BRAZIL: ‘If Bolsonaro continues as president, it is a threat to the Amazon and therefore to humanity’

DanielaSilva

PORTUGUESE 

CIVICUS discusses the state of environmental activism in Brazil with Daniela Silva, a socio-environmental educator and co-founder of the Aldeias Project, an education, art, culture and environment project for children and young people in the municipality of Altamira, in the Brazilian state of Pará.

What inspired you to become an environmental activist?

I live in a territory that has suffered great social and environmental impacts following the establishment of the Belo Monte hydroelectric plant on the Xingu River. And like thousands of people, including riverbank dwellers, fishers, Indigenous people, farmers, boat people, women and young people, my family and I also had our lives strongly impacted on by the project.

We lived in a neighbourhood called Aparecida, in a community where neighbours supported each other and children and young people played in the streets without fear. When a mother went out, she would leave her children in the custody of her neighbour. One of my best memories is our backyard. It looked like a farm: we had many fruit trees. We didn’t need to spend money to eat fruit. Solidarity was strengthened by a sense of community, which I think was intrinsically linked to the sense of belonging to a territory. All this was destroyed by a ‘development’ approach that disregards the subjectivity of peoples and populations.

The displacement caused by the construction of the Belo Monte hydroelectric plant pushed families far away from the Xingu River and separated communities that had lived together for decades. It fragmented community ties. A negative consequence of these impacts on the territory and people’s sense of self was their disconnection from nature and the loss of the Amazonian sense of belonging. Not feeling part of the Amazon is dangerous, because generally speaking, people only defend what they love, what they know and what they feel a part of.

Before the construction of the dam, my father worked as a potter. Together with my mother, who worked as a civil servant, they raised eight children. This was all over when the dam was built. My father became unemployed and so did my brothers. My father began to fight for the right to a ridiculously small pension. My brothers were forced to look for odd jobs around town. It was a difficult time! I realised that adapting to an imposed reality is one of the worst forms of violence against human dignity.

I am an activist for socio-environmental rights and against racism. Since adolescence I haven’t had much choice but to fight. We are one with nature, so we need to fight for nature to ensure a better present and future for ourselves and our children.

How is Brazilian civil society mobilising on behalf of the environment and what challenges does it face?

There are many environmental movements in the Amazon mobilising to denounce the environmental crimes of the government of President Jair Bolsonaro, but unfortunately our country’s judicial institutions have not been functioning according to the law, and have left us in a vulnerable position.

There are many civil society organisations that have been working for a long time in the Amazon and other areas that face great challenges to sustain themselves since there is little availability of financial resources. Most of those that manage to survive do so with international funding, since there is little incentive in Brazil to mobilise resources for civil society. Financial suffocation is one of the tactics used by the current government. In addition, we live in a very unstable and negative economic context, with high inflation and a fall in real wages. The fact that Brazil is a country lacking a culture of giving makes it even more complicated. It all results in a shortage of resources for the sustainability of organisations and the security of environmental defenders.

Even so, new groups and collectives – including the one I lead, Aldeias Project – continue emerging to defend the Amazon. There are many young people in leadership positions in the movements to defend their territories.

Our challenge is to create a safe space, since we are under constant threat. To be able to carry out our work, we have established partnerships with more experienced organisations that are able to advise us on best practices for taking care of our staff, partners and the communities we serve. Networking helps us see the big picture and build powerful links.

What do you think about the recent verdict by the Brazilian Supreme Court to recognise the Paris Agreement as a human rights treaty?

The Paris Agreement is undoubtedly an important legal instrument, and it is good that, as a human rights treaty signed by the Brazilian state, it has acquired constitutional status. But like all of Brazil’s legal documents, including the Federal Constitution, it must be fully implemented, especially by public managers who keep on violating human and environmental rights regardless of what is stated in the Brazilian Constitution.

For the Paris Agreement to be implemented and make an impact on the daily life of Brazilians, it must be disseminated among the people who suffer the climate crisis the most: Indigenous populations, riverside dwellers and Black communities in city outskirts. It is also important for the international community to take decisive action and put pressure on the Brazilian government for it actually to fulfil the agreement.

Will the result of the upcoming election make any difference to your struggles?

The October elections are perhaps one of the most important in Brazil's history. There is a lot at stake when it comes to the Amazon region. Bolsonaro, the incumbent, has unleashed uncontrolled deforestation, land grabs and illegal mining on Indigenous lands. He is also encouraging violence against human and environmental rights defenders in the Amazon.

With Bolsonaro there is no possibility of dialogue or engagement of organised civil society in decision-making on environmental matters. If Bolsonaro continues as president of Brazil, it is a threat to the Amazon and its peoples, and therefore to humanity. We are experiencing a global climate crisis and we need world leaders focusing on working alongside civil society, scientists and the international community to put together short, medium and long-term solutions to tackle it.

The advances of deforestation in the Amazon should be a key factor driving a Bolsonaro defeat in this election, but unfortunately it is not. Brazilian society remains very oblivious to the reality of the Amazon. Brazil’s large urban centres do not recognise the everyday reality of the forest and its peoples. The consequence of their ignorance is their lack of active concern about the current ecocide being committed by the Bolsonaro government. Fortunately, many Amazonian environmental movements are trying hard to pierce their bubble so Brazilian society gets to know what is happening and takes a stand.

Now, while acknowledging the utmost importance of defeating Bolsonaro in the upcoming election, we also have strong criticism of his main rival, the Workers’ Party (PT). Like right-wing governments, PT governments, led by the current PT candidate, Lula da Silva, and his successor as president, Dilma Rousseff, also pushed initiatives that were environmentally destructive: the Belo Monte project was built under PT administrations, without any respect for the law and international agreements on human and environmental rights.

However, we believe that with Lula we would be able to have a dialogue and there could be more space for civil society engagement in environmental decision making.

What do you think should happen at the forthcoming COP27 climate summit, and what do you think will happen?

Firstly, I think it is very important that COP27 is taking place in Africa, because African nations are among those that are suffering the most due to a climate crisis that has been caused by a small powerful group of white millionaires. They now have the opportunity to have a greater involvement at COP27 and demand more assistance from the richer nations that have caused the climate crisis. I hope that this edition of COP27 will enable the implementation of the promises and targets already agreed upon. And that women, children and adolescents will play an active role in this struggle for social and environmental justice.

Although that is what I hope for, we all know that COPs are a space where difficult conversations must take place and the governments of big nations lack the will to face the reality of climate change, especially when it comes to financial investments and taking it upon themselves to counter the damage their developmentalist approach continues to cause. So we will be closely watching the negotiations and agreements. We are at a critical point regarding climate, and there is no time to lose.

What kind of support do Brazilian environmental activists need from the international community?

The international community is our ally in our struggle for climate, social and racial justice. One way to help is by shedding light on activists’ work and directly and indirectly supporting their struggles. Another is to put pressure on genocidal and ecocidal governments such as Bolsonaro’s so that they respect human and environmental rights. Be aware of our struggles and listen to the voices of those on the ground in the countryside, on the peripheries of cities and on the forefront of this war we wage on a daily basis.


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

Get in touch with Daniela through LinkedIn and follow @projetoaldeias on Instagram.

 

MYANMAR: ‘The ruling military junta uses fear as a domination tool’

Myanmar coup protests 3 Gallo

CIVICUS speaks about the human rights situation and prospects for democracy in Myanmar with a civil society activist based in Myanmar, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons.

What is the current situation in Myanmar, a year and a half on from the military coup?

Myanmar has been in turmoil since February 2021. The coup halted the fragile democratisation process. All branches of government – legislative, executive and judiciary – were concentrated in the hands of the junta and fundamental rights were suspended.

The rule of law has been significantly degraded at every level. In the business sector, the junta’s inconsistent regulations make it impossible for investors to make decisions. Foreign investors are increasingly withdrawing from Myanmar, and the telecom sector fell into the hands of the junta’s cronies. The junta has questionable capacity to manage the economy, and inflation has pushed up the prices of essential commodities.

The degradation of the rule of law puts people’s everyday life and livelihood at risk. Repression and fundamental rights violations make everyone feel unsafe and spread fear. The junta uses fear as a domination tool. Even once-peaceful villages in central Myanmar have become conflict zones where the junta’s troops have destroyed tens of thousands of people’s humble homes.

What effects has the coup had on civil society?

The post-coup setting is very challenging. The coup set back civil society, which had been slowly growing since the late 2000s, when young democracy and human rights activists who had survived the military dictatorship started getting together and organising to pursue common objectives.

Our organisation came into existence in the early days of Myanmar’s political transition. There were limited freedoms and rights and limited space for civil society organisations. Our objective was to create a gathering space and provide support for political and civic activists. Within a decade, we adopted the broader objective of promoting civic space in Myanmar. We use technology to reach the right audiences and promote civic awareness, participation and engagement.

Right now our work is severely restricted. A few organisations have relocated their offices to border areas or neighbouring countries, but we continue operating inside Myanmar. Since speaking out entails security risks, along with many other activists and organisations we have changed our approach, keeping a low profile. We are also conducting research as a tactical response to understand the challenges and find possible ways out.

For some of Myanmar’s local civil society activists, life under a repressive regime is not a new experience: they operated under similar conditions before the 2010s. They continue to take numerous risks to serve their communities. Some organisations have also managed to channel international humanitarian assistance to conflict areas and vulnerable populations.

What kind of work are pro-democracy groups doing and what backlash do they face?

Restoring democracy is hard work. Pro-democracy groups are working to force a return of power to an elected government. They discuss things such as interim arrangements, political pacts for federalism and a transitional constitution. On the ground, they promote rights and freedoms and defend people from the junta’s repression.

Having expressed their wish for democracy in the 2020 general election, the public supports pro-democracy groups in various ways, such as by taking part in peaceful demonstrations and campaigns for the suspension of tax payment, boycotting the junta’s products and brands, and joining in so-called ‘social punishment’, a form of protest that consists of doxing members of the junta and their family members – revealing information about their businesses and family connections. Many people inside Myanmar and in the diaspora also contribute financially to support the security of people in conflict areas and provide emergency humanitarian supplies.

The vital goal of pro-democracy protests is to sustain awareness of fundamental rights and freedoms, provide encouragement and show determination to take action rather than be the junta’s victims. In the earlier days, the protests were joined by people from all walks of life, including young people, students, members of civil society and political parties, government staff and celebrities. Even as the junta used lethal force and arbitrary arrests and committed atrocities, they continued to demonstrate daily in some rural regions and hold occasional flash mobs in urban areas.

The junta keeps trying to clear out pro-democracy groups and to get the endorsement of the international community. As it finds the latter quite hard, it increasingly focuses on the former. They apply the so-called ‘four cuts’: they try to cut off financial support, rations, information and recruitment by pro-democracy groups. They arrest high-profile businesspeople suspected of supporting them and strictly regulate financial transactions. They deploy police and troops at every crossroads, equip their supporters with weapons and train informants. They have banned numerous news agencies and publications that could counter their propaganda and torched villages that were believed to host pro-democracy groups.

What will be the consequences of the recent executions of pro-democracy activists?

In late July the military executed four pro-democracy activists. It was the first time the death penalty was imposed in Myanmar in decades.

For the junta, this means there is no turning back. They meant it as a message to shock and paralyse people and comfort their hard-line supporters. But it backfired: it fuelled robust determination among pro-democracy groups.

Internationally, the executions showed that the junta will not play by the rules to gain international recognition. In fact, it has continued to show muscle, using hostage diplomacy. A former British ambassador, recently jailed, became one of the victims of this.

When they lose power, they will have to face justice. Any transition will have to contemplate transitional justice arrangements to hold everyone who committed crimes against humanity and war crimes accountable in domestic and international courts. They shall not enjoy impunity anymore.

How can the international community help Myanmar’s civil society?

Myanmar needs attention and practical coordination. The international community must listen to our people’s voices and reflect on their agendas by following up with quick and responsive actions. Paying attention to local concerns and voices and developing effective international assistance will make people feel more hopeful and maintain their resilience.

Meanwhile, the junta is trying to boost its legitimacy by holding a controversial election. Elections under its iron fist will never be free and fair. The international community must be clever enough not to recognise such elections, which are a rotten trick the military have used for decades. Endorsing the junta as a legitimate ruler will only prolong the crisis.

So we ask the international community: please listen to and amplify Myanmar people’s voices!


Civic space in Myanmar is rated ‘repressedby the CIVICUS Monitor.

 

UNITED NATIONS: ‘Getting a strong Ocean Treaty across the line would be nothing short of historic’

EllieHooperCIVICUS speaks with Ellie Hooper of Greenpeace Aotearoa about civil society’s role in the ongoing negotiations towards the development of a United Nations Ocean Treaty. Greenpeace is a global environment campaigning network that comprises 26 independent national and regional organisations in over 55 countries across all continents as well as a co-ordinating body, Greenpeace International, based in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. It uses peaceful protest and creative communication to expose global environmental problems and promote solutions that create a green and peaceful future.

What is the significance of the proposed Ocean Treaty?

A strong global treaty on the oceans could revolutionise the way oceans are managed, putting an end to fragmented governance that has failed to protect our blue planet the way we need to.

If done right, one of the key things the Ocean Treaty could deliver is the creation of fully protected marine areas on the high seas. These areas would be off limits to destructive human activities such as industrial fishing and mining. At the moment there is no legal mechanism to create fully protected areas outside of national jurisdictions, which has become a real problem. The ocean is under threat from all sides and to protect it we need to take a holistic view tackling multiple risk factors.

Getting a strong treaty across the line would be nothing short of historic. Scientists tell us that to avoid the worst of the climate and biodiversity crisis we must protect at least a third of the world’s oceans by 2030. A strong treaty would give us the mechanism to do this. The ocean is a huge carbon sink and has absorbed a great deal of global warming to this point. It’s also home to amazing biodiversity, produces the oxygen we breathe, stabilises the climate and is a food source for millions around the world.

In short, keeping the ocean healthy is vital to our survival and the entire functioning of our blue planet. But more and more research shows it is in decline. To turn this around we need to step up and protect it by reducing the multiple pressures on the system.

Science shows that fully protected marine areas are one of the best tools we’ve got to help the ocean recover and thrive. When these are put in place in the right areas – places known to be high in biodiversity, migratory pathways or unique ecosystems – ocean health improves and marine life flourishes. This has positive impacts across the board, from the number of creatures in the sea to how well the ocean can absorb carbon.

Why is the treaty process taking so long?

We’re talking about a hugely ambitious conservation effort. Getting a treaty across the line involves countries around the world agreeing to its terms, and that is not an easy feat.

While it’s disappointing that leaders failed to reach a conclusion on this at the latest round of negotiations held in August, this doesn’t mean an agreement isn’t going to happen. At the last meeting a great deal of progress was made, with countries showing more flexibility and a real sense of urgency. They ran out of time, but we are not giving up hope that this historic agreement is on the horizon. What needs to happen now is for countries to come together without delay and thrash out their remaining discrepancies.

How has civil society in general, and Greenpeace specifically, advocated for the treaty?

There’s been a great deal of civil society pressure for this treaty, with many organisations around the world pushing hard for its best version to materialise.

Greenpeace has been actively involved in the treaty process since the beginning. It sends a team to each round of negotiations and has run a global campaign to raise awareness of the threats facing the ocean and how a treaty could counter them. Our approach has been twofold: to build public momentum around the agreement while doing all the behind-the-scenes work, talking to ministers and other public officials in all the regions where we’re active.

As a consequence, millions of people around the world have joined the campaign for a strong treaty. They’ve done that in various ways, from signing petitions, sending letters and recording video messages to attending marches. Many people around the world are invested in this issue and their engagement has been critical to getting this far.

For us here at Greenpeace Aotearoa, it’s been inspiring to see the number of people willing to stand up for ocean protection, and we know that their voices have been heard. It’s fair to say that their repeated calls on New Zealand’s leaders to support a strong treaty has resulted in New Zealand supporting a far more progressive position at negotiations. That’s really people power in action. When we work together, we can make real change happen.

We’ve also met regularly with the New Zealand delegation to the treaty negotiations, as well as the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and we consistently communicate with them about what this treaty needs to look like in order to protect the ocean for the future.

What can environmental civil society organisations and activists do to ensure the treaty is adopted?

Treaty negotiations need to urgently resume. At the latest round, countries ran out of time to agree on all its terms, but they’re almost there. So it’s up to civil society activists and organisations to keep pushing world leaders to prioritise reconvening and getting this done. We don’t want it to fall to the bottom of the agenda – it’s simply too important.

In more practical terms, making noise about the need for this treaty is really important. That could look like sharing content online, signing petitions, or writing to your country’s minister of foreign affairs to show how important getting this treaty done is. None of us can survive without a healthy ocean, so we all need to up to protect it.


Get in touch with Greenpeace Aotearoa through its website or Facebook page, and follow @GreenpeaceNZ and @EleanorRowena on Twitter.

 

UNITED NATIONS: ‘Ocean Treaty negotiations are largely a backroom discussion that excludes civil society’

JohnPaulJoseCIVICUS speaks John Paul Jose about civil society’s role in the ongoing negotiations towards a United Nations (UN) High Seas Treaty. John is an environmental and climate activist from India who currently serves as one of the youth ambassadors of the High Seas Alliance (HSA) and a member of the Youth Policy Advisory Council of the Sustainable Ocean Alliance. The HSA is a partnership of more than 40 civil society organisations (CSOs) plus the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. It aims to build a strong common voice and constituency for ocean conservation.

What is the significance of the proposed treaty?

Seventy-one per cent of the surface of the Earth is covered by ocean, 64 per cent of which are high seas. The ocean regulates the global climate and sustains life on the planet. It sequesters much of the historic and cumulative carbon emissions: phytoplankton, marine forests and whales, in particular, play a significant role in locking carbon in the ocean. However, the ocean has been systematically ignored in efforts to address the climate crisis and the loss of biodiversity, which have focused almost exclusively on the land.

As the high seas are a global commons, it is largely governed by the International Maritime Organization, a UN agency responsible for regulating shipping that was established in 1948, and the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and its autonomous intergovernmental body, the International Seabed Authority, established in 1994.

But high seas are experiencing unprecedented threats that were not foreseen when those agreements were reached, such as the accumulation of plastics, chemical and industrial waste, acidification, deep sea mining, bottom trawling and, last but not least, the overall impacts of climate change. Rising temperatures and the overexploitation of marine habitats and species increase the danger of ocean collapse.

This is why it is urgent to develop a global treaty on biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction – a High Seas Treaty. This would provide the legal basis for the conservation of marine ecosystems and the protection from extinction of countless species yet to be discovered. Only one per cent of the high seas are currently protected, and the treaty aims to make it 30 per cent by 2030.

This would be the equivalent of the Paris Agreement for the oceans. Through marine conservation and the sustainable use of marine resources, it will preserve the carbon cycle. By creating marine protected areas, it will contribute to the restoration of marine habitats and the replenishment of the marine resources on which many communities around the world rely for their livelihoods. It will further contribute to global climate resilience. Once it comes into effect, many practices harmful to the ocean will cease to exist within the protected areas.

Why is the treaty process taking so long?

It has been 15 years since the negotiations started, but cooperation has been lacking regarding many aspects of the treaty. Differences would need to be resolved in between sessions, and a treaty should be finalised to include all the aspects where agreements have been reached, leaving space for future amendments as differences over more contested elements are subsequently resolved. And intergovernmental conferences should definitely happen more often.

One element being discussed is the equitable distribution among states of marine genetic resources, which are essential in the pharmaceutical, cosmetic, agricultural and other industries. The current overemphasis on benefit sharing is an illusion, as we don’t know enough about such benefits, since much of the ocean is still unexplored. But it is a fact that 10 countries account for 71 per cent of global fishing and 98 per cent of patents of genetic codes of marine life in the high seas. Those few countries’ greed and unwillingness to share benefits and marine technology and knowledge, and the obvious concerns this creates among less powerful countries, are one big reason for the deadlock.

There is also a stalemate on defining criteria for environmental impact assessments and the implementation of marine protected areas. What is at stake here are the interests of deep-sea mining industries and industrial fisheries.

However, the treaty process has seen a lot of success in convening discussions and negotiations. As of now, more than 100 states are highly committed to backing the treaty as it stands and some, such as Costa Rica, are leading by example by pushing forward regionally, opening up additional avenues for conservation.

The treaty is likely to be finalised at the next session, so further efforts should be put into funding delegations from global south countries so they can be a stronger voice and bring more balance into negotiations.

How has civil society in general, and the HSA in particular, advocated for the development and adoption of a treaty?

Since its inception, the HSA has advocated for protecting at least 50 per cent of the ocean, engaging decision-makers, experts and civil society. We are now focused on keeping up the momentum of the intergovernmental conferences, as this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have a legally binding treaty to protect the planet by changing the way we govern the high seas. This process has created a lot of awareness about the importance of the high seas, so governments that used to be unfamiliar with them are now supporting a robust treaty.

That said, it should be noted that only states are considered as parties to the treaty, so non-state voices have no space in the negotiations. Treaty negotiations are largely a backroom discussion that excludes civil society and experts. Many of us cannot even witness live negotiations and documents are only made available once discussions have been closed.

There are also clear inequalities among participating states. Many states with limited resources bring very small delegations and lack the expertise to engage productively in the discussions. It would make a difference to all parties involved if civil society were able to bring its expertise into the process.

What can environmental CSOs and activists do to ensure the treaty’s adoption?

There are clear limits to what we can do to expedite the treaty’s adoption. We believe it is crucial to have a treaty as soon as possible, and it is better to have an incomplete one than to have none. So states should move forward on all the issues where agreements have been reached and design an amendment process to integrate further issues and stakeholders’ concerns in the future.

CSOs and activists can contribute to the process by bringing diverse perspectives to the table. As current negotiations are closed discussions among states in which civil society, scientists and the private sector don’t have a seat, we only can do so by advocating with receptive states that do have a seat at the table.

We can also campaign to bring bottom-up pressure into the process, by bringing the concerns the treaty tries to address into the discussion of the global climate movement and getting the wider public engaged. Resources such as the HSA’s Treaty Tracker provide access to useful information regarding the treaty and negotiations. This information should reach across the globe and empower people to demand that world leaders finalise the treaty, and to call on their own governments to hear them in environmental policy process.

A treaty would provide a legal basis for action, but even without one, states, communities and corporations can act to protect the high seas. Many countries already have marine protected areas within their national jurisdictions, and more can be established with public participation. Civil society should engage in these processes but should not be limited by national boundaries. It’s time for us to transcend borders and advocate for the global commons as well.


 Get in touch with the High Seas Alliance through its website or Facebook page, and follow @HighSeasAllianc and @johnpauljos on Twitter.

 

ANGOLA: ‘Much effort was put into excluding people from the electoral process’

PORTUGUESE

CIVICUS speaks about the recent Angolan election and its aftermath with Catarina Antunes Gomes and Cesaltina Abreu from the Social Sciences and Humanities Laboratory of the Catholic University of Angola (LAB). LAB works closely with Civic Movement Mudei (‘I changed’ in Portuguese), a movement of multiple civil society organisations (CSOs) that advocate for democratic change in Angola. It campaigns for voting rights and fair conditions of electoral competition, including transparent funding, equitable media coverage and citizen monitoring of election processes.

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 What kinds of civic space restrictions did Angolan civil society encounter during the election?

Civil society has faced many constraints before, during and after the election. Prior to the election, there was a partial review of the constitution that was done without any consultation and did not follow the recommendations of the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance. The organic law on general elections was also amended without the participation of civil society or the political opposition, and it resulted in reduced electoral transparency. Key stakeholders were denied a platform to be part of the process.

A few months before the election, the government also decided to change Angola’s political and administrative division, with potential impact on the drawing of electoral districts. Although it did not follow through with this reform, this caused great confusion and gave rise to suspicions about the intentions of the ruling party, the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), and the credibility of the election.

In 2021 President João Lourenço appointed Laurinda Cardoso, a member of the MPLA’s political bureau, as chief judge of the Constitutional Court. Civil society also raised concerns about the appointment and swearing in of Manuel Pereira da Silva as the new president of the National Electoral Commission. But our voices have been overlooked during the whole process.

The media situation has also been very precarious. Since the start of the electoral process, state intervention has increased, even in private media. Mudei monitored the media coverage of various parties and candidates from May until July and found that both public and private media had become instruments of propaganda, undermining the right to freedom of information and free choice.

On 6 July, just as the electoral campaign was about to begin, a new law was proposed to prohibit surveys and posts revealing voting choices. Instead of ensuring people were fully included in the electoral process, much effort was put into excluding them.

As a result, the level of transparency and fairness of the 24 August election has been dubious to say the least. It has been questioned by civil society through many public statements. The organisations we work with, Mudei and LAB, have produced a statement indicating they do not consider the elections to have been transparent, fair and free.

What do you think contributed to low voter turnout?

There were probably many reasons why fewer than half of registered voters went to the polls, but we believe major ones were disorganisation, fear and lack of trust.

The whole process was badly organised. In September 2021 there was an ‘unofficial electoral registration’ period, which is really a process of connecting databases to determine who is eligible to vote, but it was not made clear to people what this was about. Most people were confused about what the law said on residency and voting. The process was marked by lack of clarity and irregularities. Everything seemed too complicated so many lost interest. Many people were excluded as a result.

People were also afraid. The electoral campaign should be a time when candidates share their ideas with us, debate their parties’ proposals and tell us their thoughts about Angola’s future. But this was not what happened. The ruling party had a strong negative discourse, treating the other parties as enemies rather than adversaries. They didn’t present any ideas on how to make the country progress and what they published as their political programme was of very low quality.

Staying away from the polls can also be interpreted as a form of protest. We have done a lot of comparative electoral analysis and found that protest voting has increased in Angola through the years. This is the result of people’s complete lack of faith in political institutions, given their limited democratic character and lack of transparency. This year the protest vote rose even further.

How has the Angolan government reacted to civil society’s criticisms of electoral irregularities?

The government has responded with repression. There are two situations that we would like to share with CIVICUS and other international allies so they can help us by providing visibility, pressuring human rights international bodies and offering support in the form of capacity-building and funding for human rights activists and social movements in Angola.

The first situation concerns Pascoal Baptistiny, executive director of MBAKITA, a CSO that promotes the rights of Indigenous peoples and traditional communities in the province of Cuando Cubango in southern Angola. Pascoal has expressed concerns about the election, including in an interview with CIVICUS last year. This made him a target. He was put under surveillance and has recently requested our help to evacuate his family to Luanda, Angola’s capital, because he has been threatened and is afraid for their safety.

The second situation concerns several members of Mudei, including its coordinator, who has been threatened repeatedly. Another of our colleagues, who was an independent candidate, has been mentioned in aggressive articles and social media posts along with an official from the European Union delegation in Luanda. They are attacked as part of a supposed subversive conspiracy involving powerful international interests aiming at destabilising Angola.

The feeling of oppression has been increasing. The Angolan army has been put on high alert, allegedly to prevent attacks. But how would unarmed civilians be able to attack them? That is clearly an excuse; their presence is threatening and intimidating. We urge the international community to publicly denounce what our government is doing to people and act to protect civil society activists who continue to work regardless and face threats and violence as a result.


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

Get in touch with Mudei through its Facebook page, and follow @MovCivicoMudei on Twitter.

 

SIERRA LEONE: ‘Civil society needs international support to monitor the implementation of the new land laws’

BernsLebbieCIVICUS speaks with Berns Lebbie, lead campaigner and national coordinator of Land for Life (LfL) in Sierra Leone, about two new laws aimed at improving the ability of communities to protect their land rights and the environment. LfL brings together civil society organisations (CSOs) in four African countries: Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Liberia and Sierra Leone. It aims to contribute to the formulation and implementation of policies on land governance and agricultural investment consistent with international standards, and specifically the human right to adequate food.

What prompted Sierra Leone’s parliament to pass new environmental and land rights legislation?

Sierra Leone’s parliament has finally debated and passed the Land Commission and Customary Land Rights Bills, which are pending presidential approval. The new laws aim to address the problems of the country’s dual land tenure system. More than 95 per cent of Sierra Leone’s land is under customary rules preventing private ownership. Customary rules are often ambiguous and inconsistent, allowing for arbitrary and discriminatory application.

The need to rethink the land tenure system came to the forefront following a rush for large-scale land acquisitions for biofuel production between 2010 and 2013. The government was not prepared to handle multinational investment, as existing laws were obsolete. As a result, tensions grew between private sector investors and community land holders, and legal reform became a must.

The new laws came after years of progress in implementing legal and policy changes advocated for by civil society and the international community. It all started in 2010 as the government became aware of the importance of investment. Through an initiative funded by the United Nations (UN) Development Programme, Sierra Leone had its first version of a national land policy in 2011. Policies then underwent several updates.

In 2013, the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests were introduced in Sierra Leone. This internationally agreed framework guided the review process of Sierra Leone’s policy, which was finalised in 2015 and launched in 2017.

One of the key policy recommendations to emerge from the review process was that the government should enact new land legislation, so in 2018 consultants were hired to draft model bills. These were drafted with input from national stakeholders, local authorities, traditional chiefs, CSOs and the private sector. Our network participated in the process by producing policy papers representing the views of community landowners and local authorities. We ensured their perspectives became an integral part of the documents that accompanied the model bills.

Once they were presented to the public, however, the model bills sparked a lot of debate. The National Council of Paramount Chiefs rejected them entirely in a letter to the president. The private sector sent a list of concerns to the Minister of Land, while civil society raised some concerns through a parliamentary brief. In response, the minister engaged separately with each interest group, paving the way for parliament to continue with the reform process.

How significant is the new legislation?

Although they are only first steps in a long road to organise and modernise Sierra Leone’s land governance sector, the two laws offer distinct benefits.

The 2022 National Land Commission Act establishes a land commission that will function as an operational arm of the Ministry of Land, as well as several decentralised level structures. It takes an inclusive, gender-sensitive and participatory approach. As a result of this law, all lands will be titled and registered through a state-run real-time information and cadastral system.

The 2022 Customary Land Rights Act is aimed at protecting customary land rights, organising and harmonising customary land governance in the provinces. To address the problem of gender-based discrimination, it establishes women’s right to own and use family land on an equal footing with their male relatives.

Regarding investment processes, the law mandates investors to seek landowners’ free, prior and informed consent. All customary lands must be registered before they can be acquired for investment. The law also seeks to ensure the responsible use of natural resources and protected areas. Citizens now have a 10 per cent minimum share in all large-scale land-based investments. When government sets a floor price for land leases, families still have the right to renegotiate lease fees.

The law also states that no investment should take place on ecologically sensitive areas such as wetlands, swamps, lagoons and protected areas. Under certain conditions, only sustainable development projects approved by the authorities will be able to proceed.

Any commitment or agreement of private companies with regulatory agencies or funders will automatically form part of their land lease agreements. In this way, the land law will strengthen the enforcement of other laws, such as those on environmental protection and climate change mitigation.

What’s next for the civil society groups working on land and environmental rights in Sierra Leone?

Parliament now needs to pass the final reviewed versions of the bills to the president so he can sign them into law. At this stage, civil society plays a key monitoring role to ensure the contents of the bill sent to the president for signature are the ones debated and agreed upon.

Once the bills are signed, we will take part in their formal launch at a national land conference that we will co-organise with the Ministry of Land. Following that, we will organise a national-level training of trainers targeting CSOs, the media and others. To make the laws accessible to the public, we will produce a simplified compendium. For instance, we will work with telecom agencies to break down the key contents of the laws into text messages. We also plan to launch an app with a search function for easy referencing.

How can international allies support land rights groups in Sierra Leone?

Sierra Leonean civil society needs international support to monitor the implementation of the new land laws. First and foremost, we need financial support.

Our CSO network is currently funded by the German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development through the German CSO Welthungerhilfe, but that funding is quite limited. Although the UN Food and Agriculture Organization has overseen the reform process, we have not received any funds from them, as all its funding goes directly to the government. It is the same with other UN agencies, the World Bank and other international financial institutions. As there is no hope for Sierra Leonean CSOs to get any funding from them, we really need international civil society to step in.


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

Get in touch with LfL Sierra Leone through its website or Facebook page, and follow @Land4LifeSalone on Twitter.

 

UNITED NATIONS: ‘From now on, states should adopt a human rights approach to environmental regulation’

Victoria Lichet

CIVICUS speaks with Victoria Lichet, executive director of the Global Pact Coalition, about the resolution recently passed by the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) recognising the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment as a human right.The Global Pact Coalition brings together civil society organisations (CSOs), activists, artists, lawyers and scientists advocating for the adoption of the Global Pact for the Environment, a draft international treaty to enshrine a new generation of fundamental rights and duties related to the protection of the environment, and particularly the right to a healthy environment.

What are the relevance and implications of the recent UNGA resolution on the right to live in a clean, healthy and sustainable environment?

The adoption of a resolution on the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment by the UNGA, the legislative body of the UN, which includes all the UN member states, is a historic victory for environmental protection. The recognition of the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment as a universal human right makes environmental protection a core aspect of human rights protection. It is a major step towards a human rights-based approach in environmental litigation, as it integrates human rights norms into environmental matters.

In addition to recognising the right to a healthy environment as a right for all people, the resolution’s preamble clearly affirms the linkage between a healthy environment and human rights. The UNGA recognises that ‘environmental damage has negative implications, both direct and indirect, for the effective enjoyment of all human rights’.

While UNGA resolutions are not legally binding, this resolution is a strong political and symbolic message. It will play a role in shaping and strengthening new and stronger international environmental norms, laws, standards, and policies. As such, it will necessarily improve the overall effectiveness of environmental law and catalyse further environmental and climate action. This also proves that multilateralism still has a role to play in international environmental law.

What role did civil society play in the process leading to this resolution?

This resolution followed months of mobilisation by CSOs and Indigenous peoples’ organisations (IPOs), including the Global Pact Coalition. Under the inspiring leadership of the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, David R Boyd, and his predecessor, John Knox, the coalition of CSOs and IPOs was able to reach out to governments through emails and letters to better inform them about the importance of the right to a healthy environment. It also led social media campaigns to inform the public about the process. 

The core group of countries that led this initiative, made up of Costa Rica, Maldives, Morocco, Slovenia and Switzerland, was really helpful and communicated important steps regarding the resolution. We are very grateful for their leadership.

Does the final text of the resolution fully reflect civil society contributions?

The final text of the resolution mostly reflects civil society expectations. Through negotiation, some states were able to remove a few paragraphs. For example, the first draft said that the right to a healthy environment was related to the right to life and the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. But the final draft also included additional paragraphs, for example to include ‘business enterprises and other relevant stakeholders’ in the call to adopt policies to enhance international cooperation to scale up efforts to ensure a healthy environment.

Overall, the main goal for civil society was to have the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment recognised as a human right for all, and this was obviously fully reflected in the final text. So it is in fact a historic victory for civil society.

What measures should states adopt to make the right recognised in the resolution effective?

Recognition should be combined with strong and ambitious national and regional public policies that implement mechanisms to strengthen environmental protections, the protection of people’s health and the enjoyment of their other human rights. From now on, states should adopt a human rights-based approach in environmental regulation as well as better renewable energy and circular economy policies.

As Special Rapporteur David Boyd said, the international recognition of the right to a healthy environment should encourage governments to review and strengthen their environmental laws and policies and enhance their implementation and enforcement.

What should civil society do next?

Civil society should now advocate for stronger and more ambitious instruments to protect the environment, our right to a healthy environment and other environmental rights. Now that the right to a healthy environment has been recognised at the international level, we should introduce additional progressive rights and duties that will take us even further in environmental protection.

The UNGA resolution could be the foundation for a more comprehensive international instrument on the right to a healthy environment and other environmental rights. We already have ambitious models that could be used in these future negotiations, including the Global Pact for the Environment and the draft covenant of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the world’s largest global environmental network.

The path from ‘soft law’ to ‘hard law’ – in this case, from the non-binding UNGA resolution to a convention on the right to a healthy environment – is a very common one in international law. For example, the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is one part of the UNGA resolution on the International Bill of Human Rights, and therefore not legally binding, resulted in two treaties adopted in 1966: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. It took 18 years to incorporate the Declaration into two legally binding texts.

We hope it will not take 18 years to achieve a convention on environmental rights, because that would bring us to 2040. We do not have that kind of time. The time has come to adopt such a convention, a ‘third pact’ recognising a third generation of human rights. After civil and political rights, and economic and social rights, it is time to enshrine our environmental rights.

As we face a triple planetary crisis, a binding international environmental text is critically important because millions of people are already dying from toxic environments, particularly from air pollution.


Get in touch with the Global Pact Coalition through its website or its Facebook page, and follow @VictoriaLichet and @PactEnvironment on Twitter.

 

 

ANGOLA: ‘Chances for real democracy in Angola are quite low’

PascoalBaptistiny

Portuguese 

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

What was the political climate in the run-up to the recent election in Angola?

The political climate was very unfavourable, not at all conducive to a free and fair election. Angola was already characterised by heavy restrictions on civic space, and this worsened in the run-up to the 24 August election.

Civic space has been long marked by persecution, intimidation, threats, arbitrary arrests, judicial harassment, slander, defamation, censorship, intolerance and ordered killings. Protests are often banned and frequently repressed, sometimes with lethal violence.

Restrictions tightened before the election and were maintained during the voting and in the aftermath, to prevent protests at suspected fraud. Rapid Intervention Police, State Secret Information Services, Public Order Police, Migration and Foreigners Services, Border Guard Police, Criminal Investigation Services and the Attorney General's Office were all deployed in the streets of Angola’s 18 provinces.

 

CHILE: ‘The million-dollar question is how society will react if a new constitution does not come out of this’

JulietaSuarezCaoCIVICUS speaks about Chile’s impending constitutional referendum with Julieta Suárez Cao, PhD in Political Science and Associate Professor of Comparative Politics at the Catholic University of Chile. Julieta played a leading role in the design and promotion of an innovative electoral system that ensured a gender-parity outcome in the 2021 election for Chile’s Constitutional Convention, for which she received the American Political Science Association’s 2022 Public Engagement with Research Award.

What do you think have been the most novel elements of the Chilean constitutional process?

A novel element has been the formation of the Constitutional Convention itself. While in other parts of the world there had already been experiences such as reserving seats for Indigenous peoples and allowing non-party candidates, in Chile these two elements were combined with a third, gender parity. This had been implemented in Mexico City but had never been done at the national level.

Another novel element has to do with the fact that it this a change of constitution, not a simple reform. It is a profound change starting from scratch, without any kind of agreement having set parameters that determine what can and cannot be changed. The only predetermined things were three key procedures: the two-thirds rule for voting on the norms that would go in the constitution, the so-called entry plebiscite to enable the convening of a constitutional convention and the so-called exit plebiscite, meant to have the new constitution approved.

It is also worth noting that this is a constitutional change taking place in a democratic context, and not in a moment of transition. Although a response to the social and political crisis that Chile is going through, it has not been a hasty reaction to a fleeting situation; the discussion about constitutional reform started long before the 2019 social outburst. Former president Michelle Bachelet had already tried to carry it forward during her last term in office, from 2014 to 2018, but did not succeed. The right wing, which ruled the country under Sebastián Piñera over the following period, warned that it would shelve any constitutional reform initiative, and so it did – until the social outburst forced it to re-evaluate this position, given the need to channel social demands institutionally, by means of a constitution-making process.

What are the divides in the run-up to the 5 September plebiscite on the new constitution?

The way dividing lines have been drawn in the face of the constitutional plebiscite is very interesting. The Constitutional Convention has been extremely transparent, perhaps too transparent, because according to some literature, politics sometimes needs a certain opacity. This, on the other hand, became a sort of constitutional reality TV, a show that was broadcast every day, 24 hours a day. Clearly, the news that made it into the media tended to be about inconsequential and even ridiculous issues, so it did not represent what was really going on there. For example, one convention member proposed to dismantle all state institutions; of course, this never even made it out of the commission, but still made headlines for a long time. Such things created an adverse climate around the Convention, which I think affected the campaign.

Seen in perspective, it was a very dynamic process that in just one year managed to produce a full document for a new constitution. The process was a good one, even if it made public opinion focus on some absurd debates that were magnified by the media.

This climate of opinion ended up shaping two camps. On the one hand, the rejection camp, which includes not only the right wing, but also many centre-left personalities, including many current senators. These are people who have joined the rejection camp for several reasons, and not only because they do not agree with many of the proposed reforms.

In short, the rejection coalition ranges from the far right – which not only exists in Chile, but also reached the second round of the presidential election less than a year ago – to some individuals in the political centre. But it was the latter who became the visible face of the campaign against the constitution.

This has been the result of a good communications strategy that consisted in delegating spokespeople roles to moderate figures while keeping extremists out of sight. They have held almost no marches or public events, because in the run-up to the initial plebiscite such demonstrations included weapons, Nazi flags, swastikas and other images that provoke strong rejection.

For its part, the coalition in favour of the new constitution includes numerous former convention members, most of whom have campaigned in favour of it, deputies, senators and many popular artists. The government is not allowed to participate in the campaign or speak directly in favour of one or other option. For this reason, it only intervened by providing information: in particular, it collaborated with the printing of the new constitution, which is now one of the best-selling books in Chile.

Is Chilean society similarly divided?

Public opinion polls show that Chilean society is not polarised, unlike the elites.

What we see in Chile is asymmetric polarisation, a phenomenon that also occurs in countries such as Brazil and the USA. What creates asymmetrical polarisation is the presence of right-wing extremism. The extreme left is very small: it collects very few votes and has no media presence and no national visibility. The far right, however, has almost been normalised.

What is happening now is that it a referendum is by its very nature polarising, simply because it only provides two opposing options. If a plebiscite takes place in a context where the elites are polarised, it deepens division. For the time being, however, I think its effects have not reached deep into Chilean society.

A few months ago opinion polls appeared to show a majority in favour of approval, but now the opposite seems to be the case. Has the consensus for reform shifted?

I wouldn’t say that reformist consensus has been eroded. Practically nobody defends Pinochet’s Constitution: almost everybody who promotes rejection does so with the argument that rejection must be followed by reform. In other words, almost nobody advocates for keeping the current constitution, although if rejection wins, that is precisely what will happen, at least in the short term. Given the lack of agreement within the rejectionist coalition, its victory would open up a period of enormous uncertainty.

While reformist consensus has not been eroded, a distorted climate of opinion has been created by disinformation campaigns, presenting implausible interpretations of debates and fake news to sow doubts about the contents of the constitutional text. For example, the claim that the new constitution does not protect private property or that Indigenous people would have ‘privileges’ was widely circulated. All of this has interfered with public debate and cast doubt over the viability of the proposal.

What do think are the most positive and the most negative aspects of the new constitution?

Personally, I like the new constitution very much. It establishes a political system with less presidential powers and a better balance between the executive and legislative branches. The current constitution is an authoritarian text that is very biased in favour of the ‘strong man’.

I also like the definition of Chile as a regional state, a sort of intermediate form between the unitary and federal state. Chile is one of the most centralised countries in Latin America and the most centralised among democratic Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development member countries.

The whole agenda of rights and the social state embraced by the new constitution also seems very positive to me. The incorporation of gender parity, a gendered perspective and multiculturalism are great advances. It was high time for plurinationality and Indigenous peoples to be recognised.

The doubts I have concern some issues that are outside my area of expertise, related to some aspects of plurinationality, such as the implementation of differentiated justice systems and Indigenous autonomies. This is also one of the issues that has highest levels of rejection among public opinion, for reasons that include racism, classism and a complex context in the south of Chile, where there is an ongoing conflict between the state and some Indigenous Mapuche communities.

But the truth is, most of these issues are only stated in the constitution and will be subject to ordinary legislation that must come from the current Congress, which has no reserved seats for Indigenous peoples. Therefore, in my opinion, positions on these issues will be tempered and there won’t be any radical changes.

Among the public, it is social rights that have the most support. Few people defend the neoliberal or subsidiary state that Chile currently has, although certain sectors of elites are concerned about the cost of changes: they wonder where the money will come from to finance all these rights, as if this were a good argument for deciding whether or not to recognise a right!

What will happen if the new constitution is approved, and what will happen if it is rejected?

If the constitution is approved the process will continue, as many provisions in the new constitution require additional ordinary legislation. In that case, a process of intense legislative activity will begin to give form to the new constitution’s mandates.

If rejection wins, much will depend on how big its win is. If it wins by a large margin, it will be more difficult for the constitution-making process to continue. If the rejectionist option wins, the government will immediately submit a bill to call for a new election to select convention members. But the approval of such a bill requires over 57 per cent of the votes in both chambers, a majority the government does not have, so it will need the right wing’s votes. The right’s willingness to sit down and negotiate will depend on its margin of victory.

If it wins narrowly, it will try to design a more inoffensive constitution-making process, with a smaller convention, a shorter mandate, no gender parity and no Indigenous peoples or very few reserved seats. If it wins by a landslide, there will be no constitutional convention, but a reform passed through Congress or designed by a commission of experts. We would be back to square one and absolutely everything would have to be renegotiated.

The million-dollar question is how society will react if a new constitution does not come out of this and the process does not continue or continues in a deficient way. I do not dare to venture an answer to this question.


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

Follow @jujuchi on Twitter.

 

PALESTINE: ‘Colonial powers of the global north have normalised murder and devastation in the global south’

CIVICUS speaks with a Palestinian civil society activist, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons, about the use of online activism to raise awareness about the situation in Palestine and seek international support.

Protest for palestine Tunis Kassba 17 05 2021 By Brahim Guedich 4023

What is the current state of civic space in Palestine?

Palestinians do not have their rights and freedoms recognised. Civic space is so narrow that anything we say regarding Israeli settler colonialism can cause us to go to prison. Administrative detention is frequently used: even though it is illegal according to international law, we have seen a number of people go to prison without any trial. Because of this, we have to be extremely careful about the kind of content we put up on our social media accounts, as it can be used against us in court.

These restrictions also affect Palestinians living abroad. The majority find it difficult to return to their home country due to the restrictions.

Recently Israel classified six organisations that advocate for children’s rights, women’s rights and Palestinian prisoners’ rights as terrorist organisations. As a result, their funding was cut and their staff members were sent to prison under administrative detention. People are being sent to prison without charges and remain there for years.

Is there a shift towards digital activism in Palestine?

People in Palestine have been using social media since its inception. However, Israel has tried to prevent Palestinians sharing their stories: on Facebook and Instagram, for instance, they censor anything related to Palestine. When we post sensitive images of people being beaten or shot, our social media accounts can get suspended for months and we risk going to jail. Even international human rights organisations have been censored for releasing videos of Israelis attacking Palestinians.

But this has not stopped us showing the world our reality. The work I do includes making videos of the situations Palestinians face on a daily basis and sharing them on social media. With this I hope to raise awareness of what we are dealing with and show people we need urgent help.

Palestinians have had to find innovative ways to inform the world about events happening in our country. For instance, to share information on social media about the situation without it being removed, we have changed the way we write ‘Palestine’: we write it as either ‘Pale Stine’ or ‘Pale@stine’ or ‘Isr@el’. It is still a challenge because when it comes to Palestine or Israeli violations international media are biased, but we have been able to reach a larger audience and keep them informed about our issues.

Civil society also raises awareness about the terminology used – for example, so that people understand that what is happening between Israel and Palestine is not a war. It is our position that it is not just an occupation but also qualifies as colonialism. Indigenous people are being removed from their land to make way for Europeans to settle. Israel has claimed this is a religious war, which is not at all the case: people in Palestine face torture regardless of their religion. This is why as part of our advocacy work we share accurate information about the situation in our country.

When trying to investigate the war crimes Israel has committed in Palestine, the United Nations has had difficulty accessing information and even entering the country. International human rights organisations face the same problem. So we try to contribute to their work by providing information about what is happening in Palestine.

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

The only thing that Palestinians need right now is peace. What has happened to us through the 74 years of Israeli occupation has been brutal. We have seen on many websites, including CIVICUS’s, that the prevailing narrative is in line with the one promoted by the United Nations and other international organisations, which is the one approved by Israel and the USA; that is totally wrong.

We lived in Palestine before 1948. In the 19th century Jews started migrating to Palestine as refugees, and Palestinians hosted them. The British occupied Palestine in the early 1920s and until the late 1930s and early 1940s, during which time they helped non-Palestinian Jews to migrate to Palestine in mass numbers.

Colonial powers of the global north have normalised murder and devastation in the global south. Those colonial regimes continue to strengthen their relations with Israel and in return they enhance their security and military capabilities. In Africa they are taking over natural resources, namely gas and oil, at bargain prices; this is in fact the reason why they deliberately never bring up African human rights issues in earnest.

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

 

PANAMA: ‘Protests reflect structural inequalities and frustration at blatant corruption’

Eileen Ng FabregaCIVICUS speaks about recent protests in Panama with Eileen Ng Fábrega, Executive Director of the Panamanian Chamber of Social Development (CAPADESO). CAPADESO is a network of civil society organisations (CSOs) that promote social development in Panama. Its main aim is to highlight the contributions of civil society, strengthen civil society and foster alliances to influence public policies.

 

EGYPT: ‘The president is desperate for international attention ahead of 2024 election’

Ahmed SamihCIVICUS speaks with Ahmed Samih about the repression of civic space in Egypt ahead of the COP27 climate summit, which will be held in Egypt in November. 

Ahmed is an Egyptian civil society activist living in exile and co-founder of the Andalus Institute for Tolerance and Anti-Violence Studies, an Egyptian civil society organisation (CSO) established in 2004 to advocate for tolerance and the elimination of all forms of discrimination in Egypt and the Middle East and North Africa.

What is the current state of civic freedoms in Egypt?

Civic freedoms are almost non-existent under the regime led by President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi due to the ideology of the ruling military class, which dates back to the 1952 military coup. Its ideology is based on a view of society as immature and irresponsible, and therefore not capable of sharing social, economic and political responsibilities with the state. In that, the Egyptian state has mimicked the Soviet model since 1953.

The regime relies on laws as a tool to control society, instead of just regulating it. Other institutions, such as parliament, have a duty to assist the executive in dominating society. This legal doctrine contrasts with the one embraced by countries that believe in the rule of law, where legislation is aimed at developing society rather than dominating it. Legal domination being such a central idea, the state can’t accept the existence of civil society, although many civil society structures predate the existence of the Egyptian state. The military regime that emerged in 1952 took over the assets of charities that were dedicated to serving society, on the basis of the belief that it is the state’s responsibility to provide for poor people, which leaves no room for others. This has also opened the doors to corruption.

Historically, civic space in Egypt has shrunk or expanded depending on the ability of the political regime to understand the reality of social change. President Hosni Mubarak, in power from 1981 until he was ousted in 2011, clearly understood these dynamics. He grasped the international human rights paradigm and allowed some freedoms at the local level. He didn’t shut down CSOs but instead permitted them to work on his own terms, under surveillance. Quite pragmatically, he understood that their work contributed to the stability he needed to remain in power. In other words, he utilised civil society to stay in power for three decades.

How do you interpret President El-Sisi’s recent call for a national political dialogue?

The call for a national political dialogue is likely the consequence of the president’s acknowledgement of two key challenges ahead. First, he has realised that the ongoing economic crisis is likely to be followed, possibly soon, by social unrest, eventually leading to political unrest if not contained. Observers have already forecasted social unrest breaking out ahead of the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27), which will be held in Sharm El Sheikh in Egypt in November.

The other key challenge is the 2024 presidential election, where he, as a presidential candidate, will be asked for a real electoral programme with a timeline. He can’t repeat the experience of the 2018 presidential election, in which he ran in the absence of any actual competitor. For the upcoming election, a more open political atmosphere will be necessary. However, political competition remains blocked as most political activists are imprisoned or exiled.

In this context, the aim of the national dialogue is likely to oxygenate the political atmosphere. Towards the world, President El-Sisi has even shifted the official discourse, from denying human rights issues to admitting their applicability in Egypt. But it is important to note that the outcomes of the dialogue will be by no means binding, and El-Sisi will not be accountable to any of the parties involved. The dialogue, and the discursive shift, are just what he views as an optimal solutions to two major problems he will likely face.

How does the upcoming COP27 summit fit into the regime’s strategy?

El-Sisi is desperate for international attention and respect ahead of the presidential election but hasn’t so far gained any. Under his presidency, Egypt hasn’t hosted an international event since the 2015 Egypt Economic Development Conference.

Hosting COP27 is an excellent opportunity for his regime to whitewash its international reputation without opening up its closed civic space. El-Sisi was eager to host COP27 because the climate summit’s outcomes are not binding, so being the host won’t put his government under pressure to adopt the resulting recommendations, and Egypt even stands to benefit from international investment in its renewable energies sector.

The only potential issue is posed by international environmental activists who will likely protest, which is why the Egyptian government chose Sharm Al Sheik, a geographic location where protests can easily be contained by security forces.

To what extent is campaigning for the liberation of imprisoned activists such as Alaa Abdel Fattah affecting Egypt’s public relations machine?

Some high-profile cases, such as that of imprisoned Egyptian-British blogger and activist Alaa Abdel Fattah, can in the short term be damaging to the government’s whitewashing attempts. Alaa has been on hunger strike since April and his family has been quite active in sharing updates on his condition with international media and advocating for his liberation, to the point that he has become a sort of symbol of the plight of persecuted and imprisoned Egyptian human rights defenders.

But having Alaa as a symbol for the campaign has a downside. While the campaign may lead to his release or an improvement in the conditions of his detention, if he gets released before November the campaign will lose momentum and the Egyptian government will position itself as moderate and reasonable. So in the long run, the campaign won’t make a big dent on Egypt’s public relations machine.

For it to profit the most off COP27, the Egyptian government needs to bring as many global leaders as possible to Sharm El Sheikh. To prevent this happening, there is a need for a broad connected campaign led by Arab and international advocates to raise awareness about the human rights situation in Egypt. Sadly, I am not aware of any significant coordination efforts between human rights and environmental activists, Egyptian or otherwise, inside Egypt or abroad, in the run-up to COP27.

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

 

SIERRA LEONE: ‘We advocate for a civic space where people can protest with no risks’

Andrew LavaliCIVICUS speaks about recent protests in Sierra Leone with Andrew Lavali, Executive Director of the Institute for Governance Reform, a civil society organisation (CSO) that advocates for good governance in Sierra Leone.

What triggered the recent protests in Sierra Leone?

Sierra Leone has many underlying issues that have greatly contributed to the recent protests. First, political polarisation has grown tremendously since the change of power in 2018. Fights over limited public sector jobs have made politics a zero-sum game.

For the past 15 years we have seen this happen as groups in power try to appease their support bases by employing people from a certain region, who then risk losing their jobs when the government changes. To an extent, preaching hate and stoking polarisation have become a political strategy used by parties to either stay in power or propel themselves to leadership.

It appears the opposition party has not fully embraced the result of the 2018 election and it may have fuelled the protests, judging by the fact that these broke out only in areas where the opposition have a strong presence and not throughout the country. The fact that protests are focused in certain places makes one to think that they are not just about socio-economic issues but there are also underlying political issues.

At the same time, there are genuine concerns about economic hardship. COVID-19 restrictions and the Russian-Ukraine war have resulted in rising prices of essential commodities, especially for people living in urban areas. Socio-economic issues such as high youth unemployment and poor access to essential services are real problems. Protesters are demanding the president’s resignation due to the economic hardship they are experiencing.

How have the authorities responded?

During the protests both civilians and police officers were attacked, and some were killed, revealing an ongoing tension between citizens and the police. Evidence shows that the protests were in no way peaceful. They were leaderless and faceless. Some Sierra Leoneans living abroad used social media to call for protest. According to the police, they only heard about the protest on social media. They did not receive any official request from an identifiable person for police clearance.

As soon as the violence erupted and the situation became unsafe for those not protesting, the government imposed a curfew. There were also internet restrictions imposed because protesters were coordinating their actions via social media platforms. Security presence on the streets has increased since then. These measures helped to scale down the violence and improve safety and security.

The government also responded by making arrests. A leading youth activist in an opposition area was killed during a police raid. The response raised concerns about how police are trained to handle protests. The police have not sat down with interest groups to see how future protests can be organised. There are legitimate fears that given Sierra Leone’s recent history of violence, high youth unemployment and economic hardship, protests can easily get out of control and become very difficult to handle.

Do you think the response will deter people from protesting?

People will certainly be timid for a while, but I don’t think the police response will stop them mobilising in the long run. There are too many issues citizens want the government to address and if it fails to do so, protests will inevitably keep breaking out. Regardless of protests being instrumentalised for political purposes, there is a general situation of hardship that needs to be addressed. As civil society we will continue to monitor the situation and try to bring citizen voices into policy conversations.

Protest restriction has a long history in Sierra Leone. For the past 15 years police have failed to grant permission to protest. This strained relationship with the police has culminated in a case against the police being brought to the Supreme Court by civil society. Civil society is currently documenting the events that are taking place and will then get together to discuss the situation and try to find a way to advocate for more open civic space in which people can protest without risking their lives.

What assistance is needed from the international community?

We need the international community to help us promote democracy, the rule of law and effective governance. International allies should support open platforms for dialogue between the police and various interest groups on the rights and responsibilities of protesters and the role of the police in securing their rights. The international community could help CSOs create awareness and provide training so that the security forces will protect the rights of citizens to exercise their right to protest safely.

Civic space in Sierra Leone is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor. 
Get in touch with the Institute for Government Reform through its website or its Facebook page, and follow @GovernanceFor on Twitter.

 

NICARAGUA: ‘The regime seeks to annihilate all forms of autonomous citizen organisation’

CIVICUS speaks with María Teresa Blandón, a Nicaraguan human rights defender and director of Feminist Programme La Corriente, a civil society organisation (CSO) whose legal status was recently cancelled by the authoritarian regime led by President Daniel Ortega and Vice President Rosario Murillo.

Maria Teresa Blandon

What is the reason for the current wave of intensified in repression in Nicaragua?

Repression increased on the eve of the fraudulent 2021 elections, when the state specifically targeted the leaders of the main opposition groups who had been building alliances to participate in the elections, because even though they knew that conditions were extremely adverse, they insisted that this was the way out of the crisis.

From January 2022 onwards, the Ortega-Murillo regime further escalated its offensive, possibly due to a failure in its political calculations: it had thought that once the electoral fraud had been consummated and the opposition was thrown in jail, the opposition would abdicate its role and the regime would obtain the endorsement of the international community.

But neither of these things happened: the opposition did not resign itself and there was no international support; on the contrary, the regime’s isolation only deepened. The Nicaraguan opposition continued to constantly denounce the establishment of a de facto police state and to call for the regime’s exit through civic means. The CSOs that managed to remain in the country continued to denounce systematic human rights violations and repression, hence the approval of new laws to strip them of their legal status and assets.

Faced with a lack of legitimacy, the Ortega-Murillo regime has deepened its strategy of annihilating any form of citizen organisation that is not subordinate to its interests. To date, more than 1,600 CSOs have been eliminated by the National Assembly and in many cases their assets have been confiscated through the application of laws that openly violate our country’s constitution, which recognises the right to free association and expressly prohibits confiscation.

Until very recently, the power to cancel an organisation’s legal personality was in the hands of the National Assembly, but a new law assigned it to the Ministry of the Interior, which now has the absolute power to decide who has the right to associate and who does not. The procedure has been expedited and there is no recourse to appeal, which clearly speaks of the situation of defencelessness Nicaraguan civil society finds itself in.

The judiciary has remained silent in the face of the unconstitutionality appeals filed in 2021, following the approval of the Law on Foreign Agents, which obliges CSOs that receive funds from international cooperation sources to report their activities at a level of detail that makes it practically impossible for them to operate.

This way, the regime eliminates all forms of autonomous participation, leaves activists and human rights defenders in a more precarious situation, and obtains the resources it needs to feed the clientelist practices that are its trademark.

One of the problems faced by the regime is precisely its lack of resources to sustain the community development projects carried out by many of the eliminated CSOs. It can no longer count on support from Venezuela, nor can it continue to expand the family businesses that the Ortega-Murillo clan has built while in power. Many of these companies have been sanctioned, including the one that monopolises the fuel business, which has forced them to carry out various manoeuvres to keep them active.

What work does your organisation do?

Feminist Programme La Corriente has existed for almost 30 years and was born with the aim of contributing to generating critical thought and encouraging new forms of participation by women in Central America. Over the last 15 years we have expanded our work with young people and sexual and gender dissident collectives.

Throughout our journey, we have contributed to challenging heterosexism, misogyny and macho violence and built vital networks for the defence of rights. We have prioritised issues related to the prevention of violence, voluntary motherhood, women’s right to decide about their bodies and respect for sexual and gender diversity.

Efforts to research the reality experienced by women, young people and dissident bodies have been key to the development of training and public communication programmes. For us it is of vital importance to strengthen collective action through social movements capable of thinking and acting on the changes required by Nicaraguan society. We are also part of Central American and Latin American networks and alliances, from where we contribute to advocacy processes with governments and global institutions.

Precisely because we generate critical thought and defend rights, in May this year the National Assembly cancelled our legal status and in early July the police took over our facilities.

 

On what grounds was the organisation ordered to shut down?

Generally speaking, the arguments put forward by the Sandinista deputies who control parliament include an unfounded accusation that CSOs are potential money launderers because they receive funding from foreign sources, deliberately ignoring the fact that these sources are linked to governments and duly established cooperation agencies.

They also cite alleged bureaucratic infractions such as the expiry of the term of the board of directors, failure to update statutes and refusal to provide information requested by the Ministry of the Interior. On the latter point, it is worth highlighting the abusive ministry’s intervention: in accordance with the new law, it requires CSOs to submit detailed information on each activity to be carried out and personal data of the people with whom they work.

Such demands denaturalise the meaning of CSOs, turning them into an extension of the state, clear evidence of the totalitarian zeal of this regime. It is clearly an attempt to impose a model of absolute control that requires the dismantling of all forms of autonomous civil society participation.

Likewise, by shutting down CSOs that work with low-income groups of the population, the regime is trying to regain control of what it thinks of as its social base, which it seeks to recover or retain by means of clientelist policies. This is why it has eliminated organisations that promote access to education for low-income children and young people, fulfil the needs of people with disabilities, promote access to land and other resources for rural and Indigenous women and provide sexual and reproductive health services and support for women who are victims of violence, among others. 

CSOs that work in the field of citizen participation from a rights-based perspective and with a clear focus on the defence of democratic values have also been closed. They have been declared opponents of the regime and their representatives have been subjected to surveillance, threats, exile and imprisonment. It is also a kind of revenge for generating evidence that contradicts the official discourse and denouncing the systematic violation of rights by the Sandinista regime.

Why has the regime specifically targeted feminist organisations?

Hostility against Nicaraguan feminists dates back to the 1980s. The Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), as a guerrilla force turned into party that came to power, never really reflected on the patriarchal logics of power, but simply replicated them unceremoniously.

The feminists of my generation had to endure an authoritarian and abusive relationship with the Sandinista government, which at different times expressed discomfort with the existence of women’s organisations, because from their perspective this weakened the unity of revolutionary forces.

They exercised their veto power to prevent women’s collectives from placing demands related to macho violence and sexual and reproductive rights on the public agenda. The leaders of these collectives were silenced and forced to take on the priorities set by the ruling party leadership.

The watershed that marked the feminist movement’s definitive break with the FSLN occurred in the late 1990s, when Zoilamérica Narváez, daughter of Rosario Murillo, who is both Daniel Ortega’s wife and Vice President, denounced the abuses committed by her stepfather for more than 20 years. When feminists clearly stood on the victim’s side it meant a break with the FSLN leadership, which has since perceived us as enemies. Zoilamérica’s denunciation encouraged further accusations involving other members of the FSLN national leadership, including the late Tomás Borge.

Additionally, during the 2005-2006 electoral campaign, part of the feminist movement participated in an electoral alliance of opposition parties that included the Sandinista Renovation Movement, now UNAMOS, which the FSLN considers traitors to the revolution for having demanded democratisation of the party and questioned Ortega’s authoritarian and strongman leadership.

As he returned to power in 2007, it immediately became clear that Ortega’s strategy was to dismantle feminist networks, which by that point had increased their capacity to put forward ideas and influence Nicaraguan society. The stigmatisation campaign began with a speech by Murillo in which she accused feminists of trafficking in women’s suffering and of wanting to impose a way of life alien to Nicaraguan culture. That same year, the government began to pressure international aid agencies to suspend their support for feminist collectives, causing many of them to leave the country.

Among the main strands of the Ortega-Murillo regime’s discourse was its supposed commitment to gender equality: they proclaimed as a key advance the achievement of gender parity in all branches of government. This idea was taken up by United Nations (UN) bodies and multilateral financial institutions, but feminists provided clear evidence confirming the persistence of inequalities and the absence of public policies to address women’s demands.

The absolute criminalisation of abortion, the absence of policies to prevent and punish macho violence, including sexual abuse against girls and adolescents, which is prevalent in Nicaragua, the absence of sex education, the failure to comply with the law that established the creation of a fund to distribute land to rural women and the violation of the labour rights of workers in foreign factories are among the many problems that remain unresolved by a regime that dares to compare itself with the countries that have made the most progress in terms of gender equality in the world.

What should donors, and the international community in general, do to help Nicaraguan civil society?

In such turbulent times and with so many hotspots of tension in the world, it is hard to appeal for solidarity with Nicaraguan society, which continues to bet on civic and peaceful change to move away from this new dictatorship and lay the foundations for the country’s democratisation.

However, we must continue to appeal to democratic governments, regardless of their ideology, so they do not look away from what is happening in Nicaragua and support our just demands for the immediate release of political prisoners, the suspension of the police state, an end to the persecution of CSOs and the Catholic Church and the full restoration of our rights.

We call for a coherent position on the part of democratic governments, UN agencies, multilateral financial institutions, regional integration blocs and political party forums to avoid any action that could contribute to prolonging the stay of the Ortega-Murillo dictatorship in power.

At this point it is inadmissible that they denounce the regime’s systematic human rights violations, including the commission of crimes against humanity, while at the same time voting in favour of granting loans to the very same regime, which in addition to increasing a debt that is already greater than the country’s GDP gives it greater room for manoeuvre to remain in power.

Active support for human rights defenders, independent journalists and CSOs is vital to sustain hope for democratic change that does not impose further suffering on the Nicaraguan people.

Civic space in Nicaragua is rated ‘closed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with La Corriente through its website or its Facebook page, and follow @LaCorrienteNica on Twitter. 

 

CANADA: ‘The Pope didn’t deliver a clear apology to Indigenous people on behalf of the Catholic Church’

Virginie LadischCIVICUS speaks with Virginie Ladisch of the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) about the recent apology of Pope Francis to Canadian Indigenous peoples and the legacy of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.

ICTJ is a civil society organisation (CSO) working in partnership with victims and survivors to obtain acknowledgment and redress for massive human rights violations, hold those responsible to account, reform and build democratic institutions and prevent the recurrence of violence and repression.

What human rights violations committed against Indigenous people did the Truth and Reconciliation Commission reveal?

The final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada very clearly details the human rights violations and cultural genocide that resulted from the ‘Indian residential school’ system, which was the focus of the recent apology by Pope Francis.

The Indian residential schools and the abuses that occurred at them are among many other human rights violations suffered by Indigenous people in Canada, which include sexual and gender-based violations against Indigenous women and girls, land dispossession, violation of the right to safe drinking water, disproportionate rates of incarceration, excessive use of force against land rights protesters, discriminatory practices and lack of access to basic services, including healthcare.

How significant is the Pope's apology?

The Pope’s apology is a significant first step in the journey to acknowledge and repair past wrongs. In his apology, the Pope acknowledged the assimilationist intent of the residential school system and the harm it caused by systematically marginalising Indigenous people, denigrating and suppressing their languages and cultures, taking young children away from their homes, indelibly affecting their relationship with their parents and grandparents and subjecting them to physical, verbal, psychological and spiritual abuse.

The last residential schools closed in the 1990s, so it was important for him to acknowledge the intergenerational harm caused, which persists to this day. However, several survivors noted with disappointment his omission of sexual abuse – rampant in Indian residential schools – which continues to have detrimental impacts on survivors and their families.

While the Pope highlighted the systematic nature of harm perpetrated against Canadian Indigenous people, his apology stopped short of naming the Catholic Church’s role as part of a system intended to ‘kill the Indian in the child’. He said: ‘I am sorry. I ask forgiveness, in particular, for the ways in which many members of the church and of religious communities co-operated, not least through their indifference, in projects of cultural destruction and forced assimilation promoted by the governments of that time, which culminated in the system of residential schools’.

The Pope’s words reflect a personal apology and an apology on behalf of individual Catholics, but not a clear apology on behalf of the Catholic Church as an institution. Since the Pope represents the Catholic Church, it is possible to interpret this personal apology as an apology on behalf of the Church. However, given the deeply embedded systemic nature of the violations committed by the Catholic Church against Indigenous people, it is necessary to clearly acknowledge that the system was at fault and that there was a concerted institutional effort to forcibly assimilate Indigenous children. This was not the work of a few misguided individuals.

There needs to be a concerted effort to unravel the colonialist ideas that underpinned the residential school system and are at the root of persistent racism today.

What next steps should the Catholic Church and the Canadian government take?

ICTJ recognises apologies as an important part of a transitional justice process because of their significant moral and symbolic value. But to be meaningful, they need to be followed by real action and material reparations. The Pope acknowledged this in his apology and noted that ‘a serious investigation into the facts’ and efforts ‘to assist the survivors of the residential schools to experience healing from the traumas they suffered’ would be key to prevent such situations happening again. Ultimately, the significance of the Pope’s apology will depend on how he leads the Catholic Church in turning those words into action.

In terms of next steps, the Catholic Church and the Government of Canada should follow the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action, which address the lasting harms of residential schools and call on all sectors of society to invest in new and respectful ways of moving forward together. Where more information is needed, for example around missing children and unmarked graves, the Catholic Church should open its archives and undertake a rigorous investigation.

How is ICTJ working to advance the rights of Indigenous people?

ICTJ works side by side with victims and survivors in their quest for justice and helps ensure they have a say in the policies that affect them. We raise awareness about their rights and support efforts to hold perpetrators accountable, uncover the truth about the violations they and their communities suffered and obtain acknowledgment and redress.

We also partner with civil society groups, including women’s, youth and minority groups, that have a stake in building a more just, peaceful and democratic society. Together, we press forward the institutional reforms and guarantees necessary to prevent the violations from happening again.

Over the past three decades, transitional justice processes have been recognised as an opportunity to address longstanding historical injustices against Indigenous peoples around the world. Specific processes and institutions associated with transitional justice – such as truth commissions, special prosecutorial bodies, memorialisation and reparations – may be the catalyst for political, social, institutional and cultural changes that contribute to the recognition and materialisation of Indigenous peoples’ rights, as we point out in a report we published in 2012.

ICTJ has worked to advance the rights of Indigenous peoples in various countries, including Australia, Canada, Colombia, Guatemala, Peru and the USA. In Canada, it accompanied the Truth and Reconciliation process from before its inception in 2008 to the end of its mandate in 2015.

Recognising the importance of involving young people in Canada’s truth and reconciliation process, ICTJ partnered with the Commission to spearhead youth engagement activities. Initiatives included a series of youth retreats in which participants developed the technical and communication skills needed to better engage their peers on Indigenous issues, and a youth-led video project that covered the history of the residential schools and young people’s knowledge – or lack of knowledge – of this history and the contemporary situation of Indigenous people in Canada.

As expressed by a high school student from Edmonton who participated in one of ICTJ’s events, ‘We are the next generation. After 10 years, we are going to be the adults – the lawyers, the prime ministers. We have to know when we are young, and when we are older, we can make sure this doesn’t happen’.

Civic space in Canada is rated ‘open’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with ICTJ through its website or Facebook and, and follow @theICTJ on Twitter.

 

MALAWI: ‘The tactics used by the current administration are the same used by its predecessors’

Michael KaiyatsaCIVICUS speaks about recent protests in Malawi with Michael Kaiyatsa, Executive Director of the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR).

CHRR is civil society organisation (CSO) aimed at supporting and promoting democracy and human rights in Malawi. Its mission is to contribute towards the protection, promotion and consolidation of good governance by empowering rural and urban communities to exercise their rights. Founded in 1995 by former student exiles who returned home to the promise of a new democracy, it operates through two core programmes: Community Mobilisation and Empowerment and Human Rights Monitoring and Training.

How has the situation in Malawi evolved since the 2020 elections?

Malawi held a presidential election in June 2020 because the 2019 election was annulled on the basis that there were massive irregularities and the court ordered a rerun. The 2020 election was won by the opposition candidate, Lazarus Chakwera.

During the campaign, Chakwera said that if elected, he would address some key issues, including corruption in the public sector. It was the perception of public opinion that corruption was on the rise and the previous administration had not done much to tackle the problem. Chakwera promised to introduce reforms to seal all loopholes allowing for corruption and to improve the judicial system so corruption cases would not be ignored.

However, once in power it didn’t look like these changes were effectively being implemented. As usual, the first year people gave the new administration some time. The president kept on making the same promises but made very little actual progress. 

The second year continued in the same way and Malawians started to lose patience. People started to take their discontent out to the streets. The economic situation in Malawi also kept getting worse, with costs of living skyrocketing every day and a rise in unemployment. People looked back at campaign promises and compared them to their reality, and frustration arose.

I wouldn’t say all campaign commitments were just empty promises and lies, because there were issues the government attempted to address, but progress has been slow. For instance, they promised to increase funding for the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) and ensure its independence. Funding for the ACB increased significantly, and a new law was eventually passed to amend the Corrupt Practices Act, removing the requirement of the ACB director to seek consent to prosecute corruption cases. They promised to set up special courts to prosecute corruption cases, and finally submitted a bill to amend the Court’s Act and make a provision for special courts.

But they also promised to work to recover stolen assets and are moving at an extremely slow pace in this regard. And they also said they would create a million jobs for young people, which has never happened.

What’s behind recent protests against the judiciary?

Last year we started seeing lots of protests against corruption and impunity. There have been numerous cases involving government officials – including from the current administration – that have not been prosecuted. Investigations take years, and those involving senior government officials take the longest and rarely end in conviction. Recent ACB reports show that only 30 per cent of such cases have been concluded, and most of these date back to 2015.

In sum, the wheels of justice are barely moving, and people have concluded that the government is pursuing selective justice. In a recent case, for instance, an 18-year-old man arrested for cannabis possession was prosecuted and given a sentence of eight years in prison, while people accused of serious crimes involving corruption are given three and four-year sentences, if anything at all. Ironically, before this case, a powerful business leader was accused of the same crime, marijuana possession, and was just asked to pay a fine. Such arbitrariness is pushing people to the streets.

While selective justice is nothing new, this time around people want to hold the government accountable for the promises made on the campaign trail. As a result, pressure is also coming from the opposition to hold the government to account. When the current ruling party was in the opposition, they were the ones raising these issues. Now people are realising it is not any different from its predecessors.

How have the authorities responded to the protests?

The government has often tried to stop protests with the use of excessive force. Just recently, over 80 activists were detained and arrested. They were charged with holding an illegal assembly, although the constitution guarantees the freedom of assembly. Hours before these demonstrations started, some Malawians claiming to be from the business community requested the court issue an injunction to stop them. The injunction was granted late in the afternoon, so people gathered the next morning without knowing about it, and the police came in and started firing teargas, beating up people and arresting everyone they could.

The tactics used by the current administration are the same ones used by its predecessors. The habit of getting last-minute injunctions isn’t new at all: this is what happened in July 2011, when the government got a last-minute injunction, people assembled without any knowledge of it and over 20 were killed by the police in the ensuing repression.

What shocks me the most is the court’s interpretation of the meaning of the right to the freedom of assembly. The Police Act is very clear about what needs to be done if people stage a protest. It all starts with a notification to the authorities, but this is usually interpreted as people needing to obtain permission from the police, which is against what the law actually says.

In the recent protest against the judiciary, we were told the demonstration would not proceed until the organisers provided a list with the protesters’ names, to be held liable if the demonstration resulted in damage to property. This is strange, as you cannot be sure who is going to attend a protest and how they will conduct themselves. It is not just the police but also the courts that are now asking for a registry of attendees, something that cannot be found anywhere in the law.

How could the international community support Malawian civil society?

Over the past two or three years, new civil society groups have emerged to defend human rights and economic justice, and are mobilising mostly through social media platforms and community radio, particularly in rural areas, issuing statements and calling people to the streets.

Malawian civil society needs international protection. We need to be able to express ourselves and feel safe while doing it, so we need our international partners to send a message to the president, reminding him of his commitments and his obligations under the constitution. 

We continue to experience the same challenges as in the past, despite the administration being a beneficiary of civil society mobilisation. In 2019 and 2020, when organisations like ours were protesting against electoral irregularities, the current authorities were by our side and supported our protest for democracy. But they are now doing exactly what they criticised when they were in the opposition, including by passing laws that restrict civil society, such as the recent NGO Amendment Act.

Civil society also needs resources, including for legal representation. There are currently over 80 civil society activists under arrest, most of whom don’t have legal representation. As a result, they remain in custody awaiting trial. There’s no fair access to justice and they could be held indefinitely.

Civic space in Malawi is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation through its website or Facebook page, and follow @CHRRMalawi on Twitter.

 

DRC: ‘The United Nations’ peacekeeping mission has failed’

CIVICUS speaks about the ongoing protests against the United Nations (UN) Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), MONUSCO, with social activists Espoir Ngalukiye and Sankara Bin Kartumwa.

Espoir and Sankara are members of LUCHA (Lutte Pour Le Changement), a civil society organisation (CSO) that advocates for human dignity and social justice in the DRC. It has played a role in peaceful protests against MONUSCO.

LUCHA Lutte Pour Le Changement

What triggered the anti-MONUSCO protests?

The eastern region of the DRC has faced security issues for over three decades. People are protesting for MONUSCO to leave because its strategy to maintain peace has failed.

MONUSCO was deployed to restore peace in the DRC by protecting civilians, facilitating safe electoral processes and fighting rebel groups. But it has been in the country for close to 20 years and the opposite has happened: the number of armed groups has risen, people continue to live in unsafe conditions and innocent lives are being lost despite the presence of MONUSCO.

It was the peacekeeping mission’s job to prevent that happening, but it has not served us diligently and has proven to be useless. Right now, extremely high levels of violence are causing many people to migrate in search of safety. This alone is evidence enough that the peacekeeping mission has failed.

Many people in local communities do not have a good relationship with MONUSCO because they believe the mission has not taken up its role to protect them. Civilians’ lack of trust, in turn, makes it challenging for MONUSCO to carry out its mandate. But if it was effective, people would not be protesting against it.

How have the authorities responded to protesters’ demands?

The immediate response has been violence by both MONUSCO and the Congolese authorities. We have seen people injured and killed just because they were part of the protests. People are angry because security issues have been ongoing for years, and MONUSCO should have seen this coming: it was only a matter of time before people started acting on their anger towards the mission. MONUSCO should have come up with ways to deal with the situation without people having to lose their lives. 

As for the Congolese authorities, they have arrested people unlawfully. Most people who have been detained are facing terrible conditions in prison and our concern is that they all get justice. We do not want them to be tortured for fighting for their rights.

The UN Secretary-General has condemned the violence and called for the Congolese government to investigate it. But the demand for MONUSCO’s departure has not been addressed, and protesters say they will not stop demonstrating until MONUSCO leaves.

Unfortunately, the Congolese authorities have not addressed our concerns either. From our standpoint, they will be the next to be targeted because they have been elected and are paid to protect us. If they cannot live up to their responsibilities, we will hold them accountable. They must join their voice to ours and ask MONUSCO to leave.

What is civil society in general, and LUCHA in particular, doing to help improve the situation?

LUCHA is a CSO that advocates for change in a non-violent manner. We have tried to show people it is possible to advocate for change without using violence. Our members have participated in protests against MONUSCO, which we believe are legitimate and constitutional, so we also demand non-violence and respect for the law on the government’s part. Our country has a violent history, and we would like to change that narrative.

We are an organisation led by young people who have experienced war and conflict and want to see a better society emerge, and a better future for all. We struggle for Congolese people and their right to have access to basic needs, starting with living in a safe environment. We have members on the ground in the areas where the protests are happening, and their role is to monitor the situation and report on the events taking place.

LUCHA is using our social media accounts to inform people in and outside the DRC about the situation and how it is impacting on so many innocent lives. We hope this will create awareness and push the authorities to address our demands.

Our monitors on the ground also work to ensure protesters do not employ violence, but this has proven to be a challenge because most people are tired and at this point they are willing to do whatever it takes to get MONUSCO to leave, even if it means using violence.

What should the international community do to help?

The international community has been hypocritical and has always prioritised their own needs. It is unfortunate that the recent events are happening in a mineral-rich area of our country. Many powerful people have interests there and are willing to do anything to ensure they are protected. That is why so few countries are speaking up against what is happening.

Geography also puts us at a disadvantage. Maybe if we were Ukraine our voices would have mattered but we are the DRC, and international players only care about our resources and not our people. But the people who are getting killed in the DRC are human beings who have families and lives and dreams just like the ones being killed in Ukraine.

The international community must understand that we need peace and security, and that MONUSCO has failed to deliver and needs to leave our country. It must listen to the voice of the people who are sovereign. Listening to the people will be the only way to stop the protests. Trying to stop them any other way will lead to more violence and more deaths.

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

 

JORDAN: ‘Transnational feminist solidarity is vital in the struggle against gender-based violence’

 Content warning: this interview contains references to femicide and violence.

BananCIVICUS speaks with Banan Abu Zain Eddin about the widespread anger triggered by recent femicides in Jordan, and more broadly in the Middle East and North Africa, and civil society’s role in the struggle against gender-based violence (GBV).

Banan is a feminist activist and co-founder and executive director of Takatoat, an independent feminist collective based in Jordan whose work focuses on establishing safe spaces for women and girls and building solidarity to push back against the prevalent patriarchal culture.

What do recent femicide cases reveal about the scale of the problem of GBV in Jordan and the region?

We have recently seen a frightening rise in femicides in the region, shockingly carried out in public spaces. In Egypt, Naira Ashraf, a student at Mansoura University, was murdered in broad daylight and in the presence of several bystanders outside the university gates. Shortly after, a Jordanian student, Iman Arsheed, was shot on her university campus in Amman. A few weeks later, another Egyptian university student, Salma Bahgat, was knifed to death by a fellow student. In what seems to be a pattern, the murderer was a man whose marriage proposal she had rejected. The string of tragedies continued in Lebanon, where a young pregnant woman was beaten and burned to death by her husband.

We are seeing a wave of femicides in the region. We have reached a point at which people are witnessing femicides happen in public and not bothering to interfere. This is leading to femicide being normalised and even turned into a spectacle. A terrible case in this regard took place in 2020, when a woman was murdered by her father who then sat beside her body drinking a cup of tea while people made videos and took photos of the murder scene. The victim had recently been returned to her family after spending time in a women’s detention facility for complaining of her husband’s domestic abuse.

Women and girls are constantly at risk of being killed just for being female. Women are targeted when they are viewed as challenging those exercising power over women’s bodies and choices. Men get easily offended when women violate the unwritten rule that a man cannot be rejected by a woman. A rejection of a marriage proposal represents a denial of male authority over women.

This is very scary. Following Iman Arsheed’s murder, many women and girls received death threats. Many were afraid of going to class, and some stopped attending, effectively losing their right to access education. Such crimes reinforce the exclusion of women, taking us backward in a struggle that an older generation of feminists has carried on for decades.

What roles are Jordanian women’s rights organisations playing in the struggle against GBV?

We are putting forward demands for national mechanisms for monitoring GBV, reporting cases, protecting victims and holding perpetrators accountable. We emphasise that encouraging women and girls to report abuse should only come after the enactment of protection mechanisms, and that immediate accountability is the main deterrent.

We also work to counter the normalisation of GBV by focusing on the ethics of media coverage. As much as the murderer should bear full responsibility for his crime, the media should be held accountable for its coverage. Naira Ashraf’s murder provided a blunt example of the terrible normalising effects of media coverage that is sympathetic towards perpetrators rather than victims of GBV. Her murderer’s defence lawyer was given a lot of air space that he used to justify the murder, creating a wave of public sympathy for his client. 

 

What should the Jordanian government do to curb GBV?

Women’s rights and safety should be a priority on the government’s agenda. Sadly, this is not the case. State inaction has normalised GBV. The recent femicides didn’t happen out of the blue: a series of events led to them that the state did nothing to stop. The state has so far failed to establish effective protection and reporting mechanisms and encourage women to report violence before it escalates.

When a woman in Jordan reports a situation of violence, including domestic violence, she is typically blamed. Reporting mechanisms have a major flaw when it comes to abusive family members: victims are sent back home to their abusers once perpetrators sign a pledge to stop the abuse. On top of that, the concept of swift justice for GBV victims simply doesn’t exist.

Additionally, the limited protection mechanisms that currently exist scare most GBV victims away. Women hosted in safe houses are subjected to a number of rules and regulations that result in them losing their freedom of movement, being under surveillance and losing access to communication devices.

In short, the current wave of femicides is a direct result of collusion between the government, the media and the judiciary.

What was the idea behind the call for a regional strike against GBV?

The regional strike that we held on 6 July was just the start of our cross-border fight against GBV. Transnational feminist solidarity is vital in this struggle. The driving force of our call was sheer anger at the current situation: we will not accept more piecemeal, ineffective solutions for a problem that is systematic and systemic.

Violence against women is the result of a system that places women in a subordinate position. That’s why the whole range of feminist demands for rights are inseparable. Intersectional feminism believes that protecting women from violence implies not only protecting them from femicide but also closing the gender pay gap and recognising women’s unpaid work, among many other things.

The strike was quite successful because it proved that if the rise in femicides is a regional phenomenon, feminist organising against it is regional as well.

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

 

KENYA: ‘People are discouraged from voting when they think that voices do not matter’

Ken OgemboCIVICUS speaks about the recent presidential election in Kenya with Ken Ogembo, programme manager of Siasa Place.

Siasa Place is a civil society organisation (CSO) founded in 2015 with the aim of promoting youth participation in politics. It educates people about the importance of voting and how the government can be held accountable.

Did you observe an increase in civic space restrictions around the 9 August election?

We observed several civic space restrictions during the election. The media did not provide fair coverage to all candidates, and the most popular candidates had a clear advantage because everything they did was widely covered and they got a lot of propaganda. Media are powerful tools that can be used to influence the views of people and in this case were used to promote some parties and bring down others. Social media was also used to spread misinformation that influenced many people’s voting decisions.

Further, there was violence in some counties, which we believe was organised to spark fear. As a result, people no longer felt comfortable attending campaigns for some candidates because of fear they could be attacked. 

There were also cases of candidates being attacked. Some female politicians were attacked and assaulted; unfortunately not much was done to protect them or follow up on their cases. William Ruto, announced as the winner of the election, was also attacked in Kisumu. His vehicles were destroyed but fortunately he was not hurt. 

There was also a situation in Kakamega county between the two main coalitions, Kenya Kwanza and Azimio la Umoja: they were fighting over access to a stadium and a number of people got hurt in the process.

However, I do not believe violence was serious or widespread to the point that we could say it was what marked the electoral process.

Why was there such low voter turnout?

There are a number of factors that could have possibly contributed to it, but I think it is first and foremost about people being demotivated from voting because they do not see any change happening as a result of elections. Government corruption is pervasive no matter who is in the government, and economic performance is consistently poor. Public services are of very low quality: there are not enough healthcare facilities, doctors are often going on strike, markets are dirty. Youth unemployment continues to be very high, and most people don’t think this will change, so many do not see any reason for voting.

We also need to look at how candidates are nominated. Presidential candidate Raila Odinga’s party, Azimio la Umoja, did not conduct democratic internal processes in most of its strongholds and often nominated people who had long been in power and had performed dismally. People are discouraged from voting when they think their voices do not matter.

I would also say it is also ignorance that drives young people away from the polls. They should understand that regardless of whether they get out to vote, a government will get elected and will rule over them. The fact that they did not vote takes away their moral authority to question those in power. Of course they still have a constitutional right to do so, but their questioning will lack substance and they will not have any alternative to offer.

Through our engagement with young people, we have noticed they lack confidence in the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IBEC), the institution that manages elections, which many consider unable to deliver free and fair elections. They view it as pointless to go out and vote if the IBEC can’t ensure their votes will count.

This is probably a mistake, because there have been improvements in the electoral process, including by making it clear that the results received from voting stations are final. However, the IBEC still has a lot of work to do make people trust the electoral process.

Finally, I think the government played a huge role by not providing any civic education. It only started doing the basics when it was already too late, as most people who didn’t vote had already made up their minds not to. And when the government did, the content was not of the right kind, in the sense that would make people understand why voting is important and how to play their role as citizens.

Has civil society been able to play its role in the electoral process?

Civil society’s role has been somewhat restricted. Many CSOs would need more support and resources to play their full range of roles during elections. During this election we saw many CSOs unable to provide civic education programmes because of lack of funding and government support.

Our job as civil society is to advocate on people’s behalf, inform them about the process and raise awareness of their rights. But most of us were denied the right to do our work due to lack of resources. My organisation, Siasa Place, played a key role in the previous election because it received the required resources in time. But this year the support we needed came about two months before the elections, which is rather late for us to start doing our work at the community level. This affected our role, but we hope things will improve in the coming years. We need government and civil society to work together to inform people around elections so they know what they are doing.

There were also cases of CSOs being instrumentalised by political parties to influence voters. That defeats the whole purpose of having an active civil society. We urge the concerned CSOs to remember their original goals and mission and refocus on them. We should be the voice of marginalised people and communities, not of political parties. It is our duty to hold political parties accountable, not root for them at elections.

Given the very close result, do you think there could be a recount or even an election re-run?

If the defeated candidate can convince the court that there have been irregularities so gross that they have affected the outcome, then the court could nullify the results. But if votes are recounted and the result comes out the same, there won’t be a need for a rerun.

Civic space in Kenya is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Siasa Place through its website or its Facebook and Instagram pages, and follow @siasaplace on Twitter. 

 

SIERRA LEONE: ‘We are dealing with a relentless campaign by anti-rights groups’

Nicky Spencer CokerCIVICUS speaks about the struggle for sexual and reproductive health rights in Sierra Leone with Nicky Spencer-Coker, head of advocacy and movement building of Purposeful Sierra Leone.

Purposeful is a feminist hub for girls’ activism, rooted in Africa and working all around the world. The organisation has played an active role in promoting the Safe Motherhood and Reproductive Health Bill in Sierra Leone.

What is the Safe Motherhood and Reproductive Health Bill?

The Safe Motherhood and Reproductive Health Bill is currently being drafted following the president’s announcement that his government unanimously backs an initiative to promote risk-free motherhood, made during the 10th Africa Conference on Sexual Health and Rights held in Freetown, Sierra Leone, in early July. But the message that came out on the media was that Sierra Leone had legalised abortion, which was actually not the case.

Following its announcement, the government has hired national and international consultants to take part in the process. Further, a working group that includes activists, practitioners and government officials is working alongside the Ministry of Health.

The expectation is that the bill will have reached parliament by the time the new parliament opens in October. Sierra Leone will have elections next year and we do not want this to carry over into the election period because we could face problems with members of parliament wanting to protect their seats by not engaging with an initiative that could be viewed as controversial, as it should include access to sexual and reproductive health services. We hope the bill will be submitted to parliament by October and it will pass this year.

In 2015 parliament passed the Safe Abortion Act, which was supposed to allow women and girls access to safe abortions. But the former president blocked the bill, possibly due to both lack of political will and pressure from anti-rights and religious groups.

It is worrying that the same issues that led the former president to not sign the Safe Abortion Act continue to be raised by certain segments of society in the context of the Safe Motherhood and Reproductive Health Bill. We hope this time around it will be different because our president has signalled that he and his cabinet are willing to challenge abortion stigma in the context of health services for girls and women.

In addition, our government has signed international instruments such as the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, which requires states to provide people with access to adequate and affordable health services. This puts pressure on the government to respect and promote the right of women to health, including sexual and reproductive health. We remain hopeful that these commitments will be fulfilled.

How has civil society in general, and your organisation in particular, advocated for abortion rights?

Women’s rights groups and activists for sexual and reproductive health rights have been fighting for the abolition of colonial-era abortion laws for years, with the movement growing stronger in 2014 and 2015 when the Safe Abortion Act was being advanced. Most of these organisations and activists collaborate under the umbrella of the People’s Alliance for Reproductive Health Advocacy, a coalition that advocates for sexual and reproductive rights through engagement, dialogue and partnership with key stakeholders.

As well as being part of the coalition, Purposeful also operates as an independent organisation that carries out our own advocacy work in communities. We are an African-led feminist hub for girls’ activism, and we want to make sure Sierra Leonean girls inherit a world where they can live safely and have choices. High on our agenda are sexual and reproductive rights, but we work on a wide platform including the provision of comprehensive sexual education, accurate information on reproductive health choices and life skills.

A strategy that has proven particularly successful for the Coalition has been to engage directly with various groups of stakeholders. We have tried to stay in constant dialogue with organisations and people who vehemently oppose women’s sexual and reproductive rights. Telling human stories that show how women and young girls are affected by the lack of access to reproductive health services has helped bring awareness of the severity of the issues we face.

Over the years, the Coalition has been fortunate to work with medical professionals and the Ministry of Health to shift the narrative on the safe termination of pregnancy and safe motherhood in Sierra Leone, a country with a very high rate of teenage pregnancy and maternal mortality. A significant number of these deaths are caused by lack of access to safe abortion and reproductive health choices.

Have you faced anti-rights backlash?

In 2015, when the Safe Abortion Act was being discussed, there were several confrontations between anti-rights groups and civil society activists, and I was nearly assaulted when attending a parliamentary session. For the drafting of the current bill we are not seeing the same level of aggression, but we are dealing with a relentless campaign by some anti-rights and religious groups that are going on radio and television to denounce a bill that does not even yet exist.

We don’t find the backlash surprising and we know that the position of certain groups won’t ever change. But it’s the government’s responsibility to look to the greater good and ensure the health and wellbeing of women and girls.

Besides, we have seen a positive response from the public. I think this is the result of civil society’s focus on sharing information and creating awareness. We also appreciate international attention, as it will provide incentives for the government to stay true to its words.

What are the next steps, and what kind of international support would Sierra Leonean civil society need?

There is a joint drive by the Ministries of Education and Health to ensure the success of the initiative that is pushing the government to provide comprehensive sexual education in schools. Our country has extremely high rates of teenage pregnancy, which we hope to reduce through education. While legalising abortion is important, many other issues regarding accessible and affordable health services for women and girls must also be addressed, and healthcare professionals must be adequately trained to provide those services.

We need international civil society to keep these issues on the agenda. In Africa we have noticed that when you stop insisting on something, governments automatically think the issue is off the table and there’s no need for them to do anything about it. It’s our job to continue to remind our government that it has signed certain instruments that make it imperative for it to recognise the reproductive rights of women and girls. We also need to have a cross-border conversation with other African countries that have more progressive reproductive health rights legislation.

Civic space in Sierra Leone is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Purposeful through its website or Facebook and Instagram pages, and follow @Purposeful_org on Twitter.

 

THAILAND: ‘Spyware was used to monitor protesters’ online activity’

Sutawan ChanprasertCIVICUS speaks about the use of surveillance technology against civil society activists in Thailand with Sutawan Chanprasert, founder and executive director of DigitalReach, a civil society organisation (CSO) that promotes digital rights, human rights and democracy in Southeast Asia.

What is DigitalReach working on?

DigitalReach is a digital rights organisation working in southeast Asia. We are looking at the impact of technology on human rights and democracy in the region. We initiated this project with a focus on the use of Pegasus spyware in Thailand and reached out to The Citizen Lab and iLaw for collaboration. This is because iLaw is a well-known organisation based in Thailand with a great connection with local activists, and The Citizen Lab is well-known for its expertise in spyware investigation.

What were the main findings of this research?

Pegasus spyware, which is produced by NSO group and sold only to state agencies, can infect devices (both iOS and Android) through a technology called ‘zero click’, which means that it needs no action on the part of the targeted user. Once the spyware is installed, it can gain access to everything on the device, including photos and text messages, and can turn the camera and microphone on and off.

In Thailand, this spyware has been used against at least 35 iPhone users: 24 activists, three CSO workers, three academics and five opposition politicians. These infections happened between October 2020 and November 2021, which was peak time for the democracy movement.

There were three reasons why the spyware was used against dissidents: to monitor protesters’ online activity, to monitor the protests and to find out more about the movement’s funding. On the basis of forensic evidence, The Citizen Lab confirmed that zero-click technology was used, exploiting vulnerabilities in the system to gain access to the devices.

This was likely not the first time spyware was used against activists in Thailand, but we have no evidence to confirm this suspicion. Other digital surveillance tools have also been used: as detailed in our report, GPS devices were found attached to some dissidents’ vehicles during democracy mobilisations.

How did the government react to your findings?

On 22 July the Prime Minister said in parliament that he does not know anything about this spyware, and he added that such spyware would be unnecessary as we all knew what was going on from social media. The Deputy Minister of Defence also declared in parliament that it is not the government’s policy to use spyware against people or ‘generally’ violate their rights. Meanwhile, the Minister of Digital Economy and Society stated in parliament that spyware technology had been purchased but not by a department or agency under his authority. However, he referred to it generically as ‘spyware technology’, without ever confirming that he was referring to Pegasus.

Is there anything CSOs and activists can do to counter spyware?

Spyware is considered a dual-use item, which means it can also be useful in criminal investigations. However, we all know this is not always the case. In Thailand and many other countries, spyware has been used against dissidents and members of the opposition, which means that the technology needs to be strictly regulated so it’s not abused. However, it’s hard to see that happening under the current administration, as the government itself is the likely perpetrator. Only policymakers who care about human rights will be able to make progress on this.

As for individual activists, there is no total solution to prevent a device from being infected by this kind of spyware. However, exposure to this threat can be reduced in several ways, such as by using two-factor authentication, using a security key or an authenticator app rather than an SMS, using a messaging platform with the disappearing message feature and by enrolling in Google’s Advanced Protection Program.

What can the international community do to support Thai activists facing surveillance?

This is a tricky question. Thailand doesn’t currently have an active local digital rights organisation, so working on this would be a good first step to increase digital security protection. The global community that works on digital security can play an important role. However, training activities offered in Thailand must be conducted in the local language and customised to fit the Thai context.

There’s also a need for digital security work in Thailand that goes beyond training, including monitoring to watch for emerging digital threats against dissidents, more research and work with local activists and organisations to ensure their long-term digital safety with a sustainable approach. Funding is also needed because local activists and organisations must buy tools to support their digital security.

Civic space in Thailand is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Follow DigitalReach via its website and follow @DigitalReachSEA on Twitter.

 

GUINEA: ‘The democratic future of the region is at stake in our country’

CIVICUS speaks about the lack of progress in the transition to democracy in Guinea since its 2021 military coup with Abdoulaye Oumou Sow, head of communications for the National Front for the Defence of the Constitution (FNDC).

The FNDC is a coalition of Guinean civil society organisations and opposition parties founded in April 2019 to protest against former President Alpha Condé’s proposed constitutional change to seek a third term. The coalition continued to fight for a return to constitutional rule after the September 2021 military coup. On 8 August 2022, the transitional government decreed its dissolution, accusing it of organising armed public demonstrations, using violence and inciting hatred.

Abdoulaye Oumou Sow

Why is there a delay in calling elections to restore constitutional order?

The National Committee of Reconciliation and Development (CNRD), the junta in power since September 2021, is more interested in seizing power than organising elections. It is doing everything possible to restrict civic space and silence any dissenting voices that try to protest and remind them that the priority of a transition must be the return to constitutional order. It is imprisoning leaders and members of civil society and the political opposition for mobilising to demand elections, and has just ordered the dissolution of the FNDC under false accusations of organising armed demonstrations on the streets and acting as a combat group or private militia.

What are the conditions set by the military and how has the democratic opposition reacted?

In violation of Article 77 of the Transitional Charter, which provides for the duration of the transition to be determined by agreement between the CNRD and the country’s main social and political actors, the military junta has unilaterally set a duration of 36 months without listening to the opinion of social and political forces. The junta is currently set on not listening to anyone.

The military are savagely repressing citizens who are mobilising for democracy and demanding the opening of a frank dialogue between the country’s social and political forces and the CNRD to agree on a reasonable timeframe for the return to constitutional order. Lacking the will to let go of power, the head of the junta is wallowing in arrogance and contempt. His attitude is reminiscent of the heyday of the dictatorship of the deposed regime of Alpha Condé.

What has been the public reaction?

Most socio-political forces currently feel excluded from the transition process and there have been demonstrations for the restoration of democracy.

But the junta runs the country like a military camp. Starting on 13 May 2002, a CNRD communiqué has banned all demonstrations on public spaces. This decision is contrary to Article 8 of the Transitional Charter, which protects fundamental freedoms. Human rights violations have subsequently multiplied. Civic space is completely under lock and key. Activists are persecuted, some have been arrested and others are living in hiding. Despite the many appeals of human rights organisations, the junta multiplies its abuses against pro-democracy citizens.

On 28 July 2022, at the call of the FNDC, pro-democracy citizens mobilised to protest against the junta’s seizure of power. But unfortunately, this mobilisation was prevented and repressed with bloody force. At least five people were shot dead, dozens were injured and hundreds were arrested. Others were deported to the Alpha Yaya Diallo military camp, where they have been tortured by the military.

Among those arrested and currently held in Conakry prison are the National Coordinator of the FNDC, Oumar Sylla Foniké Manguè, the FNDC’s head of operations, Ibrahima Diallo and the Secretary General of the Union of Republican Forces, Saikou Yaya Barry. They are accused of illegal assembly, destruction of public buildings and disturbances of public order.

How can the international community, and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in particular, give the pro-democracy movement the support it needs?

Today it is more necessary than ever for the international community to accompany the people of Guinea who are under the thumb of a new military dictatorship.

The democratic future of the region is at stake in our country. If the international community, and ECOWAS in particular, remains silent, it will set a dangerous precedent for the region. Because of its management of the previous crisis generated by the third mandate of Alpha Condé, Guinean citizens do not have much faith in the sub-regional institution. From now on, the force of change must come from within, through the determination of the people of Guinea to take their destiny in hand.

Civic space in Guinea is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the FNDC through its website or its Facebook page and follow @FNDC_Gn on Twitter.

 

JAPAN: ‘Links between politics and the religious right have impeded progress on LGBTQI+ rights’

Akira NishiyamaCIVICUS speaks with Akira Nishiyama, executive officer of the Japan Alliance for Legislation to Remove Social Barriers based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (Japan Alliance for LGBT Legislation, J-ALL).

J-ALL was founded in 2015 to advocate for legislation to remove the barriers LGBTQI+ people experience due to their sexual orientation or gender identity in Japan. It focuses on raising awareness among the public, producing research and convening consultations, developing policy proposals and lobbying with government officials and legislators.

What is the situation of LGBTQI+ people in Japan?

LGBTQI+ people are estimated to make up between three and 10 per cent of Japan’s population. Many are closeted for fear of discrimination and prejudice. According to recent research, over half of teenagers who identify as LGBTQI+ have been bullied, and only about 10 per cent of LGBTQI+ people are able to come out at their workplace. The rate of LGBTQI+ people who have considered suicide is about twice as high as among their heterosexual counterparts and the rate of those who attempt suicide is six times higher – and 10 times higher among transgender people.

Such a vulnerable status is caused by the absence of a law at the national level that prohibits discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) and raises awareness of LGBTQI+ and SOGI issues. We believe that an anti-discrimination law would enable us to solve social problems such as bullying and SOGI-based discrimination due to prejudice or misunderstanding and effectively deter and remedy human rights violations. It would force governmental agencies, educational institutions and private companies to prepare preventive schemes so that SOGI-related human rights violations would not take place, and make consultation services available.

Additionally, Japan’s Act on Special Cases in Handling Gender Status of Persons with Gender Identity Disorder sets strict conditions to change one’s legal gender status. Under this law, a person with a so-called ‘gender identity disorder’ must be diagnosed by two or more psychiatrists and must fulfil five conditions to request the family court to make a ruling towards change of their gender status, which is still thought of in binary terms: they must be above 18 years of age, not be married at the time of the gender change, have no children who are still minors, have no reproductive glands, or only reproductive glands that have permanently lost their function, and have body parts that appear to resemble the genitals of the other gender.

These conditions are considered too strict compared to those of other countries. In 2015, 12 United Nations organisations issued a joint statement asking the Japanese government to ensure the legal recognition of the gender identity of transgender people without such abusive requirements, but the Japanese government has not yet made any moves in that direction.

What work does J-ALL do?

J-ALL was established in April 2015 in response to a call from politicians and the LGBTQI+ community to reach a consensus and make effective policy recommendations. For the previous decade or so, civil society organisations (CSOs) in Japan had been lobbying separately on LGBTQI+ and SOGI-related issues.

J-ALL is an umbrella organisation with 96 member CSOs from throughout Japan. It is run by directors who are leaders of CSOs in various regions. Its secretariat is managed by executive officers who specialise in lobbying, public relations and international affairs, as well as student interns.

Our lobbying activities have succeeded in pushing forward several SOGI-related laws. For instance, in October 2018 the Tokyo Metropolitan Government adopted an ordinance that protects LGBTQI+ people from SOGI-based discrimination in line with the Olympic Charter. This ordinance clearly stipulates anti-discrimination based on SOGI and was the first ordinance of its kind at the prefectural level.

In addition, in May 2019 the Japanese government amended the law on harassment. The amended version requires private entities and municipal governments to set guidelines to prohibit harassment and outing based on SOGI in the workplace.

As the only CSO aimed at proposing SOGI-related bills, J-ALL is pushing politicians and governmental officers at both national and municipal levels by working together with Rengo – the Japanese Trade Union Confederation and a member of the International Trade Union Confederation – eminent scholars and researchers of labour law and international human rights law, and activists fighting to eliminate all kinds of discrimination, including discrimination against women. In recent years, around 40 companies have signed a statement to support the LGBT Equality Law, which would ban anti-LGBTQI+ discrimination. Economic federations have also declared the necessity for legislation on SOGI.

Have you faced any anti-rights backlash?

As the social movement to promote the rights of LGBTQI+ people has grown, backlash by religious right-wing groups, ultra-conservative politicians and trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERF) groups has also grown. For instance, several politicians gave discriminatory speeches against LGBTQI+ people in response to discussions regarding the anti-discrimination bill agreed on by LGBT Giren, a nonpartisan political caucus set up to discuss SOGI-related human rights violations in 2021. Bashing against transgender women and LGBTQI+ people based on heteronormativity, conventional understandings of the family and stereotypical images of women are prevalent in both the real world and the internet.

Japan has not made much progress on gender inequality, let alone LGBTQI+ rights and SOGI-related issues. This is because the Japanese government is closely connected with religious right-wing groups based on the values of male chauvinism and a patriarchal view of the family. Because of these close ties, ruling politicians have long ignored the existence of people with diverse sexualities and gender identities and have sustained a social system that lacks SOGI-related education and allows for SOGI-based human rights violations. As a result, LGBTQI+ people face wide-ranging challenges such as prejudice, bullying and harassment, and victims of SOGI-related human rights violations are not protected by the law.

We believe that Japanese civil society needs to recognise this connection between mainstream politics and the religious right in order to tackle human rights issues in earnest. It is also important to learn about which groups of people are marginalised by the current social systems built by the majority and what kind of human rights violations they face, and to take actions such as electoral participation and making public comments based on these concerns.

How is civil society working to achieve marriage equality, and what was the significance of the recent verdicts of the Sapporo and Osaka district courts?

There is a CSO, Marriage For ALL Japan, that has been working actively and specifically to achieve the legalisation of same-sex marriage in Japan. In 2019 this organisation filed lawsuits in five districts – Fukuoka, Nagoya, Osaka, Sapporo and Tokyo – and has been conducting awareness-raising activities across the nation.

In March 2021, the Sapporo District Court ruled that not allowing same-sex marriage was unconstitutional. After a careful scrutiny of the scientific and medical arguments currently used to deny legal benefits to same-sex couples, the Sapporo District Court reasoned that the failure to allow ‘even a certain degree’ of legal benefits to same-sex couples based on their sexual orientation is against Article 14 of the Constitution, which stipulates equality under the law. Although the court dismissed the plaintiffs’ claim for compensation, its verdict was viewed as a step that would surely accelerate the movement to legalise same-sex marriage in Japan.

But then in June 2022, the Osaka District Court concluded that not allowing same-sex marriages does not violate Article 14, given that the legal disadvantages faced by same-sex couples can be compensated by wills or other means. In addition, the court emphasised that the gap between the benefits enjoyed by heterosexual and same-sex couples has been minimised by the recognition of same-sex partnerships at the municipal level. This, however, overlooks the fact that the municipal system of partnership recognition is not legally binding.

The Osaka District Court also claimed that the ‘true’ elimination of discrimination and prejudice should be achieved by constructing a social system through the democratic process of free discussion by the people. This was criticised by civil society as an abdication of the judiciary’s crucial role as the bastion of human rights. Also under fire is the court’s claim that marriage is purely for the purpose of reproduction.

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

Since 2020 J-ALL has been running a global campaign, Equality Act Japan (EAJ), alongside Human Rights Watch and other global human rights organisations. We would like you to sign the petition found in our website to ask the Japanese government to enact the LGBT Equality Act.

If you are a private company, we will appreciate your cooperation in adhering to the Declaration of Business Support for LGBT Equality in Japan, which we promote as a part of the EAJ campaign.

Last but not least, we would be happy if you could join us by checking out the current situation in Japan, follow our activities through our website or social media, and support us through a one-time or a monthly donation.

Civic space in Japan is rated as ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with J-ALL through its website or Facebook page, and follow @lgbthourengokai on Twitter. 

 

CANADA: ‘Indigenous people who are most marginalised experience significant human rights violations.’

Melanie OmenihoCIVICUS speaks about Indigenous people’s rights in Canada with Melanie Omeniho, president of Les Femmes Michif Otipemisiwak/Women of the Metis Nation (LFMO).

Founded in 1999 and incorporated in 2010, LFMO is a national representative civil society organisation that advocates for the rights of Indigenous peoples in Canada, and specifically for the right to equal treatment, health and wellbeing of women and gender diverse people and sexual minorities of the Metis Nation.

What is the current situation of Indigenous people in Canada?

In our experience at LFMO, Indigenous people who are most marginalised experience significant human rights violations. Indigenous people are trying to survive traumas and do not have the time or resources required to deal with the systemic racism that continues to violate their rights.

For instance, we have heard numerous concerning experiences regarding difficulties to access Canada’s victim services scheme. In some provinces, policy dictates that if a person has had any prior engagement with the criminal justice system, even if decades earlier, and this remains on their record, they might not be eligible to receive victim services. This policy severely impacts on and violates the rights of Indigenous victims of crimes, including sexual assault.

At LFMO we are keenly aware of the experience of anti-Indigenous racism. Some of us are attacked based on how we look or talk when we are going about our lives in mainstream society. We are particularly concerned about the lack of willingness to identify physical attacks on Indigenous women as hate crimes.

We encourage change in policy and practice in all facets of the criminal justice system to identify hate crimes against Indigenous people instead of classifying them as regular assaults. To create change and hold offenders properly accountable, we need to ensure that anti-Indigenous racism is recognised as a hate crime.

How is LMFO working to advance the rights of Indigenous peoples in Canada?

LMFO is the national representative body for Métis women across the Métis Nation Motherland. Métis are one of the three recognised Indigenous peoples of Canada, along with First Nations and Inuit. According to the 2016 census, there are nearly 600,000 Canadians who self-identify as Métis.

LMFO advocates for the equality of Métis women, Two-Spirit and gender diverse Métis people across the Métis Nation Homeland – our Métis Motherland. The term ‘Two-Spirit’ was coined in the 1990s to refer to Indigenous LGBTQI+ people, corresponding to an age-old concept in Indigenous communities that means someone who embodies both a masculine and feminine spirit.

LFMO plays a significant role in enhancing the social, cultural, economic, environmental and leadership space occupied by Métis women and gender minorities. Our overarching mission is to ensure the equal treatment, health and wellbeing of all Métis people, with a focus on Métis women, young people and those who are Two-Spirit and gender diverse.

As part of our strategic plan, we have 10 objectives: advocating for the priorities and needs of women in the Métis Nation, Canada and the world; taking care of the land and waters; guarding the traditional knowledge of Métis women; promoting social justice and equality; creating opportunities for Métis women to develop leadership skills; helping Métis people lead healthier lives and supporting healthy and vibrant communities; ensuring that the perspectives and priorities of Métis women are included in economic development initiatives, and that support is provided for their entrepreneurship; fostering culturally appropriate early learning environments and lifelong learning to improve educational outcomes for Métis children, women and all Métis learners; developing a Métis-specific research strategy to build disaggregated data; and building a strong, successful, inclusive, responsible and transparent organisation.

We are part of a global movement of Indigenous groups around the world who are all collectively fighting and advocating to be seen, heard and recognised. The more we speak up and share our stories and fight to preserve our traditions and cultures, the more likely it is that we will achieve the recognition of our rights and the creation of policies that serve us and protect us.

What should the government do to help advance the rights of Canadian Indigenous peoples?

We hope that in domesticating the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the government will implement policies to realise Indigenous rights and Indigenous women will be a part of those conversations. To that effect, LFMO advocates for a gender-based approach and an intersectional lens on policy development and the co-design of legislation.

Civic space in Canada is rated ‘open’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Les Femmes Michif Otipemisiwak through its website or Facebook and Instagram pages, and follow @LesMichif on Twitter. 

 

AUSTRALIA: ‘Indigenous Australians must be represented at the heart of policy-making’

Paul WrightCIVICUS speaks about Indigenous peoples’ rights in Australia with Paul Wright, National Director of Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation (ANTaR), a civil society organisation (CSO) that works in solidarity with and advocates for the rights of Indigenous peoples in Australia, including by aiming to change the attitudes and behaviours of non-Indigenous Australians.

What is the current situation of Indigenous peoples in Australia?

As soon as colonisation began in 1788, Australia’s First Nations peoples, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, were systematically persecuted and marginalised. They were dispossessed of their lands and denied the rights afforded to settlers or colonisers.

In 2022, more than 230 years since colonisation began and 120 years after the former colonies federated into the Commonwealth of Australia, Indigenous Australians continue fighting for their rights and to have their sovereignty recognised.

Through the years, there have been big wins, frustrating disappointments and broken promises from governments. Human rights have been consistently denied or violated. Australia was one of the last nations to ratify the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), and following ratification it has done very little to honour or domesticate the articles of the declaration.

More positively, the Australian Human Rights Commission includes an Indigenous Social Justice Commissioner whose role is to advocate for the rights of Indigenous peoples and keep Indigenous issues on the agenda of the Australian federal government. The position is currently filled by a Bunuba woman, Dr June Oscar, who is a great source of information on the human rights situation of Indigenous Australians.

While things are slowly improving, Indigenous Australians continue to have a lower life expectancy, live in poorer health and have worse employment and education outcomes than non-Indigenous Australians.

The wide health gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities was highlighted by the Close the Gap Campaign, co-chaired by the Indigenous Social Justice Commissioner and the CEO of the National Association of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Workers and Practitioners. In response, the Australian government entered into the National Agreement on Closing the Gap with the Coalition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peak Organisations, committing to implementing tangible policy reforms. In July 2020 it issued its second Annual Data Compilation Report that tracks the implementation of the agreement.

Do you think Australian Indigenous peoples are well represented in policy-making processes?

They are not, so the current political battle in Australia is to make sure Indigenous Australians are represented at the heart of the policy-making that affects them. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have issued the Uluru Statement from the Heart, an invitation to ‘walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future’. It calls for structural reforms, including constitutional change, to establish a First Nations’ ‘Voice to Parliament’ and kick off a national process of truth-telling and reconciliation. The current federal Labor government has committed to holding a referendum to decide this question. This is a major moment for Australia.

Since the 1992 Mabo High Court decision, which recognised that a group of Torres Strait Islanders, led by Eddie Mabo, held ownership of Mer (Murray Island), native title has been recognised for all Indigenous people in Australia. In response to that seminal High Court ruling, the government introduced the Native Title Act, and over the next 30 years, 40 per cent of the Australian landmass has been returned to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples that have made claims. Not all claims have been successful, however: native title rights are limited and do not entail self-determination at the level outlined in the UNDRIP and other international standards.

How is ANTaR working to advance the rights of Indigenous Australians?

ANTaR is a national advocacy organisation that promotes the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people that was founded 25 years ago. We began as a grassroots protest movement to resist government attempts to water down legislation on native title rights. We have subsequently worked alongside many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders, organisations and communities to advocate for rights and justice. Our priorities have included health equality, justice, anti-racism, advocacy for a treaty, reconciliation and much more.

As an ally organisation, we operate under the principle of not speaking for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and instead look to their leadership and direction to channel our resources and support. There are a growing number of solid connections between Indigenous peoples globally, which is encouraging. Australia has learned many lessons from Indigenous affairs in Canada, Norway, New Zealand and elsewhere.

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

 

UNITED NATIONS: ‘The power of anti-rights groups is growing; difficult times lie ahead’

CIVICUS speaks with Tamara Adrián, founder and director of DIVERLEX-Diversity and Equality Through Law, about the successful civil society campaign for the renewal of the mandate of the United Nations’ (UN) Independent Expert on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Tamara Adrián is a lawyer and university professor, and the first trans woman to be elected to a national parliament in Latin America.

DIVERLEX is a Venezuelan civil society organisation dedicated to research, training, advocacy and strategic litigation on issues of sexual diversity. Due to the complex humanitarian crisis affecting Venezuela, most of its leaders are currently based outside Venezuela, where they continue to work to improve the living conditions of LGBTQI+ people in exile.

Tamara Adrian

Why is the mandate of the UN Independent Expert on sexual orientation and gender identity so important?

This is an extremely important figure. The weapon of choice of all bigots is to make certain groups and the violation of their rights invisible. This has been a constant in relation to women, Indigenous peoples, racial minorities and religious minorities. As long as the intolerant can say a problem does not exist, their power system remains active and nothing changes. In the universal human rights system, what bigots want to keep invisible is made visible through the work of independent experts and rapporteurs.

The first Independent Expert, Vitit Muntarbhorn, was in office for a couple of years and produced a report on violence based on sexual orientation or gender identity, which he shared with the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. He kicked off the process of shedding light on the injustices, inequities and violence against LGBTQI+ people globally.

The three reports submitted by the current Independent Expert, Víctor Madrigal-Borloz, pointed at many countries that are failing in their duty to protect all their citizens. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights highlighted that states have a positive obligation to ensure equal rights to all people.

We understand there is still a long way to go and that reports – those by the Independent Expert, the High Commissioner and regional bodies such as the Organization of American States – are important to this process.

So important are they that this work triggered strong backlash from fundamentalist groups that reorganised in the form of ‘non-governmental organisations’. These sought to obtain consultative status with the UN Economic and Social Council in order to interfere in their processes.

How do these groups operate within the UN?

Anti-rights groups have been changing their strategy. Rather than identify as religious organisations, they have sought to present themselves as defenders of religious freedom and, above all, of the freedom of expression. They have promoted strategies of religious unity, bringing together Catholic fundamentalists and representatives of the Holy See with neo-evangelical fundamentalists and the most regressive Muslim groups.

They have also refined their arguments. First, they argue that the concept of sexual orientation and gender identity is a western concept and not a universal one, and therefore should not be protected by the UN. Second, they claim that no existing treaty or international instrument provides protection against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Third, they say that countries with traditional values should be able to maintain discriminatory laws or criminalise same-sex relationships or diverse gender identities.

These three claims were implicit in the arguments of the countries that opposed the renewal of the Independent Expert's mandate and proposed amendments, alongside a fourth: that no country should protect criminals, and the determination of what is a criminal act is subject to the criminal law of each country and is not subject to verification before the international human rights system.

Historically, this issue has been resolved on the basis of the recognition that everyone has a right to their own beliefs, but no one can impose their beliefs or deny others their rights on the basis of their faith. Fundamentalists want this situation reversed so that believers can discriminate against and deny rights to other people

Have anti-rights groups grown in power in recent years?

The power of anti-rights groups is growing, which is possibly linked to the regression that is taking place in the USA. Indeed, in the vote to renew the mandate we saw two groups of states putting up resistance: countries that have never made progress in recognising rights and where there is a lot of resistance to change, and countries that are moving backwards, such as the USA.

In the USA, links connecting white supremacism, neo-Pentecostal groups and the more radical segments of the Republican Party have been growing closer for at least a decade. Anti-rights groups have been taking up space in the courts, from the lowest levels to the Supreme Court, as well as in governorships and state legislatures, resulting in more and more anti-trans, anti-sex education and pro-religious freedom rulings, laws and policies. They have been outspoken in their plans to reverse abortion rights, reject the concept of gender and repeal sexual and reproductive education and contraceptive rights, and even women’s rights, equal marriage and protections against racial discrimination.

The USA has also played a key role in the international funding of the anti-rights movement and the development of neo-Pentecostal churches around the world, particularly in Africa and Latin America. It has also influenced the establishment of a phenomenon that has not been given enough attention: the movement of biology-fixated feminists, who deny the concept of gender with the same arguments used by the most conservative churches.

This unity of argumentation is highly suspicious, and all the more so when one looks at the funding streams coming from the USA feeding biology-focused feminist groups in places including Brazil, Central America, the Dominican Republic, Spain and the UK. The target of these groups is not LGBTQI+ people generally, but trans people specifically. By upholding the biological and natural character of differences they seek to destroy the whole structure of gender-based protections.

I honestly think this is a very well-thought-out plan. I understand that they have mimicked the strategy we initially adopted to give visibility to our struggles. However, they have the advantage of being in power. The number of states that have signed a ‘pro-life’ resolution at the UN and declared themselves ‘pro-life’ states shows that their aim is not just to oppose just LGBTQI+ rights but all rights based on the concept of gender.

How was the campaign for the renewal of the Independent Expert’s mandate organised?

The organisations that lobbied for the renewal of the mandate have worked together ever since the campaign for the appointment of the first Independent Expert. Every time, the process starts long before the appointment. In this case, we started working about three years ago: practically the year after the mandate was renewed we were already working to create the core group to work for a new renewal.

With Latin American organisations, a recurrent limitation is lack of knowledge of the English language, which restricts the ability of activists to internationalise their struggles. To overcome this problem, our core group is made up of both Spanish-speaking and English-speaking activists. This was very important because the coalition was mainly made up of Latin American groups.

It was a very difficult process, and while the vote eventually turned out to be favourable, over several months the outcomes of the sessions did not make us feel confident. We saw growing resistance from countries with fundamentalist positions that were increasingly embracing the idea of rolling back rights.

What are the next steps following the mandate’s renewal?

I believe we should not relax. Difficult times lie ahead. Many rights we thought had already been secured are likely to be reversed in the USA, including those linked to racial equality. It is no longer even a question of returning to a 20th century vision, but to a 16th or 17th century one.

This will have a strong impact at the global level, especially in countries with less developed institutions. Countries with stronger institutions will probably be better able to resist the onslaught to roll back sexual and reproductive rights. 

As next steps, I would emphasise organising. In many places people tell me, ‘don’t worry, that would never happen here’, but I insist we cannot relax. We must focus on forming coalitions and organising stronger alliances to stop advances by neoconservative groups and challenge them to gain back the spaces of power they have occupied.

Get in touch with Tamara Adrián through her website or her Facebook page, and follow @TamaraAdrian on Twitter. 

 

EGYPT: ‘Women’s rights are not a priority in the government’s agenda’

Content warning: this interview contains references to sexual assault, rape and femicide.

Azza SolimanCIVICUS speaks with Azza Soliman about the widespread anger triggered by recent femicides in Egypt, and more generally in the Middle East and North Africa, and civil society’s role in eliminating gender-based violence (GBV).

Azza is a lawyer, women’s rights advocate and co-founder of the Centre for Egyptian Women Legal Assistance (CEWLA), an Egyptian civil society organisation (CSO) established in 1995 to advocate for gender equality, and specifically for the legal equality of women and amendment of discriminatory laws.

Why has the recent femicide case had so much impact?

The news about the murder of Naira Ashraf, a student at Mansoura University, by a man whose marriage proposal she rejected, went viral on social media, bringing massive media coverage in the news – as if it were an unprecedented incident.

The truth is that our society has a very short memory: it easily forgets the killing of women and girls, so it treats every femicide as if it were the first, rather than as part of a systemic problem. Egyptian media does not even bother to refer to existing data on GBV collected by CSOs.

Civil society has been researching these issues, so we are not surprised at cases such as Naira’s. In our society, women’s bodies are subject to all kinds of violence due to custom and tradition, and this is reinforced by the lack of legislation on GBV that could act as a deterrent. A United Nations (UN) survey conducted in 2015 concluded that almost eight million Egyptian women were victims of violence committed by their partners or relatives, or by strangers in public spaces.

Religious discourse degrades women instead of strengthening our role in society. Public discourse not only normalises violence against women but also justifies it by blaming the victim. This was clear in the comments the news of Naira’s murder received on social media, which questioned the very idea of women’s rights and women’s freedom to reject a potential partner.

In short, femicide is part of growing social phenomenon of GBV that has many faces. In the extreme, it takes the form of murder, but it has many other expressions, including collective sexual harassment, which has also recently become more widespread.

In the light of this, CSOs have raised their voice against the outdated legal definition of rape in Egyptian legislation, which leaves out many forms of the phenomenon that used to be relatively unfamiliar in our society. The law defines rape as the forced penetration by the male sexual organ and excludes penetration with any other objects, as well as forms of rape that don’t involve penetration.

Additional forms of GBV, including domestic violence, have been exposed thanks to social media, where women and girls have become more outspoken and have started telling their stories. Now the law needs to catch up.

How similar is the context in Egypt to that of other Arab countries?

I think femicides in Arab countries have commonalities that are the result of a shared inherited patriarchal culture. This generates sympathy for the murderer over the victim, whose so-called ‘honour’ is called into question.

Very recently, a case similar to Naira’s happened in Jordan: Iman Arsheed, a 21-year-old student, was shot on her university campus in Amman. Her family said she had rejected multiple marriage proposals from her suspected murderer. Both killings, in Egypt and Jordan, were followed by a smear campaign against the victims and in defence of the murderers. Both countries lack laws that protect women from violence.

The latest murders have sparked widespread outrage about femicides and calls for change across the region. For example, young feminist groups proposed a call for a regional strike on 6 July, and our organisation joined forces with other feminist groups in the region. Some held protests, while others issued statements in support of the strike.

What roles have you and other Egyptian CSOs played in advocating against GBV?

One of the main reasons behind rising levels of femicide in Egypt is the absence of legislation to protect women from GBV. Of course, the law alone cannot prevent GBV, but it is a crucial tool for social change. That is why our organisation, CEWLA, has collaborated with other feminist organisations to prepare a draft law on GBV. Two female members of parliament have proposed the draft bill on two separate occasions, but the legislation committee of parliament has so far failed to include it on its agenda.

Civil society has also shed light on the outdated legal definition of rape in Egypt’s Penal Code and continues to call for legal change. As part of the Feminist Arab Alliance, CEWLA also contributed to drafting model GBV legislation for the Arab world. 

Back in 1999, CEWLA was a pioneer in conducting research on the issue of ‘honour crimes’ in Egypt, which is still a somewhat taboo subject. Our research found that judges usually use Article 17 of Egypt’s Penal Code to commute punishment for the perpetrator of honour crimes, on the basis of the accusation that the victim has violated ‘customs and traditions’. We have long advocated for ending the use of this article, as it is only used this way in GBV cases, and not in others such as drug-trafficking cases.

This brings us to the vital role of judicial authority in combating the male-dominated culture that threatens the safety of women. In this regard, as recommended by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), we conduct gender-sensitive training of judicial and law enforcement officers and other public officials. We also work to raise social awareness because of its potential to confront regressive thoughts in society. Recently, we have launched a social media campaign, ‘Violence is Culture,’ that aims to generate social discourse condemning GBV. 

On the ground, we facilitate dialogue between local women and officials in a police station located in Imbaba, one of Giza’s working-class neighbourhoods. Our programme builds trust between the two parties, so women and girls can report any form of GBV, including domestic violence, and the police commits to taking them seriously.

What should the Egyptian government do to curb femicide?

Women’s rights are not a priority in the government’s agenda. This is the first obstacle against passing a GBV law. We insist on such law being passed since we live in a modern state where victims and survivors should be able to seek justice through the law.

Once such a law is passed, we will need to focus on its enforcement, which should be supported by the joint work of the media, the Ministry of Education and the religious institution for Muslims, Al-Azhar. These institutions should adopt a progressive discourse about women’s rights and against GBV. These efforts should be part of the overall concept of the rule of law, where impunity for violence against women is not tolerable.

The Egyptian government should expand the GBV unit of the Ministry of Interior in Cairo to police stations across the country, especially in rural areas, where local people don’t let CSOs ‘interfere’ in GBV cases. Our lawyers have been attacked in these villages. The state’s support is essential for us to continue our work.

The Egyptian government is responsible for implementing international recommendations and standards. The latest CEDAW report included a series of recommendations, including to combat GBV, that the government has agreed to pursue.

What obstacles do Arab feminists face, and what kind of international support do they need?

Undoubtedly, civic space has shrunk enormously in the Arab region over the past eight years as Arab governments have copied and pasted repressive legislation to restrict the freedom of association. Moreover, Arab feminist groups operate in very hostile cultural environments. On top of that, the pandemic put enormous pressure on us for almost three years.

More recently, funding for CSOs has also diminished as international donors have reallocated funds towards Ukraine. All this has combined negatively to reduce cooperation among Arab CSOs, in contrast to the proliferation of civil society initiatives across the region following the 2011 uprisings.

International CSOs must put pressure on their governments so they include articles requiring respect for human rights in their agreements with Arab regimes. They must make sure their governments fulfil their commitment to these articles to support the human rights defenders in Arab countries who are subjected to travel bans, among other violations.

International organisations should also prioritise mental health support for Arab women human rights defenders who experience burnout. We have gone through a lot. Well-being support is not a luxury: it is essential for us to continue our work.

Civic space in Egypt is rated ‘closed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with CEWLA through its Facebook page. 

 

BANGLADESH: ‘Civil society made a lot of efforts to stop Japan financing the Matarbari project’

SharifJamilCIVICUS speaks about the cancellation of the Matarbari 2 coal-fired power plant project in Bangladesh with Sharif Jamil, General Secretary of Bangladesh Paribesh Andolon (BAPA), a platform that organises civil society movements against environmental degradation. Since 2009 Sharif has been involved with the Waterkeeper Alliance, a global network aimed at ensuring every community’s right to clean water. He is currently the Coordinator of Waterkeepers Bangladesh and Council Member of Waterkeeper Alliance.

What is the significance of the cancellation of the Matarbari 2 project in Bangladesh?

The cancellation of the Matarbari 2 coal plant project is very significant because it shows global leaders living up to their commitment to fight climate change. Last year G7 countries reached an agreement to stop building coal plants and funding coal-related projects. If Japan continued to support this coal project, it would have undermined the global effort being made to tackle climate change.

We were happy to see a few contractors also pulling out of the project. Sumitomo Corporation, one of the biggest ones, decided to back out of the project on the basis that it contradicts their new climate policy. The Japanese-owned company decided to stop building and supporting coal plants. We believe this was a major step towards the cancellation of the project.

People living in the area where Matarbari 1 and 2 were implemented were affected by pollution caused by the projects. If it continued, people living near the coal plant would have been affected by air pollution. The coal plant also threatened to pollute water in surrounding areas, which would have also put people in danger.

How has civil society been involved?

Civil society made a lot of efforts to stop Japan financing the Matarbari coal project, and hard advocacy work finally paid off. We made sure to talk to community members in surrounding areas to get their views on the project. Because we listened to their concerns about the health issues the project might cause it was easier to carry out advocacy work in the communities. Environmental civil society organisations (CSOs) were able to put pressure on key stakeholders with the help of research institutions that studied and tracked global finance and investments.

It is encouraging to see G7 countries living up to their commitments. Japan taking a position against coal financing is a huge step towards protecting the environment in Bangladesh and the rest of world. Coal-fired power plants are the biggest contributors of carbon emissions and therefore one of the biggest obstacles to climate change mitigation efforts. As civil society we are happy to see that it is possible to hold governments and multinational corporations accountable.

However, while it is good news to see Japan backing away from coal plant projects in Bangladesh, it is also quite frustrating to see it headed towards liquefied natural gas, which is also a fossil fuel. It would be good if Japan could help Bangladesh move towards clean and renewable energies. They have the necessary technology to do so and sharing it with us would help us overcome the climate crisis we are all going through.

What role did your organisation play?

As an organisation we found it important to talk to scientists to understand the scientific impacts this project would have had on our environment. We also analysed the environmental impact assessment study provided by organisations that were monitoring the project. We communicated with the plant company and the government to understand their position on the fight against climate change and environmental issues in Bangladesh. Fortunately, they were willing to listen to our concerns and even invited us to their stakeholder meetings.

The problem we noticed with this project is that the parties involved did not consider the data provided by environmental organisations. It was understood that power plants would boost industrial activity, but our argument was that these projects had to be sustainable. Doing an environmental impact assessment was therefore key. Any project that is implemented should be carried out comprehensively, inclusively and on the basis of science so that it does not harm our environment. It was frustrating that the environmental impact assessment of Matarbari 1 did not do any modelling for harmful pollutants such as fine particles (PM 2.5) or mercury, letting the plant continue functioning subjecting it to scientific scrutiny.

In advocating against the Matarbari project we tried to let people be part of the development activities happening around them. It was important to make them understand that every development project happening in their communities had to be sustainable and promote their wellbeing, which was not the case with Matarbari 1 and 2.

What other actions are needed to combat climate change and environmental degradation?

Japan is a trusted partner of Bangladesh. Bangladesh has long received Japanese investment and development collaboration. We have worked for a long time with the Japanese International Cooperation Agency, which has done a lot of good. We would like to see collaboration for development continue, but it should be of the sustainable and green kind.

The Matarbari plant project was detrimental to our environment and its activities would have polluted both our water and air. This caused unrest and protests. We want multinational corporations and governments to consider the environmental impacts of any project they intend to introduce. They should consider the long-term effects of every project as well as the country’s energy security.

Did you receive any support from international CSOs and activists?

Several environmental organisations in Japan and other countries helped us raise awareness about the negative impacts of the Matarbari project. Some of these organisations conducted studies and came up with recommendations on how projects could be made green and sustainable.

But we still need support to ensure that upcoming projects aim to promote the use of clean energy and live up to environmental standards. Our country also needs resources to help it transition to clean energies. Therefore, there is further need for collaboration with governments that can help us move in that direction.


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

Get in touch with Bangladesh Paribesh Andolon through its website or its Facebook page, and reach out to Sharif through Facebook.

 

‘Due to closed civic space, it is difficult to build the resilience of communities inside the country’

HelenKidan.jpgCIVICUS speaks with Helen Kidan, executive member of the Eritrean Movement for Democracy and Human Rights (EMDHR), about 20 years of crackdown by the Eritrean government and continuing human rights violations.

Founded in 2003, EMDHR is a civil society organisation (CSO) aimed at raising awareness about the lack of civil and democratic freedoms and promoting the rule of law, human rights and democracy in Eritrea.

What human rights violations are committed by the Eritrean government?

Eritrea has one of the worst human rights records in Africa and is rated one the worst countries in the world for press freedoms: Reporters Without Borders’ 2022 index ranks it 179th out of 180 countries. There is no space for civil society, as there are no freedoms of association, peaceful assembly or expression.

The report of the United Nations commission of inquiry on human rights in Eritrea, published in 2016, details a number of human rights violations by the regime, with crimes including genocide, sexual slavery, extrajudicial killing, forced disappearance, torture, forced labour and indefinite national service, which many have considered akin to slavery.

 

CAMEROON: ‘Indigenous people should be at the forefront of our own movement and speak for ourselves’

UnusaKarimuCIVICUS speaks about Indigenous peoples’ rights in Cameroon with Barrister Unusa Karimu, board member of Mbororo Social and Cultural Development Association (MBOSCUDA).

MBOSCUDA is a civil society organisation with ECOSOC Status that advocates for the rights of Indigenous peoples in Cameroon. It aims to ensure that Indigenous peoples are integrated in the development of Cameroon by promoting their participation in decision-making processes.

What is the current situation of Indigenous people in Cameroon?

The situation of Indigenous people in Cameroon is not particularly good at the moment. There are people trying to get self-determination, and this has caused conflict in some parts of Cameroon. Unfortunately, the bulk of Indigenous people I work with, pastoralists, are in the English-speaking part of Cameroon, where calls for independence have led to conflict, and they have been caught in the middle of the violence.

They are being abused. There is no respect for their territories and their basic human rights, and the government has failed to protect them. Civil Society organisations have collected data that indicate gruesome acts are being committed against Indigenous peoples during the ongoing armed conflict in the Northwest and Southwest of Cameroon. Indigenous people are being killed and they cannot defend themselves.

Indigenous people in Cameroon still live below the poverty line. Most people in the community struggle to get employed because of limited opportunities in the labour market. Some of them end up engaging in small income-generating activities such as livestock farming and the sale of hunting products. But this is not enough to sustain their lives.

The reason it is sometimes difficult for Indigenous people to get employed is because they struggle to get access to education. There are not enough schools, teachers and educational resources in Indigenous communities. The government has tried to implement projects to address this problem, but these have not really been effective.

Much work still needs to be done for Indigenous peoples to gain full recognition in Cameroon. It is saddening that health services and other social facilities are not adequately provided to Indigenous people. The government needs to do a lot more to ensure that Indigenous people have access to healthcare in their communities.

The government has tried to give visibility to Indigenous peoples in Cameroon through the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, held annually on 9 August, but if their right to life is threatened then the visibility given to them is not having much of an impact. There is a need for structural changes to guarantee sustainable development for all people in Cameroon.

What human rights violations do Indigenous people experience in Cameroon?

One of the biggest human rights violations that Indigenous people face in Cameroon is the lack of legal recognition of their right to their territories and their right to life, especially in the conflict-ridden English-speaking regions of the country. Land legislation in Cameroon does not recognise Indigenous peoples’ land holdings and therefore does not protect their land and resources. It is challenging for Indigenous people to register their land because the activities they tend to carry out do not fall under the requirements set out by the government when it comes to effective occupation and exploitation, which is a condition sine qua non for land registration in Cameroon. Activities such as hunting and livestock grazing do not fall under the category of productive land use required for land registration. Commercial developments in Indigenous peoples’ territories affect their livelihoods, and their land is grabbed by people who are not part of the Indigenous community.

The implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous peoples (UNDRIP) is supposed to provide Indigenous people with better living conditions and protection against losing their territories. However, I do not think the declaration has been well implemented in Cameroon.

UNDRIP urges governments to recognise and protect Indigenous peoples and their rights. Their land and territories should be protected by the government, but the government violates their rights on a daily basis. We understand that the declaration does not carry any legal obligations, but it should be used as guidance on how to respect Indigenous people and value their participation in the development of the country.

Cameroon still has land laws that were colonially inspired and do not recognise the rights of Indigenous peoples as far as territories are concerned. This might be the reason the government does not take UNDRIP into account.

Are Indigenous people well represented in policies?

Unfortunately, there is no binding legal framework that recognises Indigenous peoples in Cameroon. We have policies in place that serve as guidance for the recognition of Indigenous peoples but there has not been that much progress yet. The government has recently started doing things such as the appointing Indigenous people to decision-making positions. Forest dwellers are represented in decision-making. But these positions are often limited, and their people are not in high positions.

Pastoral people have a secretary general in the Ministry of Livestock, Fisheries and Animal Industries, which is something positive, but it is very limited. It is safe to say that Indigenous people still lack political representation.

What should the Cameroon government do to help advance the rights of Indigenous people?

It would be good if the government met the requirements set by international legal instruments aimed at advancing and protecting the rights of Indigenous peoples. It should also revise the laws that discriminate against Indigenous people, along with its land tenure policies.

Indigenous peoples should be considered in decision-making. Enabling Indigenous people to participate in national politics would ensure inclusive development, taking into consideration the needs of everyone in Cameroonian society. Often the government puts development strategies in place without conducting proper research and consulting Indigenous peoples, and as a result development strategies do not benefit Indigenous peoples and their way of life.

In addition, administrative recognition of Indigenous communities would help preserve their cultural and historical heritage. When Indigenous peoples are mixed with neighbouring communities their culture becomes diluted and their history is easily neglected. Ensuring that they are not forcefully integrated with other communities would secure a future for the coming generation. The government should also promote land rights reform.

Hopefully, with time Indigenous peoples will get economic support and their participation in the development of the country will become noticeable. I believe all of the above can be achieved if the government ratifies the International Labour Organization’s Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, ILO Convention 169.

How is your organisation working to advance Indigenous rights?

MBOSCUDA is a community and membership-based organisation present in almost all regions of Cameroon. It was established in 1992 to promote proper living conditions for Mbororo pastoralists. We work to have the socio-cultural, political and economic rights of the Mbororo people recognised. We have consultative status with United Nations Economic and Social Council and had an observer status with the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

We collaborate with various ministries of the Cameroonian government. Our hope is that we can secure some of the services Indigenous people need to have a dignified life. These include, but are not limited to, civil status registration so they can get married, educational resources and healthcare facilities. We also undertake lobbying and advocacy work. To raise awareness of Indigenous peoples’ rights we participate in seminars on Indigenous peoples in Africa.

Unfortunately, the ongoing crisis in the Anglophone regions has reduced our activities in some parts of the country. There are places we cannot currently work in because of the conflict. If we decide to go regardless, the chances are high that we will not come back. In addition, some communities that act as if they own Indigenous peoples feel threatened by our work because they know they will not be able to continue exploiting them once Indigenous people have access to information and education.

How can Indigenous groups work together to promote their rights globally?

Indigenous people should collaborate and form a strong global alliance. Their voices will be stronger and the possibility of them getting recognised will be higher. We should offer each other a helping hand because we are all fighting the same battle, just in different territories.

The platforms that international organisations provide us should be used as a tool to hold our governments accountable. It is very important that we share our narratives and do not let people speak on our behalf. We know our struggles and nobody but us can elaborate on what our needs are, so we should be at the forefront of our own movement and speak for ourselves.


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

Get in touch with MBOSCUDA through its Facebook page.

 

SPAIN: ‘We demand legal and safe channels for migration; attempts to stop it will only cause more suffering’

CIVICUS speaks with Solidary Wheels about the deadly consequences of European governments’ anti-migrant policies, in light of the deaths of migrants at an attempted crossing of the Spain-Morocco border on 24 June.

 

Pakistan:‘International support to civil society must come with understanding of our political & societal context’

Rabia Mehmood

CIVICUS speaks about the political situation in Pakistan since the removal of its Prime Minister Imran Khan with journalist and researcher Rabia Mehmood.

Rabia Mehmood is the co-founder of a bi-lingual multimedia news outlet Naya Daur TV and a web-show host covering human rights and social justice stories. She is the former South Asia Researcher for Amnesty International. Her work focuses on state repression, impunity and persecution of religious minorities.

What led to the ousting of Imran Khan as prime minister through a no-confidence vote?

Khan was ousted from power in April through a constitutional vote of no confidence brought about by the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), a parliamentary coalition of multiple parties. The coalition secured 174 votes in the 342-member house in support of the no-confidence motion.

That was the tipping point after weeks of political upheaval. Khan’s administration was criticised by the opposition for failures in governance, soaring inflation and for plunging the country into a diplomatic crisis as his foreign policy distanced Pakistan from the USA.

To try to block the vote, Khan dissolved the lower house of parliament, but the Supreme Court declared the dissolution unconstitutional. Following the parliamentary vote, Shehbaz Sharif, former Chief Minister of Punjab from the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) and brother of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, was appointed the new Prime Minister. Sharif is a long-time rival of Khan.

Since the July 2018 election, the opposition claimed that Khan’s ascent to power was enabled by political engineering by the country’s military establishment. His administration was termed a ‘hybrid regime’, in which Khan was the civilian face of the generals. The key reason behind Khan’s removal is believed to be his falling out with powerful forces within the military, often referred to as the ‘deep state’.

Regarding the involvement of the military in Pakistan’s political unrest, it is important to note that the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) is considered by many to be the most powerful position in Pakistan. The current COAS, Qamar Bajwa, appointed by Nawaz Sharif in 2016, is finally due to retire in November after six years.

Sharif was disqualified in 2017 and put behind bars following a corruption scandal. But after Khan won the election in 2018, he granted Bajwa an extension in August 2019. Bajwa was at the time known to be a great believer in the Khan project, along with the former Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) chief General Faiz Hameed, now Commander of Peshawar Corps. But Bajwa, it appears, has now withdrawn support from Khan.

Hameed is known to have a different relationship with Khan, and Khan was reliant on him. He was deeply involved in the Khan administration’s repression, in addition to engineering unrest on the streets by an alt-right Islamist group in 2017, which led to further disruption of Sharif’s party.

It remains to be seen whether Bajwa is seeking yet another extension in November or a safe and comfortable exit, which would pave the way for a new COAS. Analysts estimate that Khan had to be got rid of due to these possible changes in November, and it was an easy task for the military to replace Khan because of his administration’s unsatisfactory governance and economic performance.

The military has repeatedly claimed to be a ‘neutral umpire’ during this political fiasco. In the run-up to Khan’s ousting and afterwards, Khan’s tactics, of slamming the armed forces and the current ISI chief, show his dissatisfaction with the military institution’s neutrality.

How has Khan responded?

In response to the vote of no confidence, Khan also accused the US government of orchestrating regime change in Pakistan. This allegation is based on a diplomatic cable that he claimed was ‘evidence’. When Khan dissolved the assembly ahead of the vote, he had resolved to present the diplomatic cable as evidence of foreign intervention.

It was later reported that the military explained to parliament’s National Security Committee in March that it had found no evidence of US involvement in regime change, something the White House concurred with.

In April, as soon as Khan was ousted, he and his party leaders began using terms like ‘American conspiracy’ and ‘international conspiracy’, online and offline. Khan called his opponents ‘thieves’ and ‘traitors’, and one of his close aides called in a public rally for the execution of the ‘traitor opposition’. During his public and press addresses, Khan has called for mutiny, incited his party supporters to commit civil disobedience and encouraged them to retaliate physically.

Since then Khan has held multiple public rallies across Pakistan and in July his party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), swept by-elections in Punjab, the country’s most populous province, and traditionally a PMLN stronghold. Now the already weak incumbent central government in the centre is facing further hostility from Punjab.

Khan has been calling for general elections. His narrative has a strong following in the country, and his support base appears to be in resurgence.

What is the current political and economic situation?

Pakistan is stuck in limbo due to a worsening political, legal and economic crisis. The leadership is divided between the Sharif-led coalition government and federal ministries led by the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), such as the ministry of foreign affairs. Provinces are also split between different parties, with Khan’s PTI leading in the two provinces.

The coalition government is weak and uncertainty over its immediate future looms large. Analysts assume that the ‘deep state’ will not allow for a strong civilian central government, and that a divided parliament is what it seeks to achieve.

The new government has taken over a fragile economy. Pakistan entered the International Monetary Fund programme in 2019, and the most recent funding was due in February, but fuel and power tariff caps imposed by the Khan administration halted the next cycle. The new government has now managed to negotiate and get clearance for another payment, but this has come at the price of tough economic decisions, with the burden impacting on the working masses and the salaried class.

Fuel prices have increased exponentially, which are causing a rise in commodity prices and exacerbating food inflation. Meanwhile, political and economic uncertainty is also causing the currency to depreciate quickly. In the budget for the current fiscal year, the government increased tax and hiked fuel prices. Pakistan’s foreign debt is US$6.4 billion, but at least the immediate risk of bankruptcy has reduced for now.

Access to basic services, free healthcare and education and adequate housing is increasingly out of reach of most of Pakistan’s 220 million people. Pakistan is essentially a poor country with some very rich families and an army with a massive budget. Instability is having severe repercussions for citizens in terms of their rights and the rule of law.

Civilian and military rulers have been too reliant on seeking bailout packages instead of focusing on long-term solutions such as taxing the rich and the corporate sector, or developing agriculture and increasing industrial exports. Economic stagnation, however, is not the fault of just one government.

Has the removal of Khan had a positive influence on Pakistan’s repressed civic space?

Pakistan’s track record on the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression has been murky for decades. Civil society groups and activists have long been labelled as foreign agents, funded by anti-Pakistan forces. It is one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be a journalist in. Religious minorities are persecuted and discriminated against through institutions, draconian laws and violence. Ethnic minorities are brutalised for demanding basic rights and protections from the state. The military establishment and security agencies operate with impunity.

In that context, the battle to defend civic space and media freedom is not new. But since the run-up to the July 2018 election, Pakistanis have been subjected to one of the most repressive eras of the country’s history. Press censorship has been widespread, curtailing any media attempts to question or report on significant issues such as Sharif’s disqualification, the role of the judiciary and military and reports of election rigging.

Khan established his place as a populist leader, and was called a press predator by Reporters Without Borders. During the Khan administration, journalists, human rights defenders (HRDs) and dissenting citizens were targeted with trumped-up charges of sedition, cyber terrorism and defamation of national institutions, along with arbitrary arrests, raids, disappearances, surveillance and beatings. Journalists were arbitrarily arrested for questioning and reporting on the alleged involvement in corruption of Khan’s wife, Bushara Bibi. Mainstream cable news networks were only allowed to attack opposition parties and their leaders, and portray Khan as the supreme leader. Civil rights movements, such as the Pashtun Tahaffuz Mahaz, were subjected to a discriminatory crackdown. Their rights to freedoms of movement, peaceful assembly and expression, online and offline, have been continuously violated.

To a degree, Khan’s ousting has given slight breathing space to Pakistan’s repressed HRDs, civil society and journalists. The difference could be that reprisals can be documented in the press, by domestic rights monitors and be televised, with less fear. But this is only relative, as red lines for both the media and civil society still exist.

The threats and discrimination against ethnic, religious and sexual minorities continue. There are incidents of the use of force against peaceful protesting families of disappeared members of Baloch people, enforced disappearances and discriminatory harassment of Baloch students. A former journalist was arbitrarily detained over online criticism of the army chief. While peacefully protesting, civil society collectives, HRDs and families of the disappeared were shelled in the city of Quetta on 21 July.

Severely partisan journalists who acted as agents of disinformation and supported the Khan administration by actively targeting minorities, critical media, HRDs and the opposition are now on the receiving end of hostility from security agencies, as they are questioning the military over its alleged role in Khan’s ousting and lack of support for him.

What is the future of Pakistan’s democracy?

It appears to be bleak. Pakistan’s democratic process has been undermined severely by decades of dictatorships, the military establishment’s concealed intervention in civilian rule, the dubious role of the judiciary and a short-sighted, craven approach by civilian political parties.

Since its inception, Pakistan has been ruled by military dictators directly for 33 years, and they have controlled who gets to rule and how from behind the scenes. No civilian prime minister has ever completed their full five-year term. Real power lies in the hands of the generals, who set up hybrid regimes in collaboration with civilian leaders.

General Zia-ul-Haq overthrew the government of PPP’s charismatic Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in a coup d’état in 1977. In 1979, Bhutto was executed by a severely partisan Supreme Court, while Zia became president. Over the decades, the capitulation of the civilian ruling elite and the role of the judiciary in sanctioning coups have also contributed to the derailing of the country’s ever-fragile democracy.

For example, former Prime Minister Sharif’s disqualification was widely believed to have been a consequence of a ‘judicial coup’. The National Accountability Bureau chaired by a former Supreme Court judge was severely partisan and flawed, and used to victimise leaders of the PMLN and PPP.

Decades of conflict in the north-western region, the military’s reliance on militant groups as its proxies and the current resurgence of militant outfits at the border all pose a threat to Pakistan’s stability and consequently its democracy. Sectarian outfits are enduring. Nationalist ethnicities in Sindh and elsewhere are treated with extreme suspicion, which causes the growth of their young people’s resentment towards the state.

For example, the armed insurgency in Balochistan province has its roots in a lack of trust in the military and the state’s discriminatory policies. The people of the mineral-rich province are poor and have been subjected to human rights abuses and violence for years. Meanwhile, barely any efforts to build trust among Baloch people have been made by state institutions. The militarisation of multiple regions and violence perpetrated on citizens are contrary to democratic norms.

Unless the constitution and parliament are held supreme in the true sense of the word, and intervention by the powers-that-be isn’t kept in check, Pakistan’s democracy will not be able to address its many challenges and will remain at risk.

How has civil society engaged with political developments? What kind of international support does Pakistani civil society need?

Civil society and collectives of HRDs have responded to the political developments with caution but courage. Civil society and HRDs understand where the centre of power lies in Pakistan. Yet it has not stopped them from asking the right questions and leading human rights campaigns. Overall, from larger civil society organisations to smaller but critical collectives, civil society has stood in support of the primacy of parliament, the constitution and democratic processes.

Years of demonisation of civil society and labelling of HRDs and journalists as anti-state and servers of foreign, western agendas have made it easy for propagandists and authoritarian sections of the state to put targets on the backs of people. International solidarity is essential for Pakistani civil society. But now with disinformation and propaganda smear campaigns on the rise, the support must come with an understanding of the political and societal context of Pakistan.

Religious, ethnic, sexual and gender minorities, journalists, civil society workers and HRDs remain at risk, not only due to state reprisals but also the threat of violence from extremist groups.

Relief and protection of at-risk communities are not possible without the support and alliance of regional and like-minded international civil society networks. Exchange among civil society networks across regions must also continue to come up with new ways of fighting systems of oppression.


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

Get in touch with Rabia Mehmood through her Twitter account @Rabail26.

 

MONGOLIA: ‘The government makes decisions without proper consultation’

CIVICUS speaks with two civil society activists, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons, about restrictions experienced by civil society in Mongolia and proposed new laws affecting civil society.

Mongolia protest

Mongolian youth protest in Sukhbaatar Square (Photo Credit: Anand Tumurtogoo)

What’s the problem with the Associations and Foundations bills, currently under discussion in Mongolia?

The drafts of the bills on associations and foundations have been under discussion since 2019 and were submitted by the Ministry of Justice and Internal Affairs to parliament in November 2021. The bills are meant to govern the work of civil society organisations (CSOs), including the processes for registration and reporting and the types of activities allowed, among other issues.

If passed, these bills will impose undue burdens on CSOs, particularly regarding the ways they will have to report to meet government requirements. It is estimated that more than 90 per cent of CSOs, three-quarters of which are non-membership CSOs, may have to stop operating because of failure to comply with various undue burdens. These include increased and burdensome reporting criteria that apply to all CSOs regardless of their size, capacities and activities as well as internal requirements related to management and organisational structures that are not suitable for many informal groups.

The provision establishing a Civil Society Development Support Council, an independent body to oversee CSOs, is also problematic because it comes with sweeping powers to dissolve organisations arbitrarily and allocate funding among CSOs, deciding which get government funding. This carries the potential of shrinking funding opportunities for many CSOs, particularly those working to further rights. The risk of arbitrary deregistration is also high, given the vast powers conferred on the Council and the broad and vague provisions on prohibited activities.

How has civil society reacted?

CSOs have tried to review and refine the bills several times to ensure they uphold fundamental civic freedoms, but to no avail. The attempt now is to block the laws.

In November 2021, Mongolian civil society, together with several international CSOs, launched a campaign calling for the bills to be scrapped immediately, given there had been no consultation with civil society and there was no time or space to do so. The campaign managed to halt the progress of the draft bills and parliament announced that further discussions would be held.

As of April 2022, it seemed likely the bills would be postponed and undergo further consultation. However, the speaker of parliament issued a decree to establish a working group to draft an alternative bill, the Professional Associations Bill.

This draft had also been circulated in 2019 and was deemed problematic because it would tarnish the independence of CSOs by requiring CSO workers to have professional licences. At the moment, the discussion of this bill is suspended.

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

Although parliament has said the bills are currently suspended, there is no guarantee they will be dropped. Past experience shows the government often makes decisions on policy matters without proper consultation. Therefore, continuous scrutiny, including at the regional and international levels, would be very helpful.

Access to resources and connection to international platforms such as the United Nations system would also be useful to help local civil society continue its struggle. 

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

 

TUNISIA: ‘The new constitution will guarantee the president extensive powers, enabling further violations’

Amine GhaliCIVICUS speaks about Tunisia’s 25 July constitutional referendum with Amine Ghali, director of Al Kawakibi Democracy Transition Center (KADEM). 

KADEM is a civil society organisation (CSO) that aims to promote civil society’s contribution to democracy and transitional justice in Tunisia and the wider Middle East and North Africa region, through awareness-raising, capacity-building and documentation.

Why is President Kais Saied holding a constitutional referendum on 25 July?

Changing the constitution or revising it is part of the president’s private project – a plan he didn’t announce either when running for the presidency in 2019 or during his first two years in office. This all started with President Saied dismissing the prime minister and suspending parliament in July 2021.

At that time, he didn’t even announce the revision of the constitution. It was only in mid-December that the president had to spell out a roadmap under international and local pressure. At the heart of Saied’s roadmap is a new constitution.

Unlike the 2014 constitution, which was based on broad consensus, the process leading to a constitutional referendum didn’t gain public support. When people were asked their opinion on revising the constitution, as part of online consultation organised in early 2022, only around 30 per cent of respondents agreed. Still, the president has gone ahead with the constitutional review process, with a referendum campaign asking Tunisians to vote ‘yes’ to ‘correct the course of the revolution’.

To what extent has civil society engaged in the process leading to the upcoming referendum?

Civil society has gone through unprecedented times in recent months. When it comes to its stance on the issue, in broad terms civil society has mostly been either silent or supportive.

At the start of the president’s July 2021 power grab, some civil society activists who were fed up with problems we have encountered in the past few years, with an inefficient democracy, saw Saied’s move as a political attempt to correct the trajectory of our democracy. One of Saied’s early promises was to fight corruption and bad governance.

But as soon as the president revealed his intention to change the constitution, political parties, influential people and some civil society groups started to oppose him. 

Civil society is not one group or in one position – of course there is some diversity. The most vocal and influential groups are critical of him, especially since the planned new constitution was shared with the public; they realised its aim is not to ‘restore democracy’, but rather attack it. Now many are trying to stop the referendum process happening.

How has civil society organised against the referendum?

Although civil society’s response is late, they have recently used a range of means to oppose the referendum. Coalitions have been built, civil society has published position papers, conferences have been held.

Some groups are calling for a boycott of the referendum while others are trying to bring a case to court, although they do so in the face of presidential attack on justice: in June the president fired 57 judges, accusing them of corruption and protecting ‘terrorists’. In protest against judicial interference, Tunisian judges went on strike, only returning to work very recently.

The Tunisian League of Human Rights, a prominent CSO, has called on the president to withdraw his proposal and instead enter a wider dialogue with Tunisian society. 

How free and fair might the referendum be?

When democratic transition took place in 2011 our country strived to create independent institutions such as the electoral commission and an anti-corruption body, among others. The proposed constitution dissolved almost all these independent bodies.

The only one it keeps is the electoral commission, which President Saied seized control of in May by firing its members and appointing new ones. In February he dissolved the High Judicial Council, as well as sacking the judges in June. 

Given that context, the independence of this ‘independent commission’ running the referendum, and the integrity of the whole election, must be questioned.

What are your expectations for the results, and what impact will they have on the quality of democracy?

By examining the latest polls on President Saied’s approval ratings, he still has huge public support. But this is the result of his populism. He is a populist president and populism – at least in its early years – has many supporters. But once a populist president fails to deliver on their promises, they lose popularity and support. In Tunisia, we are still going through the early stages of populism.

Despite his popularity, I believe that his upcoming referendum will have a very low participation rate. With a small turnout, the legitimacy of the result will be questioned.

But the president and his regime don’t care about legitimacy. For example, when the national consultation took place months ago, it was a complete failure in terms of the participation rate. Yet President Saied used it as a justification to hold this referendum. 

If the referendum is approved, it will be followed by parliamentary elections in December, according to his roadmap; parliament was dissolved in April. Meanwhile, there will probably be several ‘reforms’ and new laws. I am afraid to say that the next phase is quite scary because the president has the ultimate power to change laws without any checks and balances, in the absence of an independent judiciary, constitutional court and parliament. 

Democracy means the separation of powers, checks and balances, and participation, but all of these have been cancelled by the president since July 2021. He has tightened his grip over the entire executive body, the entire legislative body, and even part of the judiciary. With an attack on the judiciary, we can count less on judges to be the ultimate defenders of rights and freedoms. Our democracy is probably at its worst level since the 2010 revolution that ousted autocrat Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.

The human rights situation is worsening with the decline of democracy. We have witnessed several human rights violations, some of which reminded us of the kind of abuses that were committed during the early years of the revolution. The difference between that time and now is the absence of any accountability. The president hasn’t been held accountable for any decision he has made during the last year. 

From our side, civil society has condemned these violations, but it was not enough, so we have been trying to network with various defenders of democracy in Tunisia as well as abroad. In the next phase, civil society will continue its pressure and mobilise against any deviations from democracy, given that the new constitution will guarantee the president extensive powers and open the doors for further violations.

How has the international community responded? 

We feel the international community has left Tunisia behind. The international community is offering a very weak response to this attack on democracy and the loss of a democratic country. The community of democratic countries is not putting in much effort to keep Tunisia within its family.

Many of us are very disappointed by their reactions to the closure of parliament and what followed. The result is a very bad draft constitution that will probably cancel Tunisia’s democracy. But there has been no solid response from democratic friends of Tunisia.

In this way, they encourage the president to commit more violations. These countries are back to their policies of the past decades in prioritising security and stability over democracy and human rights in our region.

Civic space in Tunisia is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with KADEM through its website or its Facebook page. 

 

JAMAICA: ‘We must establish a republic – where the people are sovereign and not the Queen’

Rosalea HamiltonCIVICUS speaks about the movement to make Jamaica a republic with Professor Rosalea Hamilton, founding director of the Institute of Law and Economics and member of the Advocates Network.

The Advocates Network is a non-partisan alliance of individuals and organisations advocating for human rights and good government in Jamaica.

What are the goals of the movement for republicanism in Jamaica?

To understand the goals, let’s break down the concept of republicanism. It means different things to different people. Perhaps the most popular, widespread view of a republic is a state without a monarch. This is the view held by many countries across the region that have removed Queen Elizabeth II as head of state, Barbados being the most recent case, and declared themselves a republic. But the other concept of a republic, as a state in which the people are sovereign, is typically ignored or downplayed.

Since Barbados became a republic in November 2021, the republican conversation, which had started in Jamaica around 1995, gained momentum. Having learned from the experience of our Caribbean neighbours, many of us now view the concept of a republic as involving not just the removal of the Queen but also the establishment of a state where the people are sovereign and not the Queen.

Although we have a representative, democratic form of government, it does not effectively represent the will of the people. Therefore, a core objective in creating a republic would be to strengthen and deepen our representative democracy to ensure we have a government of, by and for the people.

So for those of us who are part of the Advocates Network, our goal is not just removing the Queen as head of state, which we see as a necessary first step, but also deepening our democracy and ensuring the establishment of a state where the Jamaican people are sovereign.

What explains the recent momentum of the movement for republicanism in Jamaica?

Most recently, the movement gathered strength in response to the royal visit to Jamaica in March 2022, which was viewed as inappropriate not only because it was during the throes of the pandemic, but because we were – and still are – grappling with pre-existing issues that have been exacerbated due to the pandemic. These include high murder rates, undereducated children, child abuse, gender-based violence and inadequate housing. Many of us in the Advocates Network are actively involved in tackling these problems, which we view as rooted in our colonial past. We think it’s time not only to move away from the monarchy, but also fix these colonial legacy problems. 

The royal visit was therefore seen as a distraction. But it also provided an opportunity for Jamaicans to learn more about the royal family and their active role in the trafficking and enslavement of Africans. Jamaicans became more aware of the details of past atrocities and have begun questioning the role of the Queen as head of state after 60 years of independence. Social media has played a big role in helping to build awareness and deepen understanding.

But there are also several other factors at play. The world is changing. For us in the Caribbean and across the Black African world, something shifted with the murder of George Floyd in the USA and the Black Lives Matter movement. As the entire world saw the video of a white man kneeling on the neck of a Black man, we found that our Governor-General – the official who represents the Queen in Jamaica – was wearing an insignia with a white angel standing on the head of a devil depicted as Black. It was a shocking reminder of the link between our colonial past and our institutions today.

That woke people up. The George Floyd murder, and the many racist incidents that followed in the USA, the UK and elsewhere in Europe, reminded us that we still live in a world where people are treated as less than human based on the colour of their skin. The unheard calls for reparations are becoming louder as we try to come to grips with a past that is still with us.

The movement for republicanism can therefore be seen as a rejection of our colonial past and its modern-day expressions in the form of racism, discrimination, inequity and more.

In light of the recent Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, what do you think the relationship between Caribbean countries and the UK will look like going forward?

A lot will depend on how the UK responds to the growing calls of Caribbean people and our governments for a different relationship than we have had in the past. The formal position of Caribbean governments is to engage in a reparatory process. Governments may choose to be patient with this process, but increasingly many Caribbean people are demanding a formal apology and reparations, as was evident during the royal visits to the region. Many are saying it’s time!

The voices are getting louder, not only in the Caribbean but in the USA and other parts of the world. The rejection by the majority of the Commonwealth heads of government of Kamina Johnson Smith, the candidate for Secretary-General who was openly backed by the UK, is indicative of this changing relationship with the UK.

If the UK doesn’t respond positively and continues its racist, discriminatory policies, the relationship is likely to become more antagonistic.

But I am hopeful things will change. An important part of our response to the royal visit was an open letter listing 60 historical reasons for an apology and reparations from the UK and its royal family. It was a way to bring to their attention the horrors of the past, because we are not sure they understand our history.

It may be working. I noted that at a Commonwealth conference, Prince Charles said he’s still learning about the past. Most of us are still learning, and unlearning, what we were taught about the past.

The UK has a great opportunity to rebuild this historic relationship on less exploitative and more humane terms. Engaging in a meaningful reparatory justice process can create a framework to build a mutually beneficial relationship that puts the past behind us and enable us to build a better future for generations to come. 

How is the Advocates Network working towards these goals?

We are advocates for human rights and good governance, issues that are central to creating a people-centred republic. So we are actively engaged in public education and building public awareness about what it will take to create a republic where the Jamaican people are sovereign. Right now, we are organising online forums. We won’t stop until we are on the right path to creating a meaningful republic. As we say: ‘Wi Naa Ease Up!’

Public education is key! The 60 reasons appended to the open letter to the royals was to educate not just the royals about our history but also our fellow Jamaicans. We want Jamaicans to understand the many reasons we must remove the Queen as head of state. It’s simply unacceptable to have a head of state who refuses to formally apologise for an atrocity that the United Nations has labelled as constituting crimes against humanity.

The major obstacle to overcome is to shift the mindset of Jamaicans to see themselves as owners of Jamaica with sovereign responsibility to determine the future of Jamaica. If we make this shift, a meaningful republic that can better address the pressing issues facing Jamaicans will be within our grasp.

What international help do the movement and its people need?

The work involved in creating a meaningful republic as well as pursuing reparatory justice is indeed challenging. It’s a heavy burden. It’s a painful burden to confront our past and change our society. Unearthing the past to guide our future is heavy lifting.

Collaboration, especially in disseminating information, is important for our education campaign, including through interviews by a global south organisation based in South Africa, such as CIVICUS.

Financial resources are helpful, but in-kind support is as important and will certainly help us to reduce the burden. Access to research materials, educational opportunities, media facilitation, technological assistance and international forums will be helpful. We welcome opportunities to amplify our voices in collaboration with individuals and organisations with similar objectives in other countries.

Civic space in Jamaica is rated ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Follow @Advocatesnetja and @rosaleahamilton on Twitter.

 

TURKEY: ‘Civilian refugees should not be used as political bargaining chips’

Bassam AlahmadCIVICUS speaks with Bassam Alahmad, co-founder and executive director of Syrians for Truth and Justice (STJ), about the Turkish plan to return one million refugees to Syria.

STJ is a civil society organisation (CSO) dedicated to documenting human rights violations to contribute to the prospects for justice, as well as training human rights activists and building capacity in areas including digital security and civic engagement.

Why is the Turkish government making plans to return a million Syrian refugees to Syria?

We do not know the exact reason behind the plan to return a million Syrians to Turkish-administered regions of Syria. But there are several possible reasons we can think of. First, Turkey will hold general elections next year, and every time elections approach, the ruling Justice and Development Party will try to draw attention outside Turkey in any way possible – by attacking other nations, creating problems with neighbouring countries or groups of people – to hide domestic failures.

Second, the decision may be part of a wider strategy by the Turkish government concerning its engagement with northeast and northwest Syria, which aims to decrease the presence of Kurds and other populations who it doesn’t view as ‘Turkey’s allies’ – people that Turkey does not like having at its borders. To achieve this, Turkey will make claims that these populations are ‘terrorists’.

The decision announced to return a million Syrians from Turkey back to Syria therefore hits two birds with one stone. It would allow the Turkish government to show its domestic opposition that it is tackling the ‘problem’ while also using Syrians against Syrians in the northeast and northwest parts of Syria.

To sum up, there is no specific reason we know of, but we can assume that demographic engineering in northeast and northwest Syria and Turkey’s domestic politics are all at play.

How has this announcement impacted on Syrian refugees in Turkey?

This policy has really affected Syrian refugees in Turkey. Every single day there is at least one case of assault against a Syrian person – sometimes more. Incidents of racism and cases of deportation and violence at the border, and even of murder, have been verified. Hundreds of organisations and media outlets have verified racist attacks against Syrians.

Why are these attacks happening? Because the Turkish government is telling people that it has already spent too much on Syrians, and Turkish citizens are resenting it. The Turkish government is also telling people that it has freed areas in Syria from terrorists and they are now safe for return, so Turkish citizens are increasingly putting pressure on Syrian refugees to leave. Turkish public opinion turning against Syrians makes them vulnerable to racism and deportation.

The discourse that Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is disseminating is affecting Syrian refugees very negatively. And the problem is that it is not true. The United Nations, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, Amnesty International and many others have all said that Syria is not safe.

How do you assess Turkey’s immigration policy?

Many countries and organisations say that Turkey should be thanked for its treatment of Syrian refugees; however, Turkey’s 2016 agreement with the European Union was a really bad one, because as a result Syrian refugees were trapped or detained in Turkey so that the Turkish government could receive money for hosting them.

Syrian refugees and asylum seekers have been used as political game pieces ever since. Following this agreement, in which Europeans agreed to pay money to Turkey to keep Syrians from advancing through Greece and further into Europe, there have been multiple instances of disagreements between Europe and Turkey leading to threats against refugees.

This is not good. You can’t keep using civilian refugees as political bargaining chips, using them against Turkey, or against the Kurds in northeast and northwest Syria, or against the Americans in northeast Syria. But the 2016 agreement gave the Turkey government leverage to use refugees as a political card, and they have used it. And by the way, Turkey is not the only country using refugees this way, and Syrian refugees are not the only refugees who have been used. Afghan, Iraqi and other refugees have had similar experiences, but this is especially true for Syrian refugees.

Do you think the attitude of the Turkish government points to a broader European pattern?

Of course, the Turkish refugee policy has a lot in common with refugee policies around the world. I do not want to say that all European governments treat refugees the same way as the Turkish government, but occasionally there are similarities.

In particular, we all saw how European governments treated Ukrainian refugees – this was good. But they don’t treat Syrian refugees the same way. European countries gave Turkey money to keep Syrian refugees in Turkey, while they opened their doors to Ukrainian refugees.

We do not want to paint all the Turkish and European politicians and policies with the same brush, but there are patterns of racist refugee policies and racist attacks against refugees that are important to recognise.

How has Syrian civil society responded to the announcement by the Turkish government?

Unfortunately, the civil society response has not been unified. Many Syrian CSOs that do not have employees or offices in Turkey have published reports about this plan; however, Syrian CSOs in Turkey have not been able to speak out, for a number of reasons. In some cases, organisations are politically aligned with Turkey and welcome these policies. But many others want to speak out against these policies – the racism, the deportations, the military actions against Syrians within Syria – but they are unable to for security reasons.

In other words, some people don’t want to speak up because they are essentially in agreement with Turkish policies, while others would want to but cannot because it is dangerous, as they are in Turkey, where speaking out may result in deportation or arrest. There are also some Turkish organisations that address these issues, but many do not have the interests of Syrian refugees in mind.

It is key for Turkish organisations to speak out and insist that Syria is not safe for refugees to return. There has been limited discussion about Turkey’s rights violations against Syrians, and this should not be the case. Both domestic and international civil society should speak out against violations occurring in Turkey and committed by Turkey.

Civic space in Turkey is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Syrians for Truth and Justice through its website or Facebook page, and follow @STJ_SYRIA_ENG and @BassamAlahmed on Twitter.

 

BURUNDI: ‘Our right to be recognised and represented as an Indigenous community is being violated’

Severin SindizeraCIVICUS speaks about Indigenous peoples’ rights in Burundi with Severin Sindizera, Global Coordinator of the Indigenous Peoples Global Forum for Sustainable Development (IPGFforSD).

IPGFforSD is a civil society organisation (CSO) that advocates for the rights of Indigenous peoples in Burundi and monitors the implementation of the Sustainable Development Gaols (SDGs) in relation to Indigenous peoples at the national and international levels.

What is the situation of Indigenous people in Burundi?

The Batwa Indigenous people represent approximately two per cent of Burundi’s population. The context is disheartening because most of our rights are not recognised. Most Batwa people live in extreme poverty and are marginalised and discriminated against. They are often excluded from access to basic resources such as public services, education, land and healthcare. One common issue affecting Indigenous people across the globe is lack of access to land and decision-making bodies. 

The Batwa people are not exempt from this, as our land rights are not recognised in Burundi. We need land to survive – to build our houses, grow our crops, graze our animals and preserve our culture.

Batwa people are not well represented in decision-making processes, which explains why development strategies rarely cater to us and our needs. We have been excluded from the economic, social, political and cultural development of our country. It is quite unfair to have people make decisions on our behalf without consulting with our community. When projects are implemented, we are often sidelined. It would seem the government is trying to make people think it is helping Indigenous people while we are not really receiving the help we need.

The SDGs aim to eradicate many problems affecting societies globally, but their implementation in Burundi has not been inclusive of Indigenous people. The government must understand that our place in society is already under threat, so it needs to approach the SDGs in an intersectional manner to serve all people of Burundi equally.

The international community has also shown a lack of a solid plan to address the rights of Indigenous peoples during implementation of the SDGs. We want to know how international organisations aim to promote Indigenous peoples’ development through the SDGs. I had the privilege of attending the Forum on Financing for Development (FfD) in New York, but was disappointed I was the only member representing Indigenous peoples.

What are the main rights violations experienced by Batwa people in Burundi?

Batwa people in Burundi do not have access to education, healthcare and proper legal services. Many people have suffered and died due to being denied access to healthcare facilities in their communities. When we try to get legal help to hold accountable those responsible for negligence in healthcare centres, we do not qualify to receive it. We hope this will change one day and the Batwa people of Burundi will be inclusively integrated in their communities.

But Batwa people currently face serious discrimination. We are often called names such as witches and made feel unwanted by the wider society. Our dignity is looked down upon and we are forced to take a lesser place in society. Without access to good jobs, Batwa people have a high prevalence of poverty.

Batwa people are disproportionately affected by arbitrary arrests and rights violations, as well as by land grabbing from the government and international stakeholders. People take advantage of us because they know that the majority of us do not have identity cards, making it difficult for us to access justice. Whatever laws have been put in place to protect us are not really working.

Our right to be recognised and represented as a community is being violated. We need members of our community to advocate for our rights independently, without being associated with any political party. The history of this country should inform policymakers about the importance of cultural recognition. No one should be left behind because of their identity. We have a right to participate fully in public life without facing rights violations.

Has any progress been made in terms of representation in policymaking processes?

The Burundian government has launched an initiative to include Indigenous people in some governmental positions. There are now a few Batwa people in parliament. However, the fact that participation in public affairs requires association with a political party makes us uncomfortable. This restricts many Indigenous people from speaking out about their rights because they are controlled by their political parties.

Political representation is an opportunity for our needs to be heard but our people who are actively participating in public affairs do not necessarily speak on our behalf. Participation of ethnic minorities in Burundi still has a long way to go despite the efforts of the government. Batwa women are inadequately represented in political positions.

Our government focuses on development but fails to promote it in an inclusive manner. It recently setup a national strategy for Indigenous people, highlighting issues we are dealing with and stating its plan to advance Indigenous people’s rights. We hope that they will consult with members of our community and Indigenous leaders about our needs so the strategy actually benefits us.

How can Indigenous groups across the world work together to promote Indigenous people’s rights?

Indigenous groups must have regional and international forums to collaborate towards the achievement of our human rights, economic and social development, as well as civil and political rights. We must partner with international organisations that have experience with working on Indigenous people’s rights so that they can help us with our advocacy work and share strategies to make our work more effective.

Our organisation, IPGFforSD, works for Indigenous rights through international advocacy and innovative initiatives. We work in collaboration with Indigenous groups an encourage them to create and enhance their platforms in their respective countries from across the globe who face similar issues. We focus on monitoring SDG implementation because the rights and needs of Indigenous people are currently not well represented when SDGs are implemented. We have worked with the United Nations (UN) mechanisms, including the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), to raise awareness of the plight of Indigenous people and the need to recognise them in both national and international policies. We advocate for national governments and international organisations to implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

We also work to sensitise our leaders about Indigenous rights through workshops and seminars. Our aim is for them to be well informed so they can, we hope, help us in the battle of getting our rights recognised in Burundi.

Civic space in Burundi is rated ‘closed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with IPGFforSD through its Facebook page and follow @IIpgfforsd on Twitter. 

 

TANZANIA: ‘The human rights of the Maasai people are violated through involuntary assimilation and relocation’

Josef_Moses_Oleshangay.jpgCIVICUS speaks about the unlawful eviction of Maasai people from their ancestral lands with Joseph Moses Oleshangay, a Tanzanian human rights lawyer and activist for democracy and Indigenous peoples’ land rights. Joseph is currently working with the Legal and Human Rights Centre to raise awareness of human rights violations and promote good governance in Tanzania.

Why are Maasai people being evicted from their land in Tanzania?

The Maasai eviction is largely caused by the government’s lust for money. The tourism and hunting business promises to bring a lot of capital, and unfortunately, that can only happen if the Maasai are removed from their native land. The government is currently planning to evict Maasai people living in Loliondo and Ngorongoro to establish a game-controlled area in Loliondo and potentially change the status of a conservation area in Ngorongoro to a game reserve.

The government has proposed to establish game reserves in every single district ancestrally occupied by Maasai communities. The way this project is being carried out is unethical and threatens many lives and the cultural survival of the Maasai.

Sadly, to gain public support and trust the government has created a narrative that this is a nature conservation project. But it has been scientifically proved that Maasai pastoralism is compatible with environmental and wildlife conservation. While the government generally accuses the Maasai as threatening tourism in Ngorongoro, 70 per cent of tourists in Tanzania in 2019 visited Ngorongoro, with the remaining 22 national parks and game reserves attracting only 30 per cent of the tourist inflow. Ngorongoro also contributes 52 per cent of the earnings from tourism. It is the only conservation area in Tanzania where humans – Maasai – are legally allowed to coexist with wildlife. As well as being by far the best tourism destination in Tanzania, it has the highest wildlife population density in the world. This shows that the government’s claim that the Maasai are threatening wildlife conservation and tourism is a completely false narrative.

In Ngorongoro over 80,000 people are facing the threat of eviction, which the government justifies by claiming the population has exceeded the carrying capacity of the land. But according to the latest census, Ngorongoro has a human population density of 10 people per square kilometre, compared to a national average of 60.

The tourism industrial complex is pushing the government to forcefully evict Maasai people from their land because they think the Maasai don’t add value to the business and will disrupt the activities they want to undertake in Loliondo, Ngorongoro and the neighbouring Serengeti National Park. The authorities know that wildlife massacre, one of the key businesses planned, won’t be possible under the Maasai’s watch and their pastoralism livelihoods will not fit the overall hunting and hotel aesthetic they are trying to create.

The government has an obligation to take care of the environment and ensure the safety of all who live in it. If Maasai people are allowed to stay in the newly created game reserves, they will witness wildlife massacre and will inevitably suffer harm. The government cannot risk this being exposed.

So without consulting with the Maasai community, the government has started its eviction plan in a manner that will force their integration with the majority community in the coastal region. To facilitate relocation, on 31 March the government withdrew all funds previously allocated to health, education and other key services. In 2021 the government threatened to demolish nine government primary schools and six health centres. In April 2022 the government’s chief spokesperson recognised that life-saving services were prolonging the Maasai presence in the Ngorongoro so there was a need to dismantle them.

What human rights violations have been reported?

Many human rights violations have been reported, and they are reaching a level we had not seen since our independence. They are more brutal than what our people experienced in the colonial era. Never before has our country witnessed a campaign targeting a specific community as we are now seeing in Ngorongoro. The Maasai are being portrayed as primitive people whose ancestral land is elsewhere, and the president has said they are new arrivals in Tanzania, so in case of a forceful relocation, the authorities can claim the Maasai have no attachment to Ngorongoro.

In early June, the authorities installed beacons in the place destined to become a game-controlled area, against Tanzanian law and in violation of an order issued by the East Africa Court of Justice in 2018. In 2017 a Maasai representative filed a complaint at the Tanzanian Human Rights and Good Governance Commission against the planned eviction and submitted a case to the East Africa Court of Justice seeking intervention against violent operations that ended with at least 349 Maasai homesteads being set ablaze.

Despite the temporary orders issued by the Court directing the government to halt relocation pending a final decision on the case, on 17 June 2022, just five days before the date set for delivery of a judgment, the government declared the contested land as a game-controlled area. Surprisingly, four days later the Court issued a notice that the decision would be delayed until September, giving the government leeway in executing atrocities in Loliondo.

The demarcated area includes not only village land, which is forbidden by the law, but also people’s homesteads. The police have used teargas and guns, wounding 31 Maasai people. Before beacons were installed, all elected political leaders were arrested and detained incommunicado for seven days before being arraigned in court on murder charges – for a murder that happened one day after they were arrested.

There are currently 27 Maasai people charged with murder and over 80 detained under the accusation of being unlawful immigrants. Some have been subjected to torture. Over 2,000 people have reportedly crossed the border with Kenya for security reasons.

Since June, Maasai livestock have been killed or impounded by security forces and a large-scale operation is ongoing to silence anyone who speak against the situation in Ngorongoro and Loliondo.

How will this eviction affect Maasai people?

To understand how Maasai people will be impacted upon, one needs to understand who the Maasai are. They are a semi-nomadic pastoral people who move from one place to another in search of their livelihood. They have lived alongside wildlife for centuries and know how to preserve their environment. They have established their cultural practices and spiritual sites that define them as a distinct society.

Relocation will disturb their culture. There is a place called Oldoinyo Lenkai (‘Mountain of God’) where the Maasai believe their god lives and usually conduct sacrifices during times of scarcity and crisis. If this land becomes a conservation area with restricted access their right to spirituality will be taken away. Ultimately, relocation has a strong chance of leading to their extinction as a people.

One of the government’s justifications of the relocation process is what they call the need for forced civilisation of the Maasai people, who would have a better life if they coexisted with people from different backgrounds. But this will force them to adopt a culture that is not their own. Involuntary assimilation and relocation are the greatest human rights violations and generally fall under the accepted meaning of genocide under the Rome Statute that established the International Criminal Court.

How are civil society activists and organisations fighting back?

We are fighting this in many ways. We are challenging the government by debunking its narrative. The government is spreading propaganda to get public support, so what we do is inform people about the dangers of these evictions and that they are founded on false narratives. We also use our various platforms to highlight that the Maasai add value to both nature conservation and tourism, providing accurate information to counter false claims.

We also have filed a court case against eviction. The law is one of the strongest tools we are using in fighting injustice in this battle. We can use the law to hold the government accountable and demand it halts the planned eviction. We are trying to make sure that the truth about what is happening is known not only internally but also by the international community.

We have been fortunate enough to have regional and international organisations such as the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and United Nations human rights experts publicly condemn the actions of the Tanzanian government and urge it to stop unlawful evictions.

But we have faced challenges, including the lack of functional legal processes in Tanzania. The 2018 court order requiring a halt to the operations have not been respected. Our government thinks it is above the law and this is affecting our progress in fighting the eviction. As activists our lives are in danger. The government threatens us and many activists had fled the country for safety.

What kind of assistance do you need from international civil society?

We need international organisations and activists to help us expose what is happening in Tanzania, because if this is known about internationally the government might be pressured to do better. International allies should use their platforms to highlight the gruesome violations of rights experienced by the Maasai people and keep people informed about our activities.

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

Follow @Oleshangay on Twitter.

 

ROHINGYA REFUGEES: ‘We want to go back home in peace’

Maung SawyeddollahCIVICUS speaks about the situation in Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh and youth activism with Maung Sawyeddollah, founder and executive director of the Rohingya Students Network, a global network of Rohingya students and young people based in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.

What is the Rohingya Students Network and what does it do?

The Rohingya Students Network is a global interconnected network of Rohingya students and young people. I founded it in December 2019 and it now has members in all 33 camps in Cox’s Bazar. We operate through WhatsApp and we arrange weekly meetings with all members to work towards our objective, which is to ensure the life, liberty and security of the Rohingya people.

We do two kinds of work. We work on community development by organising activities such as skills training and youth workshops. And we advocate for our people by talking to international media and working alongside the International Court of Justice (ICJ). As bringing justice to our people is very important for us, we help by collecting materials such as victims’ testimonies. We also oversee the overall situation of our people and collect data to share with our members.

We are bringing a case against Facebook because we believe Facebook used the genocide in Myanmar for business. We would normally send a letter to Facebook and ask them for help to fund Rohingya education camps. But they refuse to compensate for what they did, and so we had to take the legal way. Facebook is responsible for many human rights violations in Myanmar, so now we are legally pursuing the matter. We are getting help from Victim Advocates International, an organisation of lawyers.

What is the education situation in refugee camps?

The situation is bad. There are several schools in the camps but they all have a very dated system. One of them is the Rohingya Learning Centre. But all they do is give Rohingya students biscuits! Kids tell us, ‘We go to the Learning Centre to get biscuits, not to get education’.

There’s a lack of learning centres and qualified teachers inside the camps, even though we’ve been living here for five years. Teachers just teach basic things such as A is for apple, B is for ball. Our kids aren´t getting the quality education they deserve.

Have there been any changes in the situation of Rohingya people?

I would say there hasn’t been any change to our situation since 2017. It’s true there have been meetings about the Rohingya and many organisations and groups have issued statements regarding our situation. However, all these meetings and statements have brought no positive outcome. The solutions offered to end the conflict still equal zero.

There have been some minor improvements though. For instance, the USA has declared the Rohingya situation as genocide. The case has made some progress in the ICJ and the International Criminal Court. But still, solutions haven’t gone past an initial stage. Our crisis is a complicated one. 

The long-term scenario is complex. We left our country, Myanmar, in 2017 and are still facing systematic violence there. We were a minority and had to leave because of the violence towards us. We are now living in Bangladesh but continue to fight in various arenas to get the justice our people deserve.

There are many factors we need to consider to get our rights back. We can say there’s a civil war happening in Myanmar. There are two parallel governments competing to rule the country: the military government and the National Unity Government.

In Rakhine State – where Rohingya people are from – there are powerful groups such as the Arkan Army, which are also a challenge because they prevent people from getting back to their homes. These are challenges we need to address. And who knows, maybe someday we can get back home.

What challenges do you face when doing your work?

The threats and dangers are constant. For every single activity we want to do, there is some kind of opposition. A big part of society is opposed to the kind of work we do. We are respected by the government of Bangladesh and allowed to do our work freely, although I think they are now changing their minds. I think our Going Home Campaign, which we launched a few weeks ago, will make our relationship a bit harder.

There is also the fact that we continue to demand our rights, and many people speak up online and advocate for our rights, but the audience that we really need to listen to us, those responsible for the persecution we suffer, and those we need to sort out our situation, are sitting in government chairs in Myanmar and won’t address our demands because they simply don’t want us.

What international help do Rohingya people need?

We need as much international help as we can get. We need the international community to pressure the government of Myanmar so that they accept all of our demands for basic needs and rights. We need them to accept Rohingya people in Myanmar.

What we expect from the world is to help us create the right conditions to put pressure on Myanmar’s power holders, the main stakeholders to solve this crisis. There are many ways they can help us. For instance, as the USA helped us by declaring our situation as genocide; other big powers should do the same. We need the world to speak out and stand together with us. We want to go back home in peace!

Civic space in Bangladesh is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Follow @NetworkRsn and @M_Sawyed on Twitter. 

 

COLOMBIA: ‘People are tired of the long hegemony of political elites who are also economic elites’

Gina RomeroCIVICUS speaks about the recent presidential election in Colombia with Gina Romero, executive director of the Latin American and Caribbean Network for Democracy (RedLad).

Founded in 2008, RedLad promotes the full exercise of democracy as a way of life for the common good in the Americas. It undertakes advocacy in the inter-American human rights system; research through the Citizen Observatory on Corruption, Observatory on Freedom of Religion and Belief, reporting on 11 countries for the CIVICUS Monitor; work to open democratic dialogue within civil society and among civil society and international bodies, governments, the private sector and others; action to strengthen the capacities of Latin American civil society through leadership training; and advocacy in defence of the rights of vulnerable populations.

How would you assess the choice available between the two candidates in the second round of Colombia’s presidential election?

It was very revealing that both candidates called themselves ‘anti-system’, positioned themselves against traditional politics and ran outside traditional political parties. Colombian citizens are tired of the long hegemony of traditional parties and of political elites who are also economic elites.

The defeated candidate, Rodolfo Hernández, represents a right-wing political sector, although his campaign sought to emphasise his closeness to the people by championing the fight against corruption, despite the fact that he is under investigation for corruption. The winning candidate, Gustavo Petro, represents a left-wing position. The fact that a leftist option was elected for the first time in history says a lot about citizens’ social demands, the same ones that have been expressed publicly on the streets since 2019.

I believe that the second round was not a polarised confrontation between an extreme right and an extreme left, but rather a confrontation between innovative – one could say populist – proposals outside traditional politics, and particularly against the legacy of former president Álvaro Uribe, which is also embodied by the outgoing incumbent, Iván Duque.

A citizenry fed up with politics and social inequality, which has intensified as a result of the pandemic, made for a ticking bomb that manifested itself in the elections. It is great that this found expression through democratic channels, rather than through political violence, as used to be the case in the past.

How do you interpret the fact that Hernández made it into the second round?

Hernández’s presence in the runoff was quite surprising, since the candidates that were thought to have a chance were Federico Gutiérrez and Gustavo Petro. His discourse was one of closeness to citizens. He campaigned hard on social media, especially TikTok, and focused on the problems people systematically prioritise in the polls, such as corruption.

Hernández was seen as a simple person, who speaks very simply to ordinary citizens, while other candidates’ discourse sounded too lofty. He convinced many people with the argument that, as a millionaire, he would not steal like the others, and would even refuse the president’s salary. He also mobilised many people who do not understand what it means for Colombia to be going through a peace process, who voted ‘no’ in the 2016 referendum on the peace deal, and who had previously elected right-wing presidents such as Duque and Uribe.

Added to Hernández’s attractiveness were the big mistakes of centre parties and the fear elicited by Petro, both for being from the left and for being accompanied by a Black vice-presidential candidate, Francia Márquez, who had been a domestic worker and graduated from college at the age of 39. All this contributed to Hernández’s success in the first round, despite the fact that he is completely unfamiliar with politics and is neither fit to govern nor to do a good job as an opposition leader.

What was the campaign for the runoffs like?

It was a campaign of strong emotions, more than any other in the past. Political emotions are what ultimately determine the course of an election.

Fear played a big role. Many people in Colombia are afraid of any left-wing project. Moreover, Colombia is a racist, classist and misogynist country, so a candidate like Márquez also caused fear. I met few people who would vote for Hernández because they liked him rather than because they were afraid of Petro. These people described Hernández as ‘the cute old man who fights corruption and has a lot of money’. This is how right-wing populism gets close to the people.

The anti-Petro campaign circulated disinformation with the sole objective of generating fear, much as had happened in the campaign for the peace referendum. Among these unfounded fears was that Colombia would become a new Venezuela, as Petro would want to stay in power forever, as Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez once did. People repeated this uncritically without realising that, in Colombia, the one who wanted to do this was Uribe, through a constitutional change in 2004 that allowed him to renew his mandate and stay in office for eight years, after which he tried to do it again.

Another idea associated with Venezuela’s fate was that of impoverishment, currency devaluation and hyperinflation. There was also much talk of the possible business reaction sector to a left-wing government and the supposed large outflow of companies from the Colombian market that would follow. It is true that the dollar rose the week after the election – as it did in Chile when Gabriel Boric won – but the dollar has been rising in recent years and the initial increase has not been catastrophic.

Fear was also instilled among the public with the irresponsible use of the term ‘guerrilla’ in reference to Petro, who had in the past been a militant in the M19, a now-deactivated guerrilla group. Petro has had a long civilian political career since, and for decades has had nothing to do with any group outside the law. But the stigma remains, which shows how far Colombia still has to go in its reconciliation process.

Disinformation and digital violence also targeted the two female candidates who ran in this election, Ingrid Betancourt – who stood in the first round of the presidential election – and Márquez. Much research on digital violence argues that when women are in politics, personal information about them is used and facts are misrepresented. But in the case of Márquez, there was real racialised hate speech. Horrible things were said about her, both because of her personal history and her past as a very poor woman, and because she is a Black woman. The worst racist and misogynist jokes were told.

Colombia needs a profound reflection on how we construct the identity of the other and how we recognise ourselves as a multicultural country. Cali is the city with the second largest Afro-descendant population on the continent, and the entire Colombian Pacific is full of Afro and Indigenous people. But there is a systemic racism that was very apparent in the campaign.

For the most part, mainstream media have done much wrong by echoing hate speech. A week before the second round, for example, Semana magazine ran a sensationalist cover story wondering who would get elected, the engineer or the former guerrilla fighter. The ex-guerrilla fighter is also an economist, but this was not about the candidates’ professions, but rather about giving a frightening message. In the last months of the campaign, Petro was forced to deny many things, while Hernández hid and refused to participate in any debate.

Thus, we were sold the idea that we were ‘between a rock and a hard place’ and had to choose the ‘least worst’ candidate. A public narrative was mounted that since the political elite was not represented in this election, all that was on offer was simply bad.

What kind of voter backed the candidates?

There was a fairly close overlap between the Colombia that voted ‘no’ in the referendum on the peace accords, the Colombia that in the past elected Duque and the Colombia that now voted for Hernández. It is made up of culturally conservative citizens who fear change, have identified with traditional political elites and have not been drawn to the peace process or felt the appeal of political progressivism. Hernández’s voters in the cities and other parts of the country fear processes of inclusion of vulnerable populations and hardly include Indigenous or Afro-descendant parts of the population. In places with the largest Indigenous populations Petro won with unprecedented numbers.

The Colombia that voted ‘yes’ in the referendum coincides with the Colombia that voted for Petro. This is the Colombia of the margins, which brings together the least developed regions of the country. Big cities, with the exception of Medellín, also voted for Petro. This is an urban bloc, which Márquez defines as a citizenry made up of ‘nobodies’. The people who voted for Petro are largely a frustrated citizenry that has been affected by corruption like no other, who are not part of the political elite and who have been historically relegated by development processes. These are people who have little, who see in Petro a promise of improvement. Previous candidates have offered no real solutions to their problems – not even a chance of feeling involved.

The country is divided, but this is not a new division. Past governments have failed to reconcile these differences. We have two Colombias, with immense polarisation: in the elections with the highest participation in the past 20 years, Petro won by just 800,000 votes. That means there are 10 million people who oppose Petro and 11 million who support him. Petro will have to learn how to speak to these two facets of Colombia and ensure that the Colombia that did not vote for him does not feel left behind.

What are civil society’s expectations or fears following the result?

Whoever wins, our work as civil society will always remain the same. But personally, seeing what happened when Petro was mayor of Bogotá, I fear that revanchism could hinder the government’s progress. Polarisation, hate speech and the manipulation of institutions can have very serious effects. The potential reaction of the markets to a left-wing government is also a source of fear.

There is also the fact that Petro is a very passionate person, and often does not communicate in the best possible way; both his and Hernández’s campaigns attacked the press when media criticised them. The press has a fundamental role, and this can be very annoying for any government, but it is essential that it has sufficient guarantees to do its job. There are fears that Petro could be very hostile to the press that is critical of his government.

Organisations that, like RedLad, engage in international advocacy, are concerned about how Petro will position himself in relation to other Latin American leftists. Currently Latin America has a left that is the source of a lot of hope, that proposes change and is different from the traditional left; this is the left represented by Boric in Chile. But there is also the left of Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico, not to mention the lefts of Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, which have caused serious civic space crises. I think Petro is somewhere in the middle and faces the dilemma of who to side with. I think he should go along a more proactive and development-friendly left.

Although Petro’s party, Pacto Histórico, achieved good legislative representation in the March 2022 parliamentary election, the transformations he has put on the table are quite broad and deep, and their success they will require a wide political agreement, something that is complex to achieve in Colombia. If this is not achieved, the people who voted for Petro and believed his promises will be frustrated. It will be interesting to see how this government, elected under the banner of the 2019 mobilisations, will respond to people if they happen to mobilise again.

For the great expectations it has created not to wane, Petro’s government will need to score some early victories, showing progress in advancing the peace process and decreasing the number of assassinations of social leaders. I hope that Petro makes progress on international commitments, that civic space is not further reduced but expanded, and that the freedoms of assembly and expression are guaranteed.

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

 

VIETNAM: ‘Failure to address torture of political prisoners should trigger a review of trade deals’

88ProjectCIVICUS speaks with Kaylee Uland and Jessica Nguyen, co-director and advocacy officer with The 88 Project, about the criminalisation and repression of human rights activism in Vietnam.

The 88 Project is a civil society organisation (CSO) that advocates for and shares the stories of Vietnamese political activists who are persecuted because of their peaceful activism for human rights.

What does The 88 Project do?

The 88 Project is a research and advocacy organisation that maintains the most comprehensive and up-to-date database on the situation of political prisoners and human rights activists in Vietnam. Our database informs media coverage and policy debates on Vietnam and is used by journalists, diplomats and policymakers. According to our database, as of 24 June 2022, there are at least 208 known political prisoners behind bars in Vietnam, the highest number of any country in Southeast Asia.

What is the current situation of civic freedoms in Vietnam?

The 88 Project has tracked very negative trends regarding the Vietnamese government’s crackdown on political dissent. These include an increase in arrests of those in formal and informal media professions over a period of four years from 2018 to 2021. The arrests of media workers as a percentage of total activist arrests went up from less than three per cent in 2018 to 18 per cent in 2020 and 34 per cent in 2021.

The use of harsh sentences of at least five years in prison to stifle critical voices has also increased: while such sentences were 23 per cent of total sentences of activists in 2018, the rate rose rapidly to 44 per cent in 2019, 48 per cent in 2020 and 72 per cent in 2021.

The practice of holding activists and political prisoners incommunicado for extended periods of time – of eight months or more – has become increasingly common: it was applied to 12 per cent of all activists arrested in 2018 and to 21 per cent in 2019, surging to 49 per cent in 2020, before slightly decreasing to 42 per cent in 2021.

The crackdown on dissent has also expanded to include new issues and groups, as seen in the recent arrest and imprisonment of four CSO leaders working on climate change and environmental issues. They were charged with ‘tax evasion’, a tactic used by the government to silence critics who cannot be tried under the national security provisions of the criminal code. This sent tremors of fear through the environmental movement in Vietnam.

Efforts to censor social media have intensified, as has compliance with government censorship requests by US-based tech companies. With a population of 98 million, Vietnam is one of Facebook’s top 10 markets by user numbers, with 60 to 70 million people on the platform. Facebook provides one of the few spaces where Vietnamese people can communicate relatively freely. This space is, however, rapidly closing as Facebook increasingly complies with censorship requests from the government and allows bad actors to exploit content moderation rules to have accounts locked and posts deleted. Exacerbating the situation, Vietnam is now planning to impose new rules that require social media firms to take down content it deems illegal within 24 hours.

Further, the deliberately complex law regulating the ability of CSOs to receive and spend domestic or foreign funding gives the government control over organisations and individuals. CSOs find it hard to comply fully with these laws, which makes them vulnerable to government scrutiny. Punishment for tax violations may include heavy fines, closure and criminal charges that lead to the imprisonment of CSO managers.

What is the situation of political prisoners?

The authorities commonly use torture and other inhumane treatment against political prisoners, particularly those in pretrial detention. The most common perpetrators of these violations are public security officers at the provincial level, followed by those at the district and city levels, and then those at the national level. Occasionally, activists who are at risk but not imprisoned are assaulted or otherwise harassed by people suspected to have ties to the government, such as plainclothes police.

The government insists that there is no incommunicado detention in Vietnam, while acknowledging that for national security cases, a ‘very special measure’ applies, under which detainees are not allowed to see their defence counsel until after the investigation has concluded. Activists are often subjected to unobservable interrogation and to conditions that begin to break down their emotional and physical health. Isolation also removes their plight from the public eye, as information about their condition is sporadic and incomplete at best. Thirty-five activists arrested in 2020 and 2021 were held in incommunicado pretrial detention for eight months or longer.

Eight people who were arrested in 2020 have not yet been brought to trial. Journalist Le Anh Hung, arrested in July 2018, has not only not yet been brought to trial but has also been repeatedly transferred to mental health facilities for forced psychiatric treatment. 

Political prisoners are often denied legal representation during the investigation period and at trial. The 88 Project has documented the cases of at least 14 political prisoners who were denied legal representation in 2020 and 2021. When political prisoners are denied legal representation, they are often less aware of their rights and lack a critical communication channel to their families and the outside world. Often, families do not know about trial dates well in advance; sometimes, they learn nothing until after activists have been sentenced. An emblematic case of denial of legal representation is that of two activists from the Hmong minority, Lau A Lenh and Sung A Sinh, who were charged with overthrowing the state and attempting to establish a separate state in north-western Vietnam and sentenced to life in prison.

Prisoners are often denied medical treatment and family members are prevented from providing medication to them. Many with pre-existing conditions or those who experience health problems while imprisoned have claimed that inadequate medical treatment resulted in greater long-term health complications. Some, including Huynh Huu Dat, have died in prison due to lack of proper healthcare. 

The government claims that prison conditions have improved, but political prisoners and their families continue to report unclean food, overcrowding, lack of access to clean water, poor sanitation and lack of lighting. Virtually all prisoners suffer from harsh prison conditions, and they are often disciplined and retaliated against if they try to petition for improved prison conditions for themselves or others.

Cutting prisoners off from family and support networks is yet another way to mistreat them without using force. The authorities often limit family visitation rights or detain political prisoners in places far from their homes, making it extremely difficult for families to visit. Under the pandemic, ‘COVID restrictions’ were also used as an excuse to deny family visits. The 88 Project identified at least 21 political prisoners subjected to this treatment in 2020 and 2021.

We have also documented many cases of physical and psychological pain, which often amount to torture as defined under international law, inflicted to coerce confessions, obtain information, or punish political dissidents for their opinions. A frequent form of psychological abuse consists in sending political prisoners to mental health institutions against their will, even if they have no history of mental illness. Examples of political prisoners subjected to forced mental health treatment include Le Anh Hung, Nguyen Thuy Hanh and Pham Chi Thanh. Another harsh aspect of prison treatment is the use of solitary confinement to isolate political prisoners and punish them for asserting their rights.

Is there any accountability for cases of torture and ill-treatment?

Unfortunately, there is very little accountability. Regarding COVID-19-related restrictions, the government argued that the right to health of the community took priority over prisoners’ right to see family members. The authorities also justify forced mental health treatment tactics on ‘humanitarian aid’ grounds. They say they are respecting and protecting political prisoners’ right to health by sending them to mental health institutions for medical treatment. However, to the best of our knowledge, most cases are of forced treatment, used to isolate political prisoners from their support networks and to discredit them.

The Vietnamese government has been repeatedly warned about its failure to meet its international obligations against torture. The United Nations (UN) Committee Against Torture (CAT) has stressed the importance of proper criminalisation of torture, fundamental legal safeguards, direct applicability of the Convention against Torture by domestic courts and independent investigation concerning allegations of excessive use of force or deaths under custody.

During Vietnam’s 2019 UN Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review (UPR), a number of states raised concerns about allegations of torture and the Vietnamese government voluntarily agreed to several important recommendations, such as making sure that evidence obtained through torture is inadmissible at trial and taking steps to prohibit harassment and torture during the investigation process and detention.

Despite these international warnings, in its responses to CAT’s comments and recommendations from the 2018 Concluding Observations, issued in September 2020, Vietnam continued to maintain that ‘allegations of the widespread use of torture and ill-treatment, particular in police stations, and in certain places where persons are deprived of their liberty [...] are all unsubstantiated and inaccurate claims’. This contradicts the findings of our report.

How have domestic and international CSOs raised these issues?

Many international groups report on allegations of torture and inhumane treatment in Vietnam as part of their ongoing human rights research. However, torture is a difficult topic to research and report on, as information flowing out of Vietnamese prisons is minimal and often censored, and prisoners and family members may fear further retaliation for raising their concerns. Prisoners are often better able to report on prison conditions upon their release, as was recently the case of Tran Thi Thuy.

Thuy was imprisoned for eight years and was denied communication with her family and adequate medical treatment despite having severe tumours. The authorities demanded a confession in exchange for treatment. Thuy was also forced to work under extreme labour conditions; by the end of her sentence, she could barely walk. The international community should question the treatment prisoners face, and whether it may be even worse than what is reported in the news that reach international outlets.

Regardless of the obstacles they face, activists, their families and CSOs continue to raise the issue of ill-treatment of political prisoners via research and direct advocacy. For example, in April, the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and the International Federation on Human Rights jointly issued an urgent appeal for international intervention in the case of land rights activist Trinh Ba Phuong. Groups also petition the UN, and especially its Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, to investigate cases where inhumane treatment is suspected. Further, abuse by Vietnam’s police force more broadly is well-documented.

What can the international community do to address the issue of torture in Vietnam?

Given the absolute nature of the right to freedom from torture, failure on the part of the Vietnamese government to address issues of torture and inhumane treatment of political prisoners should trigger a review of its trade deals and other relationships with international actors. We urge human rights advocates and representatives of the USA, the European Union, and others to demand that Vietnam implement the concrete actions that are clearly stated in CAT’s Concluding Observations in the Initial Report of Viet Nam of 208 and to follow up on the UPR recommendations that Vietnam accepted in 2019.

We also urge the authorities to accept visits by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, as well as visits by states’ consular representatives to conduct investigations of prison conditions in multiple locations.

Civic space in Vietnam is rated ‘closedby the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with The 88 Project through its website or Facebook page, and follow @The88Project on Twitter.

 

CAMBODIA: ‘No free and fair election can take place in the current political environment’

Lee Chung LunCIVICUS speaks about Cambodia’s communal elections of June 2022 with Lee Chung Lun, Campaign and Advocacy Programme Officer of the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL).

Established in 1997, ANFREL is a regional civil society organisation (CSO) that promotes democratic, free and fair elections by conducting election monitoring, capacity building and civic engagement in member countries.

How free and fair were the recent local elections in Cambodia, and what were their results?

The official results of the elections for the commune and sangkat – an administrative subdivision – council held on 5 June 2022 gave the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) 9,376 (80.7 per cent) of the 11,622 council seats and 1,648 (99.8 per cent) of the 1,652 positions of commune chief. The recently reactivated Candlelight Party gained 2,198 (18.9 per cent) of council seats and four commune chief positions. The remaining 48 council seats went to other small parties.

The CPP’s victory is no surprise given its tight control of politics and the pressures on the opposition, including the dissolution of the main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party. In such context, the CPP won over 3,000 more seats than it did in the 2017 elections, and its popular vote surged from 3.5 million to 5.3 million.

However, it was unexpected that the Candlelight Party only managed to secure four commune chief positions despite winning one-fifth of the popular vote. The disproportionate vote-to-seat translation warrants further investigation.

Overall, Cambodia still falls short of the benchmark for free, fair and inclusive elections, as assessed in ANFREL’s pre-election assessment mission. ANFREL’s member, the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL), also noted various irregularities in the process.

The undemocratic elements of the existing legal framework continue to allow room for abuse. In recent years, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, crackdowns on the media, CSOs and the political opposition have increased. Numerous opposition candidates and members of opposition parties, most notably from the Candlelight Party, became the target of harassment and intimidation throughout the election period. As long as threats against the opposition and civil society continue to be prevalent, there can’t be a genuine and legitimate election.

What role did civil society play in the election process? 

In July 2021, a coalition of 64 Cambodian CSOs launched a list of recommendations that they named ‘minimum conditions for legitimate commune and sangkat council elections’. These included enabling a free political environment and active participation in political activities and allowing the main opposition to review and select members of the National Election Committee (NEC). They also called for greater political neutrality of military forces and independence of the courts, as well as freedom for the media and CSOs to function. Regrettably, no significant changes have been made since then.

CSOs such as COMFREL recruited, trained and deployed citizen observers to monitor the election process. The NEC’s accreditation standards, however, are questionable, given that 93 per cent of the 74,885 accredited election observers came from organisations closely linked to the CPP. More than half of them came from the Union of Youth Federations of Cambodia and Cambodian Women for Peace and Development, led by Cambodian prime minister’s son Hun Manet and deputy prime minister Men Sam An, respectively.

Cambodia is virtually a one-party state and now has a mostly closed civic space as a result of ongoing attacks on CSOs, independent media and the political opposition. Since 2017, the government has arrested, imprisoned, and harassed hundreds of activists, opposition figures and journalists. Some flee the country out of fear of retaliation.

The draconian provisions outlined in the Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organisations continue to be in effect. The law forbids unregistered organisations from carrying out any activity and grants sole authority over the registration process to the Ministry of the Interior, while registered organisations must adhere to a broadly defined ‘political neutrality’ requirement. CSOs are frequently required to go through informal approval processes with local authorities to carry out their work on the ground, even though the law does not require them to do so.

Do you think the results of the communal elections will be replicated in the upcoming national elections?

The results of the commune and sangkat council elections can be regarded as a predictor of the results of the next National Assembly elections, scheduled to take place in July 2023. They confirm once again that no free and fair election can take place in Cambodia’s current political environment. If attacks on the opposition and civil society continue, the CPP will retain its power in the next election.

What support does Cambodian civil society need from international organisations?

Cambodian civil society needs more attention from the international community on critical human rights violations and the dwindling state of democracy. International organisations should keep up their efforts to monitor developments in Cambodia closely and extend solidarity with Cambodian civil society, which frequently faces threats and harassment while carrying out their work. Local CSOs also need funding to continue their advocacy and campaigning on the ground.

Civic space in Cambodia is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Asian Network for Free Elections through its website or Facebook page, and follow @Anfrel on Twitter. 

 

GLOBAL CAMPAIGN: ‘The future of work requires a shift away from a focus on time’

Hazel GaviganCIVICUS speaks about the proposal for a four-day working week with Hazel Gavigan, Global Campaigns and Activation Officer of 4 Day Week Global.

4 Day Week Global is a civil society organisation (CSO) that advocates for a move towards a four-day working week to improve both workplace productivity and the wellbeing of employees.

How would the proposed four-day week work, and why do you advocate for it?

At 4 Day Week Global, it’s our ambition to make a four-day week the new default and reduced working time the new standard. The four-day week that we advocate for is very much a flexible model, not a rigid, ‘one-size-fits-all approach’ and is based on the general principle of the 100:80:100™ model – 100 per cent of the pay, for 80 per cent of the time and, crucially, in exchange for 100 per cent of the productivity or output.

The disruption to societal and workplace norms by the COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated the potential for very different models of work, for both workers and employers, and reinforced the need to rethink old, established patterns. We believe the future of work requires a shift away from a focus on time, as this is not an effective way to measure people’s contributions at work. Instead, we need to focus on measuring and rewarding collective outputs.

The four-day week we are campaigning for has countless cross-society benefits in terms of gender equality, sustainability and general improvements to health and happiness. Where implemented, it allows for better distribution of caring responsibilities, as reduced working time enables men to carry out a greater portion of labour within the home. This, in turn, helps remove barriers to women achieving senior positions in work, taking on leadership roles and pursuing training opportunities.

Research also suggests that moving to a four-day week will reduce carbon emissions by around a fifth, by cutting back on commuting time and energy use in buildings. In her recent TED talk, one of our research partners, Professor Juliet Schor, also makes the point that when people are time-stressed, they tend to choose faster and more polluting modes of travel and daily life activities. Whereas when we get time rather than money, we tend to have a lower carbon footprint.

And crucially, with an extra free day in the week, workers report feeling happier and less stressed and are more productive. This alone is an excellent outcome, but it also has a positive impact on businesses. Employers find that productivity is maintained, or in some cases, increased and they also have less costs associated with employee sick leave due to stress and burnout, and recruitment and retraining, as workers are satisfied in their jobs and less likely to leave for elsewhere.

How are you advocating for the four-day week?

Previously, we established national campaigns to generate interest and conversation in a country and then built on that to run a pilot programme there. However, the pandemic has turbocharged an organic momentum and now our pilot programme is the main driver of the campaign.

Up to now, most case studies on the four-day work week were conducted at an individual company level, with a few exceptions, such as Iceland. The purpose of our pilot programmes is to demonstrate that the positive outcomes achieved by individual businesses we’ve observed can be replicated on a much broader scale in a variety of countries and industries.

If we can prove the positive impact of reduced-hour, productivity-focused working on business outcomes, employee wellbeing and society in general, those results will be the driver of change that will get more and more big corporations and governments interested.

So currently, the data and evidence our pilots produce is central to our approach in influencing the policy agenda.

4 Day Week Global is currently running coordinated six-month trials of the four-day working week in Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, the UK and the USA, with numerous others planned in the coming months.

As part of this, we have developed a package of support for employers who agree to participate in the pilot, which provides those organisations with access to the expertise, tools and resources they need to run a smooth and successful trial.

We offer a specialised training programme, designed and delivered by companies who already operate a four-day week. Companies receive mentorship and advice from a panel of experts and business leaders from around the world. There are networking opportunities with other companies participating in the trial and participants get access to world-class academic research and expert analysis.

Leading scholars work with each participating company to define and establish their research baseline and relevant productivity metrics for the trial. The economic, social and ecological impact of the four-day week is also monitored throughout, assessing productivity, employee wellbeing and gender and environmental impacts, both through direct carbon emissions and indirect behavioural changes. Ultimately, the key to success is recognising that time invested in work actually matters less than the results produced.

We also have hundreds of advocates who volunteer to help grow the movement, offering everything from starting a national campaign for a four-day week in their own country to simply sharing some content on social media. It’s through this network that we can sustain and expand our level of growth, so if anyone reading this article would like to join the cause, they can sign up here.

How did you win support for the four-day work week trial currently happening in the UK? What do you hope to get out of it?

There’s a 4 Day Week Campaign in the UK which has been active for a number of years and quite high profile in terms of commissioning research and engaging in debate in the public square. So that definitely played a role in priming the audience and generating interest and support for the trial that recently launched.

This is also an idea whose time has come and the support seen for the four-day week in the UK is largely down to an exponential growth in the conversation about how we work.

Business leaders are drawn to this for recruitment and competition purposes in the midst of the ‘great resignation’ – a time when many people are looking to switch jobs. Managers are more open-minded because they were forced to trust their workers during the pandemic and figure out how to measure actual output as opposed to how long employees were spending in the office. And workers now see that a four-day week is possible in a way that they previously didn’t.

What kind of challenges have you faced?

The biggest challenge is convincing business leaders that the four-day week can work for them. Many people like the concept but argue that it wouldn’t be possible in their organisation. However, almost all companies that move to a four-day week do three big things: radically shorten and reform meetings, use technology more thoughtfully and mindfully, and redesign the workday to build in distinct periods for focused work, meetings and social time.

Studies show that the average worker loses between two and three hours each day to useless meetings, poor technology implementation and just plain old distraction. So, the four-day week is actually already here; we just can’t see it because it’s buried underneath these old and thoughtless practices.

Sometimes when companies do commit to trialling a four-day week, they overthink it in the preparatory phase and try to come up with a solution to every potential problem, which is of course impossible. So, our advice in that situation is to trust your workers to solve issues as they arise. That’s what a trial is all about.

Are you receiving support from other CSOs?

Yes, we are. One good example of this is the 4 Day Week Ireland campaign, where a coalition of trade unions, businesses, environmentalists, women’s rights groups, other CSOs, academics and health practitioners all joined forces with 4 Day Week Global to start a national conversation about the widespread benefits of reduced-hour, productivity-focused working.

The results of this saw widespread media coverage on the issue which, in turn, primed the public for the launch of the Irish four-day week pilot programme, which got underway earlier this year. The coalition was also afforded the opportunity to present to key political stakeholders in an enterprise, trade and employment context, the outcome of which resulted in a government-sponsored research tender seeking to better understand the social, economic and environmental implications of reduced working time.

We’ve had great success up to this point with the rollout of our international pilot programmes. However, in order to secure widespread change, there are four areas which feed into the overall success of the movement: labour market competition, public demand, collective bargaining and government intervention. All four of these players have different degrees of influence depending on the sector, but we need collaboration from all parties if we’re to see a broad implementation of the shorter working week.

Get in touch with 4 Day Week Global through its website or Facebook and Instagram pages, and follow @4dayweek_global on Twitter.

 

SUDAN: ‘We are back to the situation that preceded the revolution’

Nazik KabaloCIVICUS speaks about Sudan’s situation under military rule with Nazik Kabalo, a woman human rights defender (HRD) from Sudan. Nazik has worked in human rights advocacy, research and monitoring, with a focus on women’s rights, for the past 15 years.

What happened to Sudan’s transition to democracy?

Sudan is now facing the consequences of the major problems of the deal made by the military and civilian leaders in August 2019. Following the revolution, this deal initiated a transitional government in Sudan, a partnership between civilians and the military council. But this partnership was never equal: the military and former regime forces – including paramilitaries, militias, tribal militias and the security apparatus – had more economic and political power. They had controlled the country for 30 years, after all.

On the other hand, for 30 years political parties and civil society had been under so much pressure that they only managed to stay together with the momentum of the revolution, to defeat the former regime. But the Sudanese democracy movement has too many internal divisions.

Ours is an unfinished political transition that is missing transitional justice and mechanisms to limit the power of military and other armed groups. All armed groups had been involved in very severe human rights violations and remained partners with civilians in the new government. To be honest, I think the military coup was bound to happen. The political deal achieved in 2019 gave the presidency to the military for almost one and a half years. The coup happened on 25 October 2021, only few weeks before the date the military was expected to hand over the Supreme Council presidency to civilian leaders. But we always knew civilians didn’t really have a chance to lead the country.

How has the situation evolved after the coup?

Following the coup, the amount of violence and human rights violations was quite overwhelming. Violence is to be expected from the Sudanese military; it has led civil wars for 50 years and killing people is basically all it knows.

Seven months after the coup, at least 102 people have been killed in peaceful protests, more than 4,000 have been injured, and over 5,000 have been detained. There have been attacks on the freedoms of association and expression. Journalists are being attacked: at least three female journalists have been prosecuted or arrested in the past couple of days. The military coup has completely destroyed the civic space and freedoms created after the revolution. Our military is learning from our neighbour, Egypt, to effectively crush the civic movement.

For the past seven months we have lived under a state of emergency that was only lifted three weeks ago. But the lifting of the state of emergency made no difference to military practices on the ground. The international community has put some pressure on the government and the military but has not been able to stop the violence and civic space and human rights violations.

An aspect to consider is that Sudan has three conflict areas: Blue Nile, Darfur and Nuba Mountains. As well as western and southern Sudan, there’s also inter-communal violence in eastern Sudan. The coup hasn’t been able to provide security, although this is always the main excuse for the military to take power. Violence in urban areas, including the capital, has increased, especially for women. Members of the security forces, including the Central Reserve Police (CRP), have perpetrated gang rapes and sexual assaults against women; for this reason, the CRP has been recently sanctioned by the USA. A peace agreement was signed in October 2020 with several armed groups but hasn’t been effectively implemented. 

Sudan’s economy has been in a freefall since the coup. We expected to have our debt cancelled by this year, but because of the coup, the Paris Club, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank decided not to move forward. Instead, the IMF, the World Bank and international donors have frozen over two billion dollars in economic aid, which is directly affecting the general humanitarian situation. Recent reports from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimate at least half of Sudanese people will need humanitarian aid this year.

Another impact of the coup was the internet shutdown. For at least seven weeks, HRDs lived under a complete communications shutdown. This has now been partially lifted, but internet and phone communications continue to be cut off on every day of protest – which means it has happened every single day for several weeks. Internet access is under very harsh surveillance, so no Sudanese activist feels safe to use the phone for work. Sudan has one of the worst cybercrime laws in the world: you can be prosecuted, tried and sentenced to five years in jail just for posting something on Facebook. A couple of months ago, a female HRD who reported the sexual violence that took place during protests was sent to jail, accused of posting ‘fake news’. She may be punished with up to 20 years in prison. The military have used this law to threaten activists both inside and outside Sudan.

We are back to the situation that preceded the revolution. We feel that the old regime is back; in fact, the military has started appointing people from the former regime everywhere, from national television to the Humanitarian Commission, which is responsible for managing the work of civil society organisations (CSOs) inside Sudan. So CSOs are back to needing to request authorisation to hold meetings at venues outside our offices and are under constant surveillance. Activists, journalists and lawyers are being silenced because power went back to the military.

What are protesters’ demands?

Following the revolution, the deal reached between the military and civilians never satisfied the protest movement, which includes a high proportion of young people and women. They have never stopped protesting, not even during the transitional period, from August 2019 to October 2021. There have been at least 20 killings of HRDs since the transition began, but this hasn’t stopped them. So when the coup happened, people were instantly in the streets, even before an official announcement of the coup was made.

Since 2018, protesters have demanded real democracy and civilian rule. We have had military governments 90 per cent of the time since we became independent: 59 years out of 64. After the regime fell on 11 April 2019, people started a sit-in in front of the military’s headquarters. This continued for two months and ended with the Khartoum Massacre on 3 June 2019, with attacks perpetrated by militias and security forces. Two hundred people were killed and at least 60 women were gang-raped. In August a deal was reached with the military, despite the massacre that literally happened outside their headquarters! This was a stab in the heart for many democracy groups.

Right now, the protest movement wants to make sure civilians are the ones ruling the country. Military leaders should go back to guarding the borders and shouldn’t have anything to do with running the government anymore. The 2019 deal didn’t work, which means our only option is demanding radical change that puts power in people’s hands. Resistance committees have a slogan of ‘three nos’: no partnership, no negotiation or compromise, and no legitimacy. A process of dialogue and negotiations led by some political parties is currently taking place, but resistance committees refuse to engage. Unfortunately, this has not been welcomed by some international actors, but it comes as a direct result of recent Sudanese experience.

Who are the people on the streets?

Protesters have built an amazing grassroots movement; resistance committees have formed in every neighbourhood, even every block. Those who participate in them are ordinary people who have nothing to lose, so unlike the civilian elites, they are willing to continue the struggle until the end. They organise street protests every single day and are creating new ways of protesting, such as strikes, stand-ups, music, movies and poems. They use every tool available, including recreating Sudanese traditions and bringing our cultural heritage to the streets.

Women and feminist movements are doing an amazing job, breaking so many norms. During the revolution, many young women were on the frontlines. The Angry, a protest group that stays on the frontlines of every protest, protecting other people and leading clashes with the police, includes lots of young women.

Women are also working to provide medical care and trauma support. After 50 years of civil war, you will definitely be a traumatised country, but this has intensified following the past five years of revolt. Before, one was able to distinguish between people from war zones and people from cities. Right now, the whole country is a war zone. There are machine guns everywhere, firing bullets into neighbourhoods, and children are dying inside their own homes because bullets go through their roofs.

Diaspora activism has also been key. Activists from the diaspora have been super effective in spreading the word, and during the internet shutdown they were online 24/7 to get information out to the world, not only sharing it on social media but also connecting people inside Sudan, who could receive international calls but not domestic ones.

 What kind of work are pro-democracy groups doing?

The pro-democracy camp is very diverse. There are longstanding CSOs that have always promoted and advocated for human rights and continue to document violations, advocate, engage and build capacity inside the democracy movements. There are also new grassroots groups, the resistance committees, thar right now are the key movement leaders: other CSOs will follow their lead since they express the majority view. Professional organisations and trade unions are also a major group; they are key in organising mobilisations in urban areas. Doctors, lawyers, engineers and similar roles play an important role in putting pressure through strikes and civil disobedience. 

Unfortunately, for the time being there’s not a single unified network or body that can represent the democracy movement in Sudan. This is the movement’s main weakness. Resistance committees are trying to produce a unified political declaration and how to unify this movement while including all of Sudan, even conflict areas, is being discussed.

What international support do Sudanese HRDs need?

Our country must not be forgotten. The international community must take action and support the democracy movement’s demands for fundamental change. International human rights bodies must put make Sudan a priority. Sudanese civil society is fighting to get Sudan on top of their agenda, especially since the war started in Ukraine and most attention is going that way.

Neglecting building democracy in Sudan and leaving power in the hands of the military would be a big mistake. What’s going on here isn’t disconnected from what’s going on in Ukraine. Reports indicate the involvement of the Sudanese military and militias in smuggling gold that supports the Russian economy during this conflict. Moreover, many reports have exposed the strong relations of Sudanese Rapid Support Forces (RSF) leaders with Russian leadership; they were in Russia the week the war started to ensure the flow of gold. RSF militias have relations with other African countries like Chad and the Central Africa Republic, which are sources of blood gold and blood diamonds entering Russia through Sudan. 

Sanctions would be an important tool. A couple of days ago, the International Bar Association called on the UK to apply Magnitsky sanctions in Sudan. International CSOs should move ahead with similar actions.

It’s understandably hard for the international community to deal with the people in the absence of an actual government or elite they could deal with. But young university students are the democracy movement’s leaders, and they represent us. Protests have continued for eight months now and will probably continue for many more, and activists need a lot of help.

Because of persecution and violence, many CSOs and local groups have had to move their operations outside Sudan, and activists have had to relocate. Those working inside Sudan are having a very low-profile and using all the digital and physical security strategies available. Access to funding has also been increasingly challenging. The military wants to find out where funding for the democracy movement is coming from and has therefore increased surveillance, which makes it very risky to receive funds inside Sudan. Organisations working at grassroots levels and in conflict areas are suffering the most.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did you experience backlash?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Opio Sam Leticia

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

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

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

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

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

Does Ugandan legislation discriminate against LGBTQI+ people?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What work does your organisation do?

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

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

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

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

What should Commonwealth states do to promote LGBTQI+ rights?

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

What are the main conclusions of the TRRC report?

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

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

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

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

What does the Victims Center do?

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

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

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

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

How has civil society advocated for prosecution?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you think this is part of a broader pattern?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How has Turkish civil society responded?

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What progress has been made since then?

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

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

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

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

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

What challenges does Workers United face in southern states?

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

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

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

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

How has Starbucks responded to unionising efforts across the USA?

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

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

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

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

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

How do your efforts relate to unionising efforts at Amazon?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

What is the focus of 7amleh’s work?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How have the authorities reacted to this activism?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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