009, when right-wing evangelical groups from the USA came to Uganda and helped our government draft a law, the Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Act, that would have criminalised same-sex relationships and introduced the death penalty for serial offenders, HIV-positive people who engage in sexual activity with people of the same sex, and people who engage in same-sex sexual acts with minors. The law also sought to punish the promotion of LGBTQI+ rights with fines, imprisonment, or both.

We fought this bill for years. The proponents of the law said that we are after children, that we were recruiting them and needed to be stopped. They wanted to turn people into spies – our own neighbours, our parents, teachers, doctors and priests. Anyone who knew a gay person had to report this fact to the authorities or they would also become a criminal.

A modified version of the bill was passed in 2013, and it punished ‘aggravated homosexuality’ with life in prison instead of the death penalty. In reaction, the US State Department announced several sanctions against Uganda, and in 2014 the Constitutional Court annulled the law on a technicality. But its effects are still there, in the form of ingrained discrimination against LGBTQI+ people. And the root causes of such laws being proposed in the first place are also still there. It all comes down to the idea of turning people’s religious belief into law.

So the most homophobic piece of legislation that Uganda has ever seen was actually a foreign import. Do you see an international anti-LGBTQI+ rights coalition at work here?

Absolutely, and curiously enough – because anti-LGBTQI+ rights groups keep saying things like homosexuality is a foreign custom, and that it runs counter to national culture and morals, while in fact it is homophobia who is most foreign. Homosexuality was accepted and quite common in pre-colonial Ugandan society; we even had a king who was gay. Laws punishing homosexuality were first introduced in colonial times, under British rule, and they stayed in place after we gained independence. Something similar happened with Christianity, which was an import but took deep roots.

And the churches that were brought from the USA and started proliferating are of the most intolerant kind. You can find these evangelical churches every 500 meters in Uganda, and people preaching all over the place, even outside the churches, on every street corner. The evangelical movement is huge and has spread fast across the country. In most cases, they focus their preaching on sexuality, abortion, how women dress, things like that. They deliberately use their Bible to discriminate against LGBTQI+ people and women.

Have you seen any change, for better or worse, over the past year?

It is difficult to tell. For instance, in 2018 we thought we were making a bit of progress, but then we started seeing more murders, at least three or four, so we felt in danger and we panicked because we thought, we’ve made progress in dialogue with governmental officials, we have done training the police, and it really shocked us – the idea that we were trying to educate people, we are trying to have a conversation, and this is the kind of response that we get. This cast doubt on the progress we were making.

Still, I would say that the fact that we are able to have some form of dialogue with the government is a proof of progress. The fact that when people are arrested we are able to negotiate the release of some is something that we wouldn’t have seen even three or four years ago, so there is some progress.

How do you account for the differences between Uganda and, say, Botswana, which is currently experiencing significant positive change?

I think we are not experiencing the same kind of progress because religion is so deeply rooted in Uganda. If you speak to Ugandans, the first thing that they will tell you, even before introducing themselves, is that they are Christians. And our president has been able to turn religion into law. Ugandan politicians have manipulated religion to divert attention from corruption and mismanagement, so they focus on homosexuality instead. This political use of religion, and the fact that religious beliefs have been made into law, that’s what sets us apart from Botswana.

What are LGBTQI+ organisations in general, and SMUG in particular, doing to change both legislation and public attitudes?

SMUG focuses on four areas: advocacy for reform, capacity strengthening, research and safety and protection. The four areas are connected: in the area of safety and protection, for example, we take care of victims and survivors of violence, but we also document, collect and analyse data and use it as evidence in our advocacy work. We also make sure that police officers are trained so they know how to treat LGBTQI+ person in case they are arrested, so they change their attitudes and the ways they handle them. We work with magistrates and the judiciary services institute and try to educate them on LGBTQI+ issues, because otherwise when a gay person is arrested, most of the time cases are based on hearsay and they don’t even ask for evidence; they make decisions based on prejudice. We do a lot of campaigning and awareness-raising across Uganda. We have regional focus groups where we train people on how to deal with safety and security.

We also do international work at the United Nations human rights bodies, in Geneva, as well as at the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights as well: we have a document that came out of there, Resolution 275, that we did with activists and organisations from across Africa, which prohibits any country from violent attacks towards LGBTQI+ people. Of course we are trying to get that implemented in our own countries so our human rights bodies can take on that Resolution as guidance on the protection of LGBTQI+ people.

Is there any evidence that people’s attitudes might be changing?

We put most of our work on social media, and about 10 years ago, we would find out on Facebook that 98 or and 99 per cent of Ugandans were against homosexuality. Ninety-nine per cent – it’s crazy, because it would mean that even gay people – who are definitely more than one per cent of the population - rejected homosexuality.

But now we’ve come to the point where both sides appear to be more balanced. We post something on our website or our social media platforms, and find reactions are split approximately in half. So I think there has been a change of attitudes, especially among young people, because there are a lot of young people on social media who really don’t care about this whole debate over sexuality. They are just trying to live their lives.

To what extent is Ugandan civil society as a whole standing with LGBTQI+ civil society?

There definitely are divisions within civil society. You have to remember that we all come from the same society and have the same background, which is religious, and we are talking about a society and a religion that consider homosexuality as an abomination. However, there are a few – fewer than 10 – CSOs that stand with us. Most of our allies are organisations working on health, and a couple of them do legal work. They have all come from a long way educating themselves about LGBTQI+ issues, and when they do not know something, they ask.

You mentioned that anti-right groups have international connections and support. Do LGBTQI+ rights organisations enjoy similar connections? What kind of support would you need from international civil society?

If you had asked me this question five years ago I would have told you to please give human rights organisations money because we are able to work with them. But now I would respond differently: what we need most urgently is to empower more LGBTQI+ people to occupy positions of influence. We’ve experienced violence and discrimination from within the movement, from our own allies, so we need to start having more honest conversations and better accountability for the work that human rights organisations do on LGBTQI+ issues, and see if they really understand what they are doing. To me, it’s about power coming back to the LGBTQI+ community, and the LGBTQI+ community being able to use those positions of power to speak up and negotiate for our own freedom. So my main advice would be, don’t fund other people to speak for us, because we can speak for ourselves.

It is important that you consult us. There certainly are organisations that are good to us. So if you want to support us, talk to us and we’ll tell who work we best with us, and use this as guidance rather than deciding according to what works best for you as an international organisation.

Civic space in Uganda is rated as ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Pepe through Facebook, LinkedIn or Instagram, contact SMUG through its website and Facebook page, and follow @Opimva and @SMUG2004 on Twitter.

 

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