DRC: ‘Civil society action is needed more than ever, but the space in which it can undertake it is getting smaller’

Bahati_Rubango.jpgCIVICUS speaks with Bahati Rubango, country coordinator at the Women’s International Peace Centre (WIPC), about conflict in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

WIPC is a feminist organisation seeking to catalyse women’s leadership, amplify their voices and deepen their role in peacebuilding. It started out in 1974 as Isis-Women’s International Cross-Cultural Exchange, and in 1994 it moved from Geneva to Uganda and deepened its focus on the women, peace and security agenda.

What’s the security situation in the DRC, and how is civil society working to address it?

In the DRC, and particularly in Kivu and other parts of eastern DRC, including Beni, Bunagana, Masisi and Rutshuru territories and Ituri and South Kivu provinces, the situation is dire due to ongoing conflict. The prominence of the M23 rebel group exacerbates the crisis. The DRC’s government has accused Rwanda of supporting M23, with these claims substantiated by United Nations (UN) reports. The region is also plagued by the presence of over 120 other armed factions, foreign and local, some of which receive backing from Uganda, further complicating the situation.

This has precipitated a humanitarian catastrophe, characterised by widespread displacement, killings, rape, plundering of natural resources, instances of sexual violence and severe limitations on access to education and healthcare, worsening the suffering and vulnerability of millions of civilians.

Despite the deployment of various regional and international peacekeeping missions, the violence persists. The peacekeeping efforts of MONUSCO, the UN Stabilization Mission in the DRC, have fallen short. The conflict has regional and global dimensions beyond the DRC’s borders, impacting on peace and security across multiple countries.

There is a complex interplay of local and international dynamics, including economic interests that perpetuate the conflict. The conflict’s economic dimension has been illustrated by the fact that rebel groups are mainly located where there are strategic natural resources.

Efforts to quell the insurgency by national militia groups such as the Wazalendo movement find obstacles in the challenging terrain and the firm grip of rebel groups on strategic areas. As a result, access to Goma and other conflict-affected regions is primarily limited to air travel and boats across Lake Kivu, which impedes humanitarian aid and peacekeeping efforts.

Civil society organisations play a crucial role in peacebuilding, monitoring human rights violations and advocating for justice and security sector reforms. Civil society highlights the need for justice for victims and the involvement of women and young people in peace processes. Despite challenges, including threats to human rights defenders, civil society strives to raise awareness, combat hate speech and protect vulnerable populations.

How much space is there for civil society action in the DRC?

The situation has been tumultuous since May 2021, with the declaration of a state of siege in conflict areas that has subsequently been renewed. Under the ongoing state of siege, the military displaced civilian authorities and assumed control. This shift resulted in a significant curtailment of civic freedoms, particularly for public demonstrations and speech. Military justice has taken precedence over civilian law, raising ethical concerns and contributing to lack of accountability.

Problems have been compounded by the questionable level of training and education in the army. There have been reports of inadequately trained people being integrated, including former rebel fighters with no regard for human rights principles, approaches or values. This has led to a rise in criminal activities and violations committed by security forces, further restricting civic space.

Human rights defenders and journalists critical of the government have faced persecution. Arrests and criminalisation under baseless charges have become commonplace. Despite legislative efforts to protect activists, implementation has been lacking, exacerbating the erosion of civic space. An example is Lucha (Lutte pour le changement – Fight for Change), an organisation of young activists, several of whom spent four days under arrest simply for signing a declaration urging the state to stop war.

Advocacy at national, regional and global levels is needed to address the challenges of conflict. However, entrenched power dynamics in the DRC, including the dominance of the ruling party, pose significant obstacles to meaningful reform. Urgent action is needed to reverse the trend of declining civic space, because civil society action is needed more than ever, but the space in which it can undertake it is getting smaller.

What’s the likelihood of tensions between the DRC and Rwanda escalating into a regional conflict?

Rwanda’s involvement in destabilising the DRC is concerning, especially considering its history of aggression in the region, but it won’t necessarily lead to a regional conflict. Despite Rwanda’s attempts to exert influence, the DRC has demonstrated significant military strength in defending its territory against its aggression in the past.

Rwanda’s diplomatic prowess and hidden support from foreign countries – often driven by economic interests around mineral resources – contribute to its ability to manipulate regional dynamics. Rebel groups such as the M23 and the Allied Democratic Forces exploit the porous borders between Rwanda and the DRC, seeking refuge in and support from Rwanda to evade accountability for their actions. This exacerbates tensions between the two countries.

But the likelihood of the conflict escalating into a full-blown regional war is mitigated by mutual interests and dependencies. Both countries rely on resources derived from the DRC, which acts as a deterrent to all-out warfare. Regional initiatives like the Nairobi Process, brokered by the East African Community in November 2022, seek to address underlying tensions and promote peacebuilding efforts. However, the effectiveness of such initiatives is undermined by external influences dictating the terms of engagement and providing support to conflicting parties.

Civil society plays a crucial role in advocating for peace and stability, but its efforts are hindered by external interference and power dynamics that dictate the trajectory of the conflict. While regional organisations, notably the African Union, are theoretically focused on addressing conflict in the continent, external influences and interests often compromise their effectiveness.

Ultimately, it will require a concerted effort from regional and global players committed to peace and stability in the Great Lakes region to prevent the escalation of the conflict and resolve it for good.

How can the international community support peacebuilding efforts in the DRC?

There is a pressing need for support from the international community to assist internally displaced people in desperate need of essentials such as food and shelter. Efforts are also needed to document atrocities to ensure accountability further along the road. This includes highlighting the responsibilities of perpetrators and using this information to ensure justice is served, even if it takes years. Support for civil society groups involved in peacebuilding processes is crucial, particularly since the state lacks adequate resources.

Although it may not generate enthusiasm in all quarters of the international community, security sector reform requires attention. Fortunately, there are promising initiatives funded by international donors.

Another critical need is justice reform, which should include mechanisms for transitional justice. This will be vital to address the immediate effects of conflict and the long-standing grievances and cycles of violence that have plagued the region for decades. Access to justice for victims is paramount to break the cycle of impunity and prevent further atrocities. There’s a need for collective and individual reparations for victims, as well as guarantees that such violence will not be repeated. This includes addressing psychological trauma and providing survivors the support they need to rebuild their lives.

Both local and international engagement will be needed to ensure that peacebuilding agreements are fully respected and implemented, including by holding all parties responsible and accountable. Civil society activists, academics and journalists will have a crucial role in monitoring and advocating for these agreements to be fulfilled.

Finally, it’s essential to recognise that the conflict in the DRC is not isolated but has regional and global implications. Efforts to address the crisis must consider its broader context and involve stakeholders at all levels, from local communities to international organisations. Only through a holistic and inclusive approach can lasting peace and stability be achieved in the region.

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

Get in touch with the Women’s International Peace Centre through its website and follow @TheWIPCentre and @BRubango on Twitter.

SUDAN: ‘The only way out of this mess is through civilian rule’

11.pngCIVICUS speaks about the war in Sudan and its repercussions for women and civil society with Reem Abbas, a Sudanese feminist activist, writer and fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP).

Founded in 2013, TIMEP is a civil society organisation that works to centre advocates and experts from and in the Middle East and North Africa in policy discourse to foster more fair and democratic societies.

What’s the current humanitarian situation in Sudan?

Active conflict persists in around 60 per cent of Sudan’s territory. The continuous fighting entails targeting of civilians and mass displacement. In some states, much of the civilian infrastructure, including hospitals, markets, schools and universities, has been damaged. In Khartoum and West Darfur states, about 70 per cent of hospitals have been damaged or partially destroyed.

Civilians and civil society activists are unsafe. The situation greatly restricts people’s freedom of movement, their ability to sustain a livelihood and their capacity to express their opinions freely. There are pockets of relative security in Eastern and Northern Sudan, but even in areas deemed secure displacement persists and schools remain closed because internally displaced people are living in them and other public buildings.

Many livelihoods have totally collapsed, leaving people increasingly dependent on aid. We are already witnessing cases of famine, particularly affecting children, resulting in deaths.

How has the conflict impacted on women and girls?

Women have always been targeted in conflicts in Sudan. Political violence, rife in Sudan given its volatile political history, has also often taken aim at women. There’s rarely any accountability for sexual and gender-based violence. The Rapid Support Forces (RSF) – the militias that are fighting against the army – are abducting women and selling them as sexual slaves in markets or holding them captive for extended periods. Families are left in distress, unsure of the whereabouts of their daughters, and are sometimes embezzled for money.

This is a war on women. Part of it stems from structural factors that place women in subordinate positions, but there’s also a punitive element directed at women for their pivotal role in the 2019 revolution that overthrew dictator Omar al-Bashir. During the revolution, women were out there, highly visible on the frontlines, and now it feels like they’re being punished for it.

The targeting of women is tearing the social fabric apart. As public spaces become unsafe for women, fewer women are participating in public life, including in economic activities and activism. This will have long-term consequences.

What roles is civil society playing in this context, and what challenges does it face?

It’s important to recognise that civil society in Sudan isn’t a monolithic entity, but rather a complex mix of different layers. Some were heavily involved during the transitional period that followed the revolution, getting deeply integrated with government structures at the time. Then there are women’s groups, each with their own focus and agenda. Alongside them, there are more formal organisations such as non-governmental organisations and trade unions. And let’s not overlook the revolutionary elements, such as the resistance committees and emergency response rooms, decentralised and horizontal structures working to shelter displaced people, support hospitals and secure food and water supplies.

The more formal parts of civil society are currently heavily involved in politics, while its revolutionary segments are deeply engaged in grassroots humanitarian efforts. They’re essentially functioning as local governments in areas where official governance structures are absent.

Despite its crucial role, civil society faces numerous challenges. The organic growth of grassroots movements is stunted by conflict and dictatorship. The polarising effects of war have led to divisions along political, ethnic and regional lines, further fragmenting civil society. Activists are increasingly targeted by the RSF or the army, threatening their ability to operate.

In an environment where conformity to mainstream opinions is increasingly enforced, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain dissenting voices. This situation underscores the urgent need to safeguard the diversity and autonomy of civil society in Sudan.

However, attention and funding often gravitate towards already well-funded organisations, leaving grassroots initiatives to rely solely on community support. While funding alone doesn’t create a functional organisation, it’s important for organisations and groups to grow in an organic way and be able to garner support from the community.

How is civil society advocating for peace and democracy?

Right now, the conversation is all about security and getting things back to normal. People are doubting whether we can even think about democracy after all this chaos. The situation’s tough, with militarisation and conflict everywhere. But the only way out of this mess is through civilian rule. We need to figure out how to link the peace process to a long-term political solution that puts us back on track for democracy.

Unfortunately, the focus of the political elite appears to be more on preserving its positions rather than addressing urgent issues. There are concerns that the largest political coalition has developed close ties with the militia, causing unease among those involved in the revolution. Without a bigger political group that really listens to people and leads responsibly, we’re going to be stuck with military rule for ages. Right now, it should be all about finding common ground and putting the focus on the people who’ve suffered most from this war – not about politicians trying to claw back power or siding with the military.

There’s a lot of talk about how the transitional government messed up and led to the coup and the war. People are sceptical about civilian rule and whether it can fix things. It’s easier to sell the idea of a military-run government when people are feeling scared and vulnerable. Even though it’s militarisation that got us into this mess in the first place, it’s understandable because people just want to feel safe again.

What should the international community do to address Sudan’s dire security and humanitarian situation?

It’s time for the international community to stop sticking to one side of the story and start listening to everyone involved. They’re pumping all their funds into one camp and ignoring a whole bunch of other perspectives. We need more humanitarian aid, particularly considering the famine situation. Millions of people are at risk, with nowhere to turn and nothing to support themselves with.

Investment in basic infrastructure like hospitals and water plants is crucial too. People need services, and they need them now. Some areas haven’t had clean water for months because water plants are getting caught in the crossfire.

The international community must also demonstrate political determination. People’s lives are on the line. We need clear plans and urgent action to stop this war.

I want to emphasise the significance of civil society solidarity. This is crucial when our governments show ambivalence towards our concerns. In such situations, we must become each other’s voices and amplify our collective message. We must seek ways to connect, demonstrate solidarity and collaborate effectively.

It’s important to learn from one another and work together towards shared objectives. Collaboration with civil society groups and networks across the world is greatly appreciated. It’s through such partnerships that we can make a meaningful impact and bring about positive change.

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

Get in touch with TIMEP through its website or its Facebook and LinkedIn pages, and follow @TimepDC and @ReemWrites on Twitter.

BURKINA FASO: ‘Pro-democracy civil society is practically paralysed by the intensity and ferocity of the repression’


CIVICUS speaks with Ousmane Miphal Lankoandé, Executive Secretary and Coordinator of the governance and citizen mobilisation programme at Balai Citoyen (‘Civic Broom’) about human rights and civic space in Burkina Faso.

Founded in 2013, Balai Citoyen is a civil society organisation (CSO) that mobilises citizen action to promote democracy, government integrity, justice and the rule of law in Burkina Faso.

How have human rights and civic freedoms deteriorated under Burkina Faso’s military junta?

Since the rise of the military to power in January 2022, there has been a clear deterioration in human rights and civic freedoms, a phenomenon that became even more marked following the second coup in September 2022. Any voice of dissent from the official line of the military regime is systematically repressed.

To achieve this, the regime gradually introduced insidious measures. Initially, it suspended the activities of political parties, even after it restored the constitution following a temporary suspension. In addition, some international media have been banned from broadcasting and some national media have been suspended. Journalists and activists are subjected to intimidation and threats, and some have been kidnapped. The fate of several, including two Balai Citoyen activists, remains unknown to this day.

BELGIUM: ‘Petrochemical production must align with human and environmental wellbeing’

TatianaLujánCIVICUS speaks with Tatiana Luján, Materials Systems Lead at ClientEarth, about a lawsuit filed in collaboration with 15 other civil society organisations (CSOs) against a plan to open a huge plastics plant in Belgium, known as Project One, by petrochemicals giant INEOS.

ClientEarth is one of the world’s most ambitious environmental CSOs, established to create systemic change by using law to protect the planet for – and with – all its inhabitants.

Why are plastics a problem, and what should be done about it?

Plastics are mostly derived from fossil fuels, which poses a significant challenge to our future. Their production perpetuates a fossil-based economy, which promotes endless production and consumption, rather than a circular economy. Despite increasing awareness of the unsustainability of burning fossil fuels, the industry is shifting towards using them as feedstock for petrochemicals, which create far-reaching environmental harm and violate human rights.

Simply put, plastics are the fossil fuel industry’s plan B to keep their business alive now there is pressure to move away from fossil fuels. But we already have more plastic than we need, so projects that would fuel more unnecessary plastic production – such as Project One, planned by the global chemical company INEOS in Belgium – will inundate a market already saturated with plastic.

The production of plastics from petrochemicals also emits vast amounts of greenhouse gases. Even if 70 per cent of plastics were recycled – which would be a lot, considering that less than 10 per cent is recycled today – two-thirds of carbon stored in plastics would still be released back into the atmosphere within 15 years. And even the most recyclable plastics can only be recycled for a few cycles. Contrary to belief, simply recycling plastic doesn’t result in carbon neutrality, as this still emits greenhouse gases and requires energy-intensive production.

Petrochemicals and plastics are so carbon intensive that continuing to rely on them hinders our ability to meet our climate goals under the Paris Agreement. Investments in these projects also lock in plastic production for decades, further impeding the ability to reach our climate targets and delaying the transition to more sustainable economies.

Additionally, the development of new plastic plants in areas already burdened with pollution poses serious health risks and further exacerbates damage to nature and our environment. To address climate change and safeguard nature and our health, we need to promote sustainability by exploring and investing in alternatives. This includes redirecting funding towards scaling up circular economies and prioritising reduce, reuse and recycle models. It is crucial to reconsider such projects and align investments with environmental and societal goals.

What are INEOS’ arguments in favour of their new development, and what are your objections?

One of its key arguments is that its plan would be less carbon-intensive than other plants currently in operation because of its relatively newer technology. It claims that emissions from its plant would be lower by comparison. However, it is essential to consider the long-term implications. Plants like Project One have a 40-year lifespan, so investments of this kind lock in plastic production and the repercussions of that production for decades to come.

INEOS also addresses climate concerns by suggesting it will explore technologies to capture and reduce emissions in the future. These could include using green hydrogen or carbon capture storage.

However, the hydrogen technology and carbon capture and storage units that INEOS foresees relying on are not viable options as they are currently not available commercially at scale. The certainty of Project One’s climate impacts therefore contrasts with the uncertainty of these technological fixes. It is inconsistent to accept certain environmental damage based on uncertain solutions to climate change. Therefore, it is imperative to evaluate critically the long-term consequences of such projects and prioritise sustainable alternatives.

How has the legal case unfolded so far?

We launched a legal battle against Project One in 2019, supported by a coalition of 15 CSOs. After INEOS submitted its initial permit application, we swiftly filed an administrative objection. Despite the permit initially being granted by the Port of Antwerp, we appealed to the Flemish Ministry of Environment due to an incomplete Environmental Impact Assessment report, crucial for assessing the project’s effects comprehensively.

The permit focused solely on the construction’s environmental impacts, neglecting the plant’s operational effects. This practice, known as ‘salami slicing’, violates the requirement in European law to consider the project as a whole. Securing an injunction in December, we compelled INEOS to withdraw its permit request, prompting it to re-evaluate its plans.

INEOS subsequently scrapped half of the project and submitted a new permit application in 2021, approved by the Flemish Ministry of Environment in December 2021. In response, the civil society coalition filed a lawsuit in January 2022, highlighting the permit’s incomplete assessment of environmental impacts, including climate effects, and air pollution impacts on public health.

Simultaneously, two Dutch provinces, North Brabant and Zeeland, filed lawsuits. The two provinces argued that Project One would generate nitrogen pollution, which would contaminate neighbouring protected areas in the Netherlands already oversaturated by nitrogen. After a year and a half, the Council for Permit Disputes ruled on the Dutch cases and annulled the permit, citing violations of European Union (EU) nature laws.

INEOS appealed this decision, and the case is currently before the Council of State, Belgium’s highest administrative court. The Council for Permit Disputes also granted the Flemish Ministry of Environment six months to revise the permit to ensure compliance with EU law. INEOS obtained a new permit in January this year, prompting us to file a new lawsuit reiterating our concerns in February.

Considering the previous timeline, we anticipate a decision on the latest lawsuit within a year and a half.

What impacts could a positive ruling have in Belgium and beyond?

This case, based on the EU’s Environmental Impact Assessment Directive, carries significant implications for Belgium and the wider community.

EU laws clearly require an assessment to be made on the direct and indirect impacts of a planned project on biodiversity, climate, human health, soil and water. However, there is a need for further legal clarity around assessing indirect greenhouse gas emissions, which our legal action aims to address. In light of the urgent need to address the climate crisis and reduce plastic pollution, it is crucial to scrutinise projects like Project One.

A court ruling, particularly from the Court of Justice of the EU, would set a precedent and provide clarity on how to navigate the complex intersection of environmental protection and industrial development. Such a ruling would prompt a re-evaluation of our trajectory, compelling us to rethink the role of the petrochemical industry within our planetary boundaries.

It is evident that mere technological fixes focused solely on improving the production process are insufficient. Instead, we must take a holistic approach, questioning the necessity of petrochemical production and ensuring it aligns with the wellbeing of humanity and the environment. This case presents a unique opportunity to advance towards a more sustainable future, where humans and nature thrive together.

How do you connect with wider regional and global environmental movements?

We are proud members of the Break Free from Plastic coalition, actively participating in regular meetings and catch-ups in person and online. Many of our CSO partners are located in Belgium and the Netherlands, allowing easy travel by train for face-to-face meetings, which greatly facilitates collaboration.

We are also engaged in the broader global movement of Break Free from Plastic. This collaboration extends to experts such as CSOs in Asia and the USA. Our focus spans the entire lifecycle of plastic, from the fracking process in the USA to the plastic pollution affecting Southeast Asian countries due to the export of European plastic waste.

Being part of this movement and community facilitates collaboration with experts, scientists and climate activists and provides access to valuable resources and knowledge-sharing opportunities.

What other initiatives are you undertaking to tackle plastics pollution?

Our efforts extend across various stages of the plastic lifecycle. We are actively engaged in combating greenwashing practices, ensuring that companies accurately represent their environmental impact. At the European level, we advocate for stringent regulations, including the Eco-Design Directive, the Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation and the implementation of the Single-Use Plastic Directive.

We also focus on capacity development and knowledge exchange with partners worldwide, learning from, and collaborating with, organisations tackling similar challenges globally. Our work also encompasses non-financial disclosures, urging companies to recognise the risks associated with heavy investment in plastic production and use. We have engaged with banks, investors, supermarkets and United Nations bodies in relation to their obligations to disclose and manage their material business risk and material environmental impact in relation to plastics.

By addressing multiple angles, such as plastic usage, production and investment, we strive to mitigate the environmental and societal risks posed by plastic pollution. Our comprehensive approach aims to drive systemic change and foster a more sustainable future for all.

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

Get in touch with ClientEarth through its website or Facebook page, and follow it on Twitter and Instagram.

DENMARK: ‘Many are eager to see tangible action to address the situation in Gaza’

VibeKlarupCIVICUS speaks with Vibe Klarup, Secretary General of Amnesty International Denmark, about the joint civil society lawsuit brought against the Danish state to stop Danish arms exports to Israel.

Established in 1964 and with 65,000 members, Amnesty International Denmark advocates for a fairer world where every person enjoys freedom and dignity.

NIGER: ‘France and the USA have displayed imperial attitudes towards poor countries in Africa’

BoubacarNDiayeCIVICUS speaks about Niger’s recent decision to suspend military cooperation with the USA with Dr Boubacar N’Diaye, Emeritus Professor of Pan-African Studies and Political Science at the College of Wooster, international consultant on security sector governance and former chair of the African Security Sector Network, a pan-African think tank focused on security governance issues in the continent, and particularly in West Africa.

How would you describe Niger’s security situation?

Niger is located in a very strategic position in the continent – it’s at the heart of West Africa and the Sahel, and shares borders with Algeria, Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad, Libya, Mali and Nigeria. This makes it an ideal location for geopolitical powers to have a presence.

Until recently, Niger was a key security partner of France and the USA. There were French troops in the country, and in 2012, the government signed an agreement with the USA to establish a drone base to conduct surveillance and military operations against terrorism. Between 1,000 to 1,500 US soldiers were deployed under this agreement.

But despite promises to assist Niger in fighting terrorism, little was done in this regard. Instead, the USA utilised this alliance to carry out surveillance operations in the region in support of its global geopolitical strategy.

On 26 July 2023, Niger experienced a military coup against President Mohamed Bazoum, with the junta claiming the president’s response to the dire security situation was inadequate. The country has confronted terrorist attacks on military and civilians for quite some time. Yet the crisis extends beyond security to encompass political and social dimensions.

Following the coup, the junta demanded France and its soldiers leave the country. France and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) imposed sanctions on Niger, resulting in power cuts and border closures. No goods or medical supplies were allowed in or out across ECOWAS borders, while terrorist attacks persisted, claiming the lives of Nigerien military personnel. Sanctions were subsequently lifted, but the crisis persisted.

Why did Niger suspend military cooperation with the USA?

While France maintained a firm stance against military coups in the region, the USA took a more conciliatory approach. For that, one would have expected General Abdourahamane Tchiani, the junta’s leader, to be more accommodating with the USA.

While the military leaders were quite grateful for this, they were also irked by the arrival of a US delegation of high-ranking State Department officials who, with a typical imperial attitude, lectured them on democracy and demanded they cut all links with the Russian government. They also accused them of having secret deals with Iran to sell uranium.

The fact that the USA belittled and showed no respect to Niger led the military junta to revoke the 2012 agreement, which it highlighted was a secret document not endorsed by the public that granted the USA carte blanche to operate in Niger as they pleased.

In requesting the USA lo leave the country, Niger asserted its rights as a free and sovereign nation. As such, Niger is free to make deals with whichever country it chooses, with neither the USA nor France having the authority to dictate any decision.

This decision significantly affects the USA’s geostrategic position, as Niger is the only country in West Africa where it has a military presence. If compelled to withdraw entirely, the USA would lose its surveillance capabilities and ability to project power. If the USA wants to stay and seek a new agreement with the junta, it will need to tone down its demands. But if it keeps pressing Niger to cut ties with Russia, it is unlikely to be able to reach a deal.

Do you see Niger’s decision as part of a broader regional trend?

Over the past few years, people in other countries in the region, including Burkina Faso, Mali, Nigeria and Senegal, have shown a desire to reaffirm sovereignty and reject the influence of imperial powers.

France, as the former colonial power and on behalf of the European Union (EU) and the west, has particularly had a lot of influence in the region. It has conducted military operations, done business and even imposed the CFA franc, the regional currency and a relic of French colonialism in Africa.

France, and to a lesser extent the USA, have displayed imperial attitudes towards poor countries in Africa. They have completely disregarded their national sovereignty and ignored their need for dignity. They aim to dictate to their people the type of government they should have, the decisions they should make and who they should partner with. This imperial mentality must stop.

The public, guided by a very active civil society, is happy to see France and the USA being told to leave. They are happy to see Niger behave as a sovereign country that rejects foreign influence, particularly when both countries have done little to nothing to help resolve the insecurity dilemma Niger has faced for a decade.

How do you understand the growing power of Russia in this context?

Russia, and to a lesser extent China, are the default partners in the region. Despite their substantial presence and technological capabilities, France, the USA and even the United Nations have not achieved the same level of success as Russia in nations such as the Central African Republic (CAR) or Mali. Russia has been able to stabilise the security situation in the CAR, at least to some extent, and recapture major strategic cities in Mali that have been under rebel control for the last 10 years.

Countries in the region see an alternative in Russia. This is not rooted in a Cold War mentality but rather in Russia’s longstanding presence in the region, its support for many nations during the early years of independence and its demonstrated effectiveness in combating terrorism.

What international support does Niger’s civil society need?

Nigerien civil society needs the solidarity of civil society across the world. Civil society organisations have suffered a lot. Niger is one of the poorest countries in the world and has faced months of a severe embargo, sanctions, electricity cuts and medicine shortages. While these measures have been lifted, so has financial assistance from the EU and France, which has exacerbated socioeconomic hardships and security issues.

The country hasn’t collapsed – as some had hoped – but is undergoing serious socioeconomic hardship and security challenges. The military coup is not to be applauded – it’s a clear sign of political failure. But considering the context, it can be understood. People have accepted that the military are in charge, and now they need all the help and solidarity they can receive.

The international community should adopt a more empathetic stance towards Niger, supporting the country and its authorities. They should avoid punitive measures such as sanctions, which only harm the public, and refrain from imposing decisions and norms upon the nation.

Instead, the international community should find a formula to help Nigerien authorities navigate through this complicated context and transition back to a constitutional order, with the active involvement of local civil society.

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

Get in touch with the African Security Sector Network through its website or Facebook and LinkedIn pages, and follow @ASSN_Africa on Twitter.

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

SENEGAL: ‘The restriction of civic space remains civil society’s greatest concern’

MalickNdomeCIVICUS speaks with Malick Ndome, senior policy adviser and board member at the Council of Non-Governmental Organisations in Support of Development (CONGAD), about the recent election in Senegal.

CONGAD was founded in 1982 by civil society organisations (CSOs) working in Senegal to coordinate relations with the state and other partners. CONGAD provides training for CSOs, local authorities and the media. It also advocates for a stronger civil society capable of influencing public policy.

What was the significance of the victory of opposition candidate Bassirou Diomaye Faye in the recent presidential election?

Faye’s first-round victory was difficult to predict. However, it is important to recognise the impact of his release from prison, as well as that of Ousmane Sonko, the leader of his party, Senegal’s Patriots (PASTEF), just 10 days before the election.

Sonko had been barred from standing following a controversial conviction for youth corruption and defamation in 2023. Faye was nominated as a candidate in his place, but was also sent to prison for criticising the court’s decision in the Sonko case. Their release galvanised the support of PASTEF supporters and activists, and young people in general, who appreciated their message of change and their anti-corruption aura. In contrast, there seems to have been a noticeable lack of enthusiasm for the government coalition.

In addition, there was much speculation and a lot of rumours about President Macky Sall’s lack of support for his party’s presidential candidate, which undoubtedly influenced the electoral landscape.

Given the circumstances, the clear victory of an opposition candidate has profound implications for the strength of Senegalese democracy. First, it signifies a strengthened commitment to the rule of law, guaranteeing every Senegalese citizen a fair chance of access to the highest office. It also demonstrates the resilience of Senegal’s electoral institutions in the face of challenges. Further, despite persistent concerns about voter turnout, Senegalese citizens demonstrated a commendable level of confidence in electoral processes, underlining their commitment to democratic principles. Voter turnout was 61 per cent.

This provides an opportunity for a comprehensive review of the electoral law and the electoral code, with a focus on correcting the main shortcomings identified by political stakeholders and civil society. It is imperative to review the role and effectiveness of institutions such as the National Autonomous Electoral Commission in overseeing elections, ensuring that it has the resources and capacity to fulfil its mandate impartially and effectively.

In sum, while Faye’s victory may have been unexpected, it marks a crucial moment in Senegal’s democratic journey, highlighting both strengths and areas for improvement in its political system.

Was civic space restricted before the election? What challenges did this pose and what can be expected in the future?

Significant restrictions were observed in February, when Sall’s announcement of the postponement of the election led to violent demonstrations and deaths. The Constitutional Council’s positive response in favour of holding the election helped ease tensions, leading to the lifting of the suspension of TikTok and the restriction of Facebook, which had an impact on digital industries and small-scale workers in the informal sector.

The restriction of civic space has been strongly criticised by various groups and people. Under the new government, we expect to see restrictions on civic space lifted, but I can’t prejudge that. It remains a strong demand from civil society and the political arena.

How did civil society contribute to a free and fair election?

Civil society’s actions were analysed and perceived differently depending on whether you were in the opposition or the presidential camp. There were many citizens’ initiatives to ensure that the electoral timetable was respected and free and transparent elections were held.

Civil society initiatives included the setting up of digital platforms to facilitate communication and citizen mobilisation. Civil society formed groups to voice citizens’ concerns and influence political decisions. It organised forums to raise awareness and mobilise the population to ensure the electoral timetable was respected and the election was transparent.

In addition, civil society organised meetings with presidential candidates to ask them questions and hear their proposals. It also helped to inform the public by publishing press articles and sharing information on electoral issues.

In addition, civil society interacted with stakeholders in sensitive spheres such as religious leaders to promote a climate of peace and stability during the election period. It also facilitated the hosting and coordination of the local, regional and sub-regional structures responsible for overseeing the election, thus ensuring effective and transparent monitoring of the electoral process.

What are civil society’s expectations of the new government?

Civil society has a number of expectations and is advocating several policy measures to protect civic space and human rights and promote good governance.

According to the information available to me, there has not yet been any formal request from civil society. However, it is clear that the restriction of civic space remains civil society’s greatest concern.

Among the political measures advocated are the passing of a press code to provide a better framework for the exercise of journalism and the publication of implementing decrees, as well as the revision of article 80 of the Constitution concerning offences against the head of state. Civil society is also calling for the adoption of a law to protect whistleblowers and human rights defenders, as well as the publication of reports by the Court of Audit and the prosecution of offenders.

Civil society calls for institutional change in the governance of the Supreme Council of the Judiciary, and for the establishment of a financial prosecutor’s office with broad responsibilities.

Finally, the fight against corruption and for better governance is a major concern for civil society, which hopes that the new government will take effective measures in this direction.

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

Get in touch with CONGAD through its website.

BALKANS: ‘The emergence of white supremacism adds another layer of vulnerability for migrants and refugees’

MyriamCorreaCIVICUS speaks with Myriam Correa, director of Collective Aid, about the situation of migrants across the Balkan migration route.

Initially under the name BelgrAid, Collective Aid was established in 2017 in response to the changing needs of migrants and refugees in Serbia. It currently has offices in Bosnia and Herzegovina, France and Serbia. It provides services to cover aid gaps and improve the lives of people on the move.

What effects have recent policy changes had on migration along the Balkan route?

In early 2023, we witnessed an increase in migration along the Balkan route, particularly in Bosnia and Serbia, even though migrants were staying for a shorter time. This posed challenges for organisations like ours in locating and assisting people. Increased movement and rapid turnover made migrants harder to reach and rendered the phenomenon less visible – just as the authorities wanted. However, from a humanitarian standpoint, this only heightened risks.

On 25 October, Serbia initiated a military operation along its border with Hungary, targeting areas with high levels of border crossings. This led to the closure of refugee camps in the north and the forced relocation of migrants to centres in the south. Military presence escalated tensions, making access to migrants even more challenging. Arms proliferated and we observed instances of violence, including mistreatment of our personnel by the police.

The subsequent absence of migrants in previously bustling areas indicated that the authorities had achieved their aim. However, some traces of migration still lingered, albeit in reduced numbers, with Bosnian camps experiencing a notable influx.

The exact forms of migration are now unclear. Recent actions by the Serbian government, such as the temporary closure of southern camps, add to the uncertainty surrounding future migration patterns. As we continue to navigate these challenges, it is imperative for humanitarian efforts to remain adaptable and responsive to the evolving dynamics along the Balkan route.

What routes are migrants taking to reach western Europe?

Migrants travel from Turkey to the Aegean Islands or Evros and then enter Greece. After Greece, there are various routes. Some people take flights, but others cannot afford air travel. Some take shortcuts. Some enter Bulgaria directly from Turkey, while others enter the country from Greece. As a result needs are increasingly high in Bulgaria.

Several organisations currently focus on Bulgaria. We recently conducted a location assessment covering the border between Serbia and Bulgaria, the capital, Sofia, and the border between Bulgaria and Turkey. Significant numbers of people are crossing and have a pressing need for basic humanitarian services such as food, water, sanitation and hygiene services.

Local organisations lack government support to advocate against human rights violations. This means there is a crucial advocacy need in Bulgaria. One notable town is Harmali, near the border with Turkey, which has camps for asylum seekers and is heavily militarised. Sofia also has a significant migrant population, expected to increase due to Romania’s inclusion in the Schengen area. This makes Sofia a potential hotspot.

Further along the border with Serbia, Ragueman serves as a major crossing point. This region hosts several camps, primarily in southern Serbia near the Bulgarian border. The journey continues through Bosnia and Croatia into the European Union (EU). However, there are challenges in crossing the Bosnia-Croatia border, particularly at Hajj, due to reported pushbacks. Our organisation monitors border violence, mostly reported from the Croatian side, with Sarajevo serving as a refuge for those pushed back, particularly during harsh winters.

Bulgaria has become a gateway to the rest of Europe. But specific points like Seredets and road 79 pose dangers, with smugglers providing stimulants to keep migrants awake during crossings, leading to fatal consequences. Both Bulgaria and Serbia have seen severe instances of violence, with reports of brutal treatment by border authorities, including mutilation and burning. Such atrocities are alarming and demand immediate attention.

In contrast, Bosnia is emerging as a relatively safe passage, providing temporary respite for migrants. The living conditions in Bosnian camps have improved, though challenges persist during winters due to inadequate insulation, a lack of essential items and low maintenance standards.

Overall, the journey is perilous, with varying experiences based on financial resources and geographical factors. But despite the hardships, migrants persevere, hoping for a better life in Europe.

What’s the situation of migrants from conflict-affected regions travelling along the Balkan route?

The short answer is that these migrants experience an unbearable amount of traumatisation. Most people who traverse this route are fleeing conflict – including genocide, ethnic oppression, religious persecution and collapsing regimes. They come from countries such as Afghanistan, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Syria. They are not economic migrants. They are seeking safety in Europe. It is shocking that they have to endure such trials, particularly considering that while Bosnia and Serbia are not EU countries, they are still in Europe. And the fact that Bulgaria and Croatia are part of the EU raises thorny questions about why such hardships persist.

The initial reaction is often shock, followed by a profound sense of hopelessness. It is disheartening to realise that safety remains a distant dream and the journey ahead is bleak. People are aware that their lives remain at risk but have limited knowledge about the challenges they will face. Misinformation and reluctance to share the full extent of their suffering with loved ones exacerbate the situation.

Regardless of migrants’ origins, the challenges they face are consistent. They endure rough living conditions, sleeping in tents, bushes, forests or abandoned buildings. The emergence of white supremacist sentiments in Europe adds another layer of vulnerability, making them easy targets for violence.

It is important to note that most people crossing the Balkan route are single men, with few women and families. While there are some families on the road and a family camp in Sarajevo, most migrants are single men. This is a reflection of the perilous conditions along the route, which are unsuitable for women and children.

Smuggling gangs are streamlining the process, making crossings more efficient, but at the cost of safety. Migrants are left at the mercy of criminals who view them as a mere source of income and are indifferent to their wellbeing. Many disappear without a trace.

Survivors face immense psychological trauma. They endure sexual, physical and psychological violence, compounded by environmental hardships and homelessness. The perpetual threat triggers a constant fight-or-flight response, hindering cognitive functions and deteriorating mental health. Chronic stress, reflected in elevated cortisol levels, poses severe health risks.

Hygiene-related issues, such as scabies, exacerbate the already dire situation. Lack of access to proper sanitation and healthcare amplifies the suffering, turning minor ailments into life-threatening conditions. The lack of awareness of and attention to these issues perpetuates the cycle of suffering, highlighting the urgent need for comprehensive solutions and compassionate action.

In sum, the refugee experience in Europe is a harrowing journey marked by trauma, violence and despair. It is imperative to address the underlying issues and provide adequate support to those in need, ensuring that every person is treated with dignity and compassion.

What support do civil society organisations working along the Balkan route need for their work?

The most obvious, yet the truest, answer is funding. Since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, attention and empathy have understandably shifted towards Ukraine and its people. However, grassroots organisations working on the frontlines with other migrant groups continue to face significant challenges in fundraising. For instance, Collective Aid used to easily raise €15,000 to €30,000 (approx. US$16,200 to US$32,400) twice a year, but now struggles to raise as little as €5,000 (approx. US$ 5,400). This has taken a massive toll on these organisations.

The redirection of donor funding to other areas, such as Lebanon and the Middle East, has further compounded the issue. The recent crises in Gaza, Sudan, Syria and Turkey have also diverted attention and resources away from the ongoing migrant crisis within European borders.

Lack of financial support is the biggest obstacle faced by grassroots organisations, pushing them to their limits as they struggle to support migrants on the ground.

Get in touch with Collective Aid through its website or Facebook page, and follow @collective_aid on Twitter and Instagram.

SLOVAKIA: ‘The election result may reinforce the country’s image as a problematic EU member’

MichalPiskoCIVICUS speaks with Michal Piško, Director of Transparency International Slovensko, about Slovakia’s recent first-round presidential election and the upcoming runoff.

Transparency International Slovensko is a Slovak civil society organisation aimed at increasing institutional transparency and combatting corruption.

What’s at stake in this presidential election?

Slovakia’s presidency holds limited powers, although it has strong legitimacy arising from its direct popular election. Its most significant powers include vetoing laws – which a parliamentary majority can relatively easily overcome – and appointing some key state positions, such as constitutional judges.

However, it can become a key player in critical junctures, as seen at the beginning of 2024. The governing coalition pushed for a harmful amendment to the Criminal Code in a fast-track legislative procedure. The new rules would have complicated the investigation and punishment of serious corruption cases by significantly shortening penalties and statutes of limitations. The current president, Zuzana Čaputová, challenged the amendment in the Constitutional Court, which partially suspended it coming into effect.

The role of the president is also crucial beyond their formal competencies, particularly in significant public debates.

What are the main campaign issues and the candidates’ positions? 

The first round of the presidential election was held on 23 March. Čaputová decided not to run for re-election. Ivan Korčok, a pro-European former foreign minister who emerged as a civic candidate that was later backed by opposition parties, challenged Prime Minister Robert Fico’s ally and current speaker of parliament, Peter Pellegrini. Representing the opposition and the government coalition respectively, they will now compete in the runoff that will take place on 6 April.

The central campaign Issue is the role of the president: whether they are meant to be closely aligned with the government or provide a counterbalance. Given that the current administration is led by a four-time Prime Minister known for his aggressive rhetoric and actions undermining the rule of law, it has been key to have a critical president playing an active role. If Pellegrini wins, it would bolster the government’s capacity to implement its controversial policies.

How free and fair has the election process been so far?

Transparency International Slovakia, a well-known anti-corruption organisation, has been actively monitoring the transparency and fairness of election campaigns and financing for a long time.

Unfortunately, the current campaign cannot be considered transparent or fair, particularly because of Pellegrini’s failure to disclose donor information and the significant lack of information on his campaign expenses.

The process has also been marred by negative campaigning orchestrated by politicians or hidden sources targeting Korčok, portraying him as a war promoter. It has also been distorted by the parallel election campaign for the European Parliament, in which both coalition and opposition parties indirectly support or criticise presidential candidates.

What can we expect in the runoff?

In the first round, pre-election opinion polls generally underestimated voter turnout and Korčok’s performance. Despite expectations, first-round voter turnout exceeded 50 per cent, a notable increase compared to previous years. Another surprise was Korčok’s relatively significant result, with more than 42 per cent of the vote and a 5.5-point lead over Pellegrini. Most pollsters expected more balanced results.

However, the situation could still change in the runoff, as Pellegrini may receive the support of third-placed candidate Štefan Harabin’s anti-west and anti-system voters.

Right now, both candidates seem to have fairly balanced chances of success. While Pellegrini is primarily targeting his messaging at anti-system voters, Korčok is attempting to mobilise pro-European voters.

It is still unclear which candidate most Hungarian voters, who make up almost 10 per cent of Slovakia’s population, will support. Historically, they have leaned towards pro-European and democratic politicians, but their decision may also be influenced by the fact that Hungary’s authoritarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, is aligned with the current Slovak government.

Despite Pellegrini not being openly pro-Russia, his victory would strengthen the current government’s position and reinforce Slovakia’s image as a problematic country with anti-democratic tendencies within the European Union. It would also intensify the existing division within the Visegrad Group, a Central European alliance of four countries, two of which – the Czech Republic and Poland – would continue leaning towards the west, while Hungary and Slovakia would further lean towards Russia.

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

Get in touch with Transparency International Slovensko through its website or Facebook, Instagram and Linkedin pages, and follow @transparencysk on Twitter and @TISlovensko on Youtube.

MOZAMBIQUE: ‘We need to reach out to communities to get them involved in the fight for peace’


CIVICUS speaks with Simão Tila, executive director of the League of NGOs in Mozambique (JOINT), about the increase in violence in northern Mozambique, its causes and civil society’s efforts to help resolve the situation.

Founded in 2007, JOINT is a civil society organisation (CSO) that works to strengthen the role of Mozambican civil society and its participation in the country’s socio-economic development.

What are the causes of the conflict in northern Mozambique?

It’s a complicated question. However, many see the war in Cabo Delgado as stemming from accumulated resentment, people’s frustration at seeing natural wealth and land being exploited without – as yet – obvious benefits, lack of job opportunities for young people entering the labour market and popular revolt against the authorities’ excesses. These realities have been documented with some frequency and credibility, and it is no coincidence that, until recently, the presence of journalists in the province was frowned upon by the authorities.

However, these factors are hardly sufficient to explain the war, since in several other parts of the country similar conflicts happen, sometimes involving violent actions, caused by abuses of power, land occupation and forced displacement, among others. It is important not to confuse conflicts, even violent ones, with war, which would imply treating the government and terrorists in the same way.

A lot of research is underway, but there is still not much evidence of who is behind the attacks. What we do know is that it is a group with Islamic religious affiliations. It calls itself Al-Shabab and, in the attacks it carries out, it always displays writings related to Islam. So far, we don’t have precise information to talk about the nature of the attacks, who is responsible and who is behind them. But the truth is that the problem of terrorism in northern Mozambique began with the discovery of natural resources such as gas and precious stones, particularly rubies, among other minerals.

To some extent, this form of terrorism has ideological and civilisational characteristics, because the terrorist methods and the motivations of its protagonists are based on sectarian religious convictions inspired by groups in the Sahel. This means that, in the event of peace, other religious faiths are allowed – as long as they subordinate themselves, pay a fee and their followers don’t behave in public in a way considered un-Islamic. However, in the event of war, it is permitted to kill captives by beheading or otherwise, enslave them and use women for sexual purposes, among other practices.

The war is taking place in an environment where there is resentment at the predatory actions of businesspeople and members of the government. It has evolved from one-off conflicts since 2007 to violent actions since 2017 and, since late 2019, to an apparent war against the state and the population characterised by killings by beheading of civilians and soldiers and the destruction of state infrastructure.

How are people being affected and what assistance do they need?

The people most affected are those who live in neighbourhoods and districts that are attacked and are displaced, forced to move from one place to another. They lose their belongings and their homes, as most of them are burnt down. They flee in a hurry and are unable to recover anything. As well as losing family members, they are sometimes captured by terrorists and brutally murdered. Those who survive end up in reception centres and are then resettled in safe but deplorable conditions.

These families experience various needs, the most obvious being food and a safe place where they can rebuild their homes and restart their lives. And this is always difficult, because before being attacked and abandoning their homes, many of these displaced and resettled families lived mainly from agriculture. And in the places where they are being resettled the conditions are not always adequate for them to continue farming. It is therefore necessary to invest in other activities to allow them to continue their lives and generate income. This can include starting a business, setting up savings clubs, accessing short vocational courses and providing tools, seeds and materials for agricultural activities.

How is civil society working to respond to this situation?

Civil society has allied itself with the group that is part of the Humanitarian Country Team and has developed range of activities to support displaced people. In recent times, the concept and approach of ‘localisation’ has emerged, which involves developing and strengthening national organisations with tools and capacities so they can lead processes in emergencies and humanitarian crises. This is something that deserves praise, particularly for the United Nations agencies and other partners who are leading this localisation process to empower local organisations and provide them with the necessary tools so they can themselves intervene. We are living in a context of reduced funding, which makes it even more crucial for local organisations to take the lead.

In addition, Mozambican authorities receive international support to help victims, as well as for the efforts of the Disaster Management Institute, and to deal with the problems of communities arising from terrorism in the north. It is also important to highlight the positive role of international organisations, which provide a significant contribution to improving livelihoods and developing other capacities to enable communities to continue their lives as normal.

What are the biggest obstacles to peace in the region?

We have faced access problems due to the lack of ease of movement. Whenever we try to access these sites, we must consider security issues. Although we have teams dedicated to security, it’s not always safe to work there, as attacks can occur at any time. In addition, the number of displaced people increases with each attack, resulting in a growing need for support. However, we often don’t have the necessary resources to deal with the situation.

In addition, Mozambique is facing climatic events that are affecting various regions. This results in a dispersion of resources, with the need to cater both for those affected by natural disasters and those who are fleeing the war and seeking refuge.

There are cyclones accompanied by rain that end up resulting in flooding in some regions, particularly in low-lying areas with high groundwater levels, causing the destruction of crops and creating pockets of hunger in various parts of the country. These situations require support to deal with the destruction of homes, the evacuation of people from flooded areas and the subsequent provision of temporary shelter. Generally, accommodation centres for these people are set up in schools, which also means the school term must be interrupted because people are now living in these facilities. These climatic events also cause soil erosion problems.

I would therefore like to call on the international community, particularly cooperation partners, to invest significantly in localisation efforts. This means strengthening institutions and CSOs in Mozambique to provide them with the necessary resources and tools. It is crucial for these CSOs to work closely with international emergency and humanitarian aid agencies to share knowledge and experience on the ground.

What space does Mozambican civil society have, what constraints does it face and what international support does it need?

Mozambican civil society plays crucial roles. Even in the face of war, it has dedicated itself to promoting peace and to efforts aimed at reconciliation and making a significant contribution to ending the conflict. However, to continue this work it needs more support and spaces for intervention, as well as the opening up of the state and recognition of the role civil society plays. Civil society needs to be recognised so it doesn’t remain passive in its relations with the authorities. It needs to reach out to communities, raise awareness and bring about a change in mentality so they too become involved in the fight for peace, particularly in the areas affected by conflict. This requires resources and recognition. In addition, it is essential to provide the necessary means for civil society to carry out its work effectively.

Further, it is important to establish processes to exchange experiences with civil society in other countries facing similar challenges so we can better learn from the experiences of others and find more effective solutions adapted to our reality and context.

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

Get in touch with JOINT through its website.

KYRGYZSTAN: ‘Civil society realises the importance of joint actions to protect rights and freedoms’

MuratKarypovCIVICUS speaks about the potential approval of a Law on Foreign Representatives that would further restrict civil society in Kyrgyzstan with Murat Karypov, Project Coordinator of the legal programme of Bir Duino Kyrgyzstan.

Bir Duino Kyrgyzstan is a human rights organisation and one of Kyrgyzstan’s oldest and largest civil society organisations (CSO). Founded in 1999, it works to protect and promote human rights and freedoms, particularly freedoms of association and expression. It provides legal help to civic activists, people from excluded groups and torture victims. It also promotes human rights through arts, including through its annual International Documentary Film Festival on Human Rights.

How is civil society changing in Kyrgyzstan?

Civil society in Kyrgyzstan has changed significantly in recent years. More and more young people are involved in processes to protect and promote human rights and freedoms, and young activists are particularly interested in raising the level of legal consciousness, awareness of international law and international treaties and agreements to which Kyrgyzstan is a party. A large number of young people are interested in improving the situation in the country and openly talk about their proposals and ideas for the socio-economic and political development of Kyrgyzstan. Projects by international organisations aimed at promoting women’s leadership and increasing the level of participation of local communities in decision-making processes at the national level are gaining popularity.

Since 2018, Bir Duino Kyrgyzstan has successfully implemented a study in partnership with the Global Association for Disaster Risk Reduction on promoting the voices of local communities to decision-makers from local to global and reducing gaps between communities. The resulting methodology was effectively applied by Bir Duino to train women community deputies to increase their participation in decision-making processes.

Today, civil society realises the importance of joint actions to protect rights and freedoms in Kyrgyzstan. Activists are more united.

What is the Law on Foreign Representatives?

A new law on CSOs, the Law on Foreign representatives, is making its way through parliament. Its main purpose is to increase the national authorities’ monitoring and evaluation of CSOs.

It’s a version of laws adopted in different countries known as foreign agents’ laws. It’s much like the law in Russia. The International Center for Not-for-Profit Law did a comparative analysis and found that these two laws are very similar.

Already all CSOs regularly provide many mandatory reports in electronic and written form, every month and annually. So the requirement to provide some additional reports is not a challenge for us. But the main issue is how the law will be implemented, and whether it leads to more control over CSO activities.

Some members of parliament say the main reason for this new law is because a lot of CSOs don’t provide sufficient information about their activities, particularly their budgets. They further accuse CSOs of hiding their real purposes, saying some are involved in political lobbying and creating political instability.

As a CSO, we’re responsible for every dollar we receive from international donors. We’re open to providing any kind of information about activities within a funded project. International donors are very strict in their requirements about how funding should be used. I think it’s almost impossible to spend even one dollar for other purposes. That’s why for our organisation and a lot of CSOs, we’re absolutely sure we’re transparent and accountable for any kind of funding we receive from international donors.

How could the new law affect civil society in Kyrgyzstan?

The question is still open. Will this law be accepted or not? Because even after the results of the third stage of consideration, we have some hope the president will use his veto power to refuse this law.

Even after the acceptance of this law, our organisation and partners, and a lot of other CSOs, will go on with our activities and our project implementation, but it will definitely affect our activities, particularly those on human rights. A lot of activities could be classed as political activities, meaning they will be restricted.

Activists have joined efforts to inform international organisations and financial institutions about the need for the president to veto the law due to its inconsistency with human rights principles and standards under the key UN guidelines and the Aarhus Convention, an environmental rights treaty.

Joint appeals on this bill were made on behalf of local CSOs, international organisations and international financial institutions. Domestically, almost 100 local CSOs issued a statement on their position, and over 30 international CSOs published a statement on the new law, including some from the Russian Federation as well as other European countries. They are showing solidarity with our position.

The next steps are to wait for the president’s final decision. There is nothing more the international community can do in this matter.

How might international donors respond?

Even if international donors can no longer implement projects that are seen as political, there are many fields of work they can support. If human rights funding is going to be limited, attention could be given to implementing projects, for example, in the sphere of education, public health or environment.

For example, our organisation closely and actively works with local communities in distant and mountainous regions. People at the local level are not very well informed about the activities of international donors. That’s why their opinions can be manipulated. More conservative groups will tell them that international donors or CSOs are involved in political issues. It can be difficult for us to change their mind and explain we are not involved in political issues. But just imagine if, for example, an organisation supports the construction of a hospital or school of some kind, or reconstruction work, then people in the community will understand that international donors provided support. And nobody will have opportunity to say it’s a political issue or some kind of foreign influence.

Bir Duino Kyrgyzstan has been targeted for pressure and discrimination by conservative groups. Nevertheless, we continue to work to engage with local communities, raise their awareness of the importance of advancing international principles of human rights and freedoms, along with disaster risk reduction, and promote community voices to local to global decision makers.

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

Get in touch with Bir Duino Kyrgyzstan through its webpage or Facebook page, and follow @birduino_kg on Instagram.

HONG KONG: ‘The law is not about national security – it’s about the authoritarian regime’s control’

PatrickPoonCIVICUS speaks about the passing of a new security law and the state of civic space in Hong Kong with Patrick Poon.

Patrick is currently a visiting researcher of the University of Tokyo. He is an advisor for the UK-based ‘The 29 Principles’, which supports human rights lawyers in China and Hong Kong, a board member of Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China and advisor for the Tokyo-based Asian Lawyers Network.

Patrick was a researcher with Amnesty International’s International Secretariat from 2013 to 2020, mainly covering human rights defenders in China and human rights violations in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. He was also a board member of Amnesty International Hong Kong from 2009 to 2013 and the executive secretary and a board member of the Independent Chinese PEN Center from 2009 to 2013.

NETHERLANDS: ‘Anti-rights movements are gaining ground, challenging progress towards gender equality’

EvaLiaColomboCIVICUS speaks with Eva Lia Colombo, Project Leader Climate & Gender at WO=MEN Dutch Gender Platform, about the state of the feminist movement in the Netherlands amid the rise of the far right and the cancellation of a feminist march on 10 March.

WO=MEN is the preeminent Dutch platform striving for worldwide gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls. It monitors policy, shares knowledge, joins forces and connects and mobilises people.

Why was the 10 March Feminist March cancelled?

To give some context, on the morning of the Feminist March, there was a separate protest. In Amsterdam, people protested against the visit of the Israeli president, who was invited to open the National Holocaust Museum. This led to clashes with the police during the morning march. The Feminist March foundation, which has organised the Feminist March for several years, first postponed the march that day and then later announced its closure as an organisation. This left us without much information. It mentioned on its website that it cancelled the demonstration due to safety concerns after conflicts with the police earlier that day.

Looking ahead, I am unsure about next year’s plans for International Women’s Day. While we may not be officially affiliated with the Feminist March organisation, we joined them each year together with various members of our platform. However, I want to emphasise that the Feminist March is just one of many activities organised by the women’s rights and gender equality movement around International Women’s Day. Our movement remains strong and I think there will always be demonstrations and marches, whether one foundation leads it or there are multiple organisations and initiatives.

What recent achievements has the Dutch feminist movement made? What have been its biggest challenges? 

There are many achievements at the national level, such as the removal of the mandatory five-day period before abortions. This was a requirement to wait five days to reflect on the decision, but that’s no longer compulsory. Additionally, the #MeToo movement in the Netherlands raised awareness about gender equality and inappropriate sexual behaviour. This led to the appointment of a female Commissioner in April 2022 to research and raise awareness about these issues in society.

We are more focused on international policies. One significant achievement I would like to highlight is the implementation of a feminist foreign policy by the Dutch government in 2022. This policy aims to strengthen the rights and positions of women and girls in various international policies, including asylum, climate, defence, development cooperation, migration, peace, security and trade.

The policy is based on four principles: rights, representation, resources and a reality check. It focuses on protecting women’s rights, involving women in policymaking, providing funds for women’s organisations and analysing policies for potential negative impacts on women and girls. It is not just about women but includes other excluded groups and has an intersectional approach. We've published a magazine with evidence-based stories to support this policy.

Dutch civil society has advocated for this policy and WO=MEN has been instrumental in this, by consolidating and coordinating advocacy messages and facilitating consultation sessions among partners and members for the Minister for Foreign Affairs and members of parliament. The government also involved civil society in developing tools to implement the policy.

As a project lead on climate and gender, I also observed how the Netherlands actively promoted inclusiveness and gender equality during the COP28 climate summit in the United Arab Emirates last year and gave visible attention to the link between gender and climate in public social media statements.

Unfortunately, this has not yet led to the integration of gender in many negotiating topics, partly due to the huge pushback on gender from conservative countries. A lot of work needs to be done yet, but these are the small achievements we should celebrate.

In the Netherlands, despite the country being seen as a pioneer in gender equality, anti-rights movements are gaining ground, posing challenges to progress, particularly regarding political participation and issues like abortion. In light of these challenges, it is crucial to continue working toward permanent changes and foster a better understanding of feminism within broader society for systemic change and inclusivity. There is a need for greater gender equality in decision-making  positions to structurally address social norms that perpetuate inequalities.

How do you think conditions for activism, and specifically for feminist activism, will change under a new government resulting from the November election?

I believe that if we end up with a far-right  coalition, it will likely lead to increased polarisation, a shrinking space for civil society and challenges in making progress on gender equality and women’s rights.

One concerning trend already emerging in the Netherlands is the discussion around the right to protest. Amnesty International’s 2022 report highlighted this issue, and recent debates in parliament underscore its importance. For instance, following protests against the visit by the Israeli president, there were calls for a review of the right to protest. This debate was fuelled by claims that protests disrupted official ceremonies, leading to heightened scrutiny of the right to dissent.

Another issue gaining traction in political discourse is the right of organisations to hold the government accountable in the courts. This debate emerged following a legal victory by the organisation Urgenda, which compelled the government to take action on climate change. Conservative parties have questioned the legitimacy of such organisations and their ability to represent public interests, signalling a concerning trend that undermines democratic principles.

These developments are troubling because they erode trust in democracy and the rule of law. The notion that organisations and citizens can challenge government actions through legal means is fundamental to a functioning democracy. Yet there is a growing sentiment that some groups, particularly those critical of the government, should not have the right to hold it accountable.

Additionally, there’s a bureaucratic burden placed on civil society organisations, with increased demands for transparency and accountability in the allocation of funds. This administrative burden detracts from our ability to focus on our core work and raises concerns about ongoing financial support for our initiatives.

We strongly believe in a diverse platform within the feminist movement, which  is resilient and united in the face of these challenges. We are committed to ensuring that gender equality remains a central focus in both policy and practice.

How does WO=MEN connect with the regional and global feminist movements?

We are a platform consisting of members from various Dutch civil society organisations, all working towards women’s rights and gender equality. Our members include gender and women organisations, trade unions, diaspora organisations, international development and peace groups and humanitarian agencies, among others. Our role is to connect these diverse groups, ensuring they work together effectively rather than lobbying independently on separate issues. We facilitate connections between different fields, such as sustainable peace, climate justice  inclusive trade and sustainable support for women human rights defenders.

Our members directly engage with women and girls globally through local partners, translating their concerns into lobbying efforts at the national, European and United Nations (UN) levels. For example, some focus on UN climate negotiations while others work on the Commission on the Status of Women.

We also work on  specific topics. One focuses on advocating for sustainable support for women’s rights activists worldwide, lobbying for funding and protection for excluded groups. We prioritise those facing shrinking space or threats in their regions. We also work within international feminist consortiums, like Count Me In! and Our Voice Our Futures, which focuses on strengthening feminist social movements by supporting structurally excluded women and girls.

We also take part in marches, give lectures, write articles and engage on social media to raise awareness. We strive to amplify the voices of excluded women and girls from the global south in all our activities.

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

Get in touch with WO=MEN through its website or Facebook page, and follow @genderplatform on Twitter and Instagram.

CROATIA: ‘The longer this government remains in power, the weaker democracy and the rule of law become’

Oriana Ivković NovokmetCIVICUS speaks about ongoing anti-government protests in Croatia with Oriana Ivković Novokmet, Executive Director of Gong.

Gong is a think-do tank whose work focuses on promoting democratic processes and institutions and developing a democratic political culture in Croatia.

What triggered recent protests?

On 17 February, thousands of people took the streets of the capital, Zagreb, to demand early parliamentary elections. Organised by 11 left and liberal opposition parties, this massive anti-government demonstration was triggered by the appointment of former judge Ivan Turudić as the new state attorney amid media reports linking him to corruption. The opposition fears this appointment will further deteriorate the already compromised reputation of the Croatian judiciary.

According to a report by one of the most influential Croatian newspapers, Jutarnji list, between 2016 and 2020, Turudić, then the president of the Zagreb County Court, exchanged messages with the then state secretary of the ministry of justice, accused in another corruption case. The messages clearly showed they had a romantic relationship. Opposition members argue that Turudić lied to the Parliamentary Committee for the Judiciary when questioned about the meetings they had, claiming their relationship was superficial.

Additionally, President Zoran Milanović accused Turudić of meeting as president of the Zagreb County Court with Zdravko Mamić, a football manager sentenced for tax evasion and embezzlement who is currently a fugitive in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Mamić allegedly met with Turudić while a suspect and later when he was under investigation, as noted by the Security Intelligence Agency.

In a context of increasing frustration with the government of the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) party, which is plagued with corruption accusations, the February protests helped the opposition gain momentum. It subsequently announced plans to stage further protests in several major cities on 23 March.

What’s the state of democracy and civic freedoms in Croatia?

Turudić’s appointment was yet another example of Prime Minister Andrej Plenković’s habit of capturing independent institutions, which he’s done since reaching office. The longer the HDZ and Plenković remain in power, the weaker the rule of law and liberal democracy become. Plenković vowed to reform the HDZ but he has failed to change his party and also reversed progress made in upholding the rule of law in Croatia.

Under Plenković, Croatia is drifting away from the principles it adopted on joining the European Union. During his two terms, institutions such as the Commission for the Prevention of Conflicts of Interest have been significantly weakened. The Commissioner for Information was appointed as a fig leaf so the justice minister could hide the real authors of the Law on Constituencies, which redrew the boundaries of electoral districts to suit the ruling party. This key electoral law was crafted by the HDZ without involving experts, civil society or the opposition. Arbitrary district boundaries were traced on the basis of an unreliable voter registry. This move has undermined public trust in elections and could also result in an even lower voter turnout.

Are protesters able to voice their demands freely?

The government has imposed restrictions on protest rights, including by closing St Mark’s Square, home to key government institutions. Full access to the square is now restricted to government and parliamentary staff, and the area where people are allowed to protest is demarcated with fences. Recent demonstrations like the one on 17 February, however, have seen an expansion of the available space for protesters.

Plenković reacted to these protests by accusing the opposition of being pro-Russian, despite the fact that its only reference to Russia was to mourn Alexei Navalny’s death. On its official Facebook page, the HDZ insulted the opposition and people who supported the protest by labelling them ‘backward leftists’, ‘rampant angry revolutionaries’, ‘Russophiles’, ‘Putinophiles’ and ‘destructive and anti-patriots’. Many members of the government also endorsed this hostile narrative. In this crucial electoral year, Gong’s analysis revealed the use of numerous bots – automated programs that mimic human activity – supporting insults against the opposition on Facebook and attempting to manipulate citizens.

Plenković has tried to silence the media and their sources by adding provisions to the Criminal Code to criminalise leaking of information during the non-public phase of criminal proceedings. The bill however triggered protests by journalists and in response the government amended it to clarify that leaks deemed to be ‘in the public interest’ wouldn’t be criminalised. What is or is not in the public interest will however be determined by judges and Turudić.

What’s at stake in the 2024 elections?

President Milanović shocked Croatia when he announced he would run in parliamentary elections, scheduled for 17 April, as the Social Democratic Party’s (SDP) prime ministerial candidate, entering the ring against Plenković. The Constitutional Court says Milanović can only run for prime minister if he resigns as head of state first. Milanović called them gangsters and continued the campaign with the slogan ‘The rivers of justice are coming’. The SDP’s support grew strongly in the polls, but it now has a furious rhetorical populist at its head, openly saying he will not respect the Constitutional Court.

Campaigns will likely be plagued by offensive speech, contributing to the erosion of democratic values and the integrity of the electoral process. The HDZ is still by far the strongest party, but people are increasingly dissatisfied with the direction of the government and the constant corruption scandals. With Milanović’s entry into the race, the election result has become uncertain.

What are the main challenges for civil society?

Croatian civil society organisations (CSOs) operate in a context marked by a backsliding in liberal democracy, with attacks on activists, the media and independent experts, and challenges to the rule of law. Civic space has significantly contracted, and CSOs face administrative burdens, financial constraints, overwork and underpayment. As a result, many organisations are retreating from the public sphere, decreasing their engagement and doubting if they should continue to question those in power.

Moreover, changes in 2020 to the Council for Civil Society Development reduced the participation of CSOs in decision-making processes, undermining the legitimacy of the body and leading to the government outvoting CSOs and completely dominating law-drafting working groups. We have warned the public and the European Commission (EC) about token CSOs being used to shape anti-corruption laws. Instead of consulting widely with civil society, the government includes these CSOs that have been established to support its agenda rather than promote the public interest. 

In this challenging environment, Gong is set on remaining an active democratic watchdog, using a range of strategies to achieve social impact and foster positive change. These include analysis, research, proposing democratic innovations, advocacy, education, networking and collaboration with diverse stakeholders, including the academic community, civil society, media, politicians, government institutions and society in general.

A recent successful advocacy effort involved the EC unveiling new guidelines for the participation of its members in elections. This initiative was prompted by Gong’s report on EC President Ursula Von Der Leyen’s involvement in a pre-election campaign video for the HDZ. Gong raised this issue with both the EC and the European Ombudsman during Croatia’s 2020 parliamentary election.

For doing this work, we are constantly targeted with defamation campaigns by politicians, particularly those in power. This raises concerns for our safety and must immediately stop.

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

Get in touch with Gong through its website or Instagram page, and follow Gong and Oriana Ivković Novokmet on Facebook, and @GONG_hr and @OrianaIN on Twitter.

SRI LANKA: ‘The government curtails online expression critical of democratic and governance deficits’

Darshatha GamageCIVICUS speaks about recent restrictions on freedom of expression in Sri Lanka with Darshatha Gamage, Head of Programmes at Hashtag Generation.

Hashtag Generation is a movement led and run by a group of young tech-savvy, socially conscious Sri Lankans advocating for the meaningful civic and political participation of young people, particularly women and those from minority groups. It mobilises social media and new media tools to encourage dialogue on key social issues, advocates for the rights of ethnic, religious and sexual minorities and raises awareness about the importance of cybersecurity and countering disinformation and online hate speech.

What’s the situation of human rights and civic freedoms in Sri Lanka?

The state of human rights in Sri Lanka has long been concerning. Over the past two years, a deep economic crisis and social unrest have brought intensified human right violations. The president is taking extraordinary measures to restrict dissent with the aim of ensuring anti-government protests remain minimal. Activists and protesters have been arrested often for exercising their right to protest. Journalists have been intimidated or arrested for doing their work.

Civic space is being further restricted through a series of new draconian laws and bills. The Bureau of Rehabilitation Act, passed in February 2023, gives the armed forces authority to run ‘rehabilitation centres’ – military-operated detention camps in which political opponents and government critics can be incarcerated.

Online freedom of expression has been particularly affected. People expressing dissent online, including political activists, satirists and comedians, have been arrested under various charges for the content they post. Even laws such as the 2007 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights Act, modelled after the international covenant of the same name, has been historically misused to curtail freedom of expression through arbitrary arrest and detention.

In September 2023, the government introduced the Online Safety Bill, aimed at giving legal cover to the curtailment of rights to free expression. A newly tabled Anti-Terrorism Bill has also raised concerns due to its broad definition of terrorism that encompasses statements made through electronic and print media that are considered as inciting acts of violence. The bill would grant the president the authority to ban organisations, impose restrictions on movement, declare specific locations as prohibited areas and introduce new procedures related to curfews.

Why did the government push through these additional restrictions?

The government had a clear intention to curtail online expression critical of democratic deficits and entrenched governance issues. Digital spaces were widely used to mobilise communities and express dissent during the peak of the crisis in 2022, and these protests resulted in the resignation of the sitting president. 

The new Online Safety Act, passed in January 2024, is aimed at regulating online content. Under this law, jail sentences can be imposed on those posting material deemed illegal and social media companies are held liable for content posted on their platforms. The law created a five-member Online Safety Commission charged with deciding which online speech is false or harmful and when to remove content, limit internet access and prosecute users.

The passage of the Online Safety Act indicated that the government was acutely aware of ongoing discontent and intended to create an atmosphere of fear and intimidation to prevent people expressing collective dissent by mobilising.

How has civil society reacted to the Online Safety Act?

Civil society has expressed numerous concerns. It highlighted that the Act wasn’t developed through a consultative process. No technical or human rights experts were consulted, which means the law is not only draconian but also practically unworkable. However, it can and will be selectively enforced by the Online Safety Commission, something civil society has also pointed out with concern.

Civil society expressed major doubts about the vague and overly broad terminology used, the disproportionate punishments imposed and the independence of the proposed Commission.

In several key instances, the Act uses very vague terminology. It includes no criteria to identify what is a false statement and no protocol to follow globally accepted standards to verify whether a statement is true or false. Any statement could be considered false if a proper investigation is not conducted. Further, a statement of opinions, which cannot be fact-checked, can be easily deemed a false statement if it’s an expression of dissent.

As for the proposed Commission, civil society has criticised the fact that its members are to be appointed at the president’s discretion and therefore will likely engage in politically influenced decision-making. They will have sweeping powers to enforce the law and interpret its vague terminology, undermining principles of due process and judicial independence. These provisions are likely to be used to target political opponents and activists, particularly during the upcoming election, to be held in late 2024.

Civil society also noted that the law restricts the right to online anonymity by criminalising some forms of anonymity. It is feared this will undermine essential safety measures adopted by activists, whistleblowers and citizens in general.

Sri Lankan civil society consistently advocated against the bill with parliament and the courts. Various civil society groups, including Hashtag Generation, submitted over 45 petitions to the Supreme Court. These resulted in some amendments but didn’t substantially change the nature of the bill. 

There are still ongoing discussions of potential amendments to the Act. However, the government hasn’t approached civil society groups, human rights leaders or technical experts to request their input to improve the Act and hasn’t ensured concerns were properly addressed.

What support does Sri Lankan civil society need from international partners?

International civil society should facilitate dialogue among local partners working on human rights issues and encourage the creation of a unified front. To ensure that rights of Sri Lankans are protected, advocacy needs to be carried out at the global, regional and local levels. It is also important for international civil society organisations to avoid providing support to local organisations that endorse regressive legislation or human right violations. Further, it is important for international partners to develop more inclusive technology-related policies by involving partners and experts from the global south.

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

Get in touch with Hashtag Generation through its website and follow @generation_sl on Twitter.

EUROPE: ‘Member states must introduce national anti-SLAPP legislation to protect public watchdogs’

FrancescaBorgCostanziCIVICUS speaks with Francesca Borg Costanzi, Advocacy Officer at the Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation, about the recently adopted European Union (EU) Anti-SLAPP Directive and its importance in preventing abusive lawsuits against public watchdogs.

Established to seek justice for murdered journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, the Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation is a civil society organisation that advocates for press freedoms and liberal democracy and combats populism, corruption and impunity worldwide.

What are SLAPPs, and why are they a problem?

SLAPPs, short for strategic litigation against public participation, are, as defined by the EU Committee of Ministers’ draft recommendation on countering the use of SLAPPs, ‘legal claims, proceedings and other actions brought in relation to public participation and expression on matters of public interest that have as their main purpose to prevent, restrict or penalise the exercise of rights associated with public participation’.

In other words, they are a means for the powerful to weaponise the law to harass, intimidate, warn and dissuade people from exercising their rights. The claimants’ strategic aim is to silence criticism. SLAPPs suppress the civic freedoms of assembly, association and expression, and undermine the public’s right to know. They supress information that is in the public interest and inflict financial and psychological harm on defendants due to prolonged and costly court battles and the burden of intimidation that comes with legal action.

Concerningly, the use of SLAPPs is on the rise. According to the 2023 SLAPP report published by the Coalition Against SLAPPs in Europe (CASE) in May 2023, the number of SLAPPs across Europe jumped from 570 in 2022 to 820 in 2023. Early indications suggest the upward trend continues in 2024.

What is the Anti-SLAPP Directive?

The EU Anti-SLAPP Directive was adopted by the European Parliament on 27 February to set out minimum standards for anti-SLAPP laws that member states must now transpose into their national legislation. The directive covers SLAPP cases with a cross-border element, irrespective of where the plaintiffs and defendants are based.

When the directive was first launched by the European Commission in April 2022, the Commission’s Vice-President for Values and Transparency Věra Jourová referred to it as ‘Daphne’s Law’, in honour of murdered journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, who at the time of her death in 2017 faced 48 criminal and civil libel suits, most of which her family inherited. The package of measures was a fulfilment of a promise the Commission made to Daphne’s family and broader civil society to protect public watchdogs including journalists, human rights defenders and activists working to hold the powerful to account.

The directive was accompanied by a recommendation for member states that came into effect at the time of its launch, urging complementary measures including legislative steps to address purely domestic SLAPPs and providing training for the judicial and legal profession.

How were you involved in negotiations?

The Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation is a founding member of CASE, which has been actively involved in shaping the Anti-SLAPP Directive at every stage. Our experts prepared a policy brief that was used in advocacy efforts with rapporteurs from the three parliamentary committees involved and civil society representatives.

Members of our national working groups engaged with EP members to advocate for CASE’s proposed amendments and discuss implementation at the national level. This collaborative effort resulted in key committee opinions that included most of CASE’s proposed amendments.

The Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation contacted all EU member governments to explain the importance of anti-SLAPP measures, and the Foundation’s director, Matthew Caruana Galizia, held individual meetings with the ministers of justice and permanent representatives of several EU member states to advocate for the EU’s proposed directive and recommendation.

When the EP drafted its final opinions and the responsibility passed to the EU Council to draft a compromise text, CASE members organised meetings with permanent representations and ministers of justice from key countries to push for them to include CASE’s amendments in their final text.

Despite some proposals being excluded in the EU Council’s compromise text, CASE continued its advocacy efforts during negotiations in July 2023. We prepared a document outlining which institution’s version of each article would be the strongest and used this document in advocacy meetings with those involved in the negotiations. We also drafted briefing notes on the three most important components of the Anti-SLAPP Directive: its early dismissal mechanism, its definition of what constitutes cross-border and its provisions of remedies. These were sent to key stakeholders in the three EU institutions involved in the negotiations.

CASE’s advocacy was made possible by the consistent work of experts and the relationships established and maintained with key stakeholders in EU institutions.

To what extent did the recently adopted draft respond to civil society’s concerns?

The adopted text addresses some of civil society’s concerns and has moved forward considerably from the EU Council’s original compromise text adopted in June 2023, particularly considering some of the key components of the final text, such as the early dismissal mechanism, the cross-border definition and compensatory damages.

CASE welcomed the adoption of the Anti-SLAPP Directive, emphasising it as the minimum standard for protecting public watchdogs against SLAPPs. It is now up to member states to go beyond these parameters and transpose them into national legislation to effectively safeguard journalists, human rights defenders and activists working to hold power accountable.

The Council of Europe’s Anti-SLAPP Recommendation further complements anti-SLAPP measures by setting out important guidelines for anti-SLAPP legislation that also cover Council of Europe countries, not just EU member states. Civil society will be able to monitor the introduction of anti-SLAPP legislation in various countries and ensure these provide the maximum possible protection.

What else needs to be done to safeguard civil society’s watchdog role in the region?

Member states must introduce national anti-SLAPP legislation to protect public watchdogs. CASE will advocate for the proper transposition of the EU Directive by liaising with civil society members engaged in national advocacy. We will also focus on ensuring the adoption of the Committee of Ministers’ Recommendation and adherence to it by Council of Europe member states when drafting anti-SLAPP legislation. Our attention is now shifting to the national level, particularly jurisdictions where there is considerable resistance to the anti-SLAPP Directive. Transposition of the directive will remain our focus for the immediate and foreseeable future.

Get in touch with the Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation through its website or Facebook and LinkedIn pages, and follow @FrancescaBorgC2 and @daphnefdtn on Twitter.

PORTUGAL: ‘These elections have reminded us that democracies are fragile and imperfect’


CIVICUS speaks about the results of Portugal’s 10 March election with Ana Carmo of Akto, a Portuguese civil society organisation that promotes human rights and democratic values through advocacy, campaigning and education.

What were the key election campaign themes and the main parties’ proposals?

Parties’ campaigns for the 10 March election focused on issues such as housing, health, economic growth, education, social protection – particularly pensions – and the fight against corruption. During debates, other issues were also addressed, such as negotiations with the police – who held some protests and covertly threatened to boycott the election, the formation of coalitions, an issue that arose based on polling data, and the country’s governability.

This election campaign was very atypical and perhaps because of this, equal attention was given to all parties with parliamentary representation, something unusual in Portugal, where competition has been mostly bipartisan, between the Socialist Party (PS) and the Social Democratic Party (PSD). Discussion of political coalitions forced us to think about politics in ideological terms, with major contenders placed on the left, right and far right.

The contest for the prime minister position was between Pedro Nuno Santos of the PS and Luís Montenegro of the PSD as part of the Democratic Alliance (AD) coalition. Nuno Santos’ main proposals placed him as the continuation of the incumbent government with a focus on strengthening public investment on all of the campaign’s focus areas. His strategies to deal with the key issues included negotiation, strengthening institutions and greater public investment in public policy. Luís Montenegro, in comparison, centred his campaign on strengthening and stimulating the private sector, establishing public-private partnerships and reducing personal income tax and corporate income tax rates to encourage investment.

It’s important to note that the campaign saw little discussion of proposals or in-depth analysis of political programmes. The pitch-style debates didn’t take us beyond the headlines, creating some confusion as it was hard to tell the political programmes of the different parties apart. Following the debates, the over-abundance of commentary on all TV channels, each with its own bias, also contributed to the confusion of ideas. Even so, and contrary to what was expected due to the presence of a populist party, the debates and the other parties’ campaigns managed to maintain a good level of cordiality and political seriousness.

What led to the AD and PS winning almost the same number of seats?

The wear and tear of the PS government became very apparent during the campaign. Despite Nuno Santos’ great effort to disassociate from former Prime Minister António Costa and present himself as the party’s new face, many people were unhappy and didn’t trust the PS.

According to polls, the number of undecided voters increased as election day approached. The media’s excessive and sensationalised coverage may have contributed to this. With so many people undecided, confused and saturated, an expression of a desire for change was to be expected.

However, it’s important to remember that two years ago the PS won an absolute majority in an election that came about because the Left Bloc rejected the state budget. But it subsequently failed to satisfy people’s major needs, and for the second time its government fell, leading to elections. Nuno Santos’ political ability and perceptions of him, the other parties’ campaigns, leaning mainly towards the right, the influence of mainstream and social media and the European and international context all contributed to a paradigm shift. The fact that, as a result, the PS went from 120 parliamentary seats to around 76 has far-reaching implications.

What are the consequences of this tie?

As a result of the technical tie between the AD and PS, the climate of uncertainty that dominated the campaign continues. If parties are faithful and uncompromising with their positions and their word, it’s very likely that there will be another election in November because the state budget won’t get approved. If this happens, another highly likely scenario is that the far-right Chega party will continue to gain ground and further strengthen its position in parliament.

So this is a critical moment and a window of opportunity for Portuguese democracy to prove its strength – or weakness. Will political parties be able to engage in dialogue for the sake of political stability? What will their approach be to dealing with a populist party that has become a solid third political force? Will the centre bloc be maintained?

If these elections have reminded us of anything, it is that democracies are fragile and imperfect. We’ll see what capacity we have to adapt to democracy’s new contours.

How worrying do you find Chega’s performance?

Chega’s performance has been similar to that of its counterparts in other countries: Donald Trump’s Republican Party, Jair Bolsonaro’s Liberal Party, Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally and Matteo Salvini’s Northern League. Its growth is not surprising – it’s even predictable. This is a party that feeds on fear, disinformation and revolt, and follows the growth of similar parties across Europe. Its tactics are no different from those used by other far-right parties.

Chega attracts historical revanchists, xenophobes and racists, the angry and the disaffected. The Algarve region, a district won by Chega, is an example of a region that resents the way it’s been treated by successive governments. This is a region that’s very much affected by seasonal changes and experiences constant failures in dam management, leading to water shortages. Its feeling of being abandoned may explain the election result.

The growth of a populist party is always worrying, as history can attest. It’s all the more concerning given that Portuguese democracy is still young. Just as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 25 April Carnation Revolution when our democracy was born, we are faced with narratives and behaviours that go against the principles of our democracy and our rights and freedoms. The growth of a far-right party is particularly concerning when it comes to the most excluded people: women, the lower and lower-middle classes and young people. That’s why the majority of its voters are male.

How did civil society engage with the elections and how has it reacted to the results?

Despite the high percentage of undecided voters, abstention appeared to decrease. Abstention has always been a concern, hovering around 40 per cent, but historic figures are not accurate due to the unusual number of non-habitual residents and newly registered voters. In these parliamentary elections, abstention was around 34 per cent, but turnout wasn’t up significantly from previous years.

Until the new government takes office, it’s difficult to gauge civil society’s reaction to the election results. There is indeed great concern about the growth of the far right, but if these were protest votes, to what extent can we deduce that voters are satisfied with the result? There is a desire for change, but we don’t know if the desired change will materialise.

When will a new government be formed, and what role might Chega play in it?

It’s not certain there will be a coalition government. Montenegro repeated several times during and after the campaign that he will not enter into a coalition with Chega, and for the PS it doesn’t pay to form a coalition with left-wing parties, as the number of right-wing MPs remains higher or the same. Chega has said on a number of occasions that it would never enter into a coalition, but we are talking about a party that says everything and its opposite, and after the elections it has been pushing for a coalition with AD and says it’s willing to govern together.

Chega’s role will depend more on how the other parties deal with its existence than on its own actions. The other parties have created a firewall around Chega, which has ended up strengthening its presence, and they have shown there’s no desire for this party to be part of a political solution. The PS is focused on being the leader of the opposition. Whether it succeeds in doing so and how effectively will determine the Portuguese political scene.

Would a government that includes the far right pose a real danger to fundamental rights and freedoms?

It depends on how it is included and with what intentions. If AD coalesced with Chega and adopted its ideological line, there would be a real risk.

It’s not desirable for there to be a reactionary force with racist, xenophobic, sexist and revanchist discourse in parliament, but there are ways to mitigate this. Portugal lived through 41 years of dictatorship and has been a democracy for 50 years. It is because of the nature of our past dictatorship experience that our constitution forbids fascist parties and recalls the overthrow of the fascist regime in its preamble.

Portuguese political history shows that there has been more progress in guaranteeing fundamental rights and freedoms with left-wing socialist governments in power than with right-wing social democratic governments.

When we consider the speeches and proposals of the far right, fundamental rights and freedoms are called into question. However, as a democratic country, there is room for a party like this to exist, just as there are many other parties in opposition that are fiercely in favour of extending these fundamental rights and freedoms. It is up to democracy to demonstrate that it defends these rights and freedoms.

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

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

LESOTHO: ‘We need constitutional protections for press freedom and access to information’

KananeloBoloetseCIVICUS speaks about press freedoms in Lesotho with Kananelo Boloetse, chairperson of the Lesotho Chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA Lesotho).

Established in 1996, MISA Lesotho is a civil society organisation (CSO) dedicated to monitoring, investigating and reporting on violations and promoting media freedoms and the freedom of expression through research, advocacy, collaboration and capacity development.

TUVALU: ‘We share Taiwan’s democratic principles, values and struggles for sovereignty’

KialiMoluCIVICUS speaks about the prospects following the inauguration of a new government in Tuvalu with Kiali Molu, a PhD candidate in Politics and International Affairs at the University of Bergen in Norway and at the University of the South Pacific.

Kiali is a native Tuvaluan and his research, currently funded by the government of Norway, focuses on Tuvalu’s strategies to maintain its statehood and sovereignty as its territory is threatened by sea-level rise.

KENYA: ‘Protests against femicides encouraged survivors to seek justice’

Wangechi_Wachira.pngCIVICUS speaks with Wangechi Wachira, Executive Director of the Centre for Rights, Education and Awareness (CREAW), about recent protests demanding justice for femicide victims and policy changes to combat gender-based violence (GBV) in Kenya.

Founded in 1999, CREAW is a national feminist women’s rights civil society organisation (CSO) dedicated to protecting and promoting women’s and girls’ rights and addressing systemic gender inequalities, oppression, exploitation and discrimination.

Why did protest recently erupt in Kenya?

On 27 January, thousands of women and men took the streets to protest against femicides. The protests were triggered by 14 cases in January alone, and their primary objective was to demand accountability from state agencies, particularly law enforcement and the judiciary, in prosecuting perpetrators of femicide and ensuring justice for the victims. The case of John Matara, accused of killing Starlet Wahu, highlighted the failures of the legal and judicial systems, because he had been previously reported for GBV multiple times but had remained free.

Femicide Count reported 48 cases in January and February 2024, compared to 152 cases during 2023, which itself was the highest number in the past five years. Data from Africa Data Hub indicates that over 500 women were killed in acts of femicide from January 2016 to December 2023. It also acknowledges the number is likely much higher, with many killings of women not properly categorised as femicide.

The protest also aimed to raise awareness about the issue, as many people, including those in public office, do not fully understand the severity of femicide as the most extreme form of GBV. A 2021 report by the United Nations (UN) Office on Drugs and Crime revealed that 56 per cent of all female homicides globally are committed by intimate partners or family members.

Protesters sought to educate the public on victim-blaming, which empowers perpetrators and deters survivors from reporting abuse. By addressing the victim-blaming and shaming associated with GBV, the protests challenged societal norms and encouraged survivors to seek support and justice.

What were protesters’ demands to the government?

We urged the president to issue a declaration recognising GBV and femicides as a national crisis requiring an emergency response. Such a declaration must be accompanied by annual reports provided during the State of the Nation address, outlining measures taken to combat the problem.

We also urge the government to establish a national public inquiry and official review of events or actions ordered by a government body for all femicide cases to track and ensure accountability.

Given the lack of integrated official data, we also demand the government improves data collection on femicides and GBV, aligning it with international frameworks. This data is crucial for evidence-based policymaking and effective criminal justice responses.

Additionally, we call for increased funding for GBV prevention programmes and demand an inclusive appointment process for all public positions, ensuring representation from grassroots feminist organisations and youth groups.

How big a problem is GBV in Kenya, and what are its root causes?

GBV is pervasive in Kenya, mirroring global trends. It exists in several forms, including physical, sexual, verbal, emotional and economic abuse. According to the 2022 Kenya Demographic and Health Survey, over 40 per cent of women have experienced physical or sexual violence from an intimate partner at some point in their lives. GBV also manifests in harmful practices such as female genital mutilation and child marriages. Femicides are a frequent occurrence and appear to be on the rise.

The roots of GBV are found in patriarchal underpinnings of our society, which promote harmful social and cultural practices often reinforced by religious beliefs. Power is concentrated in men’s hands and women have little to none. Such unequal dynamics cannot but foster violence.

Economic factors such as poverty help perpetuate GBV by pushing women to stay in abusive relationships due to lack of financial independence. They also push families in famine-hit areas to marry off young girls for economic gain, and specifically to be able to acquire livestock in return.

Conflict, crises and displacement leave women and girls especially vulnerable to violence. A recent example is the COVID-19 pandemic, which saw an 80 per cent increase in intimate partner violence in 2020.

How does civil society work to address GBV in Kenya?

Civil society plays key roles in addressing GBV. CREAW specifically has a workstream focused on ending violence against women and girls. Over the years, we have provided free legal aid and psychosocial support to over 20,857 GBV survivors. We are among the few CSOs that offer these services. We collaborate closely with state-sponsored legal aid programmes, such as the National Legal Aid Service, to ensure integrated, efficient and timely GBV service delivery. Our work is enhanced by strategic partnerships with various GBV working groups, Court User Committees, relevant health institutions, parts of criminal justice system and community dispute resolution mechanisms.

CREAW actively engages with legislators and policymakers at both national and county levels to advocate for the development and implementation of regulatory frameworks on GBV. Our advocacy contributed to the passage of the 2006 Sexual Offences Act, 2013 Matrimonial Property Act, 2014 Marriage Act and the 2015 Protection Against Domestic Violence Act.

The aim of the Sexual Offences Act is to set out what constitute sexual offences, provide ways to prevent illegal sexual acts and protect all people from them. The Matrimonial Property Act sought to provide clear rules for what belongs in a marriage’s matrimonial estate and provide a legal framework for the ownership, management and distribution of matrimonial property that would apply to all types of unions. This was a monumental achievement because it recognised rights women didn’t previously have, such as owning and buying land.

The Marriage Act consolidated various laws on marriage, provided procedures for separation and divorce and regulated the custody and maintenance of children in the event of separation or divorce. The Protection Against Domestic Violence Act provides avenues for victims and survivors of violence to report their circumstances to relevant authorities, seek legal redress and receive justice.

CREAW also supports the county governments of Kilifi and Meru, the Kenya Police Service and the Kenyan judiciary in strengthening their mechanisms for implementing existing GBV laws and policies.

CREAW’s commitment to supporting survivors extends to financial inclusion. Since 2020, we have implemented a programme, the Jasiri Fund (‘bold’ in Swahili) that provides GBV survivors with quality financial services to mitigate the effects of GBV and enable economic empowerment. To date, the project has supported around 1,000 survivors with a total of US$400,000, leading to the establishment of at least 878 women-owned enterprises. The Jasiri Fund offers complementary support, including access to justice, psychosocial support, shelters, business grants and case management grants, accompanied by financial training and business development support. Its success led to its scaling up to cover more counties and support more survivors.

We are also part of the National Gender Based Violence working group, coordinated by the National Gender and Equality Commission and the National Women’s Steering Committee, and of the National Council on the Administration of Justice Working Committee on GBV.

CREAW served as a co-convener of the Kenya Chapter of the Africa Unite campaign against GBV. We are also members of the Solidarity for African Women’s Rights and the Sustainable Development Goals Group. We contribute to various campaigns such as Gender is My Agenda and globally contribute to the Generation Equality Forum commitments.

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

Get in touch with CREAW through its website or its Facebook or Instagram pages, and follow @CREAWKenya and @Wwangechi_leah on Twitter.

INDIA: ‘Civil society efforts will be crucial to the quality of the elections’

Anjali BhardwajCIVICUS speaks with Anjali Bhardwaj, founding member of the Society for Citizen Vigilance Initiatives (Satark Nagrik Sangathan, SNS), about recent electoral reforms and civil society efforts to ensure the quality of India’s upcoming election.

Established in 2003, SNS is a civil society organisation (CSO) working to promote government transparency and accountability and foster active citizen participation.

What recent changes have been made to rules on campaign financing?

On 15 February, the Supreme Court ruled the electoral bond system currently used to finance election campaigns unconstitutional. This is a positive change, with a potential to bring transparency to campaign financing.

Introduced in 2018, the electoral bond scheme allowed people and organisations to buy designated bank bonds ranging from 1,000 to 10 million rupees (approx. US$12 to US$120,000) to donate to political campaigns in a completely anonymous way. When it introduced this system, the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) presented it as a measure to combat corruption and increase transparency in political financing.

Before the bond system was introduced, political parties could receive funds in cash or through the banking system, but large corporate donations were often made in cash. All cash donations below 20,000 rupees (approx. US$240) were anonymous under the Income Tax Act. So to hoodwink the system, parties often reported large cash donations as multiple donations of amounts smaller than 20,000 rupees.

The electoral bond scheme was presented as a measure to increase transparency but the anonymity it ensured had the opposite effects. The opacity it enabled allowed single donors to provide unlimited funding. It hasn’t allowed people, CSOs, opposition political parties or even the Election Commission of India to track the flow of money in politics. It has compromised the public’s right to information, as voters are unable to discern the extent or sources of funding political parties receive. This limited people’s democratic right to make informed voting decisions.

What was the reasoning behind the Supreme Court’s decision?

The Supreme Court first addressed this issue as early as 2019, acknowledging the bond system’s potential harm to democracy but allowing it to continue while it analysed the substance of the case. But even back then, it emphasised the deepened information imbalance created by a system that allowed the ruling party to access information about donors and donations through the government-controlled bank while leaving opposition parties and the public in the dark.

In its recent ruling, the Supreme Court stressed that electoral bonds infringe article 19 of the constitution because without the right to information in electoral matters, the rights to free speech and expression guaranteed by article 19 cannot be fully realised.

Voters in India predominantly support parties, rather than individual candidates. When large corporations contribute generous funds to political parties, there is the presumption that they do so in the expectation of receiving favours in return once parties become part of governments. When favours are returned, policy is guided not by promises made to voters or by people’s needs but by the interests of funders. This is why funding transparency is crucial for informed voting. Without this information, voters cannot know what to expect when parties access government.

Electoral bonds exacerbated corruption through anonymous funding that gave free rein to large corporations to influence policy. They also made the playing field even more uneven, as the BJP consistently received a substantial share of electoral bonds.

The Supreme Court judgment declared the scheme and associated amendments unconstitutional, emphasising the importance of the right to information. The court prohibited further transactions and mandated disclosure of past transactions, marking a significant move towards restoring transparency and fairness in India’s electoral process.

How has civic space evolved under Prime Minister Narendra Modi?

Regrettably, since the beginning of the Modi government in 2014 we have seen a significant contraction of civic space, due to systematic attacks on the crucial right to dissent, a cornerstone of any democracy.

The essence of democracy lies in people’s right to question those in power. But in India, this right has been under attack in three primary ways.

First, those who express dissent, criticise government policies or challenge legislation are labelled as anti-national. The governments files legal cases against them, leveraging draconian laws, terror-related legislation and money laundering statutes to silence them.

Second, the government has deliberately weakened the laws that empower citizens. The Indian Right to Information Act, lauded as one of the world’s most progressive, has been amended twice in the last five years. Regressive amendments have severely affected people’s right to access information and question the authorities. Similarly regressive amendments to other laws, such as the Representation of People Act and the Income Tax Act, along with the electoral bonds, have further curtailed people’s right to access vital information to hold the authorities to account.

The government has also undermined the independence of institutions responsible for upholding fundamental rights, including the right to free expression and protest. This has eroded the constitutional protection people should enjoy when expressing dissent. Protesting and questioning the government have therefore become increasingly difficult.

The cumulative effect of these developments has dealt a severe blow to civic space in India.

Are there enough guarantees for a free and fair election?

India has needed electoral reform long before the current administration. For decades civil society has advocated for changes to strengthen the electoral process. While India takes pride in conducting relatively free and fair elections, concerns over the quality of elections have increased over time.

Civil society has repeatedly expressed alarm over issues including the influence of money over elections, the security and reliability of electronic voting machines and manipulation of the voter roll.

Regarding the undue influence of money over elections and consequently over policymaking, electoral bonds have long been a matter of major concern. Civil society has also expressed apprehension about glitches in and tampering with electronic voting systems, prompting debate and ongoing legal challenges in the Supreme Court. Alarms were also sounded by recent elections that saw arbitrary deletions and additions to voter lists.

Civil society continues to bring attention to these issues, urging authorities to find solutions. The resolution of these challenges is essential for India to genuinely claim it conducts free and fair elections.

Who are the major contenders in the 2024 election, and what are the main issues the winner will need to tackle?

India has numerous political parties that actively participate in elections. The BJP and its allies have successfully formed a government twice and are currently strong contenders to secure a third term in office. The opposition landscape includes the Indian National Congress, historically prevalent prior to the BJP’s rise. But there are many other national and regional parties that contribute to the diversity of the political spectrum.

As a developing country, India, faces multifaceted challenges. Among the most significant are deep-seated socio-economic inequality and high incidence of poverty, with a small number of families holding a substantial portion of the country’s wealth and a substantial percentage of the population living below the poverty line. There is much need for policies to uplift those on the margins of society and reforms to the structures that perpetuate inequality.

Equally crucial is the protection of civic freedoms, particularly for those who criticise the government, including through peaceful protests. Those who express dissent and demand accountability must be protected rather than criminalised.

The next government should prioritise these issues, addressing inequalities and working to create an environment where citizens can freely express themselves and participate fully in the democratic process.

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

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

CHILE: ‘Legislation to tackle forest fires must be based on co-responsibility’

MauroGonzálezCIVICUS speaks with Mauro González, Senior Researcher at the Centre for Climate Science and Resilience, (CR)2, about fires that recently spread through Chile’s Valparaíso region.

(CR)2 is a research centre that brings together researchers from various disciplines in the natural and social sciences, and from the University of Chile, the University of Concepción, Universidad Austral de Chile and other academic institutions, to study the impacts of climate change on Chilean ecosystems and society.

What’s the reason for the increase in fires?

Over the past decade Chile has been experiencing fires of increasing size and severity. The area burned during the 2016-2017 season reached more than half a million hectares, 10 times more than the annual average. It was very similar in 2022-2023, and most recently, in February this year, we had catastrophic fires in Valparaiso. These were less extensive, but their impact was considerable because they occurred in urban-forest interface areas with a high population density.

Some of the factors that could explain this increase in fires are more favourable climatic conditions, such as heatwaves, and the increased susceptibility of vegetation, associated with the drought that Chile has experienced since 2010. In recent years we have observed the drying out, also known as browning, of sclerophyll forests, caused by the lack of water. This affects biodiversity, leads to loss of stored carbon and facilitates the spread of fires. Further, in south and central Chile, the extensive and homogeneous forest plantations of Eucalyptus globulus and Pinus radiata favour, under extreme weather conditions, the spread of large fires.

Humans are largely responsible for the origin of fires, as more than 95 per cent of these are provoked, either accidentally or intentionally. Intentionality has various motivations, which need to be understood sociologically and psychologically to address prevention adequately.

In what other ways is climate change affecting Chile?

The main impacts of climate change in Chile are visible in the increased frequency of extreme weather events such as heatwaves, storm surges, tornadoes, floods, fires and prolonged drought. Although we have historically faced floods, earthquakes and fires, drought represents a unique situation for Chile given its extent and intensity. Much of the country is being affected by drought, with many rural communities lacking adequate water supply and demanding solutions from the state.

Particularly in the semi-arid areas north of Santiago, communities are experiencing a critical lack of water, which affects their traditional activities. Many people have lost their water sources for crops and livestock, affecting their economic activities and livelihoods, and are beginning to migrate. The capital and other cities are also facing major problems in the supply of water for human consumption.

With the succession of extreme weather events, the community recognises climate change as an obvious reality. However, the need for the state to take responsibility and provide responses only arises in extreme situations, in contexts of catastrophe. Otherwise, communities seem to adapt or resist in one way or another.

What have been the impacts of the fires, and how has the government responded?

Large fires affect the productive sector, including agricultural and forestry companies, but also local communities and society in general. The biggest impacts of fires are the loss of life and the destruction of thousands of homes and livelihoods. Added to this are emotional, psychological and medical problems, as air pollution increases respiratory diseases. These are problems that have not yet been adequately assessed. In certain areas, there is constant smoke during the summer, which undoubtedly affects human health.

In addition, fires have a negative impact on biodiversity. They result in the loss of native forests, endangering many species with conservation problems. They also affect the viability of fulfilling our commitment to achieve carbon neutrality, as we are not increasing the vegetation cover that sequesters carbon. On the contrary, we are losing forests and releasing large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

The Chilean state has gradually been confronting this problem and taking measures. In recent years, successive governments have come to understand more fully the impact of climate change, pushed forward legal initiatives such as the Framework Law on Climate Change, and made important changes to the institutional framework for disaster risk prevention, in which the National Disaster Prevention and Response Service plays a fundamental role. In addition, a Fire Law is currently being discussed in Congress that aims to strengthen prevention strategies and landscape management as a mitigation measure, particularly in wildland-urban interface areas.

What more should be done to prevent and control fires?

Although in Chile the budget for fire prevention and control has increased in recent years, it is important to note that even in global north countries with more equipment and budget, such as Australia, Canada and the USA, governments don’t manage to put out fires of the characteristics and under the weather conditions in which they currently occur. Prevention is therefore key, as is the configuration and management of the forest landscape.

In south and central Chile, where the existence of extensive monoculture tree plantations contributes to the spread of fire, the state has a key role to play in encouraging, through appropriate instruments, greater diversification of the landscape and the restoration of burned or degraded native forests.

In terms of human responsibility, we must be aware of the impact of our actions, whether accidental, negligent or intentional. Prevention is key, along with preparing communities to deal with fires, just as we do with earthquakes and tsunamis.

The responsibility of property owners is fundamental when it comes to prevention and landscape management. Landowners must take responsibility for their land, implementing, with the assistance of the Forest Service, appropriate mitigation measures such as fire breaks and fuel reduction, particularly if they border human communities. Land management should not solely be the responsibility of the state. Each person must contribute to maintaining their environment, and forestry companies must ensure their assets are properly managed so as not to affect neighbouring communities. Co-responsibility is a crucial element that should be reflected in future legislation to tackle wildfires.

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

Get in touch with (CR)2 through its website or Facebook page, and follow @CR2_uchile on Twitter.

AFGHANISTAN: ‘The risks posed by Taliban rule are too grave for the international community to ignore’

Ehsan ShayeganCIVICUS speaks about the situation of human rights and women’s rights in Afghanistan with Ehsan Shayegan, founder and president of the Porsesh Policy Research Institute (PR).

Initially founded in 2015, and re-established in the USA in 2022, PR is an independent, nonprofit policy research think tank focusing on excluded communities and human rights and working to counter disinformation, misinformation and lack of systematic information. Formerly based in Afghanistan, it was forced to leave the country after the 2021 Taliban takeover and is now based in the USA.

What’s the current human rights situation in Afghanistan?

Afghanistan’s human rights situation is extremely concerning. Recent reports indicate a return to traditional Taliban practices, including public executions in stadiums. These executions have occurred in various regions such as Ghazni in southern Afghanistan and Sheberghan in the northern region. Additionally, there have been reports of numerous members of former government forces being killed or disappearing at the hands of the Taliban.

Arbitrary arrests are rampant, with widespread surveillance through social media and Taliban local intelligence networks. Freedom of speech and expression are not protected under Taliban rule, leading to the imprisonment or silencing of activists advocating for democracy and human rights.

It is exceedingly challenging to conduct human rights work in Afghanistan. The Taliban persecutes people who oppose their ideology and interests, regardless of the legitimacy of their activism. The level of restrictions and surveillance imposed on activists, journalists and researchers is staggering.

The situation is particularly dire for women. Misogyny is systemic and women’s access to education and healthcare is severely restricted. The Taliban’s hostility and brutality towards women exacerbate existing patriarchal social structures. Harassment and rapes perpetrated by the Taliban often go unreported due to threats and stigma.

This is a disturbing reality that the global community should be aware of. It is essential for the international community to take action to address these atrocities.

How is PR working to address these issues?

PR originated in the challenging environment of 2015 Kabul, and was established to address the pervasive issues of misinformation, disinformation and the lack of systematic information regarding Afghanistan’s excluded ethnic groups and communities.

Throughout Afghan history, critical decisions and policies were often based on inaccurate or biased data, serving the interests of political elites. The government and its affiliated institutions exerted significant control over information and lacked genuine commitment to principles of democracy and fairness. As a result, civil society voices, particularly those of minorities, were deliberately excluded across various realms, including education, history, literature and policymaking.

PR aimed to provide an impartial, community-driven perspective within Afghanistan’s highly politicised information landscape. Despite evolving and expanding our strategic focus areas and geographical coverage, PR remains steadfastly committed to prioritising community needs. In an era marked by rapid advancements in information technologies, PR recognises the importance of maintaining a human-centred and community-centred approach to information.

Traditional research institutions often focus solely on decision-making centres, but PR believes that in the age of democracy and information, data and research must be shared with the public and decision-makers alike. By using virtual public spaces, PR aims to facilitate the generation and dissemination of information, ultimately fostering a more democratic and informed society.

As civil society, it is our responsibility to produce and share evidence-based studies of the realities on the ground in Afghanistan and advocate for Afghan people, particularly those most vulnerable under Taliban rule.

What’s it like to have to work from so far away?

Working on Afghanistan from a distant location presents significant challenges, primarily because there’s a constant risk of overlooking crucial local perspectives. However, we are fortunate to maintain strong connections with communities in Afghanistan and rely on our local researchers, who we consider the unsung heroes of our work. They assist us in coordinating data collection efforts on the ground. In instances where the safety of our local collaborators is at risk, we use secure virtual means to reach research participants.

We closely monitor developments in Afghanistan through various channels, including mass and social media, along with insights from our local informants. We rely extensively on our local researchers and informants to gain insights into realities on the ground and verify facts. We maintain daily communication with them to stay updated on unfolding events.

However, it’s important to note that the Taliban takeover significantly disrupted the flow of information. It requires a deep understanding of Afghanistan’s social dynamics to navigate restrictions and risks. Fear makes it challenging for people to share information freely, so effective data collection requires the establishment of trustful relationships within communities. Overall, working on Afghanistan remotely demands a nuanced approach and a thorough understanding of the risks involved.

What should be done to keep the attention of the international community on Afghanistan?

While there has been a noticeable decline in international interest, particularly amid ongoing crises in the Middle East and Ukraine, it’s challenging to imagine Afghanistan fading from global consciousness. The plight of roughly 40 million people subjected to one of the most brutal tyrannies on the planet cannot simply be overlooked.

The international community is also partly responsible for Afghanistan finding itself in such dire circumstances in the first place. The collapse of Afghanistan represents a failure of collective action. As someone born in Afghanistan and engaging with it professionally, I firmly believe that if it’s left unattended, its problems will continue to haunt the international community indefinitely.

The risks posed by Taliban rule – ranging from radicalisation to the flourishing opium trade, human rights violations and geopolitical alliances with radical authoritarian governments – are too grave to ignore.

It’s crucial for the international community to recognise the stark misalignment between Taliban ideology and human rights values. This is often overlooked. Following the US-Taliban Doha agreement in 2020, some believed that a second Taliban rule would be more moderate on issues concerning women’s rights and civil society. But many local activists and researchers remained sceptical, viewing such optimism as based on a misleading, politically motivated narrative.

The current reality demonstrates they were right. The Taliban continue to hold the entire country hostage, with minimal acceptance of genuine civil society presence or meaningful human rights activism. The international community must listen to authentic local voices and ensure they are included in discussions and decision-making.

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

Get in touch with the Porsesh Policy Research Institute through its website or Facebook page, and follow it on Instagram and Twitter.

JORDAN: ‘Commercial spyware that enables digital repression and abuse must be completely banned’

CIVICUS speaks with Access Now about their forensic investigation that exposed the use of Pegasus spyware to target activists and journalists in Jordan. Access Now is an international civil society organisation that works to defend and extend the digital rights of people and communities at risk.

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What restrictions do Jordanian journalists and activists face?

Over the past four years, the Jordanian government has dialled up its crackdown on the rights to freedom of association, expression and peaceful assembly. Journalists, human rights defenders, labour unions and activists are routinely harassed, detained and prosecuted under vague and draconian laws. In late 2022 and throughout 2023, several lawyers, journalists and activists were arrested in connection with protests or for their social media posts.

Repression has deepened as a result of the new cybercrime law adopted in August 2023. This law threatens online freedom of expression on the basis of ambiguous and overly broad provisions about ‘spreading fake news’, ‘promoting, instigating, aiding or inciting immorality’, ‘online assassination of personality’, ‘provoking strife’ and ‘undermining national unity’. The law is now being weaponised to quash pro-Palestinian protests and activism in Jordan. Since 7 October 2023, hundreds of protesters expressing solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza have been detained and many others prosecuted under this draconian law.

Our recent forensic investigation into the use of NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware in Jordan has revealed an additional layer of repression, with at least 35 people being targeted for no reason other than their peaceful political dissent and human rights advocacy.

How’s spyware used, and who’s using it?

In January 2022, Access Now and Front Line Defenders revealed that Pegasus spyware had been used to hack prominent Jordanian human rights lawyer Hala Ahed. Hala was hacked in March 2021, and it was an isolating and traumatic experience for her. Access Now then joined Citizen Lab to further investigate the use of Pegasus spyware in Jordan.

Our joint forensic investigation uncovered a terrifyingly widespread use of Pegasus to target Jordanian media and civil society. We found traces of Pegasus spyware on the mobile devices of 30 activists, journalists, lawyers and civil society members. Further forensic analysis by our partners Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International’s Security Lab and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project identified five more Pegasus victims, bringing the total to 35.

This is the largest pool of Pegasus victims uncovered in Jordan so far, but we believe actual numbers are much higher. We don’t know exactly who is behind these attacks because spyware manufacturers such as NSO Group make the identification of perpetrators of cyberattacks very hard.

The NSO Group blatantly claims its surveillance technologies are crucial for governments to fight crime and terrorism. Conveniently, this is the same pretext used by dictators and repressive regimes to criminalise the work of journalists and activists and prosecute them under draconian counterterrorism and cybercrime laws. It’s a match made in hell, as a result of which activists and journalists are hacked, prosecuted, jailed, tortured and killed merely for exercising their rights or doing their job.

What can activists and journalists do to protect themselves?

Unfortunately, given their stealthy nature, there’s no bulletproof protection against spyware attacks. Zero click spyware doesn’t require any interaction between the software and the user of the hacked device. It basically exploits a vulnerability in the device’s software to infect it without the user’s knowledge.

Still, there are some basic protection measures everyone should implement. For example, every time a vulnerability is discovered, Apple patches it, which means it’s important for users to ensure their device’s operating system is always up to date, otherwise the patch won’t apply. Activists can also enable the Lockdown Mode feature on their Apple devices, which seems to be helping protect at-risk users.

How does Access Now hold governments and companies accountable?

For years, Access Now and broader civil society have been campaigning for a global moratorium on the export, sale, transfer, servicing and use of targeted digital surveillance technologies until rigorous human rights safeguards are put in place. Commercial spyware that enables digital repression and abuse worldwide, such as Pegasus, must be completely banned. We are not there yet, but this is our baseline to rein in the surveillance tech industry.

There have been some positive steps toward holding spyware companies accountable. For instance, a number of Israeli spyware outfits including NSO Group, Candiru and four Intellexa entities were added to a list of the US Department of Commerce that includes entities engaging in activities contrary to the USA’s national security or foreign policy interests. The latest addition to the list was the Canada-based firm Sandvine, blacklisted for enabling digital repression in Egypt. In February 2024, the US State Department also announced a new visa sanctions policy that will deny visas to anyone involved in, facilitating or deriving financial benefit from the misuse of commercial spyware around the world.

Civil society plays a vital role in exposing how these shady companies profit from facilitating human rights abuses around the world and demanding accountability for violations and reparation to spyware victims. Its continued work is key to holding governments and spyware companies accountable.

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

Get in touch with Access Now through its website or Facebook and Instagram pages, and follow @accessnow on Twitter.

EUROPE: ‘Governments are adopting measures that are beneficial for the climate but forget to include people’


CIVICUS speaks with Karin Van Boxtel, Co Interim Director of Both ENDS, about the farmers’ protests happening across Europe.

Both ENDS is a civil society organisation (CSO) based in the Netherlands that works jointly with environmental groups in African, Asian and Latin American countries towards a sustainable, fair and inclusive world. It seeks to strengthen civil society globally so it can gain critical influence over decisions and activities that affect people’s rights and the environment.

Why are farmers protesting in several European countries?

First of all, it is essential to recognise the diversity within the farmers’ community, because they are not a homogeneous group. Some are frontrunners and champions of sustainability and others aspire to be but face systemic obstacles, including lack of access to funding and land, challenges posed by the trade system and competition from imports. And then there’s a smaller group of farmers who simply resist change, but their influence is huge. We should focus on supporting the first two groups – helping frontrunners maintain their status and facilitating the transition for those aspiring to be frontrunners.

The reality for these farmers across Europe is similar to farmers globally: current policies do not adequately support them. Both ENDS works with pioneering civil society and farmer organisations that connect with other farmers to join their efforts on, for instance, agroecology and food forests. Policy efforts globally have historically centred on the third group of farmers, instead of the first two. This started to shift in recent years, but caused discontent and insecurity among farmers most resistant to change, as well as among companies invested in the current system.

The existing system fails to reward the right behaviours and doesn’t offer any long-term security through a combination of misdirected finances and improper trade rules. In the EU these trade rules lead to competition from cheap imports coming from countries with lower production and labour standards. In African, Asian and Latin American countries, environmental damage is done with the production of fodder inputs or food for export to the EU. One example is the production of soy, which leads to deforestation and land rights violations in Brazil. This system has led to a rise in production costs in the EU while prices have remained stagnant or fallen, and environmental impacts elsewhere are not integrated in the prices.

Farmers’ protests are therefore revealing a systemic problem. Farmers are battling a system that doesn’t provide the right incentives and doesn’t reward those who are pioneers in sustainability. They also feel they aren’t receiving the recognition they deserve.

How are climate policies impacting on farmers?

Farmers are being negatively affected because governments are adopting measures that are beneficial for the climate but forget to include people. A climate transition is not enough – what’s needed is a just climate transition. This means a just energy transition and, equally importantly, a just food transition.

Achieving a just food transition requires an analysis of the food system on a global scale, because this is a system that operates globally. Take for instance the implementation of deforestation regulations, a key measure to combat climate change. In principle this is a commendable measure – however, it poses challenges for many farmers, particularly small-scale farmers in countries in Asia or Latin America. In these regions, only larger farmers can meet the requirements of deforestation laws, which reveals that this measure, while part of much-needed climate action, lacks justice.

This is the core of the issue. When formulating trade policy or negotiating trade agreements, states tend to overlook the perspectives of the farmers who are not necessarily at the forefront of sustainable practices but aspire to be. This applies not only to the Netherlands and other European countries but also to Brazil or Indonesia, among many countries in the global south.

When designing climate measures, it is crucial to listen to and consider the needs of frontrunner and aspiring frontrunner farmers. This is different from prioritising the interests of agricultural giants, such as companies producing animal feed or those engaged in trading agricultural products.

How is the far right politicising these tensions, and with what results?

The far right is exploiting farmers’ perceptions of current climate measures as unjust. It is capitalising on the gaps in solutions identified by civil society, transition thinkers and frontrunner farmers all over the world.

We realise many climate measures are having unfair effects. The challenge lies in ensuring that money financing the climate transition reaches farmers, particularly frontrunners, rather than the same companies that have so greatly contributed to the problems those measures are trying to address.

A key element of the far right’s appeal is that they offer false hope to those who are reluctant to transition and reject any change. They offer simplistic solutions that don’t address the issue at its root, and are therefore not real solutions.

What’s civil society’s position?

Regarding the protests, civil society’s standpoint has been that peaceful protests should be allowed. The context is of growing criminalisation, particularly in countries where the far right is in the government. This is not unique to Europe but is a global concern. In some countries governments tend to tolerate agricultural protests more due to the economic significance of agriculture and its impact on food security, but overall, civic freedoms are increasingly under threat, with protesters –particularly climate protesters – facing detention or restrictions.

As for the substance of the issue, civil society believes that a real solution requires a power shift, a systemic change in the trade and financial systems. This idea unites farmers’ organisations currently protesting in Europe and worldwide. Notably, despite apparent differences in viewpoints, in the Netherlands Extinction Rebellion supported farmers’ protests. This is because they also recognise the need for a structural power shift.

It's worth noting the ongoing collaboration between CSOs and partner organisations, both locally and globally. Last year in the Netherlands, civil society joined forces with CSOs globally, Dutch farmer organisations, academics and private sector to address the Dutch agricultural agreement under negotiation. It raised concerns about its impact on farmers and communities in the global south and called for an agreement that both benefits Dutch farmers and considers the perspectives of farmers globally. The manifesto highlighted the need to change the trade system, fostering the regionalisation of food systems, prioritising farmers over companies and ensuring funds reach frontrunners. This collaborative effort is a strategy to bring about systemic change.

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

Get in touch with Both ENDS through its website or Facebook page, and follow it on Twitter and Instagram.

EUROPEAN MEDIA FREEDOM ACT: ‘It will be crucial for EU member states to take this legal framework seriously’

Renate_Schroeder.jpgCIVICUS speaks with Renate Schroeder, Director of the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), about the European Media Freedom Act, the first integrated legislation that protects freedom of expression and media independence and pluralism in the European Union.

The EFJ is the largest organisation of journalists in Europe, fighting for decent working conditions and defending the right to freedom of expression.

Why was the European Media Freedom Act (EMFA) needed?

The European Commission (EC) produced the draft EMFA in September 2022, in a context of growing disinformation and threats to media independence and journalists’ safety across Europe. The Vice President of the European Commission for Values and Transparency, Věra Jourová, understood the dangers of media capture and political manipulation. With her help and a lot of research by European institutions, we were able to show media freedom was declining in the European Union (EU), despite the bloc’s historical commitment to this principle.

That’s why the EC came up with a proposal to ensure the right of all citizens to receive plural and editorially independent information. This had never been formally addressed before. The EMFA is rooted in the need to create clear rules to level the playing field across the EU, addressing issues such as media capture, the independence of public service media, editorial independence, transparency in media ownership and state advertisement.

What regulations does the EMFA introduce?

The EMFA seeks to safeguard media freedom and integrity. It includes provisions to protect journalistic sources, ensuring confidentiality. This is particularly crucial for investigative journalism given the growing use of spyware to target journalists’ sources, as seen in countries such as Greece and Hungary.

The Act also addresses state control over public service media. Rather than state broadcasters, what the ecosystem needs is independent, strong, public service media systems free of state influence or control over funding.

In addition, the EMFA recognises readers’ right to know who’s behind what they read, so it includes an article on transparency in media ownership and another on editorial independence to prevent journalism being used for political or economic interests or propaganda. This is based on the acknowledgment there are people such as politicians or foreign business leaders who own media outlets and use them for their agendas. They don’t view journalism as a public good but as a tool for propaganda.

Another issue the Act deals with is content moderation. Journalists are no longer the gatekeepers of information – platforms are. Recognising this, the EMFA requires platforms to consult media service providers and journalists before removing content.

Finally, the Act establishes a board composed of independent regulatory authorities tasked with overseeing compliance with the EMFA and other related legislation such as the Audiovisual Media Service Directive.

What were the main points of contention during the process?

At the beginning, several stakeholders were against the EMFA. Germany raised one significant point of contention. It has a federal system where states have their own independent regulatory media systems, and they were concerned about potential interference from Brussels.

Publishers also presented a challenge. They showed little interest in any transparency or editorial regulation and had concerns about a European board having a say on that.

However, with the support of a group of media freedom organisations, digital rights advocates and other civil society groups, we overcame most of these obstacles. While the initial draft was not as good as we would have liked, the European Parliament emerged as our ally and helped strengthen transparency rules and reinforce provisions related to public media service and source protection.

One particularly contentious issue during negotiations with both the European Parliament and European Council was the protection of sources and safeguards against spyware. Some states, such as France, argued for exemptions based on national security considerations. These risked compromising the protection of journalists’ sources and transforming the EMFA into a surveillance tool. Thanks to efforts of supportive countries such as Spain, these proposals were rejected, preserving the EMFA’s integrity.

Does the final draft fully address civil society concerns?

While the final draft addresses some concerns raised by civil society, there are areas where our partners feel it could have gone further.

For instance, on the issue of transparency of media ownership, civil society groups wanted to establish a European database, but this provision didn’t go through. We also wanted to include a stronger article addressing concentration of media ownership and requiring a public interest test for mergers. The language in the final agreement is often too principled, which may cause problems when implemented at the national level.

Even so, we understand that drafting regulations at the European level, where you deal with multiple and diverse states, is not easy. The current rise of right-wing governments is only making it harder. Even traditionally supportive states such as Denmark, Finland and Sweden have been cautious in their approaches.

We knew it was now or never, so we are very happy the EMFA got adopted, even if some articles are not worded as strongly as we would have liked. With right-wing movements on the rise, there was a lot of pressure to agree a final text and have it passed right away, even if it wasn’t perfect, because the June European Parliament elections will likely result in a more right-wing Parliament.

What happens next?

The next step is for the European Parliament’s Plenary session in Strasbourg on 11 March to formally vote on the provision agreement, which the Council of the EU under the current Belgian presidency will officially adopt. The Act needs a three-fourths majority, and only Hungary is certain to vote against. It will enter into force a year afterwards, with some articles taking effect earlier, at six months, and others later, at 15 months. And then it will get implemented and have direct effects at the national level.

There will likely be a testing period in which civil society and journalists’ organisations will play a vital role in ensuring effective implementation and taking legal action if necessary. For instance, if media providers fail to comply with transparency rules, civil society may need to challenge them in court.

However, it is still unclear how this process will work. For instance, if a civil society organisation in Hungary believes there’s a lack of plural access to media and decides to take legal action, it may face challenges in Hungary’s judicial system and may need to escalate the issue to the Court of Justice in Luxembourg, a process that could take several years.

I am also worried about how the article on the protection of sources will be implemented. Even though safeguards are in place, this article may be misinterpreted. At the end of the day, national security issues are always defined at the national level. That’s a limitation of all EU treaties and some states may end up finding clever ways to circumvent these protections.

Having this legal framework in place is a big step forward, but it will also be crucial for states to take it seriously.

Over the last five years, the EC has made significant progress in regulating the information ecosystem, with initiatives such as the Digital Service Act, Digital Markets Act, Artificial Intelligence Act and now the EMFA. The main challenge will be the effective implementation of all these measures. We hope the EC will prioritise implementation and sanction states that fail to comply. We also hope the EMFA will receive sufficient funding for the board to deal with monitoring and implementing it. Without proper enforcement, no regulation will be of any help.

What further reforms are needed?

We are worried about the use of generative AI to promote disinformation and deep fakes. Voluntary guidelines are not enough. We need stronger measures that balance freedom of expression with human control over AI systems. While AI can be a great tool for journalists it can also be misused.

The EU is at a crossroads. The European Parliament has always been on the side of media freedom, and for the first time we risk losing this support. Young voters will play a vital role in the upcoming elections. Their engagement, informed vote and understanding of the role of the EU and what is at stake may change the course of the elections. And for that facts are needed, and a healthy information ecosystem with limited disinformation circulating in social media.

Get in touch with the European Federation of Journalists through its website or Instagram and Facebook pages, and follow @EFJEUROPE and @renatemargot on Twitter.

MEXICO: ‘Civil society is a retaining wall against government malpractice’

Carlos_Guerrero.JPGCIVICUS speaks with Carlos G Guerrero Orozco, a Mexican lawyer and co-founder and president of Human Rights and Strategic Litigation-Mexico (DLM Mexico), about a recent victory of Mexican civil society in defence of civic space.

DLM Mexico is a civil society organisation (CSO) that promotes human rights and the strengthening of the rule of law in Mexico by providing strategic litigation advice and promoting accountability.

What constraints does civil society experience in Mexico, and how is it working to preserve civic space?

Historically, Mexican civil society has been a retaining wall against government malpractice. For playing this role, which the authorities can find uncomfortable, it has been subjected to restrictions, particularly denial of legal recognition of organisations and their functions.

The state has reacted to the work of civil society by limiting its ability to act as a monitor, watchdog and check on power. In the legal area, it has sought to limit its capacity to undertake legal processes and generate accountability. One way of doing this is by disregarding the legal standing that allows CSOs to initiate appeals for protection and other proceedings to protect rights.

Under Mexican law, CSOs whose mission is to defend the human rights of groups such as children, Indigenous people, survivors of gender-based violence, victims of corruption or public mismanagement and people deprived of their liberty can claim legal standing by virtue of these groups’ special situation with the legal system.

DLM Mexico provides advice to CSOs, collectives, citizen groups, citizen participation committees and human rights defenders involved in strategic litigation cases, providing them with tools to strengthen their capacities in court and overcome obstacles they may face in proving their legal standing in the case.

Another way of constraining civil society is to target CSO authorities and hold them criminally liable for actions taken in the course of their work. This is what happened with a recent reform of the Mexico City Penal Code. The reformed code’s article 256 equated CSO leaders with public officials and specified that public servants – and therefore also CSO leaders – could be liable for corruption offences. By including CSO directors and managers in the definition of ‘public servants’, it extended to them the criminal liability public servants are under.

A particular concern was about the broad and imprecise wording of the definition of the crime of corruption as the conduct of anyone who ‘performs or fails to perform what the law requires them to perform or refrains from performing what the law forbids, in order to obtain an undue advantage of any nature, including financial, for themselves or for a third party’. This undoubtedly opened the door to arbitrary treatment.

The publication of the reformed Penal Code brought concern from various quarters, but particularly civil society, which issued a joint communiqué expressing its alarm.

DLM Mexico filed a request with the Mexico City Human Rights Commission to exercise its power to challenge laws deemed unconstitutional. Days later, the Human Rights Commission filed an action of unconstitutionality before the Mexican Supreme Court.

How was the case resolved, and what do you think its impact will be?

This month the Supreme Court discussed and resolved the case, declaring article 256 unconstitutional and void.

The Court established that, according to article 108 of the Constitution, it is not permissible to extend the definition of public servant to people who do not hold a position within the structure of the state. It also considered that the classification of CSO directors and managers as public officials was potentially prejudicial to their rights and freedoms because it created undue criminal consequences for private individuals. It clarified that the fact they receive public funds does not justify extending the penalties applicable to public servants to private individuals who manage CSOs.

This decision safeguards the rights of CSO leaders and ensures they can continue their work without fear of unfair criminal repercussions.

Although the case focused on Mexico City’s legislation, the ruling put a brake on other states’ intentions to include in their legislation sanctions against CSO staff for their activities, used to silence the voices of civil society. This is particularly relevant in a country where the judiciary is neither robust nor independent.

The Court’s decision is testament to the power of civil society advocacy and the importance of protecting civic space. It is a reminder of our collective ability to challenge and overturn laws that threaten our democratic freedoms.

What other issues are on civil society’s agenda when it comes to the rule of law and democratic freedoms?

Unfortunately, under the current administration there have been several issues that both civil society and the private sector have had to address. The president and members of his party use aggressive discourse towards civil society that is openly restrictive of civic space and hostile to judicial independence and autonomous bodies. The government has restricted access to public information, de-emphasised the protection of personal data, undermined the National Anti-Corruption System and downplayed Mexico’s crisis of enforced disappearances at the hands of organised crime.

DLM Mexico’s agenda has focused on strengthening the National Anti-Corruption System by addressing the problem of underreporting of corruption, calling for registration and transparency of beneficial ownership of companies and training officials to better investigate acts of corruption in civil and administrative matters.

Civil society’s reaction to defend against institutional erosion and the deterioration of the separation of powers was recently seen on the streets when many people mobilised in Mexico City and other cities across the country in the ‘March for Democracy’. A few weeks before the start of the June presidential election campaign, people mobilised against the government’s attacks on the National Electoral Institute, in defence of the independence of the judiciary and autonomous bodies and against the president’s undue influence on the electoral competition and his polarising attitudes.

Although there was no shortage of opposition politicians who tried to exploit it for political gain, the mobilisation was basically a defensive reaction by civil society to government abuses. Before marching, protesters presented a list of demands. However, far from providing any response, the government has hardened its positions even further.

Fortunately, Mexico still has strong institutions, as well as strong private and social sectors that take an interest in public issues. This tempers the risks to our democracy regardless of which party’s candidate wins the presidential election.

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

Get in touch with DLM Mexico through its website and follow @DLM_Mx on Twitter and @dlmx on LinkedIn.

GREECE: ‘We fought until same-sex marriage stopped being impossible and became a necessary change’

GiorgosKeratsasCIVICUS speaks about Greece’s recent legalisation of same-sex marriage with Giorgos Keratsas, Communications Officer of Positive Voice-Greek Association of People Living with HIV.

Founded in 2009, Positive Voice is a civil society organisation focused on tackling the spread of HIV/AIDS, defending the rights of HIV-positive people and more broadly advocating for LGBTQI+ rights in Greece.

What was civil society’s role in achieving the legalisation of same-sex marriage in Greece?

Greek LGBTQI+ groups have advocated for marriage equality and the legal recognition of all families for many years. In 2015, civil partnership arrangements were made available to same-sex couples. This marked a historic victory for LGBTQI+ and human rights in Greece but left a large part of the LGBTQI+ community unsatisfied, because there were several important issues the law didn’t cover, including adoption rights. As a result, LGBTQI+ activism has continued to demand true equality in all laws and regulations concerning interpersonal relations.

Our main argument concerns the discriminatory character of laws that exclude LGBTQI+ people, same-sex couples and diverse families from access to the rights that are afforded to cisgender straight people and heterosexual families. The fact that citizens don’t have the same rights and obligations is proof that we are not truly equal, and a state cannot be considered fully democratic when it has first-class and second-class citizens.

LGBTQI+ organisations have therefore urged legal change, pointing to the example of so many European countries that have recognised marriage equality. The road hasn’t been easy. It involved a lot of struggle, disappointments and persistence. We fought for many years until the change we demanded – initially viewed as impossible, and therefore ignored – was eventually deemed necessary. The recent passage of this law was a civil society victory that proves, once again, that when we take action together, change can happen.

How has Positive Voice contributed to the campaign?

Positive Voice was consistently dedicated for years to the sometimes frustrating work of increasing the visibility of LGBTQI+ people and educating the public on LGBTQI+ rights when the state wasn’t doing anything about it. On the basis of the recognition of the strong association of HIV with social vulnerability, we have focused on the social rather than purely medical side of things.

For over a decade, Positive Voice has been a staunch advocate of LGBTQI+ rights. We have continuously raised the urgent need for equality with government officials. We have been active participants of Pride festivals, consistently supported the demands of LGBTQI+ people, co-signed advocacy letters and statements, endorsed campaigns such as ‘Say Yes’ and hosted impactful exhibitions. A recent one was ‘Where Love is Illegal – Exhibition in a Box’, which shares real stories of LGBTQI+ people in countries where they are not allowed to be themselves or love freely.

We can proudly say that Positive Voice has been one of the strongest advocates for social change in Greece. The building that accommodates Athens Checkpoint, a sexual health and prevention centre that offers free rapid HIV and hepatitis B and C testing and is our project that’s made the biggest impact, is one of the very few in Athens flying the rainbow flag. The flag has stayed despite the fact that in 2019 the building suffered an arson attack motivated by homophobia and transphobia.

Have you encountered backlash?

Partly thanks to consistent civil society campaigning, in recent years public attitudes towards LGBTQI+ people have started to shift. However, homophobia, biphobia and transphobia remain very strong, and hate speech and violence against LGBTQI+ people, and transgender people in particular, are now on the rise, in a very alarming trend that unfortunately is not limited to Greece. Our recent legal victory is obviously a very positive step in the right direction, but we still have a lot of work to do until we are genuinely equal and fairly treated.

The far-right parties that have significantly grown in recent elections, as well as church representatives, have strongly opposed same-sex marriage. They contend that it infringes upon and destroys the concept of marriage and traditional family values and state that family is by definition the result of a union between a man and a woman. They also argue that the right to marriage should not be regarded as a human right, on the basis of which they claim that the LGBTQI+ community is not being deprived of any fundamental rights. Most importantly, they argue that children raised by same-sex parents will not have a healthy psychosocial development. From their perspective, it is children’s rights that would be violated.

Concerningly, in the months prior to the law being passed, LGBTQI+ people were exposed to incredible amounts of abusive public discourse, particularly on TV. In show after show, for weeks politicians, journalists, artists, influencers and others were asked whether they agreed with marriage equality, as if human rights were to be subjected to the verdict of public opinion. Hundreds of particularly abusive and discriminatory statements were given airspace and therefore heard and absorbed by millions of people. It is hard to even imagine the negative impact this rhetoric has possibly had on young queer kids across the country.

How do you connect with the regional and global LGBTQI+ movements?

We constantly follow their work, participate in events, undertake joint action and take advantage of just about any networking opportunity with other LGBTQI+ organisations. It is a fact that numerous European – and also several non-European – countries are more advanced in claiming respect for LGBTQI+ rights than we are, in terms of legislation and everyday practices and social attitudes. They set an example for the rest of us.

LGBTQI+ organisations worldwide are doing amazing work and they truly inspire us. And when any of us experiences blatant human rights violations, we all stand up for each other regardless of geography. What unites us is much more powerful than anything that could set us apart.

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

Get in touch with Positive Voice through its website or Facebook page, and follow it on Twitter and Instagram.

INDONESIA: ‘Prabowo’s victory represents the worst-case scenario for the future of human rights’

PSHKCIVICUS speaks with Rizky Argama, Executive Director, and Violla Reininda, Programme Manager at the Centre of Indonesian Law and Policy Studies (PSHK), about the results of Indonesia’s 14 February presidential election – the world’s biggest single-day election, in which over 200 million people were eligible to vote.

Founded in 1998, the PSHK is a research and advocacy institution focusing on legal reform.

Was the 14 February election free and fair?

It is difficult to say the election was free and fair. Long before election day, indications of a very unequal competition emerged at various levels.

The biggest irregularity was the Constitutional Court’s decision to allow presidential and vice-presidential candidates under 40 years of age to run as long as they have experience as regional heads, a requirement tailor-made to pave the way for outgoing President Joko Widodo’s eldest son, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, current mayor of Surakarta, to become a vice-presidential candidate alongside Prabowo Subianto, a former opponent of Jokowi, as the president is called, and now his defence minister. The decision was highly problematic ethically and legally, partly because the chief justice of the Constitutional Court, Jokowi’s brother-in-law, had a conflict of interest in examining and deciding on the case.

The government also created three new provinces in Papua, where Jokowi and his endorsed presidential candidate receive much support, for political advantage. Jokowi also took advantage of vacancies of regional heads – governors, regents and mayors – to appoint trusted figures as acting regional heads to secure an electoral process that would tilt in his favour.

Unfair practices also marred the campaign, including Gibran’s endorsement by his father, leading to the use of state funds for his campaign, including for social assistance given to constituents as gifts. Ministers also campaigned openly, breaching expectations of neutrality.

Several mass media outlets reported biased attitudes from civil servants, both at the central and regional government levels. Officials showed favouritism towards Prabowo, referring to him constantly as Jokowi’s successor, as if the election was a done deal.

Although the Election Law requires government officials to take leave when campaigning, ministers and regional heads blatantly campaigned while carrying out their duties, which they took advantage of for electoral gain. For example, the minister of trade distributed basic necessities such as oil and rice to people he visited, claiming the aid came from Jokowi and urging them to vote for a candidate who would continue his programmes.

Shortly before election day, Jokowi and his ministers paid numerous visits to the regions and provided social assistance packages in the form of cash or food items such as rice. Sometimes he provided social assistance to people in locations close to campaign areas visited by other candidates, particularly Ganjar Pranowo. Tempo mass media reported that Jokowi asked his minister of finance to continue increasing the budget allocation for social assistance until election day, including by reallocating funds from other ministries and government agencies.

Such covert campaigning actions are punishable under the Election Law, but the Election Supervisory Board, which has the authority to investigate such violations, did not take much action.

Academics from notable universities who spoke up about the need for Jokowi to act as a political leader above the dispute faced criticism from his cabinet members, who accused them of representing foreign interests. They received threats and some had their social media accounts or phones hacked. This created unfavourable conditions for activists and civil society to voice criticism.

The documentary film Dirty Vote, directed by investigative journalist Dandhy Laksono, outlined the tactics used to manufacture a comfortable win for the Prabowo-Gibran pair. Featuring three highly respected independent legal experts, the film was launched on YouTube three days before the election and immediately gained the attention of more than 13 million viewers. It provided insight into how Prabowo would amass almost 60 per cent of the vote.

What were the main campaign issues, and what were Prabowo’s promises?

There were hardly any structured ideas coming from the Prabowo-Gibran campaign. Whether in debates or campaign events, they basically just focused on the need to boost nutrition with free school lunches and milk for kids. In the official debates organised by the Election Commission, candidates were more focused on getting a rise out of their opponents than putting forward original ideas. They even tried to trip up other candidates by using technical terms or uncommon abbreviations.

They also tried to present themselves as the successors of Jokowi and sold the idea of a new, modern capital city – over two hours by plane from the current capital, Jakarta – that would kickstart development of Kalimantan Island, known for being underdeveloped but rich in natural resources, particularly minerals and coal.

These were all very expensive promises. Prabowo was criticised for not explaining where the funding would come from. There were also doubts about his understanding of corruption, which he seemed to think was solely the result of financial struggle. His solution was therefore to promise to increase the salaries of state officials and law enforcement officers without addressing the root causes of the problem. Notably, he never mentioned the need to strengthen the Corruption Eradication Commission or human rights protections, drawing significant criticism.

Why did Prabowo win?

The Prabowo campaign made very effective use of social media, particularly TikTok. The image crafted by the Prabowo-Gibran duo caught the attention of young voters, who make up the majority of the electorate. This year, around 54 per cent of voters were from generations Y and Z. Prabowo, a retired general suspected of serious human rights violations, played up a cute grandpa image, doing dances at every campaign stop. The lack of historical awareness among younger voters greatly helped him. Meanwhile, Gibran showed off his youthfulness by being cool but dispassionate in front of journalists and on social media.

Additionally, Prabowo and Gibran are part of an anti-intellectual movement that’s gaining momentum. Many people disregard academics and scientists and prefer leaders who are perceived as doing less talking and taking more tangible action. There is a perception that intellectuals only engage in abstract talk without substantial action, and voters favour leaders who are seen as more action oriented. This sentiment was reinforced by the candidates’ performance in the presidential and vice-presidential debates.

Prabowo’s campaign style was similar to that of Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos Jr in the Philippines. He used the exact same recipe. There were even reports suggesting he had hired the same political consultant who advised Bongbong, although there’s no evidence for this claim.

But the main factor behind Prabowo’s victory was the full support of Jokowi. Although Jokowi never explicitly stated his support for Prabowo, all his actions and policies revealed he was the force behind him. Jokowi’s support included efforts to engineer court decisions by appointing his brother-in-law as the Chief Justice of the Constitutional Court, mobilising regional leaders for the campaign and channelling state funds for social assistance in the run-up to the election.


What were civil society’s reactions to the election results?

Prabowo is hardly a new face: he has been running for president since 2009, and civil society and human rights activists have consistently called on voters not to vote for perpetrators of human rights violations.

Before the election, a civil society coalition formed to supervise the vote and gathered reports of irregularities from the public during the voting and counting processes. The collected data is being processed for reporting.

The Election Commission will only announce the election’s final results in mid-March, and even then there will be legal proceedings to dispute them in the Constitutional Court. However, results are unlikely to change significantly, and Prabowo will solidify his victory before mid-year.

The outcome of this year’s election was particularly predictable due to the strong interference and support of the current government to perpetuate its authority through Prabowo and Gibran.

Civil society needs to anticipate the possibility of new laws or regulations that further restrict civic space, and must remain vigilant against the potential use of defamation laws against people or organisations critical of the authorities.


Do you have concerns about the future of democracy and human rights in Indonesia?

Democratic decline has been evident over the past five years under the Jokowi administration, and Prabowo’s victory is unlikely to improve the situation. It may worsen it. Prabowo has displayed unfriendly attitudes towards journalists on several occasions, raising concerns about press freedom. Freedom of expression is also at risk, as members of Prabowo’s campaign team have a history of using draconian laws to silence government critics.

Freedoms of association and peaceful assembly are under threat. The Jokowi administration has opened the door to the dissolution of civil society organisations without due process, and several organisations deemed to oppose the government have been disbanded. The situation is unlikely to improve under Prabowo.

Prabowo’s victory represents the worst-case scenario for the future of human rights in Indonesia. Not only does he lack perspective and commitment to human rights, but he was also involved in the abduction of activists in 1998 when he was the commander of Indonesia’s special military forces. The longstanding efforts of Indonesian civil society to push for the resolution of various cases of serious human rights violations will be further from materialising when Prabowo leads the country.

Moreover, Prabowo also lacks a clear track record or vision on the protection of excluded groups, including women and gender minorities. During official debates, when discussing women’s rights, Prabowo said that the key to empowering women was to provide nutrition for pregnant women. Such a response demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of the complexities of the rights violations faced by women, including violence and lack of opportunities in education and political participation.

Last but not least, Prabowo and Gibran seem more focused on economic development and their own businesses than democracy. This is just not a priority for them. In a recent discussion on shrinking civic space in Indonesia, Prabowo’s spokesperson said there were no issues with Indonesia’s democracy, which caused significant backlash. He basically chooses to disregard everything wrong with our democracy.

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

Get in touch with the PSHK through its website or Facebook page, and follow it on Twitter and Instagram.

ST VINCENT AND THE GRENADINES: ‘We advocate for the repeal of anti-gay laws as a matter of human dignity’

JeshuaBardooCIVICUS speaks about struggles for LGBTQI+ rights and a recent legal setback in St Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) with Jeshua Bardoo, founder and Executive Officer of Equal Rights, Access and Opportunities SVG (ERAO SVG).

ERAO SVG is an intersectional human rights civil society organisation (CSO) that promotes equality and non-discrimination in SVG. It conducts research and monitors human rights and social justice issues affecting women, children, LGBTQI+ people and people with disabilities. It carries out public awareness campaigns, advocates with local and national authorities, as well as in regional and international rights forums, convenes like-minded organisations, organises consultations and provides training on human rights issues affecting its target populations.

How do LGBTQI+ organisations in SVG, including ERAO SVG, defend and promote the rights of LGBTQI+ people?

Human rights advocacy, particularly for LGBTQI+ rights, has limited visibility in SVG. There are few organisations working for LGBTQI+ rights, and ERAO SVG is among the main ones. Other groups, such as VincyChap and Care SVG, work on HIV/AIDS and contribute indirectly to supporting LGBTQI+ people. Notably, VincyChap participates as an interested party in consolidated court cases challenging anti-LGBTQI+ laws. ERAO SVG, while not involved at the inception, now supports the case.

Focusing on education and awareness, ERAO SVG conducts in-person and online events to sensitise people on queer rights and focuses on tackling stigma. Last year we organised historic Pride celebrations alongside the Resident British Commissioner’s Office. Events included a Pride SVG reception, workshop, panel discussion and a social media campaign.

Despite the challenges and risks, our efforts seek visibility for LGBTQI+ people in SVG. Collaborations with local, regional and international organisations enhance our impact. As part of our commitment to bringing about change, we worked with Human Rights Watch to produce a report that highlights the community’s challenges and issues a series of recommendations.

Have you experienced backlash?

I have faced significant backlash in my activism for LGBTQI+ rights, both online and offline. Negative reactions, to the point to trigger depression, intensified in 2019 after I published an article, ‘Do black LGBTQ+ Vincentian lives matter?’. Despite the discouragement, I went back to writing and advocating for human rights and queer rights.

Public events, especially Pride celebrations, always trigger backlash, particularly from members of the Thusian Seventh Day Adventists, a Christian group, who continuously publicly call me out on social media. Also, someone on the radio called for my arrest following the recent court ruling that upheld anti-LGBTQI+ laws in SVG.

Social media posts warning LGBTQI+ visitors about the risks they would face in SVG helped us get some attention but also attracted criticism. Despite the online hostility, to date I have faced no actual physical harm, although the threats I received right after the court ruling made me fear I would. To protect my mental wellbeing, I now try to avoid reading negative comments I receive on social media.

The backlash and how busy I became after the recent ruling took a toll on me mentally, making me physically exhausted. I plan to take a break to recover but I remain committed to my advocacy. My experiences growing up as a queer person in a hostile environment, including discrimination in school and religious settings, have shaped my resilience. I now choose a religion that predicates love, distancing myself from past religious affiliations.

How much of a setback is the recent legal court ruling that upheld anti-LGBTQI+ laws in SVG?

It was very disappointing. In 2019, two gay Vincentians, Javin Johnson and Sean MacLeish, challenged SVG’s so-called anti- LGBTQI+ laws, sections 146 and 148 of the Criminal Code. Both petitioners live abroad. Johnson sought asylum in the UK while MacLeish lives in the USA. Their petition argued that their constitutional rights were being violated, including the rights to privacy, personal liberty and protection from discrimination. They claimed they had left SVG due to the severity of its anti-LGBTQI+ legislation, which made it impossible for them to live in the country as gay men.

CSOs such as VincyChap in SVG supported the case, while the UK-based organisation Human Dignity Trust played a role in the background.

However, on 16 February 2024 the court questioned the claimants’ standing and ruled that none of their rights had been violated. It deemed the LGBTQI+ laws justifiable, citing public health concerns related to HIV and morality. As it dismissed their claims, the court didn’t offer any remedy and ordered each claimant to pay EC$7,500 (approx. US$2,800) to the state in legal costs.

There are still other legal cases in the region awaiting decisions, and despite setbacks, civil society activists and organisations remain committed to challenging discriminatory laws.

What are the next steps following this disappointment?

After studying the ruling and the justifications it offers, the lawyers and claimants in the case will decide whether to appeal. They need to weigh whether loopholes or weaknesses in the ruling provide grounds for a potentially successful appeal. Personally, having followed the virtual court proceedings, I find many of its statements absurd and believe the case should be appealed or otherwise new cases should be filed.

We are disappointed that Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves has failed to address the issue, which I think reflects state-sanctioned homophobia. Despite past condemnations of violence against LGBTQI+ people, there has been no practical action. It is disheartening to see politicians so focused on keeping the support of Christian voters who are allegedly in the majority. It is worth noting that churches were deeply involved in the judicial case. The judge’s open expression of religious sentiments and allegiances in court raised serious doubts about her impartiality.

Governments should prioritise people’s wellbeing, and in the case of LGBTQI+ people, this requires at the very least repealing criminalising provisions. The state should also enact comprehensive legislation protecting people from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity and expression. There is nothing like this in SVG, so there is a lot of work to be done. As a first step, ERAO SVG will continue to advocate for the repeal of discriminatory laws as a matter of human dignity.

Civic space in St Vincent and the Grenadines is rated ‘open’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

Get in touch with ERAO SVG through its website or Facebook page, and follow @eraosvg on Instagram.

NETHERLANDS: ‘No government should allow transfers of weapons to a state committing war crimes’

Frank SlijperCIVICUS speaks with Frank Slijper, Arms Trade project lead at PAX, about a recent court victory in a case brought jointly with Oxfam Novib and the Rights Forum against the Dutch government for exporting arms to Israel that are being used in the assault on Gaza.

PAX is the largest peace organisation in the Netherlands. It works to protect civilians against acts of war, end armed violence and build inclusive peace.

Why did you bring a lawsuit against the Dutch government?

We brought this lawsuit to stop our government exporting military equipment to Israel. PAX does research into the arms trade in countries that violate human rights and approaches those who finance it by appealing to their social responsibility. Oxfam and the Rights Forum share our values, so we decided to sue the government together. We had previously called on it to stop giving Israel free rein in Gaza but the government had not acted on our calls, choosing instead to continue supplying Israel with F-35 fighter jet parts despite the rapidly deteriorating situation.

No government should allow transfers of weapons to a state committing war crimes. If there was ever a clear case of why this is so, this is it.

Given the urgency of the situation we had to act quickly, and so we did, Merely four weeks after we learned about these exports to Israel, through a government leak posted by the NRC newspaper, we were in court making our case.

What did the court decide?

On 12 February, the Court of Appeal in The Hague ordered the Dutch government to stop all transfers of F-35 fighter jet parts to Israel within seven days, given the clear risk of violations of international humanitarian law by Israel. The court ruled that after 7 October 2023 the minister of Foreign Affairs was obliged to reassess the licence for the export and transit of F-35 parts to Israel and that this assessment should conclude that further export and transit must no longer be permitted. In addition, the court stated that such an assessment cannot be ‘weighed’ against other interests such as potential damage to diplomatic relations or economic interests. It also made clear that any ‘general’ arms transfer licence for an indefinite period must include a reassessment trigger in case the situation changes drastically, because otherwise the very idea of arms export controls would be undermined.

The court also made clear that violations of international humanitarian law don’t need to be proved and that a ‘clear risk’ of such violations suffices. It found it ‘sufficiently plausible’ that F-35 fighter jets were involved in violations of international humanitarian law while also pointing out that there’s no requirement to prove a direct link between a specific weapons transfer and the alleged violations of international humanitarian law.

Importantly, the court rejected claims by the government that information provided by human rights organisations such as Amnesty International and by United Nations (UN) special rapporteurs could not be credibly verified. Instead, it said that such sources must be taken ‘extremely seriously’.

It also reaffirmed the very important role of civil society organisations in monitoring and ensuring the implementation of state obligations under the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT).

The government had a week to comply with the court ruling and said it would do so. Sadly, however, it didn’t agree with the Appeals Court verdict and announced it would take the case to the Supreme Court for a final decision.

Are you taking any further steps in relation with the Dutch government’s approach to the Israel-Palestine conflict?

The Dutch government claims it is taking a balanced approach, speaking to both sides, when in fact it has refused to clearly condemn Israel, voted alongside the USA against UN resolutions that condemn Israel and demand an immediate ceasefire, and has refused to stop supplying weapons to Israel. Yes, it has enabled airdrops of medical supplies, but that is nothing more than a basic humanitarian obligation.

In all the years our government has taken this supposedly balanced approach, not much has been achieved and a solution has not come any closer. More Palestinians have been forcibly displaced and illegal Israeli settlements have grown. We keep advocating for practical steps and measures to stop these violations and for an end to military cooperation between the Netherlands and Israel.

For now, we are awaiting the last part of the legal process, and we have no choice other than keep defending our case, as we have successfully done so far.

Do you expect this court ruling to have any international repercussions?

The Appeals Court’s broad analysis of states’ obligations under the ATT and the European Union Common Position on Arms Exports makes this ruling an important source for any other organisation considering litigation. This case has been incredibly important for the future of arms export control, because it is the first time Dutch judges have set out so clearly and in such detail the government’s obligations to implement export controls. Governments that export arms must ensure that their exports comply with obligations under the ATT.

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

Get in touch with PAX through its website or Facebook page, and follow it on Twitter and Instagram.

IRAN: ‘The regime is executing protesters to create fear and suppress any attempt at new mobilisation’

Asal AbasianCIVICUS speaks about the ongoing wave of executions in Iran with Asal Abasian, an Iranian journalist and queer feminist activist. After receiving serious threats, Asal fled Iran for Turkey in 2021. They’re currently based in Paris, France.

How has repression escalated since the 2022 protests?

Repression by the regime of the Islamic Republic has escalated with executions of protesters, aimed at creating fear to suppress any attempt at new mobilisations such as the Woman, Life, Freedom nationwide protests triggered by Mahsa Amini’s death.

Recently, four young Kurds from the western provinces of Iran were hanged on unproven charges of cooperation with the Komala Party of Iranian Kurdistan. Their families demanded a pardon until the last moment, but their requests went unheard.

The Islamic Republic has always been at odds with ethnic minorities. Forty-five years since the Islamic Revolution, this conflict is as alive as on the first day. If anything, it has become worse.

Of course, the death threat that comes with ramping up executions is not directed only at ethnic minorities. Every excluded group in Iran is under threat. The regime founded after the 1979 Islamic revolution was grounded on the aim of protecting the interests of Shia Muslim men. This means that everyone except Shia Muslim men is oppressed by design. This includes all women and LGBTQI+ people and sexual minorities, children and religious and ethnic minorities.

Throughout 45 years there have been several spikes in executions of people from minority groups as well as political activists opposing the Islamic Republic. This trend has been ongoing from the onset, and it was even worse at the beginning. In the first decade of the Islamic Republic thousands of young dissidents were secretly executed or shot.

On top of this, ethnic and religious minorities such as Bahais, Balochs, Kurds and Sunni Arabs experience daily discrimination and marginalisation, which sometimes cost people their lives.

Additionally, the regime of the Islamic Republic supports Hamas and other terrorist Islamic groups and has no qualms about it. It laments the killing of children in Gaza while it has killed so many during the protests that erupted in Iran in September 2022. But ideologies shouldn’t matter: the massacre of children by any regime or group is a despicable act.

Is there any space for civil society to operate in Iran?

Young people in Iran continue resisting, despite the severe economic pressure and the suppression of activism. Even if this involves making sacrifices in their careers, education or social lives, young women continue defying the mandatory hijab. Nationwide protests may have decreased, but young people continue resisting the arbitrary and inhumane laws of the Islamic Republic.

The struggle continues under the surface. Although the Islamic Republic and its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps severely suppress any attempt at a protest, people have not stopped fighting. The fact that they continue embracing civil resistance despite the potentially serious costs is very encouraging.

Many of our fighters, whom I would like to mention, are in Tehran’s Evin prison with long sentences. Sarvenaz Ahmadi, Anisha Asadollahi, Keyvan Mohtadi, Sepideh Rashnu, Nasim Soltanbeygi and many others are in the frontlines of this struggle, spending the years of their youth in prison. And what cost would be higher than paying with years of your life?

I try to support their struggle by raising awareness on international platforms and amplifying their voices. But the main struggle is being carried on by young Iranians in Iran. From afar, we can only admire their struggles and broadcast them to the world.

How has the international community reacted to the escalation of repression in Iran?

Unfortunately, the international community has maintained a shameful silence and indifference. As people were being executed, the 2023 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Narges Mohammadi, and several other civil activists wrote to the United Nations (UN) on the human rights crisis that Iranians face. And still, UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Nada Al-Nashif recently travelled to Iran despite activists warning that this could be used as propaganda by the government.

The Iranian people will not forget the indifference and self-interest of the international community. This is as much of a historical disgrace as the silence in the face of the crimes that are being committed in Gaza.

Many members of the international community are perhaps more involved in domestic and regional interests, and it seems that, contrary to their proclaimed slogans, they are not really concerned about genocide, the killing of children and people’s oppression. This is very unfortunate.

We neither forgive nor forget.

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

Follow Asal on Instagram or Twitter.

HORN OF AFRICA: ‘De-escalation must be the primary objective’

Mengistu AssefaCIVICUS speaks with Mengistu Assefa, Program Manager at the Center for the Advancement of Rights and Democracy (CARD), about a port deal between Ethiopia and Somaliland and the possibility of it escalating into an armed conflict with Somalia.

CARD is an Ethiopian civil society organisation that advocates for democracy and human rights through citizen empowerment.

What’s the relevance of the recent port deal between Ethiopia and Somaliland?

Following Eritrea’s independence in 1993, Ethiopia became a landlocked nation, placed in a challenging position for international trade. Since then, Djibouti has emerged as its primary access point to the sea, handling over 95 per cent of its trade volume. This dependence comes at a cost, with Ethiopia paying more than US$1 billion annually in fees to Djibouti’s ports and infrastructure. With its estimated population of 126 million, the second largest in Africa, Ethiopia views sea access as critical for its economic, political and demographic future.

To achieve this, on 1 January 2024 the Ethiopian federal government signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on commercial port access with Somaliland, a self-proclaimed autonomous territory that is internationally recognised as part of Somalia.

While this MoU is not a legally binding agreement, it carries significant implications for the region because it walks a tightrope between cooperation and recognition. For Somaliland, the MoU represents a potential step towards international recognition of its de facto autonomy. Although the agreement’s full details remain undisclosed, it also reportedly grants Ethiopia access to Somaliland’s Red Sea coast, potentially including a military base. Ethiopian authorities have not been explicit about Somaliland’s recognition, saying the MoU allows for an ‘in-depth assessment’ of Somaliland’s quest for recognition.

Somalia vehemently rejects the MoU, viewing it as a violation of its territorial integrity and political sovereignty. It is actively mobilising diplomatic pressure against the deal. Somali president Hassan Sheik Mohamed has visited Egypt and Eritrea, Ethiopia’s long-standing competitors, seeking support. Additionally, the Arab League, of which Somalia is a member, has denounced the MoU. Egypt’s leader, already locked in negotiations with Ethiopia over a Nile dam project, has assured Somalia of potential support if requested, further escalating regional tensions.

What’s the political status of Somaliland?

Somaliland, with an estimated population of five million, broke away from Somalia and declared its independence in 1991 after 30 years of civil war. It fought for its independence based on the argument that it had a distinct historical heritage. Somaliland was a UK protectorate, while Somalia was under Italian control. For Somalilanders, this is enough argument to prove they are different territories. Moreover, in June 1960 Somaliland was briefly recognised as an independent state by around 35 nations for a span of five days, before it relinquished its sovereignty to reunite with the Somali Republic.

Somaliland declared its independence more than three decades ago but Somalia has never recognised it. Neither has any international organisation. Even so, Somaliland has managed to become a stable, functional state. It established its own army and democratic institutions and has held six elections with peaceful transitions of power.

In late 2022 and early 2023, a local armed movement, the Dhulbahante militias, rose against Somaliland’s government, declaring its intention to rejoin Somalia. This uprising posed significant political and security challenges to the Somaliland government, partly contributing to the postponement of 2023 elections. It cast a shadow of instability over Somaliland’s bid for international recognition, which hinges on its ability to demonstrate long-term stability and democratic institutions.

Could the port deal lead to international recognition of Somaliland’s independence?

Somaliland has made clear that a binding legal agreement could only be signed once it is officially recognised as an independent nation state. But the Ethiopian side of the story is quite different. Ethiopia hasn’t ruled out the possibility of that happening but hasn’t explicitly said it would take a stance on the recognition of Somaliland. The signing of a binding legal international agreement with Somaliland would however result in Ethiopia’s de facto recognition of its independence.

Looking at the bigger picture, this deal could affect the regional security architecture, particularly when it comes to fighting Al-Shabaab, an Islamist terrorist group based in Somalia and allied with Al-Qaeda. Al-Shabaab is perceived as a global security threat and has explicitly targeted Ethiopia. Consequently, Ethiopia is engaged in fighting Al-Shabaab in Somalia alongside the Somali army. If Ethiopia recognises Somaliland, Somalia will likely force Ethiopia to pull out its troops. However, as Somalia cannot take charge of its security on its own, Ethiopia could use it as leverage to force Somalia to back down from a strong reaction.

Ethiopia’s potential recognition of Somaliland carries significant implications. Located in a strategically crucial area along the Gulf of Eden, where Houthis and pirates constantly attack international ships, Somaliland’s 850-kilometre coastline attracts interest from various countries seeking a potential military base. Ethiopia’s explicit recognition of Somaliland could trigger a domino effect, with other countries following suit, although recognition would likely face significant hurdles at the African Union (AU).

The AU adheres to the principle of respecting colonial borders and has expressed concerns about setting a precedent for secessionist movements in other African states, including Morocco and Nigeria. Ethiopia will likely weigh this carefully before explicitly recognising Somaliland’s independence. However, the rapidly shifting landscape of international interests suggests that it’s not an impossibility. This possibility is further amplified by the growing involvement of great and emerging powers in the Red Sea region, driven by economic and security interests.

Could tensions escalate into a conflict between Ethiopia and Somalia?

Ethiopia and Somalia have had difficult relations in the past. In 1964, they clashed in a three-month border conflict. This initial skirmish foreshadowed a larger and bloodier conflict that erupted between 1977 and 1978. During this period, Somalia invaded Ethiopia with the intent of annexing the Ogaden region, inhabited by ethnic Somalis. The conflict quickly became a proxy war for the contenders of the Cold War, with the western bloc supporting Somalia and the Soviet Union backing Ethiopia. Ultimately, Ethiopia repelled the Somali army.

In 2006, the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), a group aiming to unite all Somalis across Ethiopia, Somalia and Somaliland under Islamic rule, gained control of Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital. This development raised concerns in Ethiopia, which perceived it as a threat to its national security and regional stability. Supported by the USA in the context of the ‘war on terror’, Ethiopia militarily intervened in Somalia and removed the ICU from power.

Several years later, Ethiopia and Somalia signed a bilateral agreement aimed at stabilising the region. This agreement facilitated the deployment of Ethiopian security forces to assist the Somali National Army in its fight against Al-Shabaab and support the ongoing Somali transition process. It’s important to note that these Ethiopian troops are currently integrated into the AU Transition Mission in Somalia, a peacekeeping mission.

Since October 2023, Ethiopia has declared its intention to gain access to the sea by peaceful means. In exchange for access Ethiopia has offered Djibouti, Eritrea and Somalia land-swaps and stakes in a successful state-owned business such as Ethiopian Airlines, Africa’s biggest and most successful airline, and even in the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. But none of these countries accepted Ethiopia’s offer, leaving Somaliland as a seemingly more amenable option.

Somalia viewed Ethiopia’s signing of the port deal with Somaliland as betrayal. It reacted strongly and aggressively because it considers it an encroachment on its territory and an act against its sovereignty.

Ethiopia’s recognition of Somaliland’s independence could open a Pandora’s box. In fear that it could lead to regional and global recognition, Somalia said that if Ethiopia moved forward in implementing the agreement, consequences would follow.

This all brings us to the final and crucial point: where will this take the region? While the possibility of conflict cannot be entirely dismissed, it’s important to consider various factors and perspectives to assess its likelihood.

First, military capabilities and intentions play a role. While Somalia’s military power is not comparable to Ethiopia’s, the potential for escalation and regional instability cannot be ignored. Additionally, Ethiopia’s stated commitment to peaceful resolutions needs to be weighed against its historical engagements and potential strategic calculations.

Second, the international community’s role matters. The Horn of Africa and the Red Sea region are already grappling with complex conflicts and any further instability would have significant repercussions. International pressure and diplomatic efforts to de-escalate tensions and promote dialogue will be crucial in preventing conflict.

Further, Somalia’s response to the MoU adds another layer of complexity. Its seeking of support from Ethiopia’s historical competitors, such as Egypt and Eritrea, as well as regional entities such as the Arab League, could potentially lead to increased diplomatic pressure against Ethiopia. This, in turn, could further strain relations between the two countries for the foreseeable future.

Finally, the MoU is likely to ignite discussions about the status of Somaliland, both within the AU and at the United Nations Security Council.

What should the international community do to address this potential crisis?

The international community plays a crucial role in navigating the complex situation surrounding Ethiopia’s pursuit of sea access and its MoU with Somaliland. It is essential to engage with all stakeholders, particularly the Somali government and Somaliland’s authorities. It should be a top priority to facilitate negotiations to find a lasting solution that ensures both peaceful coexistence and normalised relations, as people in the Horn of Africa are ultimately bearing the brunt of this disagreement.

Regardless of the outcome, be it Somaliland’s reunification with Somalia or its international recognition as a separate state, the two countries must establish a mutually agreeable arrangement for peaceful coexistence. The international community can play the role of facilitating a genuine conversation between the two. This is of course easier said than done, given the historical complexities of their relationship and the vested interests of various states and organisations, including western nations and other international players, who prioritise their security and economic interests in the region.

International involvement should also aim to support Ethiopia and Somalia in reaching a mutually agreeable solution. This requires careful diplomacy to avoid exacerbating existing tensions or creating new problems. It’s also essential to urge those with vested interests in the region to avoid exploiting this situation for their agendas. De-escalation must be the primary objective.

Civic space in both Ethiopia and Somalia is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

Get in touch with CARD through its website or its Facebook or Instagram pages, and follow @CARDEthiopia and @mengistu_dadi on Twitter.

PAPUA NEW GUINEA: ‘The police response to riots mustn’t happen again’

Shirley Abriella KaupaCIVICUS speaks about recent riots and the worsening human rights situation in Papua New Guinea (PNG) with Shirley Abriella Kaupa, Program Coordinator at Magna Carta PNG.

Magna Carta PNG is a community-based human rights organisation headquartered in Port Moresby, PNG’s capital, and connected to a nationwide human rights network. It promotes human rights in PNG through advocacy, reporting, education and awareness-raising activities.

What triggered recent riots in Papua New Guinea?

People are on edge. There are very high levels of poverty and informal work. Only 25 per cent of people have formal, stable jobs, while the rest rely on the grey sector of the economy to make ends meet. I’ve seen young people, women and even children about five or six years old participate in the looting, which indicates that people are suffering due to lack of a steady income.

These long-term issues resulted in riots and looting erupting in Port Moresby on 10 January, because police officers went on strike in protest against pay cuts, and people realised there would be no one to maintain law and order.

It all happened very suddenly. It appears to have been spontaneous because there wasn’t even a notification that a demonstration would occur. My colleagues and I were in the office downtown when we suddenly noticed smoke rising from the city pharmacy building, and were fortunate to reach safety before the situation worsened. Those stuck in traffic had to abandon their vehicles, and an estimated 89 cars were stolen. Looters aggressively seized car keys and forcibly removed people from their cars, with some using knives.

How did the government react?

The government first deployed the defence forces, which aren’t trained to deal with civilians. Their task was to ensure that people remained in their homes. Then the police took over the emergency response, and that’s when violent clashes occurred.

According to the Port Moresby Emergency Hospital report, 389 people sought medical assistance for injuries, while others were likely treated by their families at home. Reported fatalities ranged from 230 to 270 people, and there were up to 70 rapes.

In response, the National Executive Council suspended the Deputy Police Commissioner, the National Capital District’s Police Commissioner and the President of the Police Union, all of whom will face trial. Several police officers have also been suspended and face administrative and criminal charges. However, no people identified as looters through CCTV or video recordings have been apprehended.

Prime Minister James Marape expressed concern and sympathy to the people of PNG and the owners of businesses that suffered significant losses. However, the government hasn’t announced any financial help, so only those with insurance coverage will receive compensation, while others will be left struggling to recover.


Do you think there’s a need for police reform?

If anything is clear, it is that the police response we saw to the January riots mustn’t happen again. A thorough review must be conducted, and improvements must be made to the protocols of police response in such situations. Even in violent scenarios, the police must comply with standard operating procedures and abide by international standards on the use of force.

It is also clear that the police need to be improved, not dissolved. All security forces and correctional services must be adequately funded and equipped to ensure public safety. The state is responsible for empowering and supporting them so they can effectively serve the people.

Just a few weeks after the riots, about 400 police officers were deployed in Port Moresby because a vote of no confidence in Marape was scheduled for 13 February, and there was potential for rioting to recur on that date.

What other human rights issues does PNG face?

One pressing issue is the high level of corruption. No bureaucrat or political leader has faced arrest for misappropriating public funds or other corruption charges. Impunity fosters further corruption, which has reached proportions that impede the country’s development.

Over the last five years, PNG has experienced an extreme shortage of medication in the public health system. The health budget is insufficient. There aren’t enough hospital beds, and patients are forced to sleep in corridors even in large national hospitals.

There are also several security issues. Violence is on the rise, and sexual abuse of minors has reached a new level. There’s a lack of essential services for survivors, such as trauma counselling for children. It’s also difficult for the victims of sexual violence to obtain medical help due to the poor state of hospitals.

Civil society does what it can to help. Magna Carta PNG runs a safe house where I work as a volunteer, taking care of violence survivors. Our colleagues provide legal interim protection for victims and bring their cases to court.

Unfortunately, civil society has never been able to cooperate with the Department of Community Development, which includes offices dedicated to gender-based violence, child protection, women and young people. This department doesn’t provide any funding or other support to civil society groups addressing these issues.

How is Magna Carta PNG working to improve the human rights situation?

Our work is based on four pillars: human rights protection, reporting, education and awareness raising. We are in constant communication with state authorities, members of parliament and the police. We review their policies and decisions and put out statements. We monitor and report human rights violations in collaboration with the United Nations Office of the High Commission of Human Rights (OHCHR).

We do a lot of advocacy work. We long advocated for establishing the National Institute for Human Rights and the National Human Rights Commission. Finally, last year, the Department of Justice and the Attorney General set up the Human Rights Secretariat, and three of its employees travelled to other countries to study how they set up a human rights commission. The European Union funded the initiative. The establishment of the Human Rights Commission is underway.

We also address human rights concerns and make recommendations to the Human Rights Forum, co-chaired by the secretary of the Department of Justice, the Attorney General and the OHCHR. For example, we’ve cooperated to improve the juvenile justice system and enhance community awareness and outreach.

We are now actively involved in developing a bill protecting human rights defenders.

We also strive to empower and educate young human rights defenders and lawyers so they can amplify their voices and strengthen their skills to advance human rights. We must provide better opportunities for young activists to conduct human rights awareness and advocacy initiatives because their boundless energy drives positive changes in our country.

Despite receiving insufficient financial support, we’re committed to continuing our work. We are getting better at reporting about our work, which is essential to attract donors. This year, the UK embassy gave us a few grants that enabled us to assess conditions in juvenile prison camps and female detention facilities across six provinces of PNG. This will be one of our key activities in 2024.

Civic space in Papua New Guinea is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

Get in touch with Magna Carta PNG through its Facebook page.

GLOBAL: ‘Only through adherence to humanitarian principles and the rule of law can we shift away from armed conflict’

Neshan GunasekeraCIVICUS speaks with Neshan Gunasekera, an international lawyer from Sri Lanka, about the role of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the context of the case brought by South Africa against Israel under the 1948 Genocide Convention.

Neshan is a Visiting Research Fellow at the Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law, Lead Counsel on Peace, Justice and Governance at the Centre for International Sustainable Development Law, Council member at the World Future Council and director of the International Association of Lawyers against Nuclear Arms.

What’s the ICJ and why is it important?

The ICJ is the main judicial organ of the United Nations (UN) and its role is to help peacefully settle disputes between member states and provide advice on matters relating to international law. Its creation was the result of a long journey to find peaceful ways to solve international disputes.

In 2024, we will be commemorating 125 years since the founding of the ICJ’s earliest predecessor, the Permanent Court of Arbitration. This was one of the biggest achievements of the 1899 Peace Conference held at The Hague in the Netherlands. The extensive bloodshed that marked the 19th century prompted world leaders to gather and discuss how to transition from the outdated notion of war as a way to resolve disputes and towards preventive diplomacy, and the result was the Permanent Court of Arbitration, a forum for member states to bring their cases for resolution rather than resorting to armed conflict, violence or aggression as tools of diplomacy.

World leaders at The Hague also discussed how armed conflict should be conducted, and how it could be limited. The outcomes of these discussions are referred to as the Hague Law and, taken together with the Geneva Law, resulting from the Geneva Conference of 1864, are collectively known as the 1949 Geneva Conventions that are the basis of international humanitarian law.

Unfortunately, these notions took a backseat as the First World War erupted in 1914, and only resurged with the founding of the League of Nations in 1919. Three years later, the closest predecessor to the ICJ, the Permanent Court of International Justice (PCIJ), was formed. While it heard some interesting cases, the PCIJ was also short-lived, as the League of Nations shut down as the world prepared for another world war.

In 1945, when the UN was founded, the ICJ assumed its position as the highest judicial institution within the system and the Statute of the International Court of Justice became an integral part of the Charter of the UN. As it took forward PCIJ precedents, the ICJ has now accumulated over 100 years of jurisprudence.

The ICJ is one of the most important tools ever established for peacefully resolving disputes between states. Its 15 judges are meant to represent all UN geographic regions, civilisations and legal systems worldwide, including Indigenous and traditional legal systems. This entails a huge responsibility, particularly when it comes to representing voices that are still marginalised or underrepresented, such as those of Indigenous peoples.

The ICJ is now more relevant than ever because we are a critical time in history when we need urgently to correct our course. The danger of nuclear weapons going off becomes more real every day. And this is no longer the time of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: today’s nuclear arsenal can obliterate life as we know it.

Why has South Africa brought a case against Israel before the ICJ?

This case is intriguing because South Africa didn’t appear to be in direct conflict with Israel. But it didn’t need to: South Africa came to the Court alleging that Israel was violating the Genocide Convention, a treaty signed by most UN member states, including both Israel and South Africa. This convention grants all its signatories the right to bring a case before the ICJ against another if it’s suspected of committing, inciting or continuing to commit genocide.

The ICJ has jurisdiction to hear contentious cases, including those where parties have entered into an agreement and to provide advisory opinions on matters pertaining to international law. It also has compulsory jurisdiction, although this is limited to states that accept it, and authority to provide interpretations of international treaties This means it can make binding rulings in legal disputes submitted to it by states and give advisory opinions on legal questions at the request of UN bodies, specialised agencies or member states. The South Africa v. Israel case is a contentious case, which means it will eventually produce a binding court ruling.

What are the challenges of bringing genocide cases before the ICJ?

Genocide is possibly one of the worst crimes recognised as such by the international community. The Genocide Convention was the very first human rights convention the UN agreed on in the aftermath of the Second World War.

While there is considerable consensus on what constitutes genocide, it often takes decades to gather the necessary evidence to prove that genocide has been committed. Following the Second World War, a wealth of documentation was submitted as evidence of genocide, but the burden of proof was quite high to demonstrate the systematic and intentional engagement of individuals and states in genocidal practices. For individuals, this was dealt with under international criminal law and for states under international law.

However, in recent years several cases of genocide have been presented before the Court and the burden of proof has been increasingly scrutinised.

In 2019 The Gambia, also a state not directly involved in the conflict, brought a case against the state of Myanmar, alleging that Myanmar’s military and other security forces perpetrated genocide against its Rohingya Muslim minority in Rakhine province. It could do so because both were signatories of the Genocide Convention. In 2022, the ICJ decided it had jurisdiction under the Genocide Convention to hear the application filed by The Gambia.

The case is ongoing, and in November 2023 several additional states joined The Gambia’s genocide case against Myanmar. This was subsequent to the provisional measures the ICJ issued in January 2020 requesting Myanmar to prevent genocidal acts against Rohingya people while the case continued, and to report regularly on its implementation of the order. Developments in this case, as well as earlier cases relating to genocide, are most relevant to current proceedings.

Notably, unlike Myanmar, Israel did not contest South Africa’s jurisdiction to bring the case before the court; that seemed like a settled issue. Still, proving genocide can be a long and arduous process, particularly when people are afraid to bring evidence before the Court, although in this age of information and technology there’s a lot of video evidence to support these cases. But when it comes to genocide cases, what’s most challenging is proving criminal intent.

Why’s it so hard to prove genocidal intent?

The ICJ faces the daunting task of proving the deliberate attempt to eradicate an ethnic, political or religious group. This isn’t only about the amount of violence or the number of deaths, but about the intent to eliminate a specific group, including through means other than murder, such as taking away children.

This is why the interim measures requested by South Africa are so crucial. South Africa requested the immediate suspension of all hostilities by the Israeli military and for entry of humanitarian aid into Gaza to be allowed. While it did not order Israel to cease hostilities as had been requested, the ICJ’s interim measures requested Israel to take all necessary steps to prevent the commission of any acts of genocide. Further, it requested it take all necessary measures to prevent and punish the direct and public incitement to commit genocide of Palestinians in Gaza, an order on which the respected judge appointed by Israel also agreed with the majority decision.

This is key because in international relations statements made by prime ministers, presidents and other high officials, including military officers, are interpreted as reflections of a state’s intentions. What they say is weighed against their actions and could serve as a way of proving intent.

What are the consequences of the ICJ’s interim measures?

All ICJ rulings and orders are binding, so the interim measures impose an obligation on Israel to comply. Additionally, when the ICJ issues a judgment, opinion or interim measure on a topic, its application extends beyond the specific case that originated it. This is why we are starting to see a wider impact of the case South Africa brought to the ICJ.

For instance, in the Netherlands, civil society groups have filed several cases against their government to prevent it entering into military agreements that could incite or support the violation of human rights and humanitarian law in Gaza.

In other words, the ICJ case is enabling deeper discussions on how member states should respond to armed conflicts and how citizens can hold their governments accountable and ensure that tax money is not used to fuel armed conflict.

The case also underscores the ICJ’s vital role and its accumulated work over the years. States are increasingly resorting to the ICJ. Between 1947 and 2000, the ICJ issued interim measures on nine to 10 instances, while from 2001 to 2023 it has done so almost a dozen times, and most of these measures have been complied with. Overall, between 1947 and 2023, the ICJ has heard close to 200 cases and its opinions have been mostly respected. As of October 2023, there were 20 cases before the ICJ, including 18 contentious cases and two requests for advisory opinions. The two cases seeking advisory opinions are important: one is about the  ‘Legal consequences arising from the Policies and Practices of Israel in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem’, filed by 53 UN member states with proceedings currently underway at the Hague. The other one is about the obligations of states regarding climate change, with a deadline of 22 March 2024 for UN member states to submit written statements.

This demonstrates the growing influence of the ICJ in interpreting international law and its adherence across the world. It also underscores the significance of international law. It is only through adherence to humanitarian principles and the rule of law that we can shift away from armed conflict. It is our collective responsibility to prevent future generations experiencing prolonged cycles of violence in which human rights and basic humanity are compromised. It is our collective duty towards all species on our planet.

What challenges does the ICJ face?

The ICJ is an integral component of the UN Charter, and its rulings should guide the actions of every member state. Unfortunately, out of the 196 UN members, only 74 have so far accepted the ICJ’s compulsory jurisdiction. To address this issue, a broad global civil society coalition supported by a group of likeminded UN member states has started the ‘LAW not War’ campaign to encourage other states to sign up and agree to its compulsory jurisdiction, so as to commit to go before the ICJ before resorting to the use of force.

It’s also important to highlight that the ICJ does not operate in isolation. It is part of a broader network of international tribunals, such as the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea and the International Criminal Court, as well as regional institutions like the European Court of Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Further, national-level courts and tribunals also play a role. Understanding the interconnectedness of these systems is essential in assessing the international system of adjudication and to achieving an international rules-based order.

In terms of impact on foreign and domestic policies, there is a discrepancy between what countries sign up to in the international arena and what they end up implementing domestically. The primary reason for this gap is that, although the ICJ’s rulings are binding, the Court lacks its own enforcement mechanism to ensure compliance and depends on principles of international law such as good faith and respecting promises made through treaties, also referred to as the ‘pacta sunt servanda’ principle. As a result, universal human rights principles are unevenly implemented at the domestic level.

There is still clearly much to be achieved and we must come together, urgently and with agency, to work towards a peaceful and sustainable planet, based on the principles of international law.

Get in touch with Neshan through LinkedIn.


This interview was conducted as part of the ENSURED Horizon research project funded by the European Union. Views and opinions expressed in this interview are those of the interviewee only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or any of the institutions the interviewee is a member of. Neither the European Union nor the granting authority can be held responsible for them.

SENEGAL: ‘After being an example of democracy in Africa, we are increasingly tending towards authoritarianism’

Abdou Aziz CisséCIVICUS speaks with Abdou Aziz Cissé, Advocacy Officer at AfricTivistes, about President Macky Sall’s decision to postpone the presidential election that was due on 25 February and its implications for democracy in Senegal.

AfricTivistes is a pan-African civil society organisation (CSO) that promotes and defends democratic values, human rights and good governance through civic tech. It aims to empower African people to become active players in building their societies and holding their governments to account.

Why did President Sall postpone the 25 February presidential election?

This latest crisis in Senegal began with a solemn address by President Sall on 3 February, the day before the planned day for the start of the campaign for the 25 February election, in which his successor was to be elected. He repealed the decree convening the electoral body, which had set the presidential election for 25 February.

He cited three reasons: a supposed institutional crisis between the National Assembly and the Constitutional Council concerning an alleged case of corruption of judges, the need to set up a parliamentary commission to investigate suspected irregularities in the process of verifying sponsorships for the election and the revelation that one of the candidates vetted by the Constitutional Council has dual nationality.

It should be noted that Karim Wade, son of former president Abdoulaye Wade and candidate for the Senegalese Democratic Party (PDS), was not on the final list of candidates for the presidential election announced on 20 January. To contest this decision by the Constitutional Council, PDS members of parliament called for the creation of a parliamentary commission of enquiry to shed light on the process of candidacy verification. They also accused two Constitutional Council magistrates of corruption. Parliament approved the establishment of this commission on 31 January.

On 5 February, a bill to postpone the presidential election until 15 December was passed after opposition legislators were ejected from parliament by security forces. It should be remembered that on 3 July 2023, after stating that he would not seek a third term in office, Sall promised to hand over power on 2 April following free, inclusive and transparent elections.

Why has this decision been described as a ‘constitutional coup’?

Sall’s actions have been described as a constitutional coup because he is not allowed to interrupt an electoral process that has already begun. The postponement of an election is the exclusive prerogative of the Constitutional Council.

Sall’s decision also violates other articles of the constitution, notably article 27, which provides for a five-year presidential term and a limit of two consecutive terms, which means the president cannot extend his term of office. There is also article 103, which states that ‘the republican form of the state, the method of election, the duration and number of consecutive terms of office of the President of the Republic may not be revised’.

I would like to emphasise that in accordance with article 52 of the constitution, the president can only interrupt the process ‘when the institutions of the Republic, the independence of the Nation, the integrity of the national territory or the fulfilment of international commitments are threatened in a serious and immediate manner’. However, all institutions of the republic were operating regularly. The establishment of a parliamentary commission of enquiry and the passage of a bill clearly proved it.

By making this illegal decision, Sall became the first president in Senegal’s history not to organise a presidential election on its due date since 1963.

What has the reaction of civil society been?

The reaction of civil society was spontaneous. Several CSOs, including AfricTivistes, condemned this anti-democratic act in press releases and media statements. The nation’s other driving forces, such as trade unions from all professions, also voiced their disagreement.

On social networks, citizens shared their indignation, internationalising their anger at the decision.

On 4 February, 19 candidates held a press conference, joined by members of civil society, to reaffirm their willingness to campaign together.

Another demonstration was declared for 5 February, the day of the parliamentary vote, but could not take place because all the strategic roads leading to the National Assembly were cordoned off. Since June 2023, the administrative authorities have systematically banned demonstrations, even peaceful ones.

The ‘Aar Sunu Election’ (‘Let’s protect our election’) platform brought together more than a hundred CSOs to reject the postponement of the election. The pressure paid off, because on the evening of 15 February, the Constitutional Council declared the presidential decree of 3 February and the law passed by the National Assembly on 5 February invalid.

How has the government reacted?

The government began by cracking down on the demonstrations that took place on 4 February, the day after the president’s announcement and the day on which the election campaign was due to begin. Censorship was also imposed that day, with the internet via mobile data cut off, according to the minister in charge, to stop ‘the dissemination of hateful and subversive messages’. The same reasons had been provided to justify acts of internet censorship in June, July and August 2023. Mobile data was restored on 7 February, then restricted to specific time slots on 13 February.

Internet blackouts and other forms of online restrictions violate the constitution and several international conventions ratified by Senegal. They are violations of freedom of expression, access to information and economic freedoms. According to Senegalese telecoms unions, censorship has caused losses amounting to 3 billion CFA francs (approx. US$ 4.9 million).

With this in mind, AfricTivistes and two Senegalese journalists are taking the state of Senegal to the Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States, the regional organisation, to seek an end to untimely cuts in mobile internet data.

In addition, the licence of the Walfadjri television station was suspended at the height of the protests following the announcement of the postponement of the election. Walfadjri has been subjected to a relentless attack by the authorities. Its signal was restored on 11 February.

On 9 February, a peaceful rally held by numerous organisations on the Place de la Nation in Dakar was dispersed by the police. People mobilised throughout the country, particularly in the northern city of Saint-Louis. Peaceful protesters were violently repressed with disproportionate use of force, resulting in three deaths and several people injured, some of whom were not even taking part in demonstrations, along with over 200 arrests.

The press was also prevented from covering the demonstrations and providing people with fair and accurate information. Journalists, most of them women, were teargassed, arrested and roughed up in the same way as protesters. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least 25 journalists were attacked, detained or teargassed during the demonstrations. Journalist Absa Anne, of the news website Seneweb, was dragged into a police vehicle and beaten unconscious, becoming a symbol of the indiscriminate crackdown on the press that took place that day.

A silent march announced by the ‘Let’s protect our election’ platform was banned on 13 February by the administrative authorities. However, another march on 17 February was authorised, and people came together in huge numbers to enjoy their long-threatened constitutional freedoms. This national moment of communion was proof that when authorised by the administrative authorities, demonstrations go off peacefully.

How do you see the future of democracy in Senegal?

After being an example of democracy and political stability in Africa, with peaceful democratic alternation in power in 2000 and 2012, Senegal is increasingly tending towards authoritarianism, symbolised by the restriction of fundamental rights and freedoms.

Even if the release, since 15 February, of more than 600 political detainees arrested for crimes of opinion or belonging to the opposition is helping to ease the political climate, the crisis that we are currently experiencing does not augur a bright future for Senegalese democracy.

But I am optimistic, because even if the political class is engaged in a fierce power struggle, civil society is strong and has a considerable ability to assert itself in all areas of the country’s social life. Not to mention the new force of protest that has emerged with the advent of civic technologies. Social media amplifies citizens’ voices and gives them an international dimension, hence the moves by the authorities to try to silence the voices that express themselves through online tools.

Senegal also has strong justice and administrative systems, which have always played their role as a counterweight. We must also take into account that, like all democratic systems, Senegal’s needs to be perfected. It has made significant progress, albeit with ups and downs like those we are currently experiencing. And we must bear in mind that it is from crises that opportunities emerge.

What should the international community do to help solve this crisis?

The international community can play an important role in supporting a transparent and fair democratic process by sending election observation missions.

As well as supporting civil society, international partners can exert diplomatic pressure, as Antony Blinken, the US Secretary of State, Joseph Borell, the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights have done, calling for independent investigations to shed light on the killings of protesters. All this goodwill can help to encourage an inclusive dialogue. This could foster a search for consensual solutions.

The international community must condemn all political violence and reiterate the importance of respecting fundamental human rights such as freedom of expression, freedom of the press and freedom of peaceful assembly.

How do you assess the state of democracy in West Africa, and how is AfricTivistes working to help activists in countries affected by coups?

Over the past three years democracy in the region has declined. Between 2020 and 2022, West Africa experienced five coups against a backdrop of terrorism in the Sahel and anti-imperialist rhetoric. Civil society plays a crucial role in shaping democracy, but civic space is stifled in countries where the military has taken over.

However, each country has its own historical and political dynamics. Democratic trends vary considerably depending on historical, cultural and socio-economic factors. Countries that have succeeded in implementing institutional reforms to combat corruption have generally seen the quality of their democracy improve, as seen in Cabo Verde, West Africa’s champion of good governance.

Several countries have maintained relative political stability, such as Senegal before the latest developments. The last country to hold a presidential election was Côte d’Ivoire, following post-election incidents and the violation of the Ivorian constitution, which also limits the number of presidential terms to two.

With a large community enabling us to internationalise our advocacy, AfricTivistes provides moral support to democracy activists by publishing press releases to point out the illegality of their arrest and censorship.

We also provide them with technical support so they can circumvent the censorship they face in their countries. To date, we have supported seven democracy activists and journalists in danger.

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

Get in touch with AfricTivistes through its website or Facebook page, and follow @afric_tivistes and @frican_excellency on Instagram and @AFRICTIVISTES and @AbdouJCisse on Twitter.

PORTUGAL: ‘The rise of the populist right only further weakens trust in the political system’

AnaCarmoAlso available in Portuguese

CIVICUS speaks about early elections taking place in Portugal on 10 March with Ana Carmo from Akto, a Portuguese civil society organisation that promotes human rights and democratic values through advocacy, campaigning and education.

What are the main issues the new government will have to deal with, and how are candidates proposing to address them?

The most pressing issues that should be addressed by the new government and have been central to election debates are housing, health, pensions, education, immigration and the climate crisis. There are several other issues that are also on the agenda and should be addressed, including some related to the police and the justice system.

These are issues that allow for very different answers depending on where you are on the ideological spectrum. The more left-wing parties propose measures that require greater state intervention and public investment, while those towards the right present proposals that benefit the private sector and investors, and require less state intervention, arguing this will lead to economic growth and subsequently greater wellbeing.

Portuguese politics tend to revolve around two parties, the Socialist Party (PS) and the Social Democratic Party (PSD), both close to the centre. In this campaign, Pedro Nuno Santos, head of the PS ticket, has put forward proposals that are further to the left than usual for the PS, while Luís Montenegro, who leads the ticket of the Democratic Alliance (AD), a coalition led by the PSD, has followed his party’s usual ideological line.

What’s more, the PS is wearing out, perhaps due to its eight consecutive years in power, while the PSD, instead of preparing to succeed it, is also getting weaker. Instead, more radical right-wing parties are growing, notably Chega, identified as a ‘catch-all’ party, ideologically amorphous, populist and opportunistic, which adapts its discourse to whatever allows it to win the most votes.

A climate of discontent, frustration and perhaps revolt has led more and more people to vote for Chega as a form of protest. However, the growth of a party like Chega only further weakens trust in the political system.

Have disinformation or hate speech been a problem during the campaign?

There have been problems with disinformation, particularly spread by Chega, whose discourse is not based on facts. That’s why we often hear false statements or fallacious ideas coming from its leader and members of parliament. Chega has been running an anti-immigration campaign that appears to have instigated hate speech and expressions of xenophobia within society. On 3 February, a far-right march against the ‘Islamisation of Europe‘ took place in Lisbon’s Martim Moniz neighbourhood, an area known for its multicultural diversity. The march was banned by Lisbon City Council and the courts for its content and the danger it posed to citizens. Nevertheless, people still took to the streets.

Some media and the other political parties are making an effort to challenge fallacies about immigration, emphasising that the truth is that Portugal is a country of emigrants. They also highlight positive facts about immigrants, such as their great contribution to Portuguese social security, which allows pensions to be paid. It is a very strong argument in favour of immigration.

During its campaign, Chega also made the absurd and impactful proposal to ‘end support for gender equality’. This statement once again needed a deconstruction and fact-checking effort by the media and forced the other political parties to take a stand.

With the increasing spread of ‘fake news’, Portuguese media have set up fact-checking programmes to help counter the trend and maintain journalistic rigour. However, disinformation campaigns are more difficult to combat on social media, where Chega has succeeded in meddling. Because of this, polls point to a significant percentage of young people potentially voting for this populist party that jeopardises our fundamental rights.

To encourage debate about ideas, Portuguese media joined forces to organise political debates between the leaders of all parties represented in parliament, as they did in 2015. In the version implemented this year, candidates debate each other for around 25 minutes and these debates are broadcast and commented on in various news channels. This allows civil society to be better informed about their choices and people have shown interest, because debates have received top ratings.

What do you think the result of the elections could be?

Since the resignation of Prime Minister António Costa in November 2023 due to a corruption investigation that implicated him in influence peddling, corruption and malfeasance in energy projects, the political landscape has become increasingly unpredictable.

First, as he was elected PS leader, Nuno Santos was viewed as Costa’s unequivocal successor as prime minister, due to his charisma as well as the fact that his party had an absolute majority. Montenegro, in comparison, is not a charismatic leader and has had a career of setbacks. The PSD has been losing strength to more radical and populist parties such as Chega and Liberal Initiative, which is not seen so much as a populist party and still has space on the spectrum of the political right. The PSD doesn’t want to ally itself with Chega, and Liberal Initiative rejected a coalition with the PSD, causing it to ally with the CDS-Popular Party and the Monarchist Party.

By entering a coalition with two parties without parliamentary seats, the PSD resurrected a 1979 solution in an attempt to confront the PS’s absolute majority. But even so, it didn’t initially gain the ground it wanted.

The left has also lost relevance: the Left Bloc currently has five parliamentary seats, the Portuguese Communist Party has six and Livre has one.

In the presence of a left that some commentators describe as ‘asleep’, a one-party centre bloc and a right without an assertive leader, Chega is the only party flourishing.

In late 2023, opinion polls pointed to a new PS majority, but since the formation of the AD coalition, some polls suggest a potential AD victory. At the moment, there is great uncertainty and the large number of undecided voters will potentially decide the country’s direction. Every time there is a new electoral debate, new trends emerge. In the last debates he took part in, Nuno Santos called for a ‘useful vote’ in fear of a victory for AD and the right.

What are your expectations for the post-election period?

Depending on which party wins, the majority it gets, the coalitions that are formed and the number of seats that the opposing parties manage to obtain, there are various possible scenarios.

These legislative elections could lead to Portugal joining the trend we’ve been seeing across Europe with far-right and populist parties entering government, or they could lead to Portugal standing out with a more socialist and left-wing government. And even these two scenarios are reductive, because the outcome will also depend on the composition of the parliamentary opposition, which is so important for the proper functioning of our democracy.

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

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

IRAN: ‘The regime uses executions to maintain its grip on power through fear and intimidation’


CIVICUS speaks with Jasmin Ramsey, Deputy Director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI), about the ongoing wave of executions as part of the Iranian regime’s effort to suppress dissent and discourage further protests.

Founded in 2008, CHRI is an independent civil society organisation that works to protect and promote human rights in Iran. Headquartered in New York, it researches and documents human rights violations throughout Iran, and provides governments, the United Nations, think tanks, global media and research centres around the world with detailed information, analysis and policy recommendations. CHRI’s approach is strictly nonpartisan, operating within the framework of international human rights law.

What has led to the current wave of executions in Iran?

Executions in Iran are not just a pillar of the founding of the Islamic Republic, but a ruthless tool wielded by the regime to maintain its grip on power through fear and intimidation. Although the vast majority of the more than 834 people who were hanged in Iran in 2023 were accused of drug offences or other non-political activities, the increase in executions after the protests, and the growing number of political prisoners among those executed in recent years, underscore the regime’s desperation to crush dissent. It is determined to prevent the emergence of another grassroots movement such as the Woman, Life, Freedom protests triggered by the September 2022 killing of Mahsa Amini at the hands of the morality police.

This wave of state-sanctioned killings has galvanised civil society to unite in condemnation. Women prisoners of conscience, in particular, have shown remarkable resilience, leading calls against the death penalty among Iranian civil society through joint statements and hunger strikes.

Iranian civil society is uniting to demand not just a cessation of executions, but the abolition of the death penalty. No matter how much the regime uses force and violence, it has failed to quell the desire for fundamental and systemic change in Iran. At every turn, society is pushing back against state policies that are repressive and discordant with the desires and beliefs of much of the population.

Alongside increasing executions, how else has the regime reacted to the protests?

Repression in various forms has escalated significantly since the emergence of the Woman, Life, Freedom movement in 2022, manifesting in various forms such as increased arrests and detentions of peaceful activists and family members seeking justice for victims of state violence.

The government is also pushing for a law to impose harsher penalties on women appearing in public without the mandated hijab. This proposed law burdens citizens, encourages vigilante violence and increases women’s vulnerability to abuse through increased surveillance and state security forces deployed on the streets.

Is there any space for civil society in Iran?

While technically there might some room for civil society to operate in Iran, as established in legislation, the reality is starkly different. Article 27 of Iran’s constitution allows for public gatherings and marches under some conditions, but protests critical of the state are swiftly suppressed, often with violence. Fundamental rights such as freedoms of speech, expression and the press are severely curtailed, and peaceful activism is often treated as a threat to national security.

Despite these challenges, activists and citizens persist in reclaiming their rights, using a variety of methods such as social media posts, prison letters and acts of civil disobedience, like women defying the state’s forced hijab law by walking the streets unveiled. Despite facing repression and economic hardships exacerbated by governmental corruption and sanctions, their determination remains strong.

I am grateful to be doing this work in a place of safety, where, at least for now, I am shielded from the dangers faced by activists in Iran. I consider myself fortunate to learn from the courageous Iranians, especially women, who persist and resist despite immense risks. CHRI’s mission is to amplify their voices and advocate for civil society’s demands internationally, a task that comes with its own set of challenges. However, these challenges pale in comparison to the dangers faced by those on the frontlines in Iran.

What should international allies do to support the struggle for freedoms in Iran?

During the initial surge of the Woman, Life, Freedom movement, there was a heightened international focus on the events unfolding in Iran. This sparked hope for more substantial action from governments with influence over the Islamic Republic. At that time, we outlined steps for the international community to pressure Iran to cease its violent crackdown on protests.

Among our recommendations, we emphasised the need for governments that have diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic to recall their ambassadors in protest against the killing of protesters and hanging of prisoners. We asked them to summon Iran’s diplomats to communicate directly their outrage and warn that further costs and isolation would ensue unless the Iranian authorities halted executions, annulled death sentences, ceased torture under custody, released prisoners and respected due process for those accused.

We urged the international community to designate the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organisation and impose or expand human rights sanctions against Iranian officials and entities associated with rights violations and freeze the assets of officials who violated human rights, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and many more.

We also asked parliamentarians around the world to sponsor individual political prisoners, particularly those facing execution, to publicise their cases and the unjust nature of their prosecution or sentences and publicly demand their safety and release, both on the international stage and directly with Iranian ambassadors and other Islamic Republic officials.

Additionally, we urged states to suspend negotiations over Iran’s nuclear deal, which could provide increased revenue to the Iranian state and therefore increase its repressive capacity. We demanded it be expelled for multilateral bodies and various international platforms and associations, particularly those whose principles it blatantly violates. We also asked governments to support the United Nations (UN) Fact-Finding Mission on Iran and assist those fleeing Islamic Republic persecution, and asked tech companies to support safe digital communications for the Iranian people.

This roadmap remains relevant today. It is crucial for international allies to rally behind the UN’s independent international Fact-Finding Mission, tasked with investigating atrocities committed by the regime since the onset of the violent repression of the protests in September 2022. As the Fact-Finding Mission presents its first report to the UN Human Rights Council in mid-March, a united, multilateral approach to supporting its mandate is essential for holding the Iranian government accountable and advancing the struggle for justice and human rights in Iran.

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

Get in touch with CHRI through its website or Facebook page, and follow @ICHRI on Twitter and @centerforhumanrights on Instagram.

EUROPEAN MEDIA FREEDOM ACT: ‘National security cannot justify the use of spyware on journalists’

Jordan HigginsCIVICUS speaks about the role of civil society in the drafting process of the European Media Freedom Act with Jordan Higgins, Press and Policy Officer at the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF).

Founded in 2015, ECPMF is a civil society organisation that seeks to promote, preserve and defend media freedom by monitoring violations, providing practical support and engaging diverse stakeholders across Europe.

Why was the European Media Freedom Act (EMFA) needed?

The EMFA aims to support media freedom and promote media pluralism in the European Union (EU). While media-related matters have traditionally fallen under the competence of member states, EU-wide action has become necessary due to the severity of the threats media freedom faces across Europe.

The EMFA was introduced in September 2022 and underwent successive rounds of negotiations, culminating in a political agreement reached on 15 December 2023. It is comprehensive and seeks to address critical threats to media freedom, including the independence of public service broadcasters, concentration of media ownership and the capture of media through the allocation of state advertising, among other issues.

It safeguards the right of audiences to access pluralistic media sources and establishes a European Board for Media Services, composed of national media authorities that will advise the European Commission on the consistent application of key provisions of the Act in all member states. It also focuses on ensuring the safety of journalists, protecting them and their sources from surveillance and the use of spyware.

In sum, the EMFA is a crucial tool to address some of the major threats faced by journalists and protect the editorial and market independence of media.

What did civil society bring to negotiations?

This initiative aimed to strengthen press freedom in Europe and was widely welcomed by civil society, including us at ECPMF.

From the early stages, media freedom organisations proposed critical amendments to specific aspects of the EMFA that did not comply with the highest media freedom standards. In particular, we pushed for greater transparency in media ownership, comprehensive rules regulating financial relations between the state and media, including the allocation of state advertising, and full protection of journalists from all forms of surveillance, including spyware. We also advocated for the independence of national media regulators and the European Board for Media Services.

The process incorporated the perspectives of media freedom experts and journalists and culminated in the final trilogue negotiations between the European Parliament, Council and Commission. One of the key areas of interest for media freedom advocates during these negotiations was EMFA Article 4 on the protection of journalistic sources. In particular, we hoped to see the removal of provisions – promoted by Cyprus, Finland, France, Greece, Italy, Malta and Sweden – that included ‘threats to national security’ as justification for the use of spyware on journalists.

To what extent did the final text address civil society concerns?

Civil society, particularly media freedom organisations, advocated for a robust version of the EMFA that considered the needs of those most affected by it. Throughout the negotiation process, we voiced our objections to concerns from publishers’ groups and regarding proposed amendments to Article 4, which could have removed legal safeguards that shield journalists from the deployment of spyware under the pretext of national security. Fortunately, the final version no longer cites ‘national security’ as a justification for using spyware on journalists.

Now our work will shift towards ensuring the effective implementation of the EMFA through active monitoring, particularly in EU member states where press freedom is under the greatest threat.

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

AUSTRIA: ‘A new civil society coalition is emerging to defend democracy against extremism’

Gabriela GreilingerCIVICUS speaks about the growth of the far right in Austria with Gabriela Greilinger, PhD Student at the University of Georgia, USA and co-founder and director Quo Vademus, a grassroots think tank publishing analysis by young writers and encouraging young people to engage with politics and current affairs.

What are the main far-right groups in Austria, and how concerning is their recent growth?

The Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) is the main far-right political party, but there are other groups outside the party system that are also ideologically far right and are considered very close to the FPÖ, such as Identitarian Movement Austria. Freiheitliche Jugend (Freedom Party Youth of Austria), the youth wing of the FPÖ, also maintains close links to the Identitarian Movement. There are also right-wing extremist fraternities, such as Olympia, which are similarly closely connected to the FPÖ.

The FPÖ’s recent rise in the polls is not really a novelty but rather a recurrence. Since its founding after the Second World War, it has been included as a coalition partner in government several times and has risen and fallen in popularity over the years. It plummeted in the polls following the 2019 Ibiza scandal – in which FPÖ politicians were filmed appearing to offer business contracts in return for support – and other corruption allegations, and the breakup of the far-right coalition government led by Sebastian Kurz, which included the right-wing conservative, Christian-democratic Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) along with the FPÖ. After that, the Austrian Freedom Party went through several leadership changes.

Several factors jointly account for the FPÖ’s most recent surge in the polls. First came the COVID-19 pandemic, during which it positioned itself as a strong opposition to the public health measures put in place by the ÖVP-Greens coalition government, including mandatory testing and vaccinations. It openly supported anti-lockdown demonstrations, bringing together people from both right and left.

Then, in 2021, corruption allegations around then-ÖVP chancellor Kurz emerged, which played into the hands of the FPÖ, helping it regain its popularity. This was followed by Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, which led to an energy crisis and soaring prices in Austria, a country traditionally highly dependent on Russian gas.

As a result, inflation surged further and exacerbated economic anxieties, which have remained largely unaddressed by the current government. All of this has helped the FPÖ regain its popularity, so much so that in November 2022 it surpassed the Social Democrats in the polls and has polled around 30 per cent since. Forecasts predict that it will come in first in this year’s elections and, if so, it would for the first time in history be able to appoint the chancellor.

What public concerns is the FPÖ tapping into?

Immigration is certainly one of the main issues the FPÖ keeps coming back to, but not the only one.  The FPÖ also engages in ‘culture war’ politics, taking on issues such as gender-inclusive language and LGBTQI+ rights.

Over the past couple of years, in the context of rising inflation following the pandemic and during the war in Ukraine, it has also increasingly tapped into people’s financial anxieties.

Overall, though, it doesn’t present any viable solutions to people’s concerns but rather attacks and smears political opponents, trying to present itself as the clean alternative to what it calls the ‘system parties’ – a term formerly used by Nazis. Social media, specifically Facebook, is one of the main platforms it uses to spread their messages.

How have Austrian civil society and public opinion reacted to this rise of the far right?

The far right has long been mainstreamed and normalised in Austria, among other reasons because of its repeated inclusion in government. That means its rise, while concerning, is not necessarily surprising or shocking to most people. We’ve seen it happen before. Still, time and again there have been protests against the far right – in 2017, for instance, people mobilised against the inclusion of the FPÖ in the right-wing Kurz government.

However, civil society and its leaders have again become more outspoken in recent weeks, after the German investigative outlet Correctiv reported on a secretive meeting known as the Lehnitzsee Conference that took place last November in Germany, in which right-wing extremists, businesspeople and even some members of the mainstream conservative Christian Democratic Union discussed plans to expel millions of people deemed not sufficiently ‘assimilated’ to the majority society. A notorious Austrian extremist, Martin Sellner, took part in the event, implicating the Austrian extreme-right scene.

This far-right meeting triggered large-scale anti-far-right demonstrations in Germany, which inspired Austrians to organise protests in Vienna and other cities across the country. Although the protests were fewer and smaller in size than Germany’s, many people mobilised.

We have also seen the emergence of a new civil society coalition to defend democracy against extremism. In response to the revelations about the Lehnitzsee Conference, several civil society organisations formed the Coalition for Human Rights and Democracy (Bündnis für Menschenrechte und Demokratie) to ‘create a firewall’ against right-wing extremism. It then also organised a demonstration in defence of democracy in the city of Graz.

How has the government reacted to the rise of the far right?

As of today, we’ve seen little reaction or attempts by the government to curtail the far right. It’s been rather the opposite: the ÖVP has long adopted the messages of the far right on immigration and largely appropriated the FPÖ’s depiction of immigrants. And although the current chancellor, Karl Nehammer, had said he would not enter a coalition that includes FPÖ leader Herbert Kickl, a hardliner, he has not completely ruled it out after this year’s election.

As it stands, the FPÖ is set to win the election and a relaunch of another ÖVP-FPÖ coalition seems to be the most likely option. All in all, I see the government making very little effort to avert the far-right danger. If anything, the ÖVP is trying to take the wind out of the FPÖ’s sails by co-opting its agenda and programme. This is not weakening the far right but rather mainstreaming its policy points and making it part of the ‘normal’ public debate – which it shouldn’t be.

What forms of international support does Austrian civil society need to sustain its efforts?

I believe that there could and should be more international cooperation between civil society organisations that are addressing right-wing extremism and racism. Further, more positive media coverage is needed of civil society efforts to mobilise in defence of democracy to divert the focus from the far right. While it is true that the far right has once again made significant advances, the media continues to focus disproportionately on far-right successes, potential future successes, positions and discourse, simply giving it too much airtime. In contrast, there is much less focus on the forces standing up for democracy and civil society’s efforts to respond to extremism.

At the end of the day, as the slogan used in the German protests goes, ‘Wir sind mehr’ (We are more). We are the majority, even if at times a silent one – and not the far-right supporters and sympathisers.

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

Get in touch with Quo Vademus through its website or Facebook page, and follow @ggreilinger @quovademusorg on Twitter.

GLOBAL GOVERNANCE: ‘To change global institutions, we must think boldly while acting strategically’

Rebecca ShootCIVICUS speaks with Rebecca Shoot, Executive Director of Citizens for Global Solutions, about the deficits of the global governance system and civil society’s proposals for reform.

Citizens for Global Solutions is a non-profit, nonpartisan, civil society organisation based in the USA. Initially founded as the World Federalist Association, for over 75 years it has advocated for a democratic world federation based on peace, human rights and the rule of law.

What are the key global problems that need global solutions?

Citizens for Global Solutions was founded in 1947 by some of the greatest minds and peace champions of the last century, including Albert Einstein, J William Fulbright, Norman Cousins, Clare Booth Luce and Benjamin Ferencz. It was founded in recognition of global challenges such as war, planetary emergencies of climate and health, and growing inequalities including poverty and human security.

None of that has changed. These challenges have only accelerated and exacerbated. On 23 January 2024, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists announced that the Doomsday Clock, operational since 1947 and representing the likelihood of a human-made global catastrophe, stands at 90 seconds to midnight for the second year in a row – the closest it has ever been to the point that represents unprecedented danger, including extremely high risks of climate collapse and nuclear war.

We now have the means to harm humanity and erode our planet to unprecedented levels and at unprecedented speed. We currently face the highest rates of violent conflict in more than 30 years. The threat of nuclear war brings the possibility of global annihilation, while cybersecurity and AI warfare capabilities posit questions that our current humanitarian law framework and institutions struggles to keep pace with. These security questions extend into other facets of life and global interaction, notably impacting on the levels of trust and cooperation among and within nations.

To give another example: pandemics are not new. From the bubonic plague to the 1918-1920 flu pandemic, humanity has confronted these challenges from immemorial times. But never before have we had the level of interaction, travel and cross-border exchange that has enabled a pandemic to expand so quickly and widely as COVID-19 did.

In sum, all challenges have become more global, complex and consequential. As a result, the state system envisioned in 1945 no longer meets our needs. The gap between the current needs of humanity and the planet and our institutions’ capacity and intent to address them continues to widen.

We are convinced that humankind cannot survive another world conflict and yet we live in a world full of conflicts. This is why Citizens for Global Solutions advocates for global cooperation and common security through a democratic world federated system.

Why is there a need for citizens to promote solutions for these global problems?

Citizens are a necessary part of this equation, and they have always been. But they were removed from the corridors of power as our current institutions grew, and it is not to be expected that those who benefit from the current system would be willing to change that.

To change global institutions effectively, we need to push for a wider range of voices to come to the table. For instance, a key success of Citizens for Global Solutions was as the early leader and continued champion of the Coalition for the International Criminal Court (CICC), which started as a small collective of civil society groups committed to putting an end to impunity and holding those responsible for the most heinous crimes accountable and grew into the world’s largest international justice coalition. It continues to this day, working for the universality of the International Criminal Court (ICC) beyond its 124 current member states and for its effectiveness as a means of accountability, and a force for the rule of law as opposed to the rule of might.

Today, we carry that spirit forward through a variety of educational, outreach and advocacy initiatives, including dedicated youth programming, to advance our foundational vision of a democratic world federation across future generations.

What are the global governance dysfunctions that most urgently need to be corrected?

While being one of humanity’s greatest achievements, the United Nations (UN) system and the global governance apparatus that supports it is also deeply flawed. It is often underutilised and sometimes ill-utilised. It is based on a deeply asymmetrical and outdated concept of governance based on the Westphalian state model. While it was founded with noble ideals, it also reflects the biases and incentive structures of a small portion of the world’s population, from a small set of nation states, represented by an even smaller elite within those nation states.

Rather than victor’s justice, what we got is victors’ governance. This is a system that inevitably struggles to uphold and often betrays the fundamental principles articulated in the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which assert the rights of all humans, future generations and our planet. This inconsistency challenges our understanding of global governance and our duties and responsibilities as part of it.

In practice, the inequalities and inequities that are both baked into current systems and brought in through politicisation and manipulation obstruct the cooperation needed to achieve true solutions for some of the profound global challenges we face.

No nation has succeeded in creating a society that fully meets the needs of all of its people. When this is extrapolated to the global level, the deficit is even starker. Democratic states typically have some form of governance in which the branches of government balance and sustain one another. In the current UN system, the current global governance structure, what we have is a monopod. We have a strong but partisan executive, a judiciary that is to some extent under-utilised and under-resourced, and are completely lacking a legislative branch. This is a deep flaw that needs to be corrected.

But I believe we have the tools at hand to do so. We do not stand on the sidelines and watch these dynamics as spectators but actively participate in finding constructive solutions – and animating people to achieve them.

What kind of change would need to happen so that global problems are addressed with genuinely global solutions?

Citizens for Global Solutions ultimately pursues the reimagined global governance architecture of a democratic world federation, a governance model that recognises global interdependence and supersedes narrow national interests. Along the way, we champion short-term and medium-term goals to realise this overarching objective.

For instance, to safeguard human rights and uphold international law, we advocate for an effective, well-resourced ICC and International Court of Justice (ICJ) as the primary means of dispute resolution among states. We continue to actively participate in the CICC as it plays an essential role in the ICC’s universality and efficacy. The CICC is a great example of a civil society coalition mobilising to strengthen the global justice ecosystem.

We are now taking that approach forward through a campaign called Legal Alternatives to War (LAW not War), of which we are a founding member. LAW not War seeks to bolster the ICJ – the foundational justice institution envisioned by the UN Charter – as the means for states to resolve their conflicts in courtrooms rather than on battlefields.

While we want to safeguard and uphold the existing UN human rights mechanisms, we also urge a more transparent and democratic UN. We advocate for comprehensive reforms to the Security Council and General Assembly, and for the establishment of a UN Parliamentary Assembly (UNPA) and a standing UN peacekeeping body.

The call for a UNPA, in particular, comes in recognition of a democratic deficit in the current global governance architecture. The UN functions ostensibly as an executive branch, without the checks and balances or the democratic accountability that come with a legislative body.

We also support new global institutions and mechanisms, including an International Anti-Corruption Court, an international climate governance body and a World Court of Human Rights. Each of these bodies is a response to recognised gaps in the current international judicial landscape and would have distinct jurisdiction complementary to existing global, regional and domestic courts in a complementary judicial ecosystem.

We also support Mobilizing an Earth Governance Alliance, a coalition dedicated to convening, catalysing and empowering experts and stakeholders to find the collaborative, cross-border governance solutions needed to halt further environmental degradation, climate crises and the harms we are inflicting upon our planet.

As we navigate these challenges, we eagerly anticipate the upcoming Summit of the Future, a UN Summit aimed at enhancing cooperation, addressing global governance gaps and reaffirming commitments to the Sustainable Development Goals and the UN Charter. We believe this summit will play a pivotal role in reinvigorating our multilateral system, transforming it into a dynamic framework where global challenges are met with global solutions.

What role is civil society playing in the run-up to the Summit of the Future?

The Summit of the Future will be a unique collective moment for civil society. It is tasked with adopting an action-oriented outcome document, the Pact for the Future, the zero draft of which was released in January by co-facilitators Germany and Namibia. It’s established five key themes for the summit: sustainable development and financing for development, international peace and security, science, technology and innovation and digital cooperation, youth and future generations, and transforming global governance. All of these themes are intersectional and some are also crosscutting.

This process is also likely to establish other structures, such as a UN Special Envoy for Future Generations. It’s a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reform and revitalise the UN as we know it.

Civil society is playing an incredibly active role, particularly under the umbrella of the Coalition for the UN We Need. For the Summit of the Future to succeed in truly reimagining our global governance architecture, we need a very diverse array of people and organisations around the world to give input and feedback. To this end, a global civil society forum will take place in Nairobi in May, a few months before the Summit, to finalise a People’s Pact for the Future, which will collect the aspirations and demands of civil society worldwide.

Get in touch with Citizens for Global Solutions through its website or Facebook page, and follow @GlobalSolutions and @RAShoot on Twitter.


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This interview was conducted as part of the ENSURED Horizon research project funded by the European Union. Views and opinions expressed in this interview are those of the interviewee only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union. Neither the European Union nor the granting authority can be held responsible for them.

ASEAN: ‘Laos’s leadership raises serious human rights concerns’

Mary Aileen Diaz BacalsoCIVICUS speaks about the implications of Laos chairing the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) with Mary Aileen Diaz Bacalso, Executive Director of the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA).

Founded in 1991, FORUM-ASIA is a network of 85 organisations across 23 countries, mainly in Asia. It works to strengthen movements for human rights and sustainable development through research, advocacy, capacity development and solidarity actions in Asia and beyond. It has consultative status with the United Nations and maintains a consultative relationship with the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights.

What are the main challenges ASEAN will likely face in 2024?

ASEAN is a regional alliance comprising of 10 Southeast Asian countries, plus Timor-Leste, which is on track to join. It was established in 1967 to preserve peace and stability in the Cold War era. Nowadays it oversees collaborative efforts on its three pillars of economic, socio-cultural and political and security matters. It is also meant to promote and safeguard human rights through a regional mechanism within the political-security pillar.

With Laos as chair, ASEAN will face three significant challenges in 2024. The first is related to its reliance on consensus politics and non-interference, which means that progress depends on each member state’s unique circumstances. Political events such as elections in Indonesia, attempted coups in Myanmar and regressions in human rights and democracy in countries across the region, including in Cambodia, Laos, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, obstruct advances in the protection and promotion of human rights and put the ability to achieve consensus to the test.

The second challenge is the result of a notable lack of optimism and growing scepticism by human rights organisations about Laos’s role as chair. Laos’s reputation for human rights abuses and violations of fundamental freedoms raises doubts about its ability to lead ASEAN effectively in improving human rights protections.

The third challenge is linked to external factors, particularly geopolitical tensions between China and the west, which will influence the regional bloc. These pressures may impact on economic, socio-cultural and political-security cooperation within ASEAN, adding another layer of complexity to the challenges the organisation will face in 2024.

What does the fact that Laos is chairing ASEAN in 2024 mean for China’s standing and role in the region and globally?

Laos continues to have the same voting power as other ASEAN members, but as chair, it has greater influence in shaping the organisation’s agenda. For instance, it has chosen ‘Enhancing Connectivity and Resilience’ as the theme for 2024 and has shown commitment to fostering connections with the East Asia bloc, including China. An official statement issued by the 2024 ASEAN Foreign Ministers Retreat emphasised the importance of enhancing ties between ASEAN and East Asian countries. It highlighted mechanisms such as the East Asia-ASEAN Summit, which includes the 10 ASEAN states plus China, Japan and South Korea.

Two key concerns arise under Laos’s leadership, particularly regarding human rights. First, it’s uncertain how it will approach the Myanmar crisis, particularly due to the continued reliance on ASEAN’s Five-Point Consensus as the primary reference, despite calls from civil society to move beyond this plan.

Laos has designated a seasoned diplomat as the ASEAN Special Envoy, tasked with meeting junta leader Min Aung Hlaing in Myanmar. However, the lack of a clear agenda for engaging with supporters of democracy such as the National Unity Government, the National Unity Consultative Council and the Ethnic Revolutionary Organizations raises doubts that ASEAN is playing a progressive role. Given historical and political ties between the military junta and the government of Laos, concerns linger about ASEAN’s alignment with the interests of people in Myanmar.

Second, the future of the human rights agenda is uncertain given Laos’s dubious human rights track record, which includes cases like the 2012 enforced disappearance of a prominent member of Laotian civil society, Sombath Somphone, and the deportation of the Chinese human rights lawyer Lu Siwei in October 2023. Plans have already been outlined for the 2024 ASEAN Human Rights Dialogue, but it is unclear whether civil society will be included or whether Laos will ensure a secure environment for it to take part.

Another pending topic on the human rights agenda is the revision of the terms of reference of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights, which are supposed to be revised every five years but haven’t experienced any improvement in one and a half decades.

Does Laos’s role as chair create any significant opportunity for Laotian civil society?

We are quite sceptical about the potential impact of these changes in regional institutions on the domestic civil society landscape of a country with closed civic space.

Laos systematically represses civil society activists and dissenters through a variety of legal and extra-legal measures, including surveillance, threats and violence. The decision to choose Timor-Leste over Laos as the host for the ASEAN Civil Society Conference/ASEAN Peoples’ Forum despite Laos holding the ASEAN chair underscores the apprehensions of civil society regarding safety within Laos.

Given the principle of non-interference on which ASEAN is based, it remains an unresolved question whether other ASEAN countries will scrutinise Laos’s human rights track record.

Nonetheless, from a civil society standpoint, this situation presents an opportunity to amplify efforts in advocating for justice and accountability for victims of human rights violations in Laos.

FORUM-ASIA is steadfast in its commitment to monitor the human rights situation, document violations and hold the Laotian government, as well as all ASEAN governments, accountable for upholding their commitment to protect and promote human rights in accordance with international human rights standards.

It is key to strengthen solidarity with Laos and leverage the momentum of Laos’s chairing of ASEAN. We urge the international community to participate in campaigns and advocacy initiatives. We must join forces to amplify the voices of the oppressed, shine the spotlight on Laos and the region and undertake collective action to address human rights concerns.

ICJ: ‘There should be no place for double standards’

Thomas Van GoolCIVICUS speaks about the role of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the context of the case brought by South Africa against Israel with Thomas Van Gool, Project Lead Israel-Palestine at PAX.

PAX, the largest peace organisation in the Netherlands, works to protect civilians against acts of war, end armed violence and build inclusive peace. It works in conflict areas worldwide, together with local partners and people who, like PAX, believe that everyone has a right to a dignified life in a peaceful society.

What’s the ICJ and how does it work?

The ICJ is the principal judicial organ of the United Nations (UN) and is based in The Hague, the Netherlands. It was established under the UN Charter in 1945 to settle legal disputes between states and provide advisory opinions on legal questions referred to it by the UN General Assembly, the Security Council and other UN organs and specialised agencies.

The ICJ has two types of jurisdictions: contentious and advisory. In contentious cases, states must consent to the ICJ’s jurisdiction, either through a special agreement or by accepting the court’s compulsory jurisdiction in advance. Advisory opinions are provided on legal questions referred to the court by the UN General Assembly, Security Council, or other authorised bodies.

In contentious cases, once the court has jurisdiction, it proceeds to hear the case. The parties involved submit their arguments and evidence, and the court makes a judgment based on international law.

Why did South Africa bring a case against Israel at the ICJ? What are its allegations?

The case brought by South Africa against Israel at the ICJ came as a surprise to many but if you look at it more closely, it is not that strange. There is a long-term bond between South Africa and Palestinians. Nelson Mandela once famously said, ‘We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians’. This bond was formed more than half a century ago, when the African National Congress was battling apartheid and saw strong parallels between the Palestinians’ struggle and its own. Israel’s support for apartheid in South Africa only strengthened these bonds. South Africa’s decision to take Israel to the ICJ may have been unforeseen by many, including Israel, but is not as random as it has been portrayed.

According to South Africa, Israel’s actions in Gaza make it responsible for violations of the Genocide Convention. South Africa alleges that Israel’s killing of large numbers of Palestinians in Gaza, including children, its destruction of homes, blocking of the entry of food, water and medical supplies, forced displacement and expulsion, and destruction of health services can be considered genocidal, and has asked the ICJ to rule on this matter.

The response of Israel has been that there is no genocide, that it is defending itself and that the court should have no say in the matter. While a big part of the international community supported the case, Israel’s close allies, including Germany and the USA, stood by it.

What could the ICJ do in response to the conflict in Gaza?

While the court typically takes several years to reach final decisions, it has the authority to issue provisional measures in the interim. This is what it has done in the case initiated by South Africa against Israel.

As of now, the Court has not definitively ruled on the occurrence of genocide, nor has it decided if it has jurisdiction to hear the case. However, in an initial assessment, it determined that jurisdiction appears to be plausible, establishing a connection between the measures requested by South Africa and the case. This decision hinged on considerations of plausibility, urgency and the potential impact of not implementing these measures.

There are different potential outcomes of the case and a ruling that genocide has been committed is plausible given the evidence already presented by South Africa. While several criteria must be met, in genocide cases intent is often the most crucial to establish. To prove intent, South Africa is pointing, among other things, to statements made by high-ranking Israeli government officials.

What can we expect next?

Following the ICJ’s decision, Israel is obligated, in accordance with the Genocide Convention and its responsibilities toward Palestinians in Gaza, to ‘take all measures within its power’ to prevent acts prohibited by the Convention, particularly killings, but this also includes causing serious physical or mental harm, deliberately imposing conditions of life leading to the physical destruction of the population and imposing measures intended to prevent births.

Israel is expressly required to ensure its military forces refrain from committing any of these acts, prevent and punish direct and public incitement to commit genocide, facilitate immediate and effective humanitarian relief to Gaza, take measures to prevent the destruction of evidence related to allegations of acts contrary to the Genocide Convention and submit a comprehensive report to the Court within one month detailing the steps taken to comply with its order.

Unfortunately, so far there is little indication that Israel is complying with any of these obligations. A ceasefire would be the most logical step to comply, but bombings and the ground offensive are still occurring.

How effective are institutions such as the ICJ in dealing with gross human rights abuses? Is there a need for reform?

While its decisions are binding on the parties involved, the ICJ lacks its own enforcement mechanism. Compliance with ICJ rulings depends on the willingness of the states involved to adhere to the judgment. The UN Security Council can play a role in enforcement, but this is subject to its own political dynamics.

In my opinion the ICJ is enormously important. It is the highest court we have, and its rulings should be adhered to. There is also an essential role for the international community to play in protecting and supporting the ICJ, complying with its rulings and fostering their enforcement. That is often lacking. The Netherlands, as host country of the ICJ, should contribute towards ensuring the effectiveness of ICJ rulings. There should be no place for double standards.

Get in touch with PAX through its website or Instagram and Facebook pages, and follow @PAXforpeace and @ThomasvgPAX on Twitter.


This interview was conducted as part of the ENSURED Horizon research project funded by the European Union. Views and opinions expressed in this interview are those of the interviewee only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union. Neither the European Union nor the granting authority can be held responsible for them.

DRC: ‘Civil society is targeted by politicians who see it as an obstacle to their power’

JonathanMagomaCIVICUS speaks with journalist and human rights activist Jonathan Magoma about recent elections in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

Jonathan Magoma is Country Programme Director and interim Executive Director of Partnership for Integral Protection (PPI), a civil society organisation that works for peace and the protection of human rights defenders in the DRC and the region.

How free and fair were recent elections in the DRC?

The presidential election of 20 December 2023 was held so as to show the world that the government conducted it within the constitutional deadline, but it was marred by fraud and irregularities.

The electoral process was neither free nor fair. In several districts, rebel groups imposed their choices. In the province of Ituri, in the northeast of the DRC, the Chini ya Tuna armed group forced people to vote for a candidate from their community. The militias even took away two voting machines so they could enter the votes themselves.

Towards the centre of the country, in Sankuru province, the brother of a Congolese dignitary set up a militia to disrupt the election and commit violence against agents of the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI), simply because he couldn’t line up as a national deputy candidate when his party failed to reach the required threshold. His armed men quietly took away election kits as observers looked on helplessly.

Candidates also distributed gifts in polling centres to influence voters in their favour. Some candidates or their representatives were caught distributing money to voters on election day, which is illegal. In some centres some were arrested by the police, while others were not apprehended.

In the Kabare district of South Kivu, for instance, electoral materials were transported to polling centres in the vehicles of a political party that was a member of the presidium of Sacred Union of the Nation (USN), the coalition backing the candidacy of President Félix Tshisekedi. Observers and voters at the centre cried foul.

What were the basis of the opposition’s fraud allegations?

The allegations of fraud made by the opposition are legitimate. They are based on the fact that a number of politicians close to the government kept full electoral kits in their homes in order to vote fraudulently. Voting machines were discovered in private homes containing ballot papers already signed and filled out. As a result, in most polling centres there was a shortage of voting machines, leading people in some districts to revolt.

On 31 December, CENI published the provisional results of the presidential election, proclaiming Tshisekedi, the incumbent seeking a second term, as the winner. But five days after this, on 5 January, CENI invalidated the votes received by deputy candidates who had run in the national and provincial legislative elections and the municipal vote held on 20 December. Their candidacies were voided following numerous accusations of illegal possession of voting machines, fraud, destruction of electoral material, ballot box stuffing and incitement to commit acts of violence against CENI agents. The excluded candidates include three serving ministers, four provincial governors, six senators and a member of the bureau of the National Assembly. Almost all were USN members.

At the same time, the electoral commission announced the annulment of the election results in the districts of Masimanimba in Kwilu province and Yakoma in North Ubangi province on the grounds of ‘massive and exaggerated fraud’. Unfortunately, the decision had nothing to say about the highly contested presidential election. But how could such irregularities have occurred at all other voting levels and not at the presidential election that was held on the same day and with the same ballot papers?

This question gave rise to debate within civil society and, within the political opposition, it prompted several demonstrations to contest this ‘sham’ election and demand its annulment. But it was in vain: on 20 January, Tshisekedi was sworn in by ‘his’ Constitutional Court as president of the DRC.

How did civil society, and PPI in particular, try to make the election free, fair and peaceful?

In the run-up to the election, we launched awareness campaigns to promote a peaceful vote. We held advocacy actions with election stakeholders, getting them to adhere to democratic values guaranteeing fair, free, transparent and inclusive elections and to the need to guarantee civic space before, during and after the elections. We also trained civil society groups and journalists in election observation and media coverage.

We observed the polls and contributed to the resulting civil society report. However, this report was not taken into account by the relevant bodies.

I personally carried out observation in a village about 35km north of the town of Bukavu, where what are viewed as ‘observers in waistcoats’ are more or less respected and most CENI agents knew me. But for no reason, I was forbidden to spend more than 15 minutes in a polling station. In neighbouring centres, people complained about lack of access to polling stations. Some observers also complained. In my polling station, the voting machine was supposed to start at 6am but was not put into operation until after noon, which made voters angry.

We continue to monitor the situation closely and assist human rights defenders, journalists and others who have been threatened or prosecuted for playing important roles or exposing irregularities during the elections. PPI is currently supporting two journalists and a civil society activist who are being prosecuted by the prosecutor general’s office in South Kivu province for denouncing electoral fraud perpetrated by a politician close to the government. PPI provides activists under threat with legal and judicial assistance, along with psychosocial support and advice on physical and digital security. Where necessary, medical or financial assistance, or even support for relocation, is offered to activists at risk.

It must be noted that we are still in an election period, as elections for senators and governors have not yet taken place. Originally scheduled for February, CENI has postponed them and they will now take place in late March and early April. Meanwhile, civil society continues to be targeted by politicians who see it as an obstacle to their power.

What were the demands of protesters on election day, and how did the government respond?

On 20 December, some people in Beni and Goma could not stand the wait. When they arrived at polling stations early in the morning, they could not find their names on the lists posted outside. What’s more, some polling stations were not yet open. In some centres, only two polling stations out of 10 were open, or one out of eight. Rumours circulated about some candidates’ illegal possession of voting machines. All this led to spontaneous demonstrations, particularly in Beni, where one centre was vandalised.

In several districts, voting continued beyond closing time. The government acknowledged ‘logistical difficulties’ but praised CENI for the ‘successful’ organisation of the elections. Obviously, CENI was not up to the task of managing the logistics of the elections. It was then announced that voters would be allowed to cast their ballots the following day, and voting resumed in almost every centre in the DRC. In Bas Uélé province, voting lasted three days, from 20 to 22 December.

What are your expectations for the post-election period?

I remain pessimistic because I am convinced that the elections were not transparent, free, credible or independent. What’s more, less than half of potential voters turned out. This is a strong message for a president who has supposedly been elected with more than 73 per cent of the vote among those who are said to have voted.

In such a context, the legitimacy of the government will inevitably be called into question. Moreover, in December, former CENI president Corneille Nanga initiated a political-military movement allied with the M23 terrorist movement, which is supported by the Rwandan government and waging war in the east of the country.

In the post-electoral period, serious human rights violations are likely to occur, as was documented during Tshisekedi’s first five-year term, even though he had promised to make respect for human rights and democracy his priority.

Now that the ruling coalition has claimed an absolute majority in parliament, it is quite possible that it will start changing laws for its benefit, and even constitutional articles that were considered untouchable. This would create chaos and torpedo our hard-won democracy.

What should be done to strengthen democracy in the DRC?

At present, civic space in the DRC is repressed to the extent that it is virtually closed. Political rhetoric contradicts developments on the ground. Opponents are prosecuted and imprisoned for their opinions. Protesters are put down in a bloody way. Journalists such as Stanis Bujakera, Blaise Mabala, Philémon Mutula and Rubenga Shasha and many activists are persecuted and imprisoned for doing their job. We are intimidated, sometimes threatened and people are murdered.

If we are to have any hope of strengthening democracy in the DRC, we will have to hold the government to account for its internal and external commitments. The fourth cycle of the United Nations Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review, due later this year, is a great opportunity for Congolese leaders to renew their commitment to democracy and respect for fundamental rights.

Global civil society and the human rights community must stand shoulder to shoulder with Congolese activists in the quest for democracy. This can be achieved through joint advocacy and lobbying activities, as well as capacity development and exchanges of experience.

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

Contact PPI through its website and follow @PPIREGIONALE and @JonathanMagoma on Twitter.

GERMANY: ‘Our response to internationally networked far-right groups must also be globally interconnected’

Violence Prevention NetworkCIVICUS speaks about the rise of the far right in Germany with Peter Anhalt, director of the right-wing extremism department, and Maximilian Ruf, director of the research department, at Violence Prevention Network.

Founded in 2004, Violence Prevention Network is one of Europe’s largest civil society organisations (CSOs) working to prevent and counter violent extremism.

What are the main far-right groups in Germany, and what’s their agenda?

There are diverse far-right groups that converge on social media platforms such as Telegram and gaming platforms while also networking offline in various ways. For example, the pan-European, anti-Islam, far-right political movement Pegida – Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West – and its offshoots regularly assemble for rallies and demonstrations.

Alongside Germany’s biggest far-right political party, Alternative for Germany (AfD), there are several small parties on the far-right and right-wing extremist spectrum at the national level, including III. Weg (The Third Way), Die Heimat (The Homeland) and Die Rechte (The Right), and at the regional level, such as Freie Sachsen (Free Saxons).

Additionally, there are right-wing extremist groups in organised crime milieus, often well-connected with local biker scenes and kickboxing or martial arts communities, as well as with conventional communal structures.

Representatives of the so-called New Right, such as Götz Kubitschek’s Institute for State Policy and the Identitarian Movement led by Martin Sellner, have provided right-wing extremism with a seemingly intellectual and modern facade, even though there is little novelty in their ideology. Terms like ‘ethnopluralism’, ‘New World Order’ and ‘remigration’ simply give a new look to racist, antisemitic and misanthropic ways of thinking.

Organisations such as the Hammerskins, the Brotherhood Thuringia (Turonen), NSU 2.0 and the Patriotic Union continue to pose a significant threat. The Patriotic Union, uncovered by the authorities in late 2022, is an eclectic personal and ideological mix of right-wing extremism, esotericism, conspiracy ideologies and sovereignist thinking tied to the so-called Reichsbürger scene (Citizens of the Empire). The suspected members of this organisation are currently on trial, accused of membership of a terrorist organisation and a violent plot to overthrow the German state, among other charges.

All these far-right groups hold an exclusionary, discriminatory and racist view of humanity combined with antisemitism and misogyny. Despite having diverging positions on some issues, they’re all united in their rejection of and opposition to the basic liberal order and democratic institutions.

Why has support for AfD grown so much in recent years?

AfD serves as a bridge for bringing into parliament ideas that delegitimise democracy. At a time of uncertainty and crisis, party members provide supposedly simple solutions, stir up resentment and appeal to people who might be open to authoritarian responses. What’s noteworthy about AfD is that, unlike most other far-right parties in Europe, it has grown in popularity while at the same time becoming increasingly and openly radicalised. Rather than this deterring voters, the party has grown in popularity.

As with any divisive political movement, AfD and other far-right groups exploit uncertainties around pressing issues. At the core of their agenda is restricting the rights of migrants and refugees, ignoring the fact that Germany needs more immigration to stabilise its economy and ensure future prosperity.

The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent anti-pandemic measures also became a central rallying point for conspiratorial groups, many of which aligned with far-right authoritarian ideologies that, after a first moment of uncertainty, further fuelled AfD.

AfD, in line with other far-right groups, also deny the human-caused nature of climate change and the need to address it, often portraying environmental efforts as ‘attacks on regular people’ who prefer to drive petrol cars and cannot afford to live in ‘ivory towers’. They also resist other progressive causes such as gender equality and LGBTQI+ rights, smearing LGBTQI+ people as a threat to children while framing any steps towards further antidiscrimination and equality measures as attacks on traditional families and their way of life.

Recently, farmers’ protests against agricultural subsidy cuts have inadvertently attracted far-right support. In some regions, a combination of farmers and far-right protesters has resulted in threatening actions, such as gallows parades and symbolic executions of members of the governing coalition. Their narratives have blended farmers’ grievances with other issues aimed at channelling hate against the current government.

It is important to note that most of the farmers very credibly distanced themselves from such co-option attempts. However, this shows how AfD and related far-right groups continuously try to hijack existing grievances and concerns by a variety of societal groups that can be framed as ‘the regular people’ in an attempt to pit them against existing democratic institutions.

What triggered recent protests against AfD?

Recent mass protests were triggered by an investigative report by independent media organisation Correctiv about a meeting held in a hotel near Potsdam in November 2023, where high-ranking AfD members were present alongside neo-Nazis and businesspeople sympathetic to the cause of mass deportation of people viewed by them as non-ethnic Germans. Martin Sellner, among others, spoke about a proposal for so-called ‘remigration’, which would effectively mean the forced expulsion of millions of people with migratory backgrounds currently living in Germany, including German citizens.

The article, published in German on 10 January, was a wake-up call. It sparked relatively spontaneous mass protests against AfD and right-wing extremism across Germany. Even though there was nothing new about the ideas discussed there, including ‘remigration’, and AfD’s support for them, the way the report presented the meeting as a ‘secret plan against Germany’ prompted broader sections of German society to recognise the real threat posed by right-wing extremism to a pluralistic society and liberal democracy.

How has the government reacted to this?

Most democratic parties, including the governing coalition, have long sought to reduce support for the far right by attempting to address the concerns it raises. This has led to, for example, a more stringent stance on migration. However, the adoption of far-right narratives to diminish the appeal of the original proponents never works out. People usually stick with the original message-bearers, as evidenced by the rising poll numbers for AfD in Germany.

Although the German government has funded prevention and counter-extremism initiatives over the past two decades, only recently did it increase funding for measures explicitly targeted against right-wing extremism, following a period in which the focus was on Islamist extremism. Several new cabinet and ministerial action plans against right-wing extremism have now been initiated, but it will take time for progress to be made.

We hope for a continuous and comprehensive strategy for preventing and countering violent extremism of any type, avoiding fluctuations in funds based on attention waves. This would enable us to remain vigilant against all threats to democracy. A potential new law for the promotion of democracy may serve as the basis for this.

How is your organisation working to address extremist threats?

In Germany, many CSOs working to respond to extremist threats, including Violence Prevention Network, are substantially funded by the federal government and local authorities. This allows us to implement comprehensive measures to promote democracy, prevent extremism, deradicalise young people and provide support for people to disengage.

For instance, we hold intercultural and interreligious workshops in schools. These focus on strengthening young people’s self-esteem, fostering an appreciation of diversity and promoting respectful behaviour. We provide training for professionals who work with young people, equipping them to identify and counter extremist arguments early on. These courses also offer strategies for building a trusting relationship with young people at risk of radicalisation and preventing radicalisation. Further, we operate mobile counselling and intervention teams that help deradicalise young people, including within the prison system. We work to identify people at risk of extremism and facilitate disengagement processes with the involvement of their friends and families.

In addition, we carry out a lot of work online and focus on providing young people with information and opportunities for support in disengaging from the extremist scene. We aim to reintegrate those at risk into the democratic community to prevent incidents where they cause harm to themselves or others.

What additional support does German civil society need to sustain these efforts?

Over the past two decades, western states have invested billions in the global south to foster democracy, facilitate peacebuilding and deter violence that poses a threat to western interests. However, the largest current threat is posed by right-wing extremist movements operating within western countries. Security and development spending hasn’t adapted to this evolving trend and hasn’t been sufficiently allocated to countries like Germany, where the far-right movements are based, operate and are growing in popularity. This situation requires an urgent shift in approach. If conventional funding sources cannot be adjusted, it is essential to collaboratively explore alternative funding methods.

Given the internationally networked character of violent far-right groups, our response must also be globally interconnected. The strengthening of German civil society initiatives focused on advancing rights and pluralism through exchanging knowledge, building partnerships, promoting innovative approaches and channelling appropriate funding will contribute to a more robust global response to the shared challenge of right-wing extremism.

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

Get in touch with the Violence Prevention Network through its website and follow it on LinkedIn.

EL SALVADOR: ‘Following the vote, we are officially entering a dictatorship’

CesarArtigaCIVICUS speaks about El Salvador’s recent general election with César Artiga, human rights defender and coordinator of the Global Call to Action Against Poverty (GCAP) in El Salvador, the National Driving Team of the Escazú Agreement and the National Coalition for the Right to Live in a Healthy Environment.

What are the consequences of the landslide election victory for President Nayib Bukele?

On 4 February 2024, Salvadoran democracy was buried. This happened with the complicity of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), which remained absent and unmoved by repeated violations of electoral law, showing its negligence and submission to President Nayib Bukele, who has proclaimed himself the winner and president re-elect.

This election was our last chance to recover the incipient democracy established with the signing of the Chapultepec Peace Accords in 1992. Bukele took office in June 2019 and since then the country has experienced profound human rights regression. The rule of law has been broken and institutional and constitutional guarantees have been annulled.

This was a unique opportunity to stop Bukele’s authoritarian onslaught and prevent him continuing to accumulate power and perpetuating himself as the country’s highest and only authority, which is what he pursued with his illegal candidacy. Re-election is unconstitutional in El Salvador, but he manipulated institutions and the entire state apparatus to push forward his project of total control and impose a culture of privilege and impunity for himself and his corporate family clan.

Following the vote, we are officially entering a dictatorship. In part this is because, having come to power for the first time through democratic means, Bukele has been re-elected in an unconstitutional manner. And it is also because of the levels of concentration of power that will result from the election, which as well as giving Bukele a resounding mandate at the head of the executive has also given him absolute control of the Legislative Assembly. There is nothing requiring extraordinary majorities that he won’t be able to do in his second term. This is in addition to control of the judiciary, which he has had since May 2021.

These days dictatorships are not like those of the 1970s and 1980s. In many cases, such as this, they are not the result of military coups, but of power grabbing by leaders who are initially democratically elected. Tactics have also changed, becoming much more subtle. The main danger is not that you will be made to disappear, although that might eventually happen, but that you will be threatened, defamed and ultimately neutralised through media attacks and smear campaigns that will erase you from the public space.

Our democracy is dying because of the deterioration of civic space. The electoral ritual loses meaning from the moment that fundamental civic freedoms, meant to enable citizens’ participation in public affairs, are no longer in place. The current government deliberately swept them away.

How free and competitive was the election?

The election process was very flawed, mainly because the TSE did not apply electoral regulations as far as the president was concerned. The government violated electoral regulations with total impunity and without the TSE intervening. It started the campaign much earlier than the law allowed and used state resources to promote the candidacies of Bukele and his allies, while refusing to pay what’s known as the ‘political debt’, the monetary allocation that the state must make to each political party so that it can promote its candidates. This did not dent the governing party, which had all the state’s resources at its disposal, but it greatly harmed opposition parties, which had to fund themselves and are now on the verge of disappearing.

Moreover, the election took place in the context of a state of emergency that has been in place for two years and has led to the persecution and criminalisation of human rights defenders and dissenting voices. There is widespread fear of sharing one’s opinions or appearing in the media expressing positions critical of the government. This regime of exception that has become permanent did not provide institutional guarantees for a free and fair election.

Election day was marked by irregularities and problems in vote counting and the transmission of preliminary results. Bukele is presumed to have won by a landslide and to have claimed an absolute majority in the Legislative Assembly, but official results are not yet available.

The TSE’s failure to fulfil its role as electoral arbiter and guarantor of the integrity of the process makes one lose confidence in the transparency of the results. No matter how sweeping the results are, the election ends up losing legitimacy in the eyes of national and international public opinion.

What were the main campaign issues?

There was no real debate around issues. The fact that people went to vote without knowing the candidates’ proposals, because parties did not have proposals or lacked the resources or spaces to make them known, is a symptom of major democratic regression.

The ruling party did not present specific proposals, but rather framed re-election as a sort of plebiscite on Bukele, who enjoys great popularity. They simply proposed that people follow Bukele’s leadership and do what he says should be done. A messianic spirit has taken hold of Salvadoran society and the notion has spread that Bukele is the solution to all our problems, and particularly to a truly urgent one that most people are most concerned about – insecurity.

The opposition was divided and its efforts were very dispersed. In addition to not having the necessary funds to publicise their proposals, opposition parties didn’t really have proposals that attracted the public, in comparison to Bukele’s campaign of fear, which announced that, if they won, opposition parties would free thousands of gang members who would once again fill the streets with violence.

The only issue that was talked about was security, because that’s where the government’s made its main impact. Bukele’s popularity is based on the results of his national security strategy against gang violence. However, as part of his ‘war on gangs’ there have been massive arbitrary arrests. Thousands of people have been unjustly detained and experienced violations of due process, the presumption of innocence and the right to defence. This issue was not given enough attention during the campaign, due to disinformation promoted by the government, which claims that all people in detention are gang members or collaborators.

How has public opinion reacted to the government’s security policy?

A broad segment of the public has viewed Bukele’s security strategy favourably because, from their point of view, it has produced results like no other in the past.

Bukele has indeed dismantled gangs, but at what cost? Those who disagree with his methods and think that the emergency regime should be lifted generally don’t say so for fear of reprisals. There is a very strong state-driven media campaign pushing the notion that anyone not supporting the government is a gang collaborator. There is no room for dissent or critical support. Either you support the government 100 per cent, or you are on the gangs’ side.

Some have realised that the government’s security strategy doesn’t offer a lasting solution. The terms of negotiations and agreements reached between the government and the gangs are not known, but it is a fact that the government made a pact with gang leaders.

Bukele’s security policy has resulted in the stigmatisation of working people, simply because of the conditions of exclusion in which impoverished communities live. Mass and indiscriminate arrests have disproportionately affected peasants, farmers, people of Indigenous descent and women human rights defenders. They have all been accused of belonging to illegal associations or collaborating with gangs when all they do is work, educate and contribute to the future of their communities.

What do you think the regional implications will be?

The ‘Bukele effect’ is already being felt at the regional level. The election of Javier Milei in Argentina is not an isolated case. Nor are the measures Ecuadorian president Daniel Noboa is taking in response to drug violence in his country. The trend observed in El Salvador is spreading: more and more societies are willing to give up rights and freedoms in exchange for security.

It is unfortunate to see this trend replicated in other countries. People are tired of the lack of response from their governments. Successive democratic governments have failed to promote the effective measures that were needed, and disappointment is enabling alternatives led by conservative, neoliberal and anti-rights governments – which in the long run will bring more problems than real and lasting solutions.

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

Follow @GCAPSV, @EquipoEscazuSV, @CONADAM_SV and @cartiga_global on Twitter.

EL SALVADOR: ‘The election is only a formality to give the green light to a dictatorship’

Carolina_Amaya.pngCIVICUS speaks about El Salvador’s general election with Carolina Amaya, a Salvadoran freelance journalist specialising in climate crises and socio-environmental conflicts.

What’s at stake in this election?

Eighty years after the end of the Maximiliano Martínez dictatorship, El Salvador is approaching a new dictatorship. On 4 February, once President Nayib Bukele is unconstitutionally re-elected, Salvadorans will lose guarantees for our basic human rights.

Bukele's first administration was characterised by widespread human rights violations: excessive militarisation, a prolonged state of emergency, stigmatisation and criminalisation of poverty as synonymous with involvement in gangs, attacks on independent press, land dispossession, environmental destruction, persecution of environmental defenders – the list goes on. This reality is disguised by propaganda disseminated by media and content creators aligned with the government. Their narrative is that gangs will be back on the streets if Bukele or his party, Nuevas Ideas, lose power.

Bukele is seeking re-election after ignoring the Salvadoran constitution, which does not allow it. Therefore, his new administration will be unconstitutional, as will all the decisions he makes. It is to be feared that all the rights enshrined in that same constitution will be violated. And we will no longer know how long Bukele and his circle will remain in power.

In short, what is at stake in the election is our dying democracy. Salvadoran citizens will get to have their say at the ballot box now, but it is uncertain whether they will be able to do so freely again in the future.

What are the chances of this election being truly free and fair?

The election will be free, but completely irregular given that the front-runner’s candidacy is unconstitutional. The process has been flawed from the moment the Supreme Electoral Tribunal allowed the registration of Bukele’s candidacy, despite him being ineligible for re-election.

As for fairness, there are other parties running on different platforms, but competition is unequal. The ruling party has made use of official funds for its electoral campaign, while the rest had to use their own funds to compete against a lavishly funded apparatus with a strong presence on both social and traditional media. This annihilates any alternative, so the election is only a formality to give the green light to a dictatorship.

The democracy that was born in 1992 has been eroded over the years. Every political party that has held power has been embroiled in corruption scandals. Corruption, the arrogance of elites, the inefficiency of the state and the lack of transparency have resulted in widespread distrust. Impoverished communities have become strongholds of Bukelism because they depend on government welfare to satisfy immediate needs; it is clear to them that they cannot expect long-term solutions.

The government has campaigned intensely by handing out food boxes and cutting the ribbon on construction projects, all of which is prohibited by the Electoral Code. But there is no authority that can put a stop to these illegal acts because the entire state structure is co-opted by Bukelism, including the judiciary and watchdog bodies.

What has the climate of opinion been ahead of the election?

Social media such as YouTube and TikTok are dominated by disinformation and the manipulation of information, while a campaign of fear has taken hold on television. This is nothing new in El Salvador: political parties have long campaigned on the fear that El Salvador could become another Cuba or Venezuela. Now the threat is focused on insecurity and the preservation of life.

It is very concerning that this messaging has permeated Salvadoran society to the point of not only normalising Bukele's unconstitutional candidacy but also giving him the certainty of a comfortable win.

What’s the position of civil society, the political opposition and public opinion regarding the government's security policy?

Bukele’s government has been authoritarian throughout all these years and in many ways, not just in the area of security. During the pandemic it locked up thousands of people who did not comply with isolation directions. When the quarantine was over, it established the state of emergency that continues to allow it to spy on us, persecute us and lock us up. Bukele has militarised the streets, and this has intensified in January 2024, on the eve of the election. The military has been patrolling every neighbourhood of San Salvador, the capital, to demonstrate its presence and power.

The public is grateful that the gangs lost much of their grip over the country. That is the main achievement of the Bukele administration. The problem is that most people are unaware of the reality of Bukele’s negotiations with gangs, so they think that he managed to clear the streets of gang members just by subjecting them to his state of emergency.

The media’s handling of images of imprisoned gang members has been very effective, to the point that it has had international repercussions. In several Latin American countries experiencing the scourge of organised crime, people are calling for an authoritarian figure just like Bukele to put an end to it. Even the president of Honduras, ideologically far removed from Bukele, has opted for militarisation and the use of repression to deal with gangs.

How has civic space been restricted under Bukele?

As a journalist, I can attest to the fact that many people shy away from the cameras because they dare not make public statements. Sources that spoke to me for years have increasingly stopped responding to my calls, starting from 2019, when Bukele came to power. The situation has worsened as this administration has progressed. Freedom of expression is increasingly limited, as is freedom of assembly. For example, when marches are called in the capital, police blockades are set up to hold back buses coming from the interior.

Harassment of dissenting voices is also apparent on social media. Day after day, journalists and human rights defenders are denigrated by armies of trolls. I am among the 10 female journalists most attacked on Twitter. Attacks against us women are often misogynistic in nature.

Some organisations, such as Acción Ciudadana, the Association of Journalists of El Salvador and Cristosal, continue to denounce the lack of a free environment for the expression of opinions, but their complaints have had little effect. Freedom of expression has continued to erode. And a country without freedom of expression, where human rights are violated and human rights defenders are persecuted, is nothing short of a dictatorship.

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

Follow @sharkgirl_sv on Twitter.

INDONESIA: ‘We must become an example of successful societal resistance against the threat of autocratic rule’

MuhammadIsnurCIVICUS speaks about the upcoming general election in Indonesia with Muhammad Isnur, chairperson of the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation (YLBHI) and Secretary of the Board of the Human Rights Working Group.

Founded in 1970, YLBHI is a human rights civil society organisation (CSO) that provides legal aid to excluded communities throughout Indonesia and engages in research, advocacy and empowerment initiatives. Every year the organisation receives at least 3,500 legal complaints and requests for assistance.

What is at stake in the upcoming general election?

The upcoming election will define Indonesias trajectory amidst a trend of growing authoritarianism. The incumbent government led by President Joko Widodo, known as Jokowi, is responsible for numerous human rights violations. It has targeted poor people through evictions and arrests, weakened anti-corruption efforts and criminalised civil society.

Jokowi has expressed support for the presidential candidacy of Prabowo Subianto, who faces allegations of crimes against humanity, including abductions and enforced disappearances of activists during mass protests in 1998 that led to the downfall of the Suharto dictatorship. He was dismissed from the military but hasn’t faced accountability and his victims haven’t received reparations, and some remain missing. His victory would be the worst possible scenario for civil society.

Jokowi has also undermined the rule of law to pave the way for his 36-year-old son, Gibran Rakabuming, to become a vice-presidential candidate. The controversial Constitutional Court ruling issued in October 2023 to grant him an exception to the legal minimum age of 40 to run for president or vice-president was delivered by Chief Justice Anwar Usman, who happens to be Jokowi’s brother-in-law. Gibran represents the interests of the Jokowi government and corrupt and authoritarian economic elites.

If the ruling elite succeeds in arbitrarily extending its power, there is risk of a resurgence of the kind of authoritarian and oligarchical rule we saw during dictatorship from 1966 to 1998.

Who are the other contenders, and what are their human rights records?

The other candidates are Ganjar Pranowo and Mahfud MD of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, which has a long history of wielding power and currently holds the highest number of ministers in the government. Mahfud has defended the Jokowi government for many years and denied the gross human rights violations committed by Indonesian security forces against Indigenous Papuans.

We’ve also documented numerous human rights violations in Central Java during Ganjar’s tenure as governor. In Kendeng, despite a court decision favourable to the local community opposed to the construction of a cement factory, Ganjar reissued an environmental permit for the construction to proceed. In Wadas, he facilitated the implementation of a mining project aligned with Jokowi’s agenda, disregarding opposition from the local community, which also faced extraordinary repression, including arrests and beatings by the police and disruptions of internet and electricity services.

The third pair of candidates, Anies Baswedan and Muhaimin Iskandar, in contrast, position themselves as advocates for change. Anies has a social agenda focused on protecting poor people. But they receive support from parties that are integral to the existing power structure and have also backed laws that weakened labour rights and undermined the Corruption Eradication Commission.

What are the prospects of the election being free and fair?

The public is concerned about Jokowi’s numerous efforts to make the election unfree and unfair. First, although he later denied it, under the pretext of COVID-19 he planned to amend the constitution to stay for a third term. He then focused on building a political dynasty. He supported his son-in-law and his son to be elected as mayors in Medan and Surakarta. Civil society reports suggest the police and army played an influential role in their victories. Concern persists as Jokowi has signalled support for the Prabowo-Gibran pair and ordered his officials to back his son’s campaign, even though they are required to remain neutral.

There are also significant concerns about potential fraud, which have prompted civil society to intensify efforts to establish an election monitoring system and set up monitoring mechanisms at polling stations. Civil society remains vigilant, scrutinising any statements, policies or threats that could undermine the integrity of the election.

Civil society is joining forces to prevent the election of Prabowo. Online activists have created the Four Fingers Movement to urge voters to choose a different pair than Prabowo-Gibran.

Surveys currently indicate that Prabowo could receive about 40 per cent of the vote. To force a runoff, it’s essential to prevent fraud and secure turnout. If nobody takes over half of the vote on 14 February, civil society and the public may unite around an alternative candidate to counter Prabowo in the runoff. But there are concerns about a potentially low turnout. The number of people choosing not to vote was already high in the previous election.

What should be done to counter democratic decline in Indonesia?

Democracy in Indonesia is being eroded by a government that disregards constitutional principles and the rule of law and instead uses laws as tools of power to suit its interests. Jokowi has reinstated the army and police in various public roles and issued presidential decrees and enacted policies to undermine other political parties and eliminate the opposition.

A key symptom of democratic decline is repression of government critics, including journalists, activists, academics and others advocating for human rights. A revealing example is the case against activists Haris Azhar and Fatia Maulidiyanti, who faced criminal defamation charges for exposing state corruption and human rights violations in the Papua region. Human rights are being violated across Indonesia as communities are evicted under the pretext of investment or national development projects, and people who denounce this are systematically criminalised.

But there are other issues that should be tackled to foster democracy in Indonesia. Indonesian political parties lack a clear ideological orientation and don’t represent public interests. Their position depends on their leadership and decisions are often made by a few. There is no internal democracy in political parties. The high costs of campaigning lead parties to rely on support from wealthy investors and businesspeople, undermining transparency and enabling corruption.

To foster change, we should work toward democratising parties, making them more transparent and accountable. Efforts should be made to involve the public in the legislative process. Laws are sometimes passed within a week without any consultation with civil society. Referendums and other mechanisms should be explored to enhance public participation.

The upcoming election has additional significance in the face of a global surge in authoritarianism. We must avoid following the path of the Philippines, where the son and daughter of two authoritarian dynasties succeeded in getting elected. We must unite in the face of authoritarianism and become an example of successful societal resistance against the threat of autocratic rule.

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

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

AZERBAIJAN: ‘Operating on the ground has become increasingly difficult due to security concerns’

KateWattersCIVICUS speaks about the links between the exploitation of fossil fuels and human rights violations in Azerbaijan with Kate Watters, Executive Director of Crude Accountability.

Founded in 2003, Crude Accountability is a civil society organisation that works to protect the environmental and human rights of people in the Caspian and Black Sea regions and in areas of Eurasia affected by oil and gas development.

How do extractive industries fuel human rights violations in Azerbaijan?

The key problem is corruption, which results from the close relationship between the executive branch of government and the oil industry. The use of the state oil company by the regime led by president Ilham Aliyev is a key feature of Azerbaijan’s kleptocracy.

Corporations operating in Azerbaijan handle vast sums of money and oversee massive projects. For example, British Petroleum (BP), the largest foreign investor, is involved in many of the key fossil fuel projects and is the majority shareholder and operator of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, through which around 80 per cent of Azerbaijan’s oil is exported. BP has a monopoly in the industry that dominates the national economy, with oil and gas accounting for 95 per cent of all exports, 75 per cent of government revenue and 42 per cent of national GDP.

Those in charge of the oil and gas sector control the financial and economic dynamics of the whole country. The vast revenues generated by the hydrocarbon industry make it difficult for smaller environmentally sustainable alternatives to gain traction and create fertile ground for corruption and secrecy. International mechanisms that promote transparency in the industry rely on a level of adherence to the rule of law that Azerbaijan lacks.

That’s why Crude Accountability’s advocacy efforts focus on advancing transparency and accountability. We aim for the adoption of cleaner technologies that ensure the wellbeing of local communities and call for international financial institutions to cease financing fossil fuels and redirect their investments toward sustainable green energy projects. We urge companies to be transparent about the social and environmental impacts of their operations and strive for continuous improvement.

What work do you do in Azerbaijan?

Crude Accountability’s involvement in Azerbaijan dates back to the early 2000s. We work with communities, organisations and people affected by oil and gas developments. Our efforts encompass extensive research, educational and advocacy activities that address the specific impacts of the hydrocarbon industry, such as gas flaring from the BP’s Sangachal Terminal, which is causing villagers health problems and sleep disruption, along with  the broader impacts of onshore and offshore oil and gas development in Azerbaijan.

As an organisation, we’ve shed light on previously undisclosed areas. One of our achievements is the collaborative report ‘Flames of Toxicity‘, produced in partnership with Omanos Analytics. Using satellite imagery and other technologies, we proved that oil spills and flaring were happening during extraction and refining processes in several locations. By doing this we reminded industry stakeholders that, even when it’s unsafe for activists to conduct extensive on-site verification, there are technologies we can use to gain insight into environmental and human rights violations.

For the past few years, operating on the ground in Azerbaijan has become increasingly difficult due to security concerns for our partners. Since mid-2023, our primary focus in Azerbaijan has shifted to advocating for the release of Gubad Ibadoghlu, a prominent economist and anti-corruption activist. He was arbitrarily detained in July 2023 and is currently held in miserable conditions in a pretrial detention centre outside the capital, Baku, facing mistreatment and denial of medical attention. During his arrest, both he and his wife were severely beaten after the car they were driving was surrounded and forced to stop. The physical violence perpetrated against Ibadoghlu and his wife during arrest is extremely concerning.

We are part of an international coalition of activists, academics, policymakers and journalists that works for the release of Gubad Ibadoghlu and other Azerbaijani political prisoners, including independent journalists affected by the recent crackdown on civil society.

Is the level of repression in Azerbaijan increasing?

Repression has intensified over the last five years, and particularly in the past couple of years, as President Ilham Aliyev and the presidential apparatus have sought to solidify their position and power. Following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, authoritarianism and the repression of civil society have escalated across Eurasia. This is certainly the case in Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijani people are afraid to speak out about the Azerbaijani offensive against Nagorno-Karabakh. Even those who refrain from criticising the offensive and work to address other related issues risk being labelled as ‘pro-Armenian’, a smear used by authorities against activists and dissenters.

The snap presidential election scheduled for 7 February will serve to further consolidate Aliyev’s rule amidst regional turmoil. In this context, independent journalists face a heightened risk of repression. In June 2023, protests erupted in the village of Soyudlu, already threatened by environmental degradation, against the construction of an artificial lake to contain waste from the nearby Gadabay goldmine. Police severely beat community activists and journalists who came to cover the story. The village remains under lockdown, and although it appears that the goldmine’s activity has been limited or halted, it remains a challenge to obtain verified information. The community has been under stress since the incident.

Environmental activists are also at risk. People with information about issues such as flaring or emissions are often afraid to speak out. Sometimes they have family members employed by the oil company or refinery and fear that they may lose their jobs, jeopardising the family’s livelihood. Fear of repercussions silences environmental activists and others who are aware of environmental violations. Still, some environmental and human rights defenders continue to operate discreetly in Azerbaijan.

What forms of international support does Azerbaijani civil society currently need?

Azerbaijan’s selection as the host for this year’s United Nations climate change conference, COP29, poses significant challenges from both a human rights and an environmental perspective. Azerbaijan has fallen short of its climate commitments. It hasn’t signed the Global Methane Pledge, a step taken even by countries like Turkmenistan. There are also serious concerns about civil society’s ability to participate in COP29 due to ongoing repression and severe human rights violations taking place in the host country. The imprisonment of a prominent Azerbaijani economist investigating corruption in the oil and gas sector raises further concerns.

The international community should demand transparency and accountability from the Azerbaijani authorities in the run-up to COP29 and throughout the conference. A legitimate discussion on climate change in the framework of sustainability and human rights can only occur with the active participation of civil society.

It is also very important to building international coalitions to confront authoritarianism, repression and closed civic space. Autocratic governance seeks to make people feel isolated and disunited, so collaborative efforts are vital. By working together, sharing resources and leveraging each organisation’s expertise for knowledge exchange, we can enhance our impact.

Azerbaijani civil society requires financial resources, solidarity and support from the international community. The more we can offer to activists on the ground, the more successful our collective efforts will be.

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

Get in touch with Crude Accountability through its website or Facebook page, and follow it on LinkedIn and Twitter.

PAKISTAN: ‘It doesn’t matter who casts the vote as much as who counts the vote’

MuhammadMudassarCIVICUS speaks about Pakistan’s upcoming election with Muhammad Mudassar, Chief Executive Officer at the Society for Human Rights and Prisoners’ Aid (SHARP-Pakistan).

Founded in 1999, SHARP is a human rights civil society organisation working for the rights and wellbeing of vulnerable groups, including refugees and internally displaced people, and working on issues related to people trafficking and smuggling of migrants, including through advocacy at the national and international levels, capacity development, community services and emergency response.

What’s the political climate in Pakistan ahead of the election?

Post-COVID-19, like many global south countries Pakistan grapples with security concerns, political instability and economic challenges that affect both its citizens and government. This means that uncertainty loomed over the upcoming election, but the situation is much clearer now and the country is all set to vote for the new parliament. It would be unconstitutional to extend the mandate of the existing caretaker government. The Chief Justice of Pakistan has confirmed that it is set in stone that the general election should be held on time.

To what extent are conditions conducive to a free and fair election?

As had always been the case, there’s controversy around the election, which many observers feel lacks conditions for fair competition. While some political parties are free to conduct their activities, others claim to face restrictions in submitting nomination papers and campaigning, and their members are subjected to arrests.

Over the past 75 years, no prime minister of Pakistan has completed a full five-year term, and they have often ended up in jail. This trend started with Zulficar Ali Bhutto, deposed during martial law in 1977, followed by his daughter Benazir Bhutto, who was dismissed twice. A similar fate befell recent former prime ministers Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan.

Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) has had ample space for campaigning, even though Sharif, a three-time former prime minister, was ousted for alleged corruption in 2017 and sentenced to 10 years in prison. In October 2023, he returned to Pakistan from exile in the UK, where he had travelled on bail for medical treatment in 2018. Sharif’s corruption conviction and his lifetime ban from politics were overturned by the Supreme Court in early January. Now most political commentators are predicting that the PML-N will win the election.

In comparison, Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party is complaining that it has been all but barred from participating in the election. The Electoral Commission of Pakistan disqualified Khan due to one conviction out of around 200 cases against him and barred the party from using its famous cricket bat symbol on ballot papers. Khan has also recently received 10 and 14-year sentences  on charges of leaking state secrets and corruption. Nomination papers of most national and provincial PTI leaders were rejected by District Returning Officers but appellate tribunals of higher judiciary subsequently accepted most and allowed them to context elections.

Further, there’s no democracy within political parties due to nepotism and dynastic leadership. Most political parties function as family dynasties, which drives independent leaders away. It has rarely been about people’s choices. It doesn’t matter who casts the vote as much as who counts the vote.

How have civic space conditions changed over the past years?

The media and civil society are divided and, human rights activists comment, there is an atmosphere of discontent that somewhat hinders the freedom of speech. Further, unemployment and other pressing issues continue to prompt many people to leave Pakistan.

Still, at SHARP-Pakistan we remain hopeful and keep analysing problems to try to offer solutions. As part of Pakistani civil society, we aspire to forge connections, work alongside and learn from international partners to be able to better promote human rights and democracy at home. We need free and fair elections so that results truly reflect the will of the people.

How are you and other civil society groups engaging with the election?

The role of civil society in the election takes the form of support for the institutional processes of a democratic vote well as the more substantive development of a democratic electorate. Civil society is also playing its due role in reducing election-related conflict dynamics and promoting a peaceful electoral environment.

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



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