CZECH REPUBLIC: ‘We believe that the new government will defend democratic principles’

CIVICUS speaks about the recent Czech elections with Marie Jahodová, Executive Director of Million Moments for Democracy, a civil society organisation working to support democracy in the Czech Republic and Europe by fostering civic participation, the accountability of elected representatives and democratic debate.

Marie Jahodova

What were the conditions for civil society and media freedoms in the run-up to the October 2021 election?

One of the key factors influencing media freedoms in the Czech Republic is the distortion of the media market and limited access to information. This is mainly caused by the fact that billionaire former Prime Minister Andrej Babiš owns 30 per cent of the private media market, according to calculations by the European Federation of Journalists.

The other defining factor is that public service media (TV, radio and press agency) are steered by media councils: the Czech Television Council, the Czech Radio Council and the Czech Press Agency Council. Council members are nominated and elected by simple majority by the Parliament’s Chamber of Deputies. Yet in the past four years the majority in the Chamber of Deputies was held by Andrej Babiš’ party ANO (‘Yes’), communists and the far-right Svoboda a přímá demokracie (Freedom and Direct Democracy) movement. Therefore, when voting for new councillors took place, non-democratic nominees were easily elected and the independence of the public service media was significantly harmed. For that reason, one of the most important tasks for the new democratic government will be to redesign media councils and reform related laws.

Conditions for civil society were also hardened by the COVID-19 pandemic. Citizen engagement became more difficult, as people could not gather in larger groups and organising protests and mass demonstrations became impossible. For that reason, we at Million Moments switched towards online events and interactions as much as possible. For example, as strict pandemic-related restrictions were in place, we organised an online demonstration and happenings in public space that did not involve the presence of many people.

The crucial problem, both in the election campaign and in the context of the COVID-19 crisis, has been disinformation. And our organisation has had to deal with disinformation quite often as well.

How has civil society organised against corruption, and what has been the official response?

As a part of civil society, we have organised a number of protests and happenings focusing mainly on our fundamental topics, such as conflict of interests of government officials, the need for an independent justice system and the importance of free and independent public media.

Additionally, we have held events commemorating victims of COVID-19 in the Czech Republic, including one in which we placed white crosses on Old Town Square. By doing so we wanted to draw attention to the fact that the pandemic was mismanaged by the then-government. In other words, the events we organised last year were not focused solely on political corruption, although this is still our long-term topic. 

Andrej Babiš never gave us any official answer. His inaction is consistent with the fact that dialogue between his government and civil society was always non-existent, and Babiš never supported it. Civil society was repeatedly underestimated and made fun of by both Prime Minister Babiš and President Miloš Zeman. Hundreds of thousands of protesters were called names such as ‘Prague Café fans’ and ‘uneducated kids only undermining the prime minister’s legitimate seizure of power’.

It is not surprising that Babiš did not like our critical voice pointing at his enormous conflicts of interest, corruption, intent to abuse the public service media and other abuses his government was responsible for. The only ‘answer’ ‘Babiš gave was the often-repeated claim that all of it was a hate campaign against him led by the media and the opposition.

What impact did the Pandora Papers have on the election?

The Pandora Papers named Babiš among those keeping assets and spending millions through shell companies in tax havens. Unfortunately, no sufficient data exist to measure the impact of this on the election results. Some people think that the revelation of the Pandora Papers was a decisive moment in the election campaign, yet no hard data proving it are available. As far as we can lean on known figures, the Pandora Papers had no impact on Babiš’ electorate, whose preferences stayed about the same as before the Pandora Papers affair.

On the other hand, these revelations might have influenced a number of non-voters. Many people who had not planned to vote in the election may have changed their mind after the Pandora Papers came out. This year’s participation rate was five percentage points higher than in the previous election, held in 2017. This increase, especially among young voters, was a very important factor playing in favour of democratic parties in the election. In terms of timing – they were published just a couple of days before the election – the Pandora Papers had the potential to influence the results.

What were the other key issues during the election?

The main topics in the election campaign were the COVID-19 pandemic and related precautions, state capture by Andrej Babiš, who was in power for eight years, and the ongoing decrease of trust in politics and politicians.

The main narrative used by members of the democratic coalition was that we needed change, that we had had enough of an oligarch as Prime Minister, and we wanted to see no more billions flowing illegally into politicians’ businesses.

On the other hand, Babiš’ party, ANO, used disinformation tactics to defame the Czech Pirate party, which had a very high preference in the pre-election polls in the spring of 2021. For that reason, ANO considered it the biggest competitor and used disinformation to slander it, which significantly harmed its electoral results.

What are civil society’s hopes for the new government?

We hope that the new government will defend democratic principles and lead a dialogue with civil society. Dialogue with civil society has in fact already begun, even in a public way. This is definitely a good sign for the future. After many years of rejection, not only our organisation but civil society in general really appreciates that the new Prime Minister, Petr Fiala, seems open to responding to questions and addressing the possible concerns of civil society.

We do realise though that the new government will not have an easy job, as it came to power at a challenging time. It will need to resolve a difficult economic situation – both the public debt and the national deficit are currently at the highest level in our history – and the pandemic crisis and all the problems linked to it.

What else needs to happen to strengthen democratic freedoms and root out corruption in the Czech Republic?

The new government must get rid of the people connected to Andrej Babiš’ company, Agrofert, who are currently employed in public administration. This is an important long-term task.

There are also other big challenges awaiting the new government, such as the Public Prosecutor’s Office law reform, which could strengthen the independence of the judiciary, and the amendment of the law on conflicts of interest. It’s also necessary to replace some of the members of media councils who are still connected to non-democratic political parties that seek to undermine the credibility of public media. Politicians must also promise to fight disinformation effectively.

And let’s not forget the Capi Hnizdo affair – allegations of European Union subsidy fraud – in relation to which Babiš has been under prosecution for more than four years already. A resolution of this case should not be postponed again. The investigation needs to move forward and the court should deliver its verdict. Otherwise, it will be a very bad signal for Czech civil society, especially in view of the upcoming presidential campaign.

Civic space in the Czech Republic is rated ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Million Moments for Democracy through its website or its Facebook or Instagram pages, and follow @milionchvilek and @m_jahodova on Twitter. 

 

SUDAN: ‘The government and the international community must engage more with civil society’

Abdel Rahman El MahdiCIVICUS speaks about the prospects for democracy and civilian rule in Sudan with Abdel-Rahman El Mahdi, founder and director of the Sudanese Development Initiative (SUDIA). SUDIA is a civil society organisation (CSO) that works toward stability, development and good governance in Sudan. With 25 years of experience in international development, Abdel-Rahman specialises in organisational management and programming, with a thematic expertise extending to peacebuilding and human security, and civic engagement and democratic transformation.

 

What was civil society’s reaction when Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok returned to power in November?

After being ousted by a coup in October 2021, Prime Minister Hamdok managed to return to power in November as a result of a deal he reached with the military, which was signed on 21 November 2021. Reactions to this varied, because Sudanese civil society is very diverse.

Since the December 2018 revolution, Sudanese civil society is in three distinct segments. The first contains what can be called revolutionary civil society movements and groups such as neighbourhood resistance committees, the Sudan Professional Association and other alliances and networks that sprang up during or in the aftermath of the revolution. Second, there is the segment that includes formal state-regulated CSOs, which are usually registered under various laws and have a licence to operate. Third, there are informal or traditional forms of civil society that existed from before independence, including the traditional or native administrative system and tribal leaders, and faith-based groups such as various Sufi groups.

In terms of the size of their constituencies and their representation of the public, the biggest segment is that of informal and traditional forms of civil society, followed by revolutionary civil society movements and groups, with formal and state-regulated CSOs being the smallest. 

Each part of civil society has had a different reaction to the Hamdok’s agreement with the military. On one end of the spectrum, traditional or native administrative structures and tribal leaders welcomed the agreement and were even represented at the signing ceremony. At the other, revolutionary civil society movements and groups completely opposed the agreement, which they saw as treason to the values and aspirations of the revolution. As for the third group – that of formal and state-regulated CSOs – reactions were mixed, with a majority seeing the agreement as the most viable way forward and the best possible outcome given the situation.

Divisions and polarisation regarding the issue of military versus civilian rule and governance in the transition period are evident among both citizens and their representative institutions – including civil society and political parties – as well as among democracy movements in Sudan.

How significant is the recent resignation of Prime Minister Hamdok? Has anything changed as a result?

Prime Minister Hamdok’s resignation in early January 2022 is a significant development in the trajectory of Sudan’s transition. Hamdok was the only candidate viewed as acceptable by all the main parties that have shaped the transitional period over the past two years, namely the military, the Forces of Freedom and Change - a political coalition made up of civilian, political and armed groups and signatories to the constitutional declaration of 2019 -, revolutionary groups and the international community. His departure has only complicated the political crisis, because now agreement needs to be reached not just on how to proceed with the governance of the transitional period moving forward, but also on who will lead and represent the civilian element in future governance arrangements – and someone needs to be identified who might be acceptable to all parties involved.

Representatives of the international community, the European Union and the Troika (Norway, the UK and the USA) issued a statement on 4 January 2022 in which they warned against any unilateral move by the military to appoint a new prime minister and called for a Sudanese-led and all-inclusive process to address this and other transitional issues. Meanwhile the situation on the ground continues to worsen, with protests in the capital, Khartoum, and in other cities continuing unabated.

How has civil society organised since the coup?

Organising and responses to the military takeover of 25 October differ from one kind of civil society group to the other. Revolutionary civil society movements and groups, along with some political parties, have been organising mass protests in Khartoum and other cities and states to express their rejection of the 21 November political agreement and call for a civilian leadership for the transitional period.

Beyond welcoming the agreement and military takeover, traditional native administrative structures and tribal leaders have thus far been absent from the scene, taking no visible actions or positions. Meanwhile, formal, state-regulated CSOs have been slow to mobilise a coordinated response but are gravitating towards facilitating dialogue between stakeholders and are beginning to take concrete actions towards that end.

What factors led to the coup and what needs to happen for Sudan to get on the path to democracy?

Several factors led to the coup and military takeover on 25 October 2021, but the most important in my opinion was the lack of a robust dispute resolution mechanism that should have been agreed to and put in place by the key parties leading the transitional period. Such a mechanism would have helped resolve differences among civilian elements and between the civilian and military elements of the transition.

The transitional constitutional decree was a rushed fix to a complex and rapidly deteriorating situation and has many shortcomings, such as vague language allowing for different interpretations. The political milestones and issues to be tackled during the transitional period – including elections, constitution-making processes and to a great extent security sector reform and transitional justice – can be extremely divisive and are likely to be sharply contested by the key parties leading the transition. 

To overcome these potentially divisive issues and improve the chances of a successful transition to a democratic, peaceful and just Sudan, it will require that such a dispute resolution mechanism is established in any future arrangement put in place to govern the remaining period of the transition.

What role are international institutions playing, and what should they be doing?

The role of international institutions, including the United Nations (UN) and African regional institutions, has been one of damage control rather than damage prevention. The United Nations Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan (UNITAMS) was deployed to Sudan in 2020 but throughout the months prior to the coup and the escalating tensions and differences between the parties leading the transitional period it remained totally absent. Its mediation role only materialised at a later stage, following the unfortunate events of 25 October and after the axe had already fallen, so to speak.

Regional institutions such as the African Union and the Arab League have played a marginal role, with the former only issuing statements threatening suspension of Sudan’s membership, and the latter sending a delegation to help with negotiations in the wake of the coup.

More recently, on 8 January 2022, UNITAMS issued a statement announcing it was ‘formally launching a UN-facilitated intra-Sudanese political process which is aimed at supporting Sudanese stakeholders in agreeing on a way out of the current political crisis and agree on a sustainable path forward towards democracy and peace’.

While this step by UNITAMS is to be applauded, it is important for UNITAMS as well as the international community supporting UNITAMS to consider carefully the details of the process. Rather than taking a head-on approach or focusing on a single objective of just simply resolving the current political crisis, the process should include embedded elements that ensure ownership and transparency and help build visions for common ground amongst the stakeholders involved, for the transitional period and beyond. 

The process should also ensure the elaboration of a dispute resolution mechanism for when differences arise. UNITAMS will have only one shot at this and if it fails, it will lose credibility and the continued presence of the mission in Sudan will come into question.

Moreover, beyond the immediate challenge of surpassing the immediate political crisis, the UN and other international institutions need to step up their act and stay one step ahead of the transition game in Sudan. Transitions in countries such as Sudan, which is emerging from conflict and years of authoritarian rule, require greater agility, heightened levels of coordination and collaboration and more strategic responses on the part of the UN system and international institutions more generally. To achieve this, they need the help of Sudanese civil society, so they will also need to adopt a more structured and strategic approach in engaging with them, instead of the current ad hoc and largely symbolic form of engagement.

What are the main challenges Sudanese civil society faces, and what support does civil society need?

Three of the top-most challenges facing Sudanese CSOs are, in order of priority, the restrictive and disabling environment in which they operate, their limited financial viability and access to funding, and their limited organisational capacity. These are interconnected and have a knock-on effect on each other. They have thus far prevented civil society from playing the promising role that is expected of it in the context of the transition. 

The 30-plus years of authoritarian rule in Sudan have had a devastating effect on the development of civil society and it will take years to reverse it. Both civil society and those investing in it need to factor this into their expectations and aspirations and adopt both short-term and long-term approaches to improving civil society’s contributions to the calls of the revolution: freedom, peace and justice. 

Once the current political crisis is overcome and the path to the democratic transition is resumed, there must be greater investment in and commitment to civil society on the part of both the government and the international community. Support will be needed for efforts to improve civic space and create a more enabling environment for civil society. Support should also be geared towards facilitating dialogue across the various groups that make up the non-political civic scape in Sudan and strengthening their ability to act and speak as one on critical national issues and future challenges.

Civic space in Sudan is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with SUDIA through its website or its Facebook or LinkedIn pages, and follow @FollowSUDIA on Twitter. 

 

PARAGUAY: ‘As long as land remains in private hands, conflict will continue '

CIVICUS speaks with Alicia Amarilla, national coordinator of the Organisation of Peasant and Indigenous Women (CONAMURI) in Paraguay about conflicts over land rights between the state, the private sector and Indigenous communities. CONAMURI is a Paraguayan organisation of Indigenous and peasant women that has been working for 22 years to defend and promote their rights and seek solutions to situations of poverty, exclusion and discrimination based on ethnicity and gender.

 

PALESTINE: ‘The counter-terrorism law is used to restrict political work in Palestine & shrink civic space in Israel’

CIVICUS speaks with Einat Fogel-Levin, International Advocacy Coordinator for the Human Rights Defenders Fund (HRDF), about growing restrictions on Palestinian civil society. HRDF is an Israeli civil society organisation (CSO) working to protect Palestinian and Israeli human rights defenders (HRDs) by providing legal aid and defence to those facing various forms of legal persecution and fending off attacks on their bodies, persons and work.

 

Denmark: ‘There is a focus on protecting borders rather than people’s rights’

Charlotte SlenteCIVICUS speaks with Charlotte Slente, Secretary General of the Danish Refugee Council (DRC), about recent immigration policy changes and the rights of refugees in Denmark. The DRC is an international humanitarian organisation that supports international refugees and internally displaced persons by providing protection and life-saving assistance. 

Why has the Danish government recently decided to revoke temporary residence permits of Syrian refugees, and what have been the consequences of this policy?

The 2015 introduction of a temporary subsidiary protection status with fewer rights – mainly granted to certain groups of Syrian refugees – is the reason behind the possibility to revoke asylum status for these Syrian nationals. This specific status comes with an amendment of the Danish Aliens Act in which the cessation clauses of the Refugee Convention no longer apply to beneficiaries of subsidiary protection, meaning that changes in the home country no longer need to be sustainable – and it is possible to revoke asylum status even if the situation in the home country remains serious, fragile and unpredictable.

The Danish Refugee Council (DRC) disagrees – along the lines of the recommendations from United Nations Refugee Agency – with the decision by the Danish authorities to deem the Damascus area or any area in Syria safe for refugees to be returned. The absence of fighting in some areas does not mean that people can safely return. There are numerous reports of arbitrary detentions and severe human rights abuse of the civilian population.

We are also concerned because many of the Syrians who now have their residence permits revoked or have their application for asylum in Denmark rejected will not leave voluntarily due to the risks involved, and will consequently be placed in limbo at return centres. Given the lack of diplomatic relations between the Syrian and Danish authorities regarding forced returns, it is not possible for the Danish authorities actually to return Syrians. They can of course return once the conditions in Syria make it safe for them. But as long as the situation in Syria is not conducive for returns, we believe it is pointless to remove people from the life they have built in Denmark.

It is important to note that not all Syrian refugees in Denmark are affected by this policy. The Danish daily Jyllands-Posten of 21 November 2021 estimated that some 34,000 Syrians have received residency in Denmark since the Syrian conflict broke out in 2011. Of those, 4,600 received ‘temporary protection status’ on the basis of section 7.3 of the Aliens Act. From this group, approximately 1,250 Syrian nationals are from the Damascus or Rif-Dimashq areas and hence in danger of having their residence permit revoked. 

So far around 850 have had their cases examined at the Immigration Service and some 280 have had their residency revoked. About half of the roughly 200 cases that have been considered by the Refugees Appeals have been confirmed and the other half have had their residency prolonged. So, approximately 100 Syrians have had their residency finally revoked and are supposed to go to the return centres.

We don’t know how many are actually at the centres as of now, but we believe it is only a handful. People are not detained at these centres. And as Denmark doesn’t maintain any cooperation with the Syrian authorities it cannot return these people by force as the situation is now.

How has this policy impacted on Syrian refugees living in Denmark?

The increased focus on temporariness over sustainable, long-term solutions for refugees has a negative impact on refugee protection and hinders good integration. We know from our work with refugees in Denmark that the temporariness and the fear of losing their stay in Denmark have affected many of them: not just Syrians who risk having their residency revoked, but also other groups of refugees who fear that their permits might suddenly be revoked too.

This is not a new phenomenon. Over the years, we’ve seen many political actions aimed at making it more difficult for refugees to get a foothold in Danish society.

Among them were the introduction of the so-called temporary protection status in 2015 and the changes in legislation made in 2019, which increasingly emphasised temporariness. This has had a concrete impact on the motivation for refugees to integrate into Danish society, as they are constantly being told that they should only expect to stay in Denmark temporarily. This is neither a dignified way to treat refugees who have fled conflict and human rights violations in their home countries, nor a very productive way of treating them, as it hampers integration efforts.

Additionally, these efforts have an impact on how other parts of society view refugees and integration. For example, the private sector is less likely to invest in and hire refugees, as they do not know if the resources put into these individuals will be lost if they lose their residency soon after employment.

However, most refugees end up staying in Denmark for many years and even for generations, because the circumstances in their home countries remain difficult and the reasons they fled, such as personal persecution, haven’t changed. That is why DRC calls for more long-term solutions for refugees in Denmark.

Over the past decades, Denmark’s position on immigration has shifted dramatically. Why has this happened?

Over the past years, Denmark has received international attention for introducing restrictive measures for refugees and asylum seekers. The current government seems to rely on the assumption that the asylum system is broken and that one way to ‘fix’ it is by preventing asylum seekers coming here.

However, the reality is one of lack of international solidarity in the global protection system, which means that the vast majority of the world’s refugees are hosted in global south countries. Countries local to conflict zones host 73 per cent of the world’s refugees. Overall, 86 per cent of all displaced people – internally displaced people and refugees combined – are hosted by low-income countries.

Still, Denmark and other European countries would like poorer countries to take an even greater responsibility. This can potentially have a negative impact on international cooperation on refugees. If a country such as Denmark fails to shoulder its share, there is a real risk that refugee-hosting states will follow suit, undermining the global protection of refugees with potentially devastating consequences.

One point worth noting is the discrepancy between what Denmark does internationally and domestically. Denmark has a very strong system of development assistance, one of the best in the world. It is rights-based, needs-based and holistic, with a significant emphasis on the role of civil society. Additionally, it is very positive that there is broad consensus across the political spectrum in Denmark that we should continue to be a strong donor, partner and contributor, and continue to provide support to marginalised people such as refugees and displaced persons in the regions of origin. This is something to be proud of.

However, while Denmark remains one of the world’s leading donors in the area of humanitarian and development assistance relative to the country’s size and economy, and a rather progressive voice when it comes to refugee rights in the regions of origin, domestically it appears to be moving in the opposite direction.

One concrete example of this concerns the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR). Along with other western countries, Denmark has been very keen on ensuring that the principles – more solidarity, more funding and more self-reliance – are being implemented in many host countries, while being criticised for trying to pay its way out of its own responsibility to live up to the same principles. So, three years after the international community agreed on the GCR, a lack of political will and leadership is challenging the achievement of more equitable and predictable responses to forced displacement.

Through the GCR the international community promised better responsibility sharing and durable solutions. Yet three years on, a few generous host countries continue to shoulder the greatest responsibility, while richer nations are providing neither protection for refugees nor sufficient economic support.

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

We are seeing many European countries take steps away from ensuring protection and upholding the values that the European Union (EU) was built upon. It’s a race to the bottom when it comes to refugees’ rights across Europe. It seems what EU member states have primarily been able to agree upon is protecting borders rather protecting asylum seekers.

We have seen systematic pushbacks at the EU’s external borders over many years, combined with measures aimed at deterring arrivals of asylum seekers in the EU, including cooperation with non-EU countries that risks violating the principle of non-refoulement and does not uphold fundamental human rights and dignity.

EU member states have illegally prevented several thousand women, men and children from seeking protection at border crossings, for instance in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Greece, Hungary, Italy, North Macedonia and Serbia in 2021. This involved rights violations such as denial of access to asylum procedures, physical abuse and assault and theft at the hands of national border police and law enforcement officials. It’s a telling example of how the extreme is being normalised.

The current situation at the border with Belarus follows the same trend of focusing on protecting borders rather than people’s rights. DRC is very concerned about the current humanitarian situation at the EU’s external borders, where people are denied access to fundamental rights and protection. The situation is unacceptable, illegal and dangerous. Among the people who remain trapped in the border areas are vulnerable groups such as families with children, pregnant women and older people, many of whom have fled war and conflict in countries including Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

While the situation calls for a calm and measured reaction, the EU and its member states at the external borders are responding with panicked proposals for emergency measures that curtail rights and safeguards of those seeking protection. Rather than limiting safeguards, the EU Commission should ensure that member states at its external borders treat people seeking protection with dignity, in accordance with international and European law. Disregard of international obligations by other states does not exempt EU member states from their responsibility. Describing a few thousand people as a threat to the EU and its 450 million inhabitants is unsettling and disproportionate. The situation must not set a precedent for managing future situations at the EU’s external borders.

Another example, where Denmark sadly is leading the way, is the ambition of outsourcing asylum processing to another country. The idea to externalise asylum and refugee protection is both irresponsible and lacking in solidarity. Similar models, such as the offshore approach implemented in Australia, have been characterised by detention, physical assault, slow asylum proceedings, lack of access to healthcare and lack of access to legal assistance, creating zones of exemption where right violations are likely to occur.

At the same time, Denmark is sending an extremely problematic signal to our neighbouring countries in the EU and not least to the – often poorer – countries in the world that take by far the greatest responsibility for the world’s refugees. The continued willingness of neighbouring countries in areas plagued by conflict to host millions of refugees is not something to take for granted. If a rich country such as Denmark is not willing to take responsibility, there is significant risk that countries hosting far larger number of refugees will also opt out and give up on global efforts to find joint and sustainable solutions.

What we can hope for, though, is that Denmark can inspire other countries to follow suit and live up to the UN recommendation of providing at least 0.7 per cent of gross national income to official development assistance – something that Denmark has done since 1978. And we hope that other countries will also follow the example of Denmark when it comes to providing long-term and predictable funding for development and humanitarian assistance, in order to ensure better, more holistic and more sustainable development and solutions across the globe.

How has civil society in Denmark responded, both to the immediate issue and to the evident wave of hostility towards migrants and refugees from politicians and the public?

First and foremost, we believe that it is important that refugees and exiles know there are people and organisations who are concerned about their situation, who sympathise with them and try to help them in the ways that are possible. DRC and others in civil society have been very vocal in the public debate, writing opinion pieces and letters to office holders, meeting with decision-makers, creating campaigns and organising demonstrations to protest against this development.

We believe that it means something to see people fighting for their rights and dignity. But more concrete day-to-day support is also of great importance. DRC has some 6,500 volunteers throughout Denmark. These are people who for instance help refugee children with their homework. They welcome refugee families into the local community and help people with job applications and reading and understanding official information. They invite them to dinner – and teach them the dos and don’ts of Danish society. They explain the Danish sense of humour. They speak Danish with them to help them develop language skills. They teach them how to ride a bike. They act as the extended family and network that many refugee families have had to leave behind or have scattered around the world.

This has immense importance for refugees. It’s our experience that a helping hand can mean the world. Both in a very real way, if volunteers or friendly neighbours help them get a job or stop by with some extra food, and in a broader sense, by showing that there are people who do sympathise, care about them and are willing to open their arms and help them get settled.

We have also observed that when the debate becomes more polarised and stricter policies are introduced, more people volunteer and show their support for refugees in other ways. As the number of asylum seekers soared back in 2015-2016, the number of people willing to give a helping hand and donate to our work also increased. This goes to show that there is sympathy among the Danish public, which the DRC believes is very important.

Civic space in Denmark is rated ‘open’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Danish Refugee Council through its website or its Facebook or Instagram pages, and follow @DRC_dk and @CharlotteSlente on Twitter.

 

HAITI: ‘There is opportunity for a meaningful shift from foreign interference to true leadership of Haitian people’

Ellie HappelCIVICUS speaks with Ellie Happel, professor of the Global Justice Clinic and Director of the Haiti Project at New York University School of Law. Ellie lived and worked in Haiti for several years, and her work continues to focus on solidarity with social movements in Haiti and racial and environmental justice.

What have been the key political developments since the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in July 2021?

As an American, I want to begin by emphasising the role the US government has played in creating the present situation. The history of unproductive and oppressive foreign intervention is long.

To understand the context of the Moïse presidency, however, we have to at least go back to 2010. Following the earthquake that devastated Haiti in January 2010, the USA and other external actors called for elections. People did not have their voting cards; more than two million people had lost their homes. But elections went ahead. The US government intervened in the second round of Haiti’s presidential elections, calling for candidate and founder of the PHTK party, Michel Martelly, to be put into the second round. Martelly was subsequently elected.

During the Martelly presidency we saw a decline in political, economic and social conditions. Corruption was well documented and rampant. Martelly failed to hold elections and ended up ruling by decree. He hand-selected Moïse as his successor. The US government strongly supported both the Martelly and Moïse administrations despite the increasing violence, the destruction of Haitian government institutions, the corruption and the impunity that occurred under their rule.

Moïse’s death is not the biggest problem that Haiti faces. During his tenure, Moïse effectively destroyed Haitian institutions. Haitian people rose up against the PHTK regime in protest, and they were met with violence and repression. There is evidence of government implication in mass killings – massacres – of people in areas that were known to oppose PHTK.

Two weeks prior to Moïse’s assassination, a prominent activist and a widely known journalist were murdered in Haiti. Diego Charles and Antoinette Duclair were calling for accountability. They were active in the movement to build a better Haiti. They were killed with impunity.

It is clear that the present crisis did not originate in Moïse’s assassination. It is the result of failed foreign policies and of the way the Haitian government repressed and halted opposition protests demanding accountability for corruption and violence, and demanding change.

What currently gives me hope is the work of the Commission for Haitian Solution to the Crisis, which was created prior to Moïse’s assassination. The Commission is a broad group of political parties and civil society organisations (CSOs) that came together to work collectively to rebuild the government. This presents an opportunity for a meaningful shift from foreign interference to true leadership of Haitian people.

What is your view on the postponement of elections and the constitutional referendum, and what are the prospects of democratic votes taking place?

In the current climate, elections are not the next step in addressing Haiti’s political crisis. Elections should not occur until the conditions for a fair, free and legitimate vote are met. The elections of the past 11 years demonstrate that they are not an automatic means of achieving representative democracy.

Today, there are many hurdles to holding elections. The first is one of governance: elections must be overseen by a governing body that has legitimacy, and that is respected by the Haitian people. It would be impossible for the de facto government to organise elections. The second is gang violence. It’s estimated that more than half of Port-au-Prince is under the control of gangs.  When the provisional electoral council was preparing for elections a few months back, its staff could not access a number of voting centres due to gang control. Third, eligible Haitian voters should have voter ID cards.

The US government and others should affirm the right of the Haitian people to self-determination. The USA should neither insist on nor support elections without evidence of concrete measures to ensure that they are free, fair, inclusive and perceived as legitimate. Haitian CSOs and the Commission will indicate when the conditions exist for free, fair and legitimate elections.

Is there a migration crisis caused by the situation in Haiti? How can the challenges faced by Haitian migrants be addressed?

What we call the ‘migration crisis’ is a strong example of how US foreign policy and immigration policy towards Haiti have long been affected by anti-Black racism.

Many Haitians who left the country following the earthquake in 2010 first moved to South America. Many have subsequently left. The economies of Brazil and Chile worsened, and Haitian migrants encountered racism and a lack of economic opportunity. Families and individuals have travelled northward by foot, boat and bus towards the Mexico-USA border.

For many years now, the US government has not allowed Haitian migrants and other migrants to enter the USA. They are expelling people without an asylum interview – a ‘credible fear’ interview, which is required under international law – back to Haiti.

The US government must stop using Title 42, a public health provision, as a pretext to expel migrants. The US government should instead offer humanitarian assistance and support Haitian family reunification and relocation in the USA.

It is impossible to justify deportation to Haiti right now, for the same reasons that the US government has advised US citizens not to travel there. There are estimates of nearly 1,000 documented cases of kidnapping in 2021. Friends explain that anyone is at risk. Kidnappings are no longer targeted, but school kids and street merchants and pedestrians are being held hostage to demand money. The US government has not only declared Haiti unsafe for travel, but in May 2021, the US Department of Homeland Security designated Haiti for Temporary Protected Status, allowing eligible Haitian nationals residing in the USA to apply to remain there because Haiti cannot safely repatriate its nationals.

The USA should halt deportations to Haiti. And the USA and other countries in the Americas must begin to recognise, address and repair the anti-Black discrimination that characterises their immigration policies.

What should the international community, and especially the USA, do to improve the situation?

First, the international community should take the lead of Haitian CSOs and engage in a serious and supportive way with the Commission for a Haitian Solution to the Crisis. Daniel Foote, the US special envoy for Haiti, resigned in protest eight weeks into the job; he said that his colleagues at the State Department were not interested in supporting Haitian-led solutions. The USA should play the role of encouraging consensus building and facilitating conversations to move things forward without interfering.

Second, all deportations to Haiti must stop. They are not only in violation of international law. They are also highly immoral and unjust.

Foreigners, myself included, are not best placed to prescribe solutions in Haiti: instead, we must support those created by Haitian people and Haitian organisations. It is time for the Haitian people to decide on the path forward, and we need to actively support, and follow.

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

 

VENEZUELA: ‘We need a multilateral, flexible and creative approach from the international community’

CIVICUS speaks with Feliciano Reyna, founder and president of Acción Solidaria, a Venezuelan civil society organisation (CSO) established in 1995 with the mission to contribute to reducing the social impact of the HIV epidemic. As a result of the multiple crises facing Venezuela, Acción Solidaria has expanded its scope of action and provides medicines and medical supplies to wider vulnerable populations.

Feliciano Reyna

How has the current crisis come about in Venezuela?

A process of dismantling the rule of law has taken place over several years and is still ongoing. The judiciary has long ceased to be independent and now operates according to the interests of the government. Added to this is a high level of corruption. Many documents and reports, such as a recent one by the United Nations (UN) Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Venezuela, describe how a non-independent justice structure was put in place, taking advantage of the opacity of public data and discretionary state management.

As a result, many people, acting in their own interest, destroyed the economic and productive apparatus. Nowadays the Venezuelan economy is 20 per cent of the size it was in 2013. This has impacted on poverty levels, the quality of public services and the resulting lack of protection.

An initial period of enormous income, lasting many years, allowed for a great waste of wealth, with resources reaching the major groups that supported Hugo Chávez’s government, from 2005 to 2013. But money was just spent on individual benefits, not invested in public services. Thus, little by little, the public sector was left in a state of total abandonment: hospitals, roads, lighting, electrical system, water distribution. Everything is pretty much destroyed. There are about four million people who cook with firewood or charcoal because they don’t receive gas. Where I live, we get water once a week for 24 hours, and sometimes we don’t get water for two or three weeks.

There was a major shift in the global economy, with a sharp drop in oil prices coinciding with Chávez’s last days in office. When Nicolás Maduro took power in 2013, the fragility of a regime largely based on Chávez’s personality was exposed. Maduro’s victory triggered political protests because his mandate was questioned, and very harsh repressive practices were adopted in response. The situation has deteriorated ever since, leading to the current human rights crisis. CSOs have documented arbitrary detentions, torture and cruel treatment under detention. There has been a sustained attack on dissent and political opponents. Anyone in a position of power who is viewed as a political threat is taken out of play.

The years between 2014 and 2016 were terrible. In addition to human rights violations, there was widespread harm caused to the population in terms of health, nutrition, access to water, education and other rights. As the economy deteriorated, there began to be many social protests, not for political reasons but regarding income, lack of resources, power cuts, lack of transportation and public services, and so on. With two major exceptions – the 2017 and 2019 protest waves, in which people expressed political grievances – the vast majority of protests have been social protests, not ideological ones, through which many people who ultimately supported and voted for the government expressed their discontent.

While the attack on opposition and dissent has driven many into exile, economic shortages have led to a massive emigration wave. More than four million Venezuelans have emigrated, including many professionals, teachers and doctors, further weakening service delivery systems.

What is the context in which civil society works?

There state has been greatly weakened and is unable to control all the territory under its jurisdiction, so it has handed over control to other groups. Power is increasingly in the hands of local parastate actors who enjoy small bubbles of well-being within the context of immense poverty in which the vast majority of the population lives.

Because of the weakening of the state and the deterioration of the oil industry, which has always been the main source of national income, the government has opened some spaces for a freer economy. That means that in order to serve the populations we work with, we have been able to import medicines and supplies thanks to international cooperation. Our international donors send us supplies or pay for transportation so that we can receive them, using a door-to-door delivery system.

Since 2017 Acción Solidaria has brought in almost 240 tons of aid. We have grown from nine staff in 2016 to 40 in 2021. Every week about 120 people come to the offices of Acción Solidaria to seek medicine. Most of them are women and people with very little resources, over 55 years old. The things they need may be available in the parallel economy, but at prices they can’t afford.

But the environment for civil society remains a high-risk one. Last year we experienced a raid by the Special Action Forces, the most fearsome command of the Bolivarian National Police. What they did to us was not an official operation but a criminal action. CSOs doing human rights advocacy are criminalised, and CSOs conducting humanitarian action face serious problems of access and are subject to extortion by these autonomised groups and paramilitary actors. We have become targets not because we are opponents or dissidents, but because we have coveted resources.

One colleague of ours was imprisoned 160 days ago and five comrades from an organisation that works alongside the UN Refugee Agency were imprisoned for a month in a military facility.

As the electoral process was underway, the government’s information networks among the population seemed to have become aware that government programmes – which transfer the equivalent of about US$4 a month to their beneficiaries – could not compete with the nearly US$60 that humanitarian organisations were transferring to people in their target populations, without demanding anything in return, simply as part of the humanitarian response. So they immediately stepped in and suspended the 38 humanitarian aid programmes that were making cash transfers.

Following the elections, the transfer ecosystem has started to begin again, but so far only transfers from the Food and Agriculture Organization and UNICEF have been reactivated.

How much popular support does the Maduro government have left? Did it have enough to win the November regional elections, or did it resort to fraud?

In November 2021, regional elections were held to renew all executive and legislative seats in the country’s 23 federal entities and 335 municipalities. The official turnout was just over 40 per cent, and the government won 19 governorships, compared to four won by the opposition. The government also won 213 mayorships, but various opposition groups won 121, a not insignificant number.

The conditions of electoral competition were set up well before the selection of candidates, the campaigns and the voting took place, as new members to the National Electoral Council (CNE) were appointed. The CSO Foro Cívico had proposed names of independent candidates for the CNE: people with a strong electoral background who could build a bridge of dialogue with the people in government who wanted a less authoritarian rule. This resulted in a more balanced CNE, with one independent rector and one from the opposition among the five full members, and three out of five alternates proposed by civil society. This allowed us to expect an election with greater legitimacy than previous ones.

The electoral process was very tense. While there was no fraud in the sense that voting figures were changed, there was a lot of pressure and obstacles to prevent opposition supporters from voting. Leading opposition politicians were disqualified and unable to stand as candidates. The conditions in voting centres, including schedules, were altered for the government’s benefit, and many people were brought out to vote, despite the fact that the government no longer has the same mobilisation capacity as in previous elections. Turnout was low for several reasons: because millions of people have emigrated, and because many popular opposition figures were not taking part in the election.

The opposition also bore a great deal of responsibility for this, because it viewed the elections with a lot of suspicion. Many of its key spokespeople were opposed to participating, and it did not reach the kind of broad agreements that would have allowed it to win as many as 10 or 12 governorships. In part, its growth was limited not just by the obstacles imposed by the government, but also by its own inability to reach an agreement.

Still, it is important to emphasise that the playing field was not level. The opposition could have won more governorships than it did, but there was a clear limit to this. This was seen in Hugo Chávez’s home state of Barinas, which the government could not afford to lose to the opposition. An opposition candidate clearly won there, so after the fact the Supreme Court ruled that the winning candidate did not actually meet the conditions to be eligible to compete, and ordered a rerun.

Faced with these limitations, which were foreseeable, there was a part of the opposition that from the beginning opposed participating in the elections and left the way open for many pro-government victories that might not otherwise have taken place.

How consolidated is the Maduro regime, and what are the chances that a democratic transition can take place?

A democratic transition does not seem to be an option in the short term. The opposition is very diverse and is dispersed both programmatically and in terms of its institutional approach, so it is questionable whether it would be able to govern if it had the opportunity right now.

What lies ahead of us is a long trek through the desert. The government suffers from many weaknesses, but it has the support of China, Iran, Russia, Turkey, and a lot of political support from Cuba and other countries in the region, as is apparent in the UN Human Rights Council. Maduro’s government has adopted a deft approach in the image of these supportive states: despite corruption and lack of transparency, it has allowed an opening in the economy while keeping its repressive behaviour intact.

The international support that the government receives is important and has been systematically underestimated, while the support received by the interim government led by Juan Guaidó has been overestimated. It has been said that he has the USA and 60 other countries on his side, but those who support him with real actions are in fact much fewer.

For many in the opposition, the interim government has itself been a big problem, partly because it became associated with the Donald Trump administration, and partly because since the interim government was established what it did became the only thing that mattered, and the space of the National Assembly, which had enjoyed broad popular support, was abandoned.

The interim government was prompted on the basis of Article 233 of the Venezuelan Constitution. Since by virtue of his fraudulent re-election in 2018 Maduro was not recognised by the opposition as a legitimate president, the opposition-dominated National Assembly proclaimed its president, who at the time was Juan Guaidó, as interim president of Venezuela. I think that the opposition should have continued to work through the National Assembly, an elected and legitimate body whose presidency alternated between the parties with the most votes. Evidence of corruption could have been collected and mechanisms sought to protect the country’s assets with the help of the international community.

Instead, the opposition named itself as a legitimate government without having any control over internal processes. And when it took over, it set out expedited conditions and deadlines, demanding that Maduro should first leave office so that the interim government could constitute itself as a transitional government and organise free elections.

The choice of the opposition to proclaim an interim government was the result of it underestimating the government’s forces and overestimating its own. When expectations were not met, as was bound to happen, disaffection with the interim government began to grow. There is still an enormous desire for change, because things remain bad for the vast majority of the population, but the hope that this change would be achieved through the interim government has faded.

What kind of support should the international community provide to facilitate a democratic transition?

What we would like to see from the international community is a multilateral, flexible and creative approach. The change of administration in the USA has been extremely important because the approach of the Trump administration was unilateral and overbearing. Fortunately, the Biden administration appears to adhere to a multilateral approach and to include Europe, Canada and other countries in our region.

Regarding Europe, it was very important that the European Union sent an election observation mission for the 21 November elections, as it was for the UN and the Carter Center to send their election experts. The UN also has essential contributions to make in humanitarian and human rights matters, both in terms of mobilising resources to address the humanitarian emergency in the country and to support migrants and refugees across the region, as well as with regard to the human rights violations that continue to occur.

The international community must listen to civil society and pay attention to the grievances of the people who are directly affected by the measures that external actors take in relation to Venezuela. Many of the sanctions that have been imposed on the government, such as the US secondary sanction that penalises the exchange of oil for diesel, end up not affecting the government, which has alternative courses of action, and instead harm users and consumers, ordinary people whose already complicated lives are complicated even further.

If this part of Venezuelan society were listened to, it would be possible to think of alternative policies to generate spaces for negotiation and agreements that would allow us to return to the path of democracy and human rights in a non-violent manner.

Civic space in Venezuela is rated as ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Acción Solidaria through its website or its Facebook and Instagram pages, and follow @AccionSolidaria and @fjreyna on Twitter.

 

 

CHILE: ‘For the first time the extremes are inside the parliament and there are unacceptable undemocratic voices’

Alberto PrechtCIVICUS speaks with Alberto Precht, executive director of Chile Transparente, about Chile’s presidential elections and their persistent pattern of low electoral turnout. Founded 23 years ago, Chile Transparente is a civil society organisation (CSO) that promotes transparency in public and private institutions and the fight against corruption.

What have been the peculiarities of this electoral process?

There have been three recent votes in Chile: first, the national plebiscite held in October 2020, in which citizens were asked whether they wanted a new constitution and, if so, which body should be in charge of drafting it; then the elections of representatives to the constitutional convention in May 2021; and now, with the constitutional convention in place, the presidential elections, with the first round held on 21 November and the second round scheduled for 19 December.

These electoral processes have been quite peculiar because each of them has produced quite different results as measured on the left-right ideological axis. On the one hand, a progressive constitutional convention was elected, including a significant hardcore left-wing component. On the other, both in the primary elections and in the first round of the presidential election, a hardcore right-wing candidate, José Antonio Kast, won first place, followed by Gabriel Boric, a progressive candidate running in coalition with the Communist Party.

The political environment is quite polarised, but what is most striking is that between 50 per cent and 60 per cent of Chileans do not show up to vote. This makes the election results very uncertain. Moreover, whoever wins will do so with 13 or 14 per cent of all eligible voters. It is not surprising that there are usually wide currents of anti-government opinion, since the government never represents a majority. 

Why do so few people vote?

It is paradoxical, because in the current context one would have expected a higher turnout. The 2021 election for the constitutional convention was the most important election since 1988, and turnout did not reach 50 per cent. The only vote that exceeded that threshold was the 2020 plebiscite, with a 51 per cent turnout, but that was different because it was a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote. This low turnout was striking, because although no one expected a 80 or 90 per cent turnout, as was the case in the historic 1988 plebiscite that said ‘no’ to the Pinochet dictatorship, turnout was expected to be closer to 60 per cent.

It is very likely that we will see even lower participation in the second round, even though there are two very clear and distinct options, which would hopefully motivate more people to vote.

In Chile there is a structural problem of low participation. In part, this has to do with the fact that voting is voluntary, but it also has to do with the fact that the political offer is not very attractive. Although the offer has changed a lot and the latest reform in the system used to elect parliamentarians has allowed for greater pluralism, this has not been enough to motivate people to vote. The latest elections have been a rollercoaster and therefore very hard to analyse; the only certainty we have is that at least 50 per cent of Chileans do not feel represented in the electoral system.

How could people be motivated to vote?

Some legal reforms are already being introduced to that effect. The national plebiscite that will take place in 2022, where people will say whether they agree with the new constitution, is going to be a mandatory vote. Additionally, the vote is going to be organised in a georeferenced way, so that people will be able to vote at a polling place within walking distance of their residence.

This is not a minor detail: in Chile, voting places are not assigned according to place of residence, so people, especially low-income people, must take a lot of public transport to get to the polls. Even though it doesn’t cost them money, because it’s free, they have to invest the whole day in going to vote, which many can’t do. These changes will increase participation rates, but it will be very difficult for Chile to reach 80 per cent participation in the short term.

The big questions that no one has been able to answer are who the people who don’t vote are and what they think. Between the constituent convention elections and the presidential election there seems to have been a turnover of voters. Younger voters showed up to vote in the constitutional convention elections, while older voters tended to participate more in the presidential election.

What role does Chile Transparente play in the electoral process?

Chile Transparente has a system of complaints and protection for victims and witnesses of corruption that has been receiving complaints of misuse of electoral funds. Today we are stuck with a very important controversy involving the candidate who came third in the first round of the presidential elections, Franco Parisi. He is a neo-populist candidate whose campaign has been funded in quite opaque ways.

We also work to motivate participation and have participated in observations of local electoral processes that had to be repeated. We receive the support of the European Union for a programme called Transparent Convention, which publicises the functioning of the constitutional convention, highlighting certain issues that might seem relatively opaque and that need to be brought to the public’s attention.

We are one of the few organisations in the country that are active in transparency and anti-corruption issues and we play a very important role alongside investigative journalists.

How are these elections influenced by the protest movement?

The election for the constitutional convention fed off the strength of the 2019 protests; in fact, at one point in the Constitutional Convention came to reflect the people who were protesting. But by the time of the presidential elections, held one year later, only the hangover from the protests remained, and the results were rather a reflection of the people who had suffered the effects and were against the protests.

We need to understand that the mobilisation process has not been purely romantic, but has been accompanied by a lot of violence. Between the pandemic and the protest violence, there are people who have not been able to reopen their businesses, who cannot go to work in peace, who have lost everything. At the same time, we obviously have a debt in terms of human rights violations.

These tensions were expressed at the polls, and we will surely have a heart-stopping second round, in which the competitors are a candidate who represents a hardcore right wing, quite different from the traditional right that has governed in recent years, and a candidate who has formed a coalition with the Communist Party, until now marginal in a political game that has rather gravitated towards the political centre.

What has happened to the established Chilean party system?

There is undoubtedly a weariness with the democracy of the last 30 years, regardless of all the progress the country has made. There are large sectors that believe the centrist consensus that characterised the transition to a so-called ‘democracy of agreements’, consisting of doing what was considered to be within the realm of the possible, does not provide solutions. This has led not only to a social outburst, but also to a conservative reaction. It is a textbook situation: every revolution is followed by a counter-revolution.

On top of this there is a problem of migration management, which has caused a huge electoral shift throughout the country, especially in the north. Chile used to vote for the left and now it voted for two candidates – one from the extreme right and a populist candidate – who proposed harsher measures against migration, such as the construction of border ditches or mass expulsion: nothing could be further from a culture of human rights. 

At the same time, the left has lacked any self-criticism. It has not understood how important it is to respond to people’s concerns about insecurity and to attend to the victims of violence. When there is an outbreak of violence, violence victims will vote for those who offer them order. As is well known, in Chile there has long been a major conflict with the Indigenous Mapuche people. There is also conflict with non-Mapuche sectors, often linked to organised crime, who have taken violent action. In those areas, where one would expect a vote for the left, the complete opposite has happened. In certain localities where violence has become endemic, the conservative candidate has received up to 60 or 70 per cent of votes. 

What would be the implications for civil society depending on which candidate wins in the second round?

A part of the more traditional press seeks to give the impression that if Boric wins, it will be the advent of communism, while another part claims that if Kast wins, he will take us back to the times of Pinochet. However, thanks to social media and new technologies, alternative media outlets have flourished in recent years. There are more pluralistic television channels and channels with quite diverse editorial lines, which have more nuanced views.

I believe that both alternatives entail risks, because both candidates include within their coalitions people or parties that seek to limit the space for civil society, that adhere to a narrative that the press is financed by international powers, that Chile Transparente serves certain mega-powers, and promote conspiracy theories. Let’s remember that the Communist Party candidate who lost the primary elections against Boric proposed an intervention in the media. For his part, Kast has the support of hardcore Pinochetist elements.

However, in the second round, the two candidates have moved towards the centre to capture the votes they need to win. The groups that followed former President Michelle Bachelet, who initially opposed Boric, are now working with him. On the other side of the spectrum, in order to attract segments of the liberal right, Kast also has had to moderate his discourse.

Perhaps hope lies in parliament acting as a regulator of the two extremes. It is a diverse parliament where no party will have a majority, so whoever gets to govern will have to do so in negotiation with parliament. At the same time, the constituent process, which is still underway, can produce a constitution of unity that would set the conditions for the new president to govern.

The problem is that for the first time the extremes are inside parliament and there are some voices that are unacceptable from a democratic point of view. For example, two deputies elected by the extreme right recently mocked an elected candidate who is transgender. Some not very encouraging positions on human rights have also been expressed by the left. For example, the Chilean Communist Party has just recognised Daniel Ortega as the legitimate president of Nicaragua and continues to recognise Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela.

Civic space in Chile is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Chile Transparente through its website or its Facebook and Instagram profiles, and follow @Ch_Transparente and @albertoprechtr on Twitter.

 

 

POLAND: ‘right-wing backlash is just one side of the coin, the other being the active mobilisation of rights-oriented civil society’

Krzysztof SmiszekCIVICUS speaks with Krzysztof Śmiszek, a member of the Polish Parliament and chair of the Parliament’s Intergroup on LGBTI Rights, the first of its kind in Poland, about the situation of LGBTQI+ rights and activist responses to the anti-rights backlash.

Before entering politics in 2019, Krzysztof had been an activist for almost 20 years. He is also a member of Justice and Human Rights Committee, the European Union Committee and the Polish delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.

What is the situation of LGBTQI+ rights in Poland?

The situation for the LGBTQI+ community is really hard and complicated. In the last six years there wasn’t any progress at the legislative level so there are plenty of issues that remain unsolved, such as same-sex marriage, special legal procedures for the recognition of trans people’s identities and the prosecution of homophobic speech and hate crimes. 

In 2015 the reins of Poland were taken over by a right-wing government and, in my opinion, the government is now using racism, xenophobia and homophobia to divide society. Since 2015 we have witnessed a rise in homophobic and transphobic speech as well as intolerant actions aimed at the LGBTQI+ community. The current government is not going to pass any legislation to make the lives of LGBTQI+ people easier.

I believe that the LGBTQI+ community has become a scapegoat: it is them that the government blames for any problem. A few years ago, it was refugees who played this part, and now they are also being targeted once again. The government also used to blame women’s rights organisations for everything, and now the LGBTQI+ community is being accused of the worse. 

These are very hard times for the LGBTQI+ community in Poland, because whenever you tune in public TV, read the newspaper, or navigate government websites, you see it being used as a scapegoat. We are witnessing more and more hate crimes and incidents around Poland. Last year we had presidential election and the current president campaigned on an extremely ideological homophobic platform, and he won, which means that politicians and the government now believe that homophobic and transphobic discourse brings popularity. 

Are there any reasons for optimism in such a bleak context?

There surely are, because right-wing backlash is just one side of the coin, the other being the active mobilisation of rights-oriented civil society. After six years of witnessing hate speech, people who normally would not have been interested in LGBTQI+ issues have started to care. Civil society is much more progressive and open than the politicians in power. As an activist I see a huge energy that goes beyond the big cities in Poland: there are formal and informal initiatives springing up everywhere.

Although we are going through hard times, the strong civil society reaction against the government’s intolerance and homophobic discourse and agenda makes me feel optimistic. This year we had around 20 Pride events throughout the country. There is positive mobilisation within society, compared to the situation 20 years ago, when I first became an activist.

So the situation is more complex than you would think: while Poland does have its homophobic side, with organisations fuelled with a lot of money coming from the right wing, there is also a big movement supporting LGBTQI+ organisations and activists with money, time, energy and solidarity.

LGBTQI+ activism is using a wide range of tactics, from perfectly designed social media awareness campaigns including short movies about the normal lives of rainbow families to building connections with potential allies, even unlikely ones. A while ago an organisation working against homophobia allied with progressive Catholics, which was really smart because Poland is still regarded as a majority Catholic country. It was very wise to involve someone considered as ‘the enemy’ in the movement. There are also ongoing collaborations with politicians. 

All the while the government spreads hate, younger generations, people between 18 and 29 years old, are increasingly normalising LGBTQI+ rights and actively and fully supporting the LGBTQI+ agenda. Of course, this does not mean that all young people are gay-friendly: as everyone else, they are divided between openness to European values and the intolerance of the radical right wing.

What is the Intergroup on LGBTI Rights, what are its goals and priorities, and what work does it do?

The Intergroup on LGBTI Rights includes members of different parties represented in Parliament who meet and discuss about LGBTQI+ issues. When I organise the group meetings, I perceive the interest of civil society: they want to participate and have contact with politicians. As an activist and now a politician, I view this as the wisest way to ensure progress on our agenda because having activists put pressure on politicians is something that actually works.

One of our priorities is making Parliament a safe place for the LGBTQI+ community. We believe that Parliament belongs to voters, and as LGBTQI+ people are voters, they have the full right to be present in Parliament and have contact with politicians.

The main challenge the Intergroup faces is to listen to the worries of the LGBTQI+ community and translate them into legislative proposals. And whenever there is a practical problem with the administration or related to action by public authorities, we are informed by representatives of the LGBTQI+ community and try to shed light on the issue with the help of the media. Politicians and parliamentarians have the power to bring media attention to specific issues.

As for our tactics, we organise press conferences and invite government representatives, we collaborate with the European Union and the European Parliament, where there’s also an LGBTQI+ group, we keep in touch with international partners and we try to make international audiences aware of what is going on in Poland. For example, when facing proposals to declare ‘LGBT-free zones’ throughout Poland, we brought it to the attention of the European Council and showed it proof that the Polish authorities were discriminating against the LGBTQI+ community. This is something that as politicians we are able to do.

Is that why you decided to enter politics? Having had experience as both an activist and a legislator, do you think you have been able to tackle the same problem from different angles?

As an activist I was the one knocking on politicians’ doors and it was their choice to be open to my arguments or not. After doing this for 20 years I thought ‘enough is enough’ and decided that I should now be the one opening doors for LGBTQI+ activists. That was my motivation to get into Parliament, along with the fact that I just did not agree with what was going on in Poland in terms of respect for fundamental human rights, under attack by right-wing politicians.

I belong to The Left, a centre-left political coalition that was founded to compete in the 2019 parliamentary election. Many of my friends who were also elected to Parliament are now recruiting people from civil society. As a result, now there are feminists who used to work at feminist civil society organisations, people who were involved in ecological movements and people like me, coming from the LGBTQI+ movement, who are playing a role in political institutions. All of us are tired of being just activists, and are now translating our experiences into the language of Parliament.

Civic space in Poland is rated ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Follow @K_Smiszek on Twitter. 

 

UNITED NATIONS: ‘Civil society has always been an integral part of the UN ecosystem’

CIVICUS speaks with Natalie Samarasinghe, Chief Executive Officer of the United Nations Association UK (UNA-UK) about the UN Secretary-General’s recent ‘Our Common Agenda’ report and the need to include civil society voices in the UN.

A nationwide grassroots movement of over 20,000 people, UNA-UK is the UK’s leading source of independent information and analysis about the UN and is devoted to building support for the UN among policymakers, opinion-formers and the public.

Natalie Samarasinghe

What does ‘Our Common Agenda’ hope to achieve and what are its major recommendations?

Our Common Agenda’ is a report released by UN Secretary-General António Guterres in September 2021. While ‘UN releases report’ may not be the most earth-shattering headline, this one stands apart for two reasons.

First, the way it was put together. It was mandated by the General Assembly’s declaration to mark the UN’s 75th anniversary, which tasked the Secretary-General with producing recommendations for responding to current and future challenges. The report draws from feedback received from 1.5 million people and 60,000 organisations who took part in the UN75 global conversation, as well as input generated through an innovative digital consultation that enabled stakeholders from various sectors to exchange ideas.

Second, its visionary tone. The report reads like the manifesto of a second-term Secretary-General. Having been dealt a challenging hand, from national parasites to a global virus, Guterres spent his first five years in post firefighting multiple crises and in sensible, if technocratic, reforms. He is newly reappointed to a second term, and this report signals that he now means business: he has big ideas and he wants to see them through. This further bolsters the case for Secretaries-General to serve a single, longer term of office.

Peppered with facts and figures, the report features a grim analysis of the state of the world — and an even grimmer prognosis — while also presenting a hopeful alternative scenario predicated on collective action, a bit like an existential version of a ‘choose your own ending’ book.

It sets out four big-picture shifts: a renewed social contract anchored in human rights; urgent action to protect global commons and deliver global public goods; greater solidarity with young people and future generations; and an upgraded UN that is more inclusive, networked and data-driven.

For each shift, there are a number of proposals. Some are concrete, such as a global COVID-19 vaccination plan and a biennial meeting of the G20 and international institutions. Others are more open – an emergency platform to respond to future shocks, for example, and plans to transform education. Some – such as that of repurposing the Trusteeship Council as a steward for future generations – are grounded in long-standing ideas. Others, such as a global digital compact, would take the UN into new territory. And some are intended to give effect to the proposed changes, notably a Summit of the Future to be held in 2023 and a World Social Summit to beheld in 2025.

What are the positives that the report identifies for civil society and people’s participation in the UN?

One of the most interesting aspects of the report is that it recalibrates the UN’s role on the world stage. Arguably, the biggest transformation to have taken place since the UN’s founding in 1945 is the explosion of actors at the local, national and international levels. It was refreshing to see Guterres combine ambition for the UN’s role with humility about what it can achieve, and set out clearly that success depends on action by, and partnerships with, other stakeholders, including civil society organisations (CSOs).

The report notes that CSOs have been an integral part of the UN ecosystem from the outset. It positions CSOs as a central part of a new social contract, linking them to building trust and cohesion, as well as delivery across a host of areas, from sustainable development to climate action, digital governance and strategic foresight. It also advocates for institutions, the UN included, to listen better to people, adopt participatory approaches and reduce complexity so that their processes and outcomes are better understood.

Guterres recommends that governments conduct consultations to give citizens a say in envisioning their countries’ future. He calls on states to consider suggestions for widening participation in all intergovernmental organs. In addition, he announces two changes within the UN Secretariat: a UN Youth Office and the establishment of dedicated civil society focal points in all UN entities, to create space for participation at the country and global levels and within UN processes.

What is missing or could be strengthened in the report?

The report is remarkably forthright in parts. In calling for a renewed social contract, for instance, Guterres weaves together a number of politically challenging issues, such as human rights, taxation and justice. He is right to position these issues as essentially national, but defining a way forward will be tricky: the emphasis on the UN’s role in ‘domestic’ issues will undoubtedly irk governments, while CSOs may fear it signals a retreat into norm-setting and technical assistance.

In other places, Guterres pulls his punches. This is perhaps wise in contested areas such as peace and security, where the report sets out modest proposals that are, for the most part, already underway. UNA-UK and partner CSOs would have liked more emphasis on the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and on halting the development of lethal autonomous weapons.

On climate, Guterres’ signature issue, the report could have gone further to frame the ‘triple crisis’ of climate disruption, pollution and biodiversity loss as an interrelated emergency with human rights at its core. It could also have sensitised policymakers to a bolder set of measures. And after an excellent distillation of the challenges, those looking for new approaches on women’s empowerment and gender equality are also left wanting.

For many of us, though, the biggest disappointment was on civil society inclusion. Guterres’ language is positive but less emphatic than in his Call to Action on Human Rights and there are few specifics that move beyond warm words.

During the stakeholder consultations, CSOs from all regions called for a high-level UN civil society champion to help increase and diversify participation and advise on access – be it to UN headquarters or to climate COPs. This was the one concrete proposal that attracted widespread support and while the report commits to exploring it further, there is some bewilderment as to why Guterres did not move forward with an appointment that is in his gift.

Of course, it is important to have focal points across the system. Many UN entities already do. But we know from our experience with gender, human rights and so on that mainstreaming is not enough. That is surely part of the thinking behind the creation of a Youth Office. It should be applied to civil society too.

What should happen next to improve participation in the UN?

In the short term, the proposed roll-out of systemwide focal points should happen swiftly and in consultation with civil society. A timeline and process should be set for mapping and monitoring engagement, as envisaged by the report. A high-level champion would be a natural instigator for both, so hopefully this position will be established.

In the medium term, a number of other changes would be helpful, including a system-wide strategy on civic space inside and outside the UN; a simple online platform to support engagement, which could include a citizen petition mechanism; a voluntary fund to support participation, as well as tools such as social impact bonds to finance in-country CSO activity; and a new partnership framework to enhance partnership capacity – including in-country,  simplify engagement and improve vetting.

In the longer-term, the UN should move towards a partnership model, launching a global capacity-building drive to transfer a number of its functions to CSOs and others who are better able to deliver on the ground. This would enable the organisation to focus on the tasks it is uniquely well-placed to undertake. Indeed, the report already seems to move in this direction with its emphasis on the UN as a convenor and provider of accurate data, foresight and analysis.

What more can civil society do to push for change and how can the UN best support civil society?

The UN already depends on civil society across the spectrum of its work. We are critical to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and addressing the climate emergency. We provide essential assistance in humanitarian crises, sometimes as the only players with access to, and the trust of, marginalised communities. We stand up for those who are ignored and abused. We are essential partners for the UN while also serving as its conscience, urging it to be bold and ambitious, and to act without fear or favour. And we do all this in the face of increasing attacks.

As such, CSOs can push for making progress on ‘Our Common Agenda’, from advocacy with states to provide the Secretary-General with the mandate needed to forge ahead, to fleshing out the many proposals in the report and taking action in their communities, capitals and UN forums.

We can do this from the sidelines – we are well-practised in making our voices heard despite shrinking civic space. But we will be much more effective if we are given a formal role in dedicated processes such as preparations for the Summit of the Future and in the work of the UN more generally; and if we know we can count on the support of UN officials. Appointing a civil society champion would be a good start.

Get in touch with UNA-UK through its website or its Facebook page, and follow @UNAUK and @Natalie_UNnerd on Twitter.

 

COP26: ‘Much more money is being invested in destroying the planet than in saving it’

The 26th United Nations Conference of the Parties on Climate Change (COP26) has just ended in Glasgow, UK, and CIVICUS continues to interview civil society activists, leaders and experts on the outcomes of the summit, its potential to solve the environmental challenges they face and the actions they are taking to address them.

CIVICUS speaks with Ruth Alipaz Cuqui, an Indigenous leader from the Bolivian Amazon and general coordinator of the National Coordination for the Defence of Indigenous Peasant Territories and Protected Areas (CONTIOCAP). The organisation was founded in late 2018 out of the convergence of several movements of resistance against the destruction of Indigenous territories and protected areas by extractive projects and the co-optation of traditional organisations representing Indigenous peoples. Initially composed of 12 movements, it now includes 35 from all over Bolivia.

RuthAlipaz

What environmental issues do you work on?

As a defender of Indigenous territories, Indigenous rights and the rights of nature, I work on three different levels. First, on a personal level, I work in my community of the Uchupiamona Indigenous People, the whole of which is within one of the most diverse protected areas in the world, the Madidi National Park.

In 2009 my people were on the verge of giving out a logging concession that would devastate 31,000 hectares of forest, in an area that is sensitive for water preservation and particularly rich in bird diversity. To stop that concession, I made an alternative proposal, focused on birdwatching tourism. Although currently, because of the pandemic, tourism has proven not to be the safest bet, the fact is that we still have the forests thanks to this activity – although they always remain under threat due to pressure from people in the community who need the money right away.

My community currently faces serious water supply issues, but we have organised with young women to restore our water sources by reforesting the area with native fruit plants and passing on knowledge about these fruit and medicinal plants from our elders to women and children.

Secondly, I am a member of the Commonwealth of Indigenous Communities of the Beni, Tuichi and Quiquibey rivers, a grassroots organisation of the Amazon region of Bolivia that since 2016 has led the defence of the territories of six Indigenous Nations – Ese Ejja, Leco, Moseten, Tacana, Tsiman and Uchupiamona – from the threat of the construction of two hydroelectric plants, Chepete and El Bala, that would flood our territories, displace more than five thousand Indigenous people, obstruct three rivers forever and devastate two protected areas, the Madidi National Park and the Pilón Lajas Biosphere Reserve. On 16 August 2021, Indigenous organisations supporting the government authorised the launch of these hydroelectric power projects.

The Tuichi River, which is within the Madidi protected area and is essential to the community ecotourism activity of my Uchupiamona People, has also been granted in its entirety to third parties outside the community for the development of alluvial gold mining. The Mining and Metallurgy Law discriminates against Indigenous peoples by allowing any external actor to acquire rights over our territories.

Finally, I am the general coordinator of CONTIOCAP, an organisation that has denounced the systematic violations of our rights in the Indigenous territories of the four macro regions of Bolivia: the Chaco, the valleys, the Altiplano and the Amazon. These violations come hand in hand with oil exploration and exploitation, the burning of forests and deforestation to free up land for agribusiness, the construction of roads and hydroelectric plants and the alluvial gold mining activity that is poisoning vulnerable populations.

Have you faced negative reactions to the work you do?

We have faced negative reactions, mainly from the state, through decentralised bodies such as the National Tax and Migration agencies. I recently discovered that my bank accounts have been ordered to be withheld by the two agencies.

During a march led by the Qhara Qhara Nation in 2019, I was constantly followed and physically harassed by two people, while I was in the city to submit our proposals alongside march leaders.

And recently, when Indigenous organisations sympathetic to the government gave authorisation to the hydroelectric plants, our denunciations were met with actions to disqualify and discredit us, something the Bolivian government has been doing for years. They say, for instance, that those of us who oppose the hydroelectric megaprojects are not legitimate representatives of Indigenous peoples but activists financed by international non-governmental organisations.

How do your actions connect with the global climate movement?

Our actions converge with those of the global movement, because by defending our territories and protected areas we contribute not only to avoiding further deforestation and pollution of rivers and water sources, and to preserving soils to maintain our food sovereignty, but also to conserving ancestral knowledge that contributes to our resilience in the face of the climate crisis.

Indigenous peoples have proven to be the most efficient protectors of ecosystems and biodiversity, as well as of resources fundamental for life such as water, rivers and territories, against the position of the state whose laws rather serve to violate our living spaces.

Have you made use of international organisations’ forums and spaces for participation?

Yes, we do it regularly, for example by requesting the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to follow up on the criminalisation of and violence against defenders of Indigenous peoples’ rights in Bolivia and by participating in the collective production of a civil society shadow report for the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review of Bolivia, which we presented during the Council’s pre-sessions in October 2019.

Recently, in a hearing in the city of La Paz, we presented a report on violations of our rights to the UN Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Peoples.

What do you think of the spaces for civil society participation in the COPs, and how do you assess the results of the recently concluded COP26?

Once again, at COP26 states have exhibited their complete inefficiency in acting in compliance with their own decisions. I have stated on more than one occasion that 2030 was just around the corner and today we are only eight years away and we are still discussing what are the most efficient measures to achieve the goals set for that date.

Much more money is being invested in destroying the planet than in saving it. This is the result of states’ actions and decisions in favour of a wild capitalism that is destroying the planet with its extractivism that is predatory of life.

Let’s see how much progress has been made since the Kyoto Protocol, which was agreed in 2005 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In recent years, companies have used the supposed concept of the ‘right to development’ to continue operating to the detriment of the planet and, above all, to the detriment of the most vulnerable populations such as Indigenous peoples. We are the ones who pay the costs, not the ones who cause the disasters.

The results of COP26 do not satisfy me because we want to see tangible actions. The Bolivian state has not even signed the declaration, even though it has used the space of COP26 to give a misleading speech that the capitalist model must be changed for one that is kinder to nature. But in Bolivia we have already deforested around 10 million hectares, in the most brutal way imaginable, through fires that for more than a decade and a half have been legalised by the government.

I think that as long as these forums do not discuss sanctions on states that do not comply with agreements, or that do not even sign declarations, there will be no concrete results.

Civic space in Bolivia is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with CONTIOCAP through its Facebook page and follow @contiocap and @CuquiRuth on Twitter. 

 

NICARAGUA: ‘For the government, these fraudulent elections were a total failure’

CIVICUS discusses the recent elections in Nicaragua, characterised by the banning of candidates, fraud and repression, with a woman human rights defender from a national platform of Nicaraguan civil society, who requested anonymity for security reasons.

Nicaragua elections Nov 2021

What was the political context in which the 7 November presidential election took place?

The context began to take shape in 2006, with the pact between the leaders of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), Daniel Ortega, and the then-ruling Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC), led by former president Arnoldo Alemán. The aim of the so-called ‘Alemán-Ortega pact’ was to establish a two-party system dominated by both leaders, which did not work out for both: it resulted in a complete restructuring of the political system, including a reform of the constitution and the modification of election dates, which allowed the FSLN – which had failed to win the presidency on several occasions – to win the 2006 election with 38 per cent of the vote, never to leave power since.

Once in power, the FSLN carried out several constitutional and electoral law reforms ordered by Daniel Ortega, in collusion with legislative, judicial and electoral institutions, to impose a constitution tailored to its needs and to allow himself to be re-elected indefinitely.

Since the most recent package of electoral changes, carried out in May 2021, the electoral stage was already set so that the current government would win the election. The changes gave the FSLN control of the entire electoral structure, gave the police the power to authorise or ban opposition political rallies and took away funding for candidates.

Already in December 2020, the National Assembly had passed a law to neutralise opposition candidacies: under the pretext of rejecting foreign interference in Nicaragua’s internal affairs, it prohibited the candidacies of people who had participated in the 2018 protests, labelled by the government as an attempted coup d’état financed by foreign powers.

All these laws were applied by state institutions in a way that resulted in the banning of all democratic candidates who could in any way be viewed as positioned to defeat the FSLN candidate. The result was an election lacking all real competition.

Was there any attempt to postpone the election until the proper conditions were met?

First, in the context of the 2018 protests, which were heavily repressed and resulted in hundreds of deaths, several groups, including the Nicaraguan Bishops’ Conference, proposed holding an early election to resolve the crisis. Some also considered the possibility of forcing the resignation of the president due to his responsibility for the systematic human rights violations committed in the context of the 2018 protests.

But Ortega refused to call an early election, and instead challenged the alleged ‘coup perpetrators’ protesting against him to get the people’s vote in the 2021 election. In the meantime, instead of proceeding with the electoral reform that had been demanded for years, he set about preparing the ground so that no one could challenge him in the elections.

With the 2021 electoral process already underway, and in view of the fact that there would be no real competition, voices from civil society recommended suspending and rescheduling an election that would be clearly illegitimate and lacking in credibility, but this call was not echoed.

How do you assess the election results?

Clearly the overwhelming majority of Nicaraguan citizens viewed these elections as illegitimate, since only about 10 per cent of eligible voters turned out to vote. Some of those who did vote are government supporters, while others – such as members of the military and police and public servants – were compelled by fear and their work circumstances.

These claims are supported by polling data from various civil society groups inside and outside Nicaragua, such as Coordinadora Civil, Mujeres Organizadas and Urnas Abiertas. On election day, some of these organisations did a quick poll on the ground, twice – morning and afternoon – and documented. through photos, videos and testimonies by some election observers invited by the government, that the majority of the population did not turn out to vote.

From civil society’s perspective, these elections were a complete failure for the government, as they gave us all the elements to demonstrate at the international level that the president does not meet the minimum conditions of legitimacy to remain in office. It is not only Nicaraguans who do not recognise the results of these elections: more than 40 countries around the world have not recognised them either. The government conducted a fraudulent election to gain legitimacy, but it failed to do so because no one recognises it at the national or international level.

What is the outlook for Nicaraguan civil society following the election?

The panorama has not changed. What awaits us is more of the same: more repression, more persecution, more kidnappings, more political prisoners, more exiles. At the same time, this unresponsive and unaccountable government is completely incapable of solving any of Nicaragua’s problems, so poverty, unemployment and insecurity will also continue to deepen.

In response, we can do nothing but sustain resistance and try to break the chains of fear, because fear is what this illegitimate government rules through.

What kind of international support does Nicaraguan civil society need?

Nicaraguan civil society needs all kinds of support, from support for building and strengthening alliances to amplify our voices, so we can publicise the political situation in Nicaragua and demand action in international forums, to financial and in-kind support to equip us with the tools with which to do our work, sustain our organisations and provide protection for human rights defenders who are being persecuted and attacked.

Civic space in Nicaragua is rated as ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor. Nicaragua is currently on our Watch List, which includes cases in which a severe and abrupt deterioration in the quality of civic space is taking place. 

 

SWITZERLAND: ‘It was about time for everybody to have the same rights, with no discrimination’

RetoWyssCIVICUS speaks with Reto Wyss, International Affairs Officer of Pink Cross, about the recent referendum on same-sex marriage in Switzerland and the challenges ahead.

Pink Cross is Switzerland’s national umbrella organisation of gay and bisexual men, and for 28 years it has advocated for their rights in the country’s four language regions. It stands against discrimination, prejudice and violence based on sexual orientation, gender identity and HIV status, and strives for acceptance and equal rights for all queer people on both a national and international level. It conducts its work through an active media presence, advocacy, campaigning and efforts to strengthen the LGBTQI+ community.

What was the process leading to the legalisation of same-sex marriage in Switzerland, and what roles did Pink Cross play?

The same-sex marriage bill was submitted to parliament in 2013 and it went back and forth several times between the two legislative chambers until it was finally passed in December 2020. Pink Cross did intensive and quite traditional advocacy, lobbying and public campaigning all along the process.

We talked a lot with politicians of the conservative-liberal Free Democratic Party of Switzerland as well as the Christian Democratic People’s Party of Switzerland. We ordered a legal opinion that clearly stated that, contrary to what opponents of the law said, there was no need to change the Swiss Constitution to open marriage to all people. If that had been the case, the legalisation of same-sex marriage would have required a positive popular vote in the majority of the Swiss cantons, which would have made things a lot more complicated.

To enshrine same-sex marriage, all that was needed was a law like the one parliament had passed, amending the Civil Code to extend marriage to all couples beyond those of a man and a woman.

No referendum was necessary: the one held on 26 September was an optional referendum launched by opponents of the law, who intended to show that parliament’s decision was not welcome by the Swiss people and overturn it. To have this referendum called, they campaigned actively to gather the 50,000 signatures required. LGBTQI+ organisations would have been largely pleased with letting the decision made by parliament stand, rather than asking everybody whether they agreed with granting us the same rights as everyone else.

The civil society campaign was officially launched on 27 June, with events in 23 towns and villages across Switzerland. Over the following 100 days, the queer community mobilised around the country with dozens of actions to demand the right to equality. The campaign was supported by several LGBTQI+ organisations, including Pink Cross, the Swiss Organisation of Lesbians-LOS, Network-Gay Leadership, WyberNet-Gay Professional Women, Rainbow Families and Fédération Romande des Associations LGBTIQ+.

We wanted to gain as much visibility as possible, so we campaigned with thousands of rainbow flags hanging out of balconies throughout the country and posted many great videos online. This was a very broad grassroots campaign with many activists taking part in it, both online and in person. Our main message was that the same rights must be recognised for everybody, with no discrimination, and that in Switzerland it was about time.

Who campaigned for and against same-sex marriage in the run-up to the vote? How did groups opposed to same-sex marriage mobilise?

Leftist and liberal parties and organisations campaigned in favour of the law, while the right-wing populist Swiss People’s Party – although not all of its elected representatives – campaigned against it, along with a whole bunch of conservative and clerical organisations, including the rather small Evangelical People’s Party. The Catholic Church was against the law, although not all of its representatives or institutions had the same position. The Protestant Church backed the law, although not unanimously.

Mobilisation against the law took place mainly in the countryside and – obviously – online. Their arguments were mostly about the alleged well-being of children, and focused on the fact that the law allowed same-sex married couples access to adoption and conception through sperm donation.

What will be the immediate effects of the new law?

On 26 September, by 64 per cent of the vote, the Swiss people expressed their agreement with the law granting equal marriage for all. The law will come into force on 1 July 2022 and will have very important and immediate practical effects, because the legal status of marriage has several important differences from the registered partnership (RP) regime already available to same-sex couples.

The recognition of marriage to all couples will eliminate the inequalities in legal treatment that still exist regarding facilitated naturalisation, joint adoption, joint property, access to medically assisted reproduction and legal recognition of parent-child relationships in cases of medically assisted reproduction.

If they want to be recognised as legally married, same-sex couples currently in RPs will have to apply for the conversion of their RP into legal marriage at the registry office by means of a so-called ‘simplified declaration’, which won’t carry excessive costs, although the exact procedure is yet to be determined and may vary from one canton to the next.

Those who were married abroad but whose marriage was recognised in Switzerland as an RP will have their RP automatically and retroactively converted into marriage. 

What other challenges do LGBTQI+ people in Switzerland face, and what else needs to change to advance LGBTQI+ rights?

A lot remains to be done in terms of preventing, registering and convicting hate crimes adequately. Pink Cross is currently advancing this issue in all cantons, because this is within their jurisdiction. Likewise, we are preparing a first ‘precedent’ to get a ruling on the ‘anti-LGBT agitation’ paragraph that was introduced into criminal law last year.

Finally, institutional anchorage of LGBTQI+ advocacy definitely still needs to be strengthened on a national level, specifically within the federal administration, either through a specific commission or by extending the mandate of the Federal Office for Gender Equality. So we are also working to move ahead on this.

Civic space in Switzerland is rated ‘open’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Pink Cross through its website or its Facebook and Instagram pages, and follow @pinkcross_ch on Twitter. 

 

SWITZERLAND: ‘The victory of marriage equality will boost our efforts towards the next steps’

JessicaZuberCIVICUS speaks with Jessica Zuber, co-leader of Operation Libero’s marriage for all campaign, about the recent referendum on same-sex marriage in Switzerland. Operation Libero is a non-partisan civil society movement founded to campaign against populist initiatives. Its work focuses on preserving and developing liberal democracy, fostering strong relations between Switzerland and Europe, promoting a liberal citizenship law, supporting a democracy-strengthening digital transformation and encouraging more transparent, accountable and inclusive politics.

What role did Operation Libero play in the process leading to the recent legalisation of same-sex marriage?

Since its foundation, Operation Libero has fought for equal legal treatment. We accompanied the parliamentary process and lobbied so that the law was passed, which happened in December 2020, after almost seven years. A couple of days before the opponents of the law handed in their referendum request, we pushed our ongoing petition, which went viral and received over 60,000 online signatures within a single weekend. To us, that was a very strong signal on the state of public opinion.

We launched our campaign six weeks before the vote. It focused on the motto ‘same love, same rights’. Our campaign complemented that of the ‘official’ committee led by the LGBTQI+ community, showing real same-sex couples on their posters. To set ourselves apart and appeal to a more conservative target, we showed same-sex couples alongside heterosexual couples.

For the launch of our campaign, we staged a marriage and the pictures of this ceremony provided the visuals for media coverage during the campaign. Some of our main concepts were that fundamental rights must apply to all people, and that no one loses when love wins. It was a feel-good campaign, as we intentionally refrained from being too controversial – for instance, by highlighting that homophobia is still a phenomenon very present in Swiss society.

During the campaign, around 150,000 of our flyers were handed out, 13,000 coasters ordered and 10,000 stickers distributed. Our main financial income to pay for this was the sale of our special socks, of which we sold almost 10,000 pairs. We organised boot camps to prepare voters for debates and launched a poster campaign in train stations and public buses. The joint flyer distribution event with members of the right-wing populist party – who, against the official party line, supported marriage for all – attracted media attention and succeeded in showing how broad support for the law was.

Last but not least, a week before the vote we held an event where 400 people lined up on either side to applaud newlywed couples – same-sex and different-sex – as they ran through. This was a very inspiring event, the biggest of its kind in Switzerland.

We are very happy that we won the referendum with 64 per cent of voters supporting the law. September 26th marks a big step for Switzerland: after far too long a wait, access to marriage finally applies to all couples, regardless of gender or sexual orientation. This eliminates key legal inequalities for same-sex couples, for example in facilitated naturalisation, the receipt of widows’ pensions, adoption and reproductive medicine.

Why was a referendum called after parliament had already legalised same-sex marriage?

Opponents of the law launched the referendum to try to overturn it. Their arguments were centred on the traditional view of marriage as a ‘natural’ union between a man and a woman and its centrality in society. They said that ‘introducing universal marriage is a social and political rupture that nullifies the historic definition of marriage, understood as a lasting union between a man and a woman’. They were particularly upset by the fact that the law enables access to sperm donation for female couples, as they believe this forfeits the best interests of the child. They also feared that these changes would lead to the legalisation of surrogacy.

On a more technical level, they argued that universal marriage could not be introduced through a simple legislative amendment, but required a change to the constitution.

Who were on the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ sides in the referendum?

After parliament passed the law, a cross-party committee – mainly comprising representatives of the right-wing Swiss People’s Party and the Federal Democratic Union, an ultra-conservative Christian party – launched a petition for a referendum. They successfully gathered more than 50,000 signatures necessary to push their proposal through and get a national vote. The right to veto a parliamentary decision is part of the Swiss system of direct democracy.

During the campaign, these groups put out campaign posters and online ads and participated in public media discussions. Their main argument was that children’s well-being was in danger, so they put the focus of the public debate on adoption and reproductive rights.

Fortunately, civil marriage for same-sex couples enjoys widespread political support, as seen on 26 September. With the exception of the Swiss People’s Party, all the governing parties supported the bill, as did the Greens and Liberal Greens, who are not in the government.

There was even some openness from religious groups. In November 2019 the Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches spoke out in favour of same-sex civil marriage; however, the Conference of Swiss Bishops and the Swiss Evangelical Network remain opposed to it.

The aggressiveness with which the law granting marriage for all was fought and the fact that about a third of voters rejected it, partly for homophobic reasons, shows that homophobia is still widespread and still far too widely accepted.

We also faced the challenge that as the polls projected a relatively clear victory from the outset, it made it harder for us to mobilise people. Our fear was that people might take victory for granted and not go out to vote. But we were able to reach people with the message that a victory by a wider margin was an even stronger sign for equality in Switzerland.

What other challenges do LGBTQI+ people face in Switzerland, and what else needs to be changed to advance equal rights?

LGBTQI+ groups will continue to fight, notably against hate crimes. Marriage for all does not deliver absolute equality for female couples who receive a sperm donation from a friend or choose a sperm bank abroad, in which cases only the biological mother will be recognised. These debates will still occur, and the LGBTQI+ community will continue to fight for equality.

The clear ‘yes’ to marriage for all is a strong signal that the majority of our society is much more progressive and open towards diverse life choices than our legal system, strongly based on a conservative family model, might suggest. Indeed, marriage for all is just a small step towards adapting the political and legal conditions to the social realities we live in. The ‘yes’ to marriage equality will boost our efforts towards the next steps.

We demand that all consensual forms of relationships and family models – whether same-sex or opposite-sex, married or not – become equally recognised. Marriage, with its long history as a central instrument of patriarchal power, must no longer be considered the standard model. It must not be privileged, either legally or financially, over other forms of cohabitation. In the coming months and years, Operation Libero will campaign for individual taxation, regulated cohabitation, simplified parenthood and a modern sexual criminal law.

Civic space in Switzerland is rated ‘open’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Operation Libero through its website or its FacebookTik Tok, and Instagram pages, and follow @operationlibero and @jessicazuber on Twitter.

 

CHILE: ‘Migration restrictions do not tackle the causes of migration’

Delio.CubidesCIVICUS speaks with Delio Cubides, migration legal advisor at the Chilean Catholic Migration Institute (INCAMI), about the situation of migrants in Chile, and the restrictive measures and mass expulsions that took place this year. Founded in 1955, INCAMI is a civil society organisation dedicated to supporting migrants in Chile, including through providing reception services, social assistance, advice on document regularisation, training and support in finding employment.

How did Chile get into its current situation of anti-migrant protests and mass expulsions?

To answer this question, we should place ourselves in the international context, to which Chile is no stranger. Since 2010, there has been an increase in the number of migrants from non-border countries, such as Venezuela and Haiti, which has surpassed the inflow from border countries.

To a certain extent, Chile has been viewed in the region as a country with security and institutional and economic stability, while since 2013 the political, social and economic situation in Venezuela has led to an exponential increase in the inflow of people from that country, with a peak in 2013 and another in 2018, despite the fact that, unlike Haitian migration, there is no family reunification visa for Venezuelans in Chile.

Faced with this increase in migration, the current administration of Sebastián Piñera began to adopt restrictive measures; 30 days after taking office in 2018, it enacted a policy aimed at limiting the entry of Haitians and Venezuelans. Haitian migration was heavily restricted by the implementation of a simple consular tourist visa for entry into Chile and, like other migrants, also by the elimination of the work contract visa.

Although we do not have exact figures, we know that the rejection rate for consular visas requested by Haitians has been high; testimonies from Haitian migrants that we deal with in our offices report numerous rejections for reasons beyond their control or due to requirements they are unable to comply with.

For example, in order to grant a permanent stay permit to migrants already present in Chile, the government requires a criminal record certificate that must be obtained from the consulate of the country of origin. In the case of countries such as Haiti, the high cost and lengthy processing time in the country of origin is compounded by the fact that, in the current political, social and health context, the certificate is almost impossible to obtain. As a result, many people are unable to submit it within the established deadlines. This requirement is currently limiting access by hundreds of people of Haitian origin to the so-called ‘extraordinary regularisation process’.

For migrants from Venezuela, a consular visa requirement known as a ‘democratic accountability visa’ was imposed in 2019. But the desperate situation in Venezuela continued to push people to migrate despite the obstacles, as migration restrictions do not address the causes of migration.

What these measures did not achieve, the restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic did: in November 2020 the government suspended around 90,000 visa procedures for Venezuelan applicants, and many others who had already been granted their visas or had their final interview scheduled could not enter Chile because the suspension of international flights prevented them from doing so within the 90-day period established by law; therefore, their applications were administratively closed without any consideration for the pandemic situation.

Many people have filed amparo appeals – writs for protection of constitutional rights – and have managed to have their cases reopened, but Chile has clearly opted for a strategy of restriction. All these measures were taken to regulate and control a migratory flow that was growing, but many of us see it as a reflection of the lack of empathy for the humanitarian reality that these people are going through in their countries of origin. Many of them had requested protection or were in the process of reuniting with their families, and their projects were cut short either by the pandemic or by administrative restrictions.

Is Chilean society polarised around the issue of migration?

I don’t see such polarisation. The situation in the city of Iquique, where in September 2021 there was a march against the arrival of migrants, was an isolated event. It was also the result of the stress that can build up in a situation of coexistence in undignified conditions, a result of the lack of public policies capable of anticipating the drama of this humanitarian crisis.

On social media, opinions are polarised and people say many things, but these positions have not materialised in marches on the capital, Santiago de Chile, or in other cities. On the contrary, in Iquique we have seen migrants on the streets in extremely difficult conditions, and city residents welcoming and helping them to the best of their ability.

The situation in Iquique was also one of exclusion from the possibility of regularisation of people who entered through unauthorised passages, a direct result of Law No. 21.325 on Migration and Aliens passed in April this year. In the previous regularisation process in 2018, migrants who entered through unauthorised passages were allowed to register, although no work permits were granted. Migrants know this is the case, but they prefer this precarious situation to going hungry in their countries of origin.

In the context of the pandemic, because of health restrictions, many migrants were forced to stay in public places, unable to go anywhere else, undocumented and excluded from social benefits. This created difficulties for local residents, as well as for the migrants themselves who lacked state assistance.

It was only after some Venezuelan migrants died while crossing the border that the Chilean state began to provide assistance, on the understanding that they were in fact refugees or asylum seekers.

What should the state do in this situation?

The state has an obligation to provide a solution to this situation. An alternative could be for it to coordinate with the private sector, which is in need of workers, especially in construction, agriculture, services and in some professional categories. The situation of people fitting these profiles could be regularised through coordination with the private sector, providing them with training and job placement. This would provide a different perspective on migration and would help avoid situations of dependency and lack of autonomy.

It seems that restrictions are not the best solution. Restrictions do not stop migration, and instead deepen the violations of migrants’ rights, as they make them susceptible to the challenges of the labour market and the housing rental market and limit their access to basic rights such as health and education. They are also of no use to the authorities, who do not know where migrants are, who they are, how many they are or how they have arrived.

Over the entire recent period since Chile returned to democracy, none of a series of governments developed a real migration policy that reformed and updated existing regulations. The current government has been the only one to propose a change in the law on migration and in migration management, but, due to the context and the pressure of migratory flows, it has turned out to be a restrictive policy, or at least one that seeks to limit the flow. It is a policy that discourages people from entering the country, driving those in a regular situation to exhaustion due to eternal waits to obtain documents, lack of communication by migration authorities and bureaucratic centralisation in Santiago.

We are now in the middle of an election campaign, and in such times migration can be exploited to win votes. The government programmes of all the candidates have very limited information on this issue, but all who have spoken about it have done so in a restrictive tone. I think the problem lies there, more than in the fact that there is xenophobia within society. It seems that migrants only begin to be heard when they become an electoral force, which in Chile is just beginning to happen.

How adequate is the new law to achieving ‘safe, orderly and regular’ migration?

Law 21.325 reflects well the position of this administration on the issue of migration. It should be remembered that in December 2018 Chile refused to sign the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, arguing that each country should retain its sovereignty to set its migration rules, even though Chile had been one of the countries that had led its drafting process.

The new law has some positive aspects and enshrines some rights, such as the rights to health, education, family reunification and work. It includes visas for minors and gives consideration to people with disabilities and women, giving them protection in certain specific cases such as pregnancy, smuggling and trafficking and gender-based violence. It decentralises the revalidation of diplomas and increases the administration’s presence in Chile’s regions. It also gives people with dependent visas autonomy to develop an economic activity.

Although these rights are not currently refused, they are not guaranteed by law either, but rather recognised administratively, which makes them somewhat fragile.

At the same time, the new law represents a shift in migration management. Until now, the law allowed for changes of status within the national territory, but the new law will not allow this: all visas must be obtained from consulates in the migrants’ countries of origin. This will give the administration the ultimate decision on how many migrants to allow in, which and under what conditions. This is perhaps the biggest change introduced by the new law. Only in some cases will certain people be allowed to change their migration status, but this will depend on the content of the regulatory degree that is issued to implement the new law.

What work is the Chilean Catholic Migration Institute doing in this context?

As it is beyond our reach to tackle the causes of migration, we defend the rights of migrants. Our objectives are to welcome, protect and integrate them. 

We advocate with the authorities, which sometimes comes at a cost. This is necessary work because although there are migrants’ organisations, they tend to be organised around one person, a leader, and are not highly institutionalised. There are organisations for Colombians, Ecuadorians, Haitians and Venezuelans, among others. There is also Chile’s National Immigrants’ Coordination, which brings together several organisations, has a presence in protests and social media, and includes several Haitian, Peruvian and Venezuelan collectives.

We also provide legal advice, which is what is most lacking in Chile, due to a lack of access to information, which is not promoted by the authorities who should be attending to migrants. We help with online forms and procedures and provide social assistance, particularly in the form of shelter, as there are no state-run shelters for migrants.

Everything that exists in Chile in the area of migrants’ reception and services is the result of civil society initiatives, largely by organisations, institutions and services of the Catholic Church. INCAMI is the Catholic Church’s main body on migration issues: through the work teams of the Pastoral of Human Mobility (PMH) in each of Chile’s regions, we coordinate the reception and care of migrants with other Church bodies. Our resources are limited, but during the pandemic we have opened churches to receive women and children and we have provided all the attention we could through social media.

We listen to what people need, something the authorities don’t do. With the help of some municipalities, we accompanied the return of thousands of people not only from neighbouring Bolivia, but also from Colombia, Ecuador, Haiti, Venezuela and other countries.

Our migration teams travel not only within the Metropolitan Region of Santiago but also to Chile’s regions, to visit the municipalities with the greatest presence of migrants and offer them the possibility of regularising their status, obtaining a visa, working under fair conditions, contributing to the social security system and accessing their fundamental rights. Sometimes we do this with the support of PMH teams in the regions, government authorities or the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).

What support do organisations defending the rights of migrants in Chile need from the international community?

We face a regional challenge that requires a regional response. States should coordinate an international approach to migration, as is already being done by the Regional Inter-Agency Coordination Platform for Refugees and Migrants from Venezuela (R4V), led by the United Nations Refugee Agency and the IOM. Further progress is needed in this process, as the Venezuelan situation is far from over.

In order to assist migrants while doing very necessary advocacy work, we need resources: staple foods to assemble basic food baskets and economic resources to pay for accommodation, among other things. It is important to remember that migrants are not the problem, but rather the symptom of realities undergoing deeper transformation, and most of them require protection.

Civic space in Chile is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Chilean Catholic Migration Institute through its website or its Facebook and Instagram pages, and follow @INCAMIchile and @JosDelioCubides on Twitter. 

 

CAMBODIA: ‘This is a textbook case of organised crime with links to the state’

CIVICUS speaks with Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, a Spanish national and co-founder of Mother Nature Cambodia (MNC), a civil society organisation (CSO) that advocates and campaigns locally and internationally for the preservation, promotion and protection of Cambodia’s natural environment. Due to their work, the authorities have systematically intimidated and criminalised MNC activists. Gonzalez-Davidson has been convicted in absentia for his activism and currently faces further charges.

Alejandro Gonzalez Davidson

What were the origins of MNC?

We founded MNC in 2013, and the most important factor leading to its founding was that the environment in Cambodia, and especially the forest, was being decimated so fast. Because I could speak Khmer, I was a translator and was reading about it in the news and eventually also seeing it happen.

This senseless destruction was being disguised as development, but in reality it was organised crime sponsored by the state, including the army, the police, politicians at all levels and local authorities. It was painful to see. Local Indigenous people were being cheated and this got me fired up.

I also came to the realisation that civil society, and especially international organisations that were allegedly protecting the environment, were not doing anything that was effective enough. Local groups were not able to do much, and some international groups were doing greenwashing: misleading the public with initiatives that were presented as environmentally friendly or sustainable, but were not addressing the real causes of the problems. 

A small group of friends and I started a campaign to stop a senseless hydroelectric dam project, which we knew was never about electricity but about exploiting natural resources and allowing logging and poaching. I was deported a year and a half after we started MNC. Over time, we have had to evolve to try and expose environmental crimes by the state on a large scale.

What have been the main activities and tactics of MNC?

They have changed over time. Back in 2013 to 2015, we could still do community empowerment and hold peaceful protests. We could bring people from cities to remote areas. In 2015, the harassing and jailing of activists started. We realised peaceful protests could not happen anymore because protesters would be criminalised. We continued to do community empowerment until 2017, but then had to stop that too.

One of our biggest tactics is going to a location, recording short videos and presenting them to the public so that Cambodians can understand, click, share and comment. We have received millions of views. We also did shows on Facebook live and lobbied opposition parties in parliament. From 2019 onwards, activists could no longer appear in the videos and we had to blur their faces and distort their voices. Now we can’t even do that because it is too risky.

What is the state of civic space in Cambodia?

The regime of Prime Minister Hun Sen has destroyed democratic institutions, including active and independent civil society, independent media and opposition parties. It has dismantled all these as it realised people were ready and hungry for democracy.

There is a lot for the regime to lose if the status quo changes, mainly because of money. The regime is mostly organised crime. They don’t want pesky independent journalists, activists organising protests or CSOs doing community empowerment. They don’t want to lose power and be held accountable. This is why now there is very little space compared to five years ago, and the situation is still going downhill. 

Most civil society groups have retreated and are not pushing the boundaries. They are afraid of their organisation being shut down, funding being cut, or their activists and staff being thrown in jail. Indeed, working in Cambodia is difficult but it’s not acceptable to have a very small number of CSOs and activists speaking up.

What gives me hope is that conversations and engagement among citizens about democracy are still happening, and that repression cannot go on forever.

Why has MNC been criminalised, and what impact has this had and what is impact of the court cases?

Cambodia doesn’t really have any other group like us. We are a civil society group, but we are made up of activists rather than professional staff. Other activists used to do forest patrols in the Prey Lang forest, but the government forced them to stop. There are also Indigenous communities and environmental activists trying to do some work, but what happened to MNC is also a message to them.

In 2015, three MNC activists were charged and subsequently convicted for their activities in a direct-action campaign against companies mining sand in Koh Kong province. In September 2017, two MNC activists were arrested for filming vessels we suspected were illegally exporting dredged sand on behalf of a firm linked to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party. In January 2018, the two activists were fined and sentenced to a year in jail.

In September 2020, three activists affiliated with MNC were arbitrarily detained while planning a peaceful protest as part of a campaign against the planned privatisation and reclamation of Boeung Tamok lake in the capital, Phnom Penh. They were sentenced to 18 months in prison for ‘incitement’.

Most recently, in June 2021, four environmental activists affiliated with MNC were charged for investigating river pollution in the Tonle Sap river in Phnom Penh. They have been charged with ‘plotting’ and ‘insulting the King’. There are currently six MNC activists in detention.

We have been charged with threatening to cause destruction, incitement, violating peoples’ privacy – just for filming at sea – and the latest additions to the list are ‘plotting’ to violently overthrow institutions – just for recording sewage going into the Mekong river – and insulting the King. The government is no longer even pretending that this is about law enforcement and is now just picking crimes to charge us with.

As we become more effective in what we do, the state’s rhetoric against us has become more aggressive. The authorities have vilified us, calling us traitors and terrorists. Repression starts from the very bottom, with the local police, the mayor, the military police and their civilian friends who are in the business of poaching, logging and so on. They follow you, threaten you and even try to bribe you. They also control the media narrative and have trolls on social media. Even if all you do is a media interview, they will threaten you online.

This has created a climate of fear among activists. As in any other dictatorship, Cambodia has always been ruled by fear. This percolates down to young people, who make up the vast majority of our activists. Their families and friends get really worried too. When people feel there is less of a risk in getting involved, the state hits activists and civil society again with more arbitrary and trumped-up charges, as a way to instil further fear in people’s minds.

The impact of the court cases against MNC has been strong. At first we were able to put up with them by diversifying our tactics and putting new strategies in place, but over the last two years and with six people in jail, it’s become more difficult. But this won’t stop our activism. It will not defeat us.

Have you faced threats from private companies?

The line between the private sector and the state is blurred in Cambodia, and in certain cases is just not even there. You don’t have a minister or the army saying, ‘this is my hydroelectric dam’ or ‘we are doing sand mining’, but everyone knows the links are there.

Those representing the state will provide the apparatus and resources to threaten activists and local communities, and businesspeople – who sometimes are their own family members – will give them a percentage of the earnings. For example, sand from mining exported to Singapore – a business worth a few hundred million dollars – was controlled by a few powerful families, including that of the leader of the dictatorship, Hun Sen. This is a textbook case of organised crime with links to the state. And when a journalist, civil society group or local community tries to expose them, they use the weapons of the state to silence, jail, or bribe them. 

Why did MNC decide to formally disband?

In 2015 the government passed a repressive NGO law with lots of traps that made it difficult for us to be in compliance. I was also no longer in the country, as I was not allowed to return even though I had been legally charged and convicted there. In 2013, when we registered, there were three of us, plus two nominal members who were Buddhist monks. The other two founders were taken to the Ministry of Interior and told to disband or otherwise go to jail, so they decided to disband.

We also thought it would be better not to be bound by the NGO law. Cambodian people have the right to protect their national resources. According to the Cambodian Constitution and international treaties the state has signed, we are not breaking the law. But we know this will not stop them from jailing us.

What can international community do to support MNC and civil society in Cambodia?

Some things are being done. Whenever there is an arbitrary arrest of activists, there are embassies in the capital, United Nations institutions and some Cambodian CSOs who speak up. 

That’s good, but sadly it’s not enough. If you are doing business with Cambodia, such as importing billions of dollars per year worth of garments, you have to do more than just issue statements. You should make a clear connection between the health of democracy in Cambodia and the health of your business relationships. For example, the UK is working on a trade deal with Cambodia, and it must attach to it conditions such as ensuring a free media and halting the arbitrary jailing of activists. 

The problem is that some diplomats don’t understand what is going on or don’t care about the human rights situation. Southeast Asian countries should also help each other and speak up on the situation in Cambodia. Not just civil society but members of parliament should call out, send letters to their ambassador and so forth.

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

 

COP26: ‘We need to regenerate ourselves and what we have destroyed’

 Portuguese

Daniel Gutierrez GovinoAs the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) gets underway in Glasgow, UK, CIVICUS continues to interview civil society activists, leaders and experts about the environmental challenges they face in their contexts, the actions they are taking to address them and the reprisals they face because of their work.

CIVICUS speaks with Daniel Gutierrez Govino, founder of the Alter do Chão Forest Fire Brigade, a group that works to prevent, combat and promote socio-political coordination against fires in the Amazon forest in the state of Pará, Brazil. He is also a co-founder of the Alter do Chão Aquifer Institute, an institution that promotes social projects in the town of Alter do Chão, municipality of Santarém in Pará.

What made you become an environmental defender?

I felt the urgency to work to keep the planet viable for humans and other species. I was moved, and still am today, by the possibility of human beings reversing their actions and ways of thinking about our role in nature. We need to regenerate ourselves and what we have destroyed.

What does the Alter do Chão Brigade do?

We have worked since 2017 to prevent and combat forest fires in Alter do Chão, in the municipality of Santarém in the north of Brazil. We brought together a group of community volunteers who, with great courage, have worked to protect biodiversity, the people of Alter do Chão and the region from forest fires. To do this, we received training from the Military Fire Brigade, the Civil Defence and the Municipal Secretariat for the Environment and Tourism of Belterra. We have trained new brigade members and promoted socio-political coordination and communication with local communities.

What restrictions have you faced in response to your environmental activism?

In the case of the Alter do Chão Brigade, I and three other brigade members were arrested in 2019 on unfounded charges of causing fires in an environmental protection area. Our work was criminalised because it proposes solutions and a transformation of the local political context.

In addition, the current national context for organised civil society is hostile. We were scapegoats in a narrative that sought to criminalise civil society organisations, at a time when the country’s president and his supporters were trying to blame civil society for the dramatic increase in forest fires.

I have also faced resistance when trying to promote changes in current public policies in the microcosmos of Santarém. Political and social conservatism undermine any movement that seeks to advance progressive agendas. The government, the civil police and the local elite reject environmental activism by attacking our work. We were lucky and our privilege kept us alive, but activists in the Amazon are always threatened with violence and death. It is not a safe region for those who fight for freedom and justice.

What kind of support did you receive when you were criminalised?

We received all kinds of support when we were arrested, both nationally and internationally. The key support came from pro bono criminal lawyers from the Freedom Project, who still accompany us to this day. But we also received support from national institutions such as Projeto Saúde e Alegria and Conectas, as well as from international ones, such as WWF Brazil, Article 19, Front Line Defenders and many others.

We were released from prison after a few days thanks to the actions of these defence and protection networks. However, the criminal process against us has been ongoing for two years, without any proof backing the accusations against us. At the federal level, the police investigation was closed; however, the authorities of the state of Pará have insisted on charging us. Recently, the jurisdiction of the court case was challenged by the federal prosecution, but for months the process has drifted in the Brazilian justice system. Part of our equipment remains confiscated to this day. I have no more hopes for justice.

Despite all of this, I believe that Brazilian civil society is emerging stronger. Our partner Caetano Scannavino, from Projeto Saúde e Alegria, who also works in Alter do Chão, says it is like a boomerang effect. I think this assessment is brilliant. They attack us, and their attacks make us stronger.

What avenues are available for activists in your region to seek protection and support? What kind of support do you need from civil society and the international community?

The main thing is to be aware of the available support networks and coordinate with them before anything bad happens, that is, to coordinate preventively. This includes national and international institutions, such as those that supported us. But above all, it is crucial to know local support networks.

The types of support needed are specific and depend a lot on each region. Brazil is of a continental size and the needs of the south are not the same as those of the Amazon, for example. One cannot even say that the Amazon is a region, because it is, in fact, a continent with particularities in each region. But it is these networks that will connect those in need of support with those who can help.

Civic space in Brazil is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Alter do Chão Forest Fire Brigade through its website or its Facebook page.

 

 

COP26: ‘The global north must remain accountable and committed to tackle climate change’

LorenaSosaAs the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) gets underway in Glasgow, UK, CIVICUS continues to interview civil society activists, leaders and experts about the environmental challenges they face in their contexts, the actions they are undertaking to tackle them and their expectations for the summit.

CIVICUS speaks with Lorena Sosa, Operations Director at Zero Hour, a youth-led movement creating entry points, training and resources for new young activists and organisers. At Zero Hour, Lorena has supported the work of activists in Jamaica, the Philippines and Singapore, looking to create immediate action and bring attention to the impacts of climate change.

 

What’s the key climate issue in your country that you’re working on?

Zero Hour is currently committed to eliminating fossil fuel subsidies in US policy and filling the gap in climate-organising resources. We have recently accomplished this by organising the virtual End Polluter Welfare Rally, featuring Senator Majority Lead Chuck Schumer and Congressman Ro Khanna, and the People Not Polluters Rally in New York City, and assisting with the organisation of the People vs Fossil Fuels mobilisation in Washington, DC. We are currently working on revising a series of training activities to help our chapters learn how to organise local campaigns unique to their communities.

A lot of our actions demonstrate our desire to connect and collaborate with others involved in the movement, to uplift one another’s actions because it is hard to get coverage and attention on the actions that we are all organising. It is a beautiful thing to witness when organisers support each other; love and support is really needed to improve the state of the movement and the progress of its demands.

Have you faced backlash for the work you do?

Backlash to activist work certainly ranges on a case-by-case basis, especially for our international chapters, who face limits on protest and rallying because of government restrictions. Within the USA, the biggest backlash against the work we do is tied to the burnout of working and seeing no action from leaders who have the power to initiate action for our planet’s well-being. Burnout is really common in the youth climate space, especially because so many of us are trying to juggle between our academic, social and organising lives while trying to stay hopeful about the change that is possible.

In terms of staying well and safe from the impacts of burnout, I’ve learned that the best thing to do is engage with the climate community I’m in; I know I’m not alone in the concerns I have because my fellow friends and organisers and I constantly express our concerns to one another. There is no be-all and end-all remedy to burnout, but I’ve learned that taking time to care for myself and connect with my family and friends back home is incredibly helpful in staying grounded.

How do you engage with the broader international climate movement?

Our Global Outreach team and Operations team, which are led by Sohayla Eldeeb and myself, have worked together to shape communications with our international chapters in Jamaica, the Philippines and Singapore. We have held one-on-one office hours with our international chapters to help them work through any conflict in their campaign work and provide support in any way possible.

In terms of international campaigns, our Partnerships Deputy Director, Lana Weidgenant, is actively involved in international campaigns that bring attention to and foster education and action on food systems transformation to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions and protect our environment. Lana served as the Youth Vice Chair of Shifting to Sustainable Consumption Patterns for the United Nations Food Systems Summit 2021, is a youth leader of the international Act4Food Act4Change campaign that has gathered together the food systems pledges and priorities of over 100,000 young people and allies around the world, and is one of the two youth representatives for the COP26 agriculture negotiations this year.

What hopes, if any, do you have for COP26 to make progress in tackling climate change?

I would want to see the global north remain accountable and committed to including US$100 billion for the global south to be able to implement their own climate adaptation and mitigation measures successfully.

So many of our perspectives at Zero Hour are centred around justice, rather than just equity, because we know that the USA is one of the largest contributors to this crisis. Leaders of the global north, especially stakeholders in the USA, need to end support of the fossil fuel industry and start committing to solutions that prioritise people and not polluters.

I would love to see all leaders attending COP26 take serious and impactful action to combat and eliminate the effects of climate change. Worsened weather patterns and rising sea levels have already proven that inaction is going to be detrimental to the well-being of our planet and all its inhabitants.

The recent report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has demonstrated sufficient evidence for our leaders to treat climate change as the emergency it is. I am hoping that all the global leaders speaking at the conference take the IPCC report’s statements into great consideration when drafting the conference’s outcomes.

Civic space in the USA is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Zero Hour through its website and follow @ThisIsZeroHour on Twitter.

 

 

COP26: ‘Decision-makers have national objectives whereas the issues at stake are transnational’

As the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) takes place in Glasgow, UK between 31 October and 12 November 2021, CIVICUS is interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about the environmental challenges they face in their contexts, the actions they are undertaking to tackle them and their expectations for the summit.

 

ECUADOR: ‘Civil society must highlight the added value of its participation’

CIVICUS speaks with Estefanía Terán, advocacy director of Grupo FARO, about the role of organised civil society in Ecuador's presidential elections and the challenges civil society faces today. Grupo FARO is an independent research and action centre in Ecuador that produces evidence to influence public policy and promotes social transformation and innovation.

Estefanía Terán

What roles does Ecuadorian civil society play during electoral processes?

Political parties do not reach out much to civil society organisations (CSOs) to take on board their proposals. While some turn to CSOs for information, others hire private consultants. This happens because very few political organisations have within their structures a team or the necessary tools to develop quality government plans, with clear content, and which respond to the needs of the population or their voters, and are rooted in a diagnosis based on rigorous and objective technical research.

During elections, CSOs develop initiatives to promote informed voting. They build web platforms and other communication tools to give visibility from a citizen perspective, to the proposals of the various contenders. Through this work, in the latest elections, initiatives were organised according to ideological criteria and in terms of their response to the Sustainable Development Goals. Likewise, with the aim of highlighting the ‘how’ of the proposals, which in general only focus on the ‘what’, forums and debates are held among the candidates.

Grupo FARO is part of a group of CSOs that promotes informed voting; within this framework we developed the Ecuador Decide initiative. This initiative, which has been activated at elections since 2017 – which means it has been implemented on four occasions – aims to encourage voting based on the programmatic proposals of the different candidates and the political organisations that support them. To this end, it compiles, disseminates and analyses the contents of all their government plans.

In the 2021 elections, Grupo FARO analysed the government plans of all the presidential candidates. We found that, of the 1,500 proposals identified in 16 areas of national relevance, only 55.5 per cent contained information on how they would be implemented, and only 26.7 per cent made clear who their target audience was.

In addition, based on our experience organising debates among candidates during local elections, we assisted the National Electoral Council in regulating presidential debates, which became mandatory after the Democracy Code was reformed in February 2020.

What are the causes and consequences of the low quality of political plans?

The low quality of plans for government, which makes them inadequate instruments to inform the population about the positions of the various candidates and political organisations, is due to the lack of enforcement and regulation by the governing body, which does not require that these documents meet minimum standards and be comparable with each other. In fact, we have analysed some plans that were three pages long and others of more than a hundred pages. Moreover, in many cases they differ from the candidate’s discourse or include proposals outside the candidate’s field of competence.

It is not common for voters to access these documents to get informed, and therefore, they serve no other purpose than to fulfil a formal requirement to register a candidacy. This contradicts the fact that one of the grounds for requesting the revocation of the mandate of popularly elected authorities is their non-compliance with their plans.

The high degree of generality of the proposals contained in government plans means that the candidates’ campaign discourse is aimed at the median voter, and that strategically the candidates do not differentiate themselves. This fragments voter preferences, creating complications, as seen in the very narrow margin between the candidates placing second and third in the latest elections, Guillermo Lasso, of Movimiento Creando Oportunidades, and Yaku Pérez, of Movimiento de Unidad Plurinacional Pachakutik. This meant that the winner in the second electoral round was someone who in the first round had not even reached 20 per cent of the total vote: he came to power as a result of a compulsory vote, with very low legitimacy, and a high risk of facing governance problems in the medium term.

What challenges does Ecuadorian civil society face under the new government?

Although no specific proposals were identified regarding the promotion of civil society participation, President Lasso has sought to send a friendly and collaborative message. However, due to its business background, the government tends to equate civil society with the private sector. This results in two challenges for civil society. The first is to differentiate itself from the private sector and the second is to work harmoniously with the private sector. To this end, it must promote an exercise of reflection on the current role of civil society and highlight the value that its involvement adds to public management. Furthermore, it must insist that this participation is not limited to a few organisations that are close to the government, but that it is open and inclusive, plural and diverse.

This implies, on the one hand, pushing forward a process of organisational strengthening of civil society for collaborative work among itself and with others. And, on the other hand, it implies initiating a process of learning and trust building with the private sector. There is a great opportunity for organised civil society to contribute so that companies’ support for social causes is done with transparency and public oversight and based on international principles for the effective functioning of public-private partnerships, guaranteeing quality projects and actions going beyond corporate profit.

The prelude to developing such alliances should be the passing of a minimum CSO law to give us legal security and protect us from the discretion of the incumbent government. At the moment we are regulated by an executive decree and under a logic of concession and control, rather than registration and co-responsibility. Ensuring the enactment of a law that contributes to building an enabling environment and promoting participation is therefore another challenge we face as a sector during this presidential term. In partnership with the Ecuadorian Confederation of Civil Society Organisations and other allied organisations, Grupo FARO is pushing a proposal for a minimum law, which in the previous National Assembly reached the stage of developing a report for second debate.

 

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

Contact Grupo Faro through its website or its Facebook and Instagram pages, and follow @grupofaro and @eteranv on Twitter.

 

GHANA: ‘The ‘anti-gay’ bill will have far-reaching consequences if we do not fight it now’

Rightify GhanaCIVICUS speaks with Danny Bediako, founder and executive director of Rightify Ghana, about the LGBTQI+ rights situation and the significance of Ghana’s ‘anti-gay’ bill. Rightify Ghana is a human rights organisation that advocates for community empowerment and human rights, and documents and reports human rights abuses in Ghana.

What are the aims of Rightify Ghana?

Rightify Ghana was formed because LGBTQI+ organisations were all based in the capital, Accra. Living in Kumasi, in the Ashanti region in Ghana, I felt that I had to do something, so I brought together some people I knew and urged them to reach out to others. We all came together and formed Rightify Ghana. 

We do advocacy work and report and document human rights violations. We contribute to capacity building through community empowerment activities, including human rights education and sensitisation on safety and security. While as an organisation we do not directly offer sexual health or HIV/AIDS-related services, we facilitate access to them for the people who reach out to us.

We have become a widely known organisation, with people reaching out for information and referrals to certain services. We also offer psychosocial support to people facing various forms of abuse and human rights violations. We undertake media monitoring to understand how the media reports on LGBTQI+ matters and identify rising challenges, and particularly security threats, to inform and educate the LGBTQI+ community.

What are the major challenges facing LGBTQI+ people in Ghana?

For several years the LGBTQI+ community has been targeted by homophobic people, both from state institutions and non-state groups and individuals. But there isn’t enough awareness on these issues, so we usually have to deal with them by ourselves. There are frequent reports of attacks against LGBTQI+ people, including outing them, blackmailing, kidnapping them for ransom and outright physical violence.

Ghana had previously sold itself globally as a progressive country, one that respects democratic principles and constitutional rule. But this year the rights violations that the LGBTQI+ community has experienced for years came to light. Attacks came in quick succession and caught us off guard.

We started 2021 with the closure of a community centre established by LGBT+ Rights Ghana. Then an alleged lesbian wedding, which attendees claim was a birthday party, was stormed and denounced by traditional rulers, police and media. Twenty-two people were arrested and later released.

In May came the case of the Ho 21, in which police and a team of reporters disrupted an event of human rights defenders who document and report violations against the LGBTQI+ community. Twenty-one of them were arrested, becoming victims of the crime they work to document. This nearly broke the whole movement down because other organisations closed their offices out of fear and activists went into hiding; there was too much uncertainty, and most people fell silent.

Most recently, the so-called Proper Human Sexual Rights and Ghana Family Values Bill – the ‘anti-gay bill’ – was officially introduced to parliament and is now open to contributions from the public.

What does the bill say, and what motivates those behind it?

The first time I read the bill, I felt like I couldn’t breathe: my right to exist in this country would be taken away from me. The bill promotes ‘conversion therapy’, making it a state function to torture people who question their sexuality or identify as intersex or transgender. Conversion therapy is very dangerous: those who undergo it may experience depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts. United Nations Special Rapporteurs have stated that conversion therapy is a form of torture.

Even though it is bipartisan, the bill is being pushed mostly by the opposition: seven out of eight members of parliament (MPs) supporting the bill are part of the opposition, including the speaker, who brought together the lawmakers and the homophobic group, the National Coalition for Proper Sexual Human Rights and Family Values. To promote the bill, they are using disinformation and lies, including incorrect HIV data stating that eight out of 10 HIV/AIDS cases are of LGBTQI+ people.

We asked the Ghana AIDS Commission to speak out and release a statement against misinformation stigmatising people living with HIV/AIDS, but they declined out of fear. We then asked an independent fact checker, Ghana Fact, which confirmed that the claims were false. It was in turn falsely accused of being funded by the LGBTQI+ community.

If you ask me where all this hate is coming from, I would say it has been imported. The religious texts that are being used to condemn sexual minorities and the current bill are backed by the US far-right movement, and particularly the World Congress of Families, which held a conference in Ghana in 2019. Leading up to the conference, they hosted several key personalities in Ghana, including a former president, the national chief imam and a former speaker of parliament, to ensure that they would encourage homophobia in the ‘background’.

We believe that the US far-right movement has lost its own fight against equality, diversity and progressive values in the global west, so they have turned to Africa, which they view as fertile ground for their agendas. As early as 2017, we started to notice individuals urging the government to do something against the LGBTQI+ community. They did not seem to have enough resources to succeed, but once they formed an alliance with the World Congress of Families and began receiving funding, resources and technical support, they have been able to propose the worst bill we have ever seen go into our parliament.

What are the bill’s implications for LGBTQI+ people in Ghana

The implications of the bill reach even beyond those who identify as part of the LGBTQI+ community and are already being felt, even before it has been passed. Blackmail has become a major issue faced by the LGBTQI+ community. We used to see two or three cases a week, but now we are getting about three per day. We are seeing homophobic people on dating sites and social media pose as gay to lure gay men into their homes, where they subject them to group violence. In one particular case, the victim was blackmailed and threatened with death. If the bill is passed, people like these will have free rein to harm others, because the law will condone their behaviour.

Ghanaians give much importance to the value of sympathy, but this bill is also going to criminalise the exercise of this value. If an LGBTQI+ person is subjected to violence in public, nobody will come to their rescue because you can be prosecuted for that. The implications are very serious in the area of public health. According to the bill, if you know or suspect that someone is an LGBTQI+ person, you must report them to the police. This applies to nurses and other health workers, which will lead to fewer people seeking health services.

HIV programmes targeting key populations are run by community-based organisations that are mostly peer-led, and if the bill bans them from operating and bans others from registering, people will not be able to access healthcare, which is a constitutional right, making it much harder to fight HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.

While our constitution prohibits censorship, this bill will ban the publication of LGBTQI+ content, including reports of crimes against the LGBTQI+ community. This also applies to social media. It will take away our constitutional rights to freedom of speech and expression, as well as our right to dignity and privacy. While the constitution speaks against discrimination of all forms, this bill is going to legalise discrimination against LGBTQI+ people.

It will also target those who are not queer, including people who use sex toys or cross-dress for comedy, and youth groups and students. Our cultural traditional norms of people of the same gender walking and holding hands and putting our arms across each other’s shoulders are at stake – we sometimes also sit on each other’s laps if there is no space! All these will be outlawed due to being seen as indecent exposure and public show of amorous relations.

What are the current priorities for Rightify Ghana and other LGBTQI+ organisations in Ghana?

Our biggest priority is safety. Even before it is passed, we have already started seeing parts of the bill being implemented. For instance, we have seen an increase in arrests of our community members. In one of these cases, the police arrested two people and urged them to give them the names and addresses of other queer people. They were picked up by the police not for committing any crime, but because someone told them that they were queer.

Each time we hear of people being arrested, activists rush to police stations to get them out. We are paying for our freedom. Although bail in Ghana is free, the police won’t let them go. Under Section 104 of the current Criminal Offences Act, they cannot arrest you just because someone told them you are gay, but they still do. They know they cannot prosecute you, but if you want to recover your freedom fast, they make you pay.

We are also worried that if the bill is passed, its effects may reach further, into the homes of Ghanaian people across the world. The typical Ghanaian diasporic family upholds in their home the same principles they would in Ghana, so queer Ghanaians in the diaspora may also become victims of parents who don’t want to come back with a lesbian or gay child, and may be excommunicated from the family due to homophobia. Even in the UK, Canada and other western countries, Ghanaian families still attend Ghanaian churches where homophobia is preached. If the bill is passed, this is the law that will rule within their homes, and not that of the countries they live in.

What are you doing to push back against the bill?

We are working to take up space, encourage dialogue and start conversations. People have been brainwashed by the homophobic disinformation and genuinely think that queer people are paedophiles and other terrible things. We correct these lies and try to find ways so that people start listening to us and understand that people do not ‘become’ gay due to media influence and they are not ‘recruited’ by some Western power to become gay.

Some people do not know or believe that the queer community faces human rights violations. When we show them the facts, tell them the names of those who have been beaten, evicted, lost their job, or been suspended from school and make them understand that this could be their family member, they might start listening and shift their stance, even if not to support us, at least to soften their position and listen.

We are strategising against the bill and building alliances with mainstream organisations that have access to the legislature and the executive. This is not something one organisation can fight. It is a collective struggle. We mapped the legislative arena to identify those MPs we could reach out to, speak with and share information with, because we needed to have progressive MPs debating on our behalf.

Awareness-raising and engagement are also taking place online. People have reached out to the LGBTQI+ community and offered donations, expertise and contacts so that we could reach out to key personalities who could help. Protests were also coordinated and held outside the country, for instance in Canada, the UK and the USA. Online organising allowed us to hold abroad the in-person protests that for security reasons we could not physically hold here.

How can international civil society best support the struggle for LGBTQI+ rights in Ghana?

When people ask us what they can do, we tell them to protest, to create awareness, to let people know what is happening in Ghana and urge their governments to do something about it. If they have worked in Ghana before and have contacts among powerful people in Ghana, they should use them. A consultant who has worked with a ministry can use their contacts there, and a civil society organisation that has worked here can use its networks to support local organisations. They should encourage their own governments to take up any opportunity to raise the human rights implications of the bill with the Ghanaian government. International civil society organisations and the global community should definitely put more pressure on the Ghanaian government. 

This is a crisis and local organisations and activists were not prepared, so we need a lot of support, particularly technical expertise in the legal arena. It is also key to have allies who can speak on our behalf, so that not all those speaking up against the bill are part of the LGBTQI+ community.

Another thing that the global community and international civil society can do is support us through funding. Rightify Ghana is currently self-financing its activities and cannot offer the level of support that people need. As soon as the bill was submitted to parliament, evictions of LGBTQI+ people increased alongside arrests, and we saw an increase in the number of people asking for help finding shelter, but unfortunately, our community doesn’t have safe houses.

People are being evicted not just by their landlords but also by their own families under suspicion of homosexuality, and they are not finding new places to live. We receive a lot of desperate messages from people who are temporarily staying with friends but urgently need a more stable arrangement. Some of these people are under very high risk.

In one such case, a woman who identifies as lesbian told us she considered leaving the country because a group of boys in her community threatened her with ‘corrective rape’. She lives with her family, and if she tells them about the threat, they will realise that she is a lesbian and will throw her out. Either way, she is in a very dangerous situation, and right now, there is not much that we can do to help her.

Civic space in Ghana is rated ‘narrowedby the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Rightify Ghana through its Facebook and Instagram pages, and follow @RightifyGhana on Twitter. 

 

BIODIVERSITY: ‘Governments will not show political will unless people on the ground put enough pressure’

Gadir LavadenzCIVICUS speaks with Gadir Lavadenz, global coordinator of the Convention on Biological Diversity Alliance (CBD Alliance), about the ongoing process to draft a post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework with the full participation of affected communities and wider civil society.

The CBD Alliance is a network of civil society organisations (CSOs) with a common interest in the Convention on Biological Diversity. It works to increase public understanding of relevant issues, enhance cooperation among organisations wishing to have a positive influence in the CBD and bridge the gap between those who participate in CBD sessions and those involved in biodiversity-related work on the ground, while respecting the independence and autonomy of Indigenous peoples, a key stakeholder.

What is the CBD Alliance, what does it do and how did it develop?

The origins of the CBD Alliance, about two decades ago, were organic – it came naturally as those participating in the CBD process saw the need to act together and amplify the voices of civil society in the negotiations. Since the beginning, the CBD Alliance’s role was not to speak on behalf of people, but rather to support all advocacy efforts being undertaken autonomously in the best way possible.

Despite our limitations, it is very clear to us that the less privileged groups require specific support. Also, while our network is diverse, we respect the role and have fluent coordination with the other major groups involved in the process, particularly the International Indigenous Forum on Biodiversity (IIFB), the Global Youth Biodiversity Network and the Women Caucus.

The CBD Alliance is a broad community: in includes both Indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs) and CSOs that support them closely. We fully respect each of these groups’ governance structures and decision-making processes and decisions. We maintain fluent communications and coordination with the IIFB, which represents the biggest group of IPLCs engaged with the CBD. We support their statements during official meetings, we support the participation of IPLCs at international meetings whenever possible and we amplify all their publications and campaigns.

Why is there a need for a new Global Biodiversity Framework? 

Historically, the implementation of the CBD focused around its first objective, the conservation of biological diversity, and comparatively little attention was put on its second and third objectives, which are the sustainable use of the components of biological diversity, and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the use of genetic resources. This is one of the reasons why the CBD has not been able to deliver the results required. The past decade saw lack of political will from parties to the CBD leading to failure in achieving the Aichi targets, and there is abundant literature demonstrating how the destruction of biodiversity continues rampant.

A new framework should be a unique opportunity to correct past mistakes. The CBD covers a broad range of issues but has failed to address the root causes of biodiversity loss, and its hyper attention to targets such as the one on protected areas, focusing on quantity rather than quality, has hidden huge inconsistencies in our approach to biodiversity loss.

For instance, the Forest Peoples Programme, a member of the CBD Alliance, reported that global funding of biodiversity has grown significantly over the past decade, and is now estimated at between US$78 billion and US$147 billion per year. However, it is greatly outweighed by public subsidies and broader financial flows that drive biodiversity loss, which are estimated at between US$500 billion and several trillion dollars per year.

Furthermore, while the contributions of Indigenous peoples and local communities are widely recognised as critically important for protecting biodiversity, they are often negatively impacted on by biodiversity finance, and receive little direct support for their efforts.

Another CBD Alliance member, the Third World Network, reported that in 2019, 50 of the world’s largest banks underwrote more than US$2.6 trillion in industries known to be the drivers of biodiversity loss. A recent study concluded that ‘the financial sector is bankrolling the mass extinction crisis, while undermining human rights and indigenous sovereignty’.

According to the Global Forest Coalition, also a member of the CBD Alliance, climate finance and subsidised renewable energy generation are a form of direct subsidy that often harms forests while failing to reduce emissions. The most prominent example of this is the Drax power station in the UK, which receives UK£2 million (approx. US$2.8 million) per day to produce highly polluting electricity from wood clear-felled from highly biodiverse wetland forests in the south-eastern USA, among other places. Other examples include the Global Environment Facility’s subsidy to iron and steel companies to produce charcoal from eucalyptus plantations in Brazil, and numerous national and European Union-level subsidies available to the pulp and paper industry in Portugal.

Recently, in an event organised by the CBD Secretariat, several so-called world leaders pledged great amounts of money for biodiversity. However, countries from the global north have failed to fulfil their international commitments in relation to new and additional funds. What they pledge for nature is mixed with all sorts of schemes that do not address the real causes of biodiversity loss. And the amounts pledged to protect biodiversity are clearly outweighed by all the money invested in destroying biodiversity.

In addition to these troubling contradictions and inconsistencies, powerful groups and developed nations constantly try to avoid their responsibilities by all means. We see the push to incorporate terms such as nature-based solutions in the CBD simply as another trick from big polluters to offset their obligations and a new form of corporate land-grabbing and greenwashing.

Why isn’t this all over the mainstream media? This is what happens when ‘big’ players focus all their attention on certain policies and activities, such as the increase in protected areas. Protected areas are not bad, but they are far from being a real solution to the much-needed change in our production and consumption patterns. The narrative around the CBD must shift towards the root causes of biodiversity loss, which are more structural and related to justice and equity. Just like climate change is no longer a purely environmental problem, we need to see the big picture of the destruction of biodiversity that relates to the rights of IPLCs, peasants, women, future generations and nature herself. We need to put an end to the commodification of nature, since nature does not belong to us, or to those few privileged among us. Nature does not need fancy schemes and lots of money to thrive, it needs us to stop destroying it. This narrative should make us all desire and truly work for profound individual and collective change.

 

What change should the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework bring?

The CBD is a legally binding agreement and, if fully implemented, has great potential. The post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework should be the instrument to implement the legal obligations of the parties to the CBD through accountability mechanisms that sanction any lack of action. It is also an opportunity to adopt a rights-based approach that puts the rights of IPLCs, women and peasants, and the rights of nature, at the centre of the debate, connecting the CBD to the international human rights architecture. 

Several reports have shown that violations of human rights have been committed for the sake of protected areas. While tackling the biodiversity and climate change crisis is both possible and unavoidable, various interests are pushing for this connection to be centred around ‘nature-based solutions’, a cover for schemes such as offsets, which do not benefit nature but the status quo and do not bring real solutions to our structural problems.

Another great challenge is the fact that the implementation of environmental norms is usually in the hands of environmental ministries, which tend to be completely powerless in comparison to others that are the actual drivers of biodiversity loss. This needs to change in relation to the new Global Biodiversity Framework.

 

The UN Biodiversity Conference has been twice postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. What challenges has this created?

The first challenge we faced was that global north countries pushed strongly to continue with the negotiations through virtual means without any consideration of the variety of difficulties experienced not only by their counterparts in the global south but also by civil society. The CBD Alliance expressed concerns around the inequalities and inequities of virtual negotiations on several occasions and supported the proposal by global south parties to postpone the negotiations. It was only when African and some Latin American parties expressed deep concerns about this situation that rich nations backed down and online meetings were maintained so the conversations could continue, but it was established that decisions would only be adopted in face-to-face meetings.

How can international civil society best support the work you are doing around the post-2000 Global Biodiversity Framework?

Some of our goals are to ensure that the post-2020 Global Diversity Framework centres around a strong statement of principles, such as equity and common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR); a mechanism for dealing with noncompliance, including penalties, which should be well embedded under the principle of CBDR; a target focused on human rights and environmental defenders and on women, as they are the ones who are defending biodiversity in the real world; and a target on outlawing major disturbances of nature.

Once the Framework is approved, our mission will be to coordinate with regions, networks and organisations that have a direct connection with those working on the ground and on the frontlines. This coordination should include massive and intense dissemination of the Framework, but with a focus on how it can empower people in their resistance, struggles and projects.

Even if faced with legally binding obligations, governments will not show political will unless people on the ground put enough pressure on them. Such pressure cannot happen without meaningful empowerment and information of the decisions adopted at the international level.

Get in touch with CBD Alliance through its website, Facebook page and Twitter account. 

 

AFGHANISTAN: ‘The international response has been extremely weak and shameful’

CIVICUS speaks with activist Arzak Khan, about the situation in Afghanistan following the takeover by the Taliban. Arzak is a digital rights expert with extensive experience in the use of innovation to influence social change and he has been working to assist Afghan human rights defenders. While some activists, journalists and others who were at risk of reprisals from the Taliban because of their work were able to leave the country, many others have not been able to and have gone into hiding. There have been reports of activists facing systematic intimidation. Afghanistan is currently on the CIVICUS Monitor Watchlist of countries experiencing a rapid decline in civic freedoms

Arzak Khan

What is the situation in Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover?

On 15 August 2021, the Taliban entered the Afghan capital of Kabul, completing a rapid takeover with a speed that surprised many Afghans and the country’s neighbours. Following the fall of Kabul, the situation in the country has been uncertain. Prices for basic food items are increasing, people are becoming jobless, single mothers have been made redundant from jobs and a lot of uncertainty exists over girls’ education.

Already a number of cases of human rights violations have been reported, and brutal crackdowns on protests and the women’s movement are taking place. The excessive use of force and arbitrary arrests by Taliban security forces as they crack down on protests have been highlighted by both traditional and social media since the fall of Kabul. It is important to remember that when the Taliban last ruled in the 1990s, women had to cover themselves fully, from head to toe, and were not allowed to walk outside without being escorted by a male family member.

Afghan women have now realised that those dark days are not behind and are taking to the streets to advocate for women’s rights and demand equality, justice and democracy. The Taliban have fired teargas and used batons to break up their protests. Journalists who have covered protests have been jailed and tortured. Such actions highlight the rapidly deteriorating state of civic freedoms and the need to ensure that civic space is defended at all costs.

What kinds of risks do civil society activists and organisations currently face?

In their first news conference after taking charge of Kabul in August 2021, the Taliban promised women’s rights, media freedom and amnesty for former government officials. However, there is a high degree of hostility towards activists and civil society organisations (CSOs), and Taliban security forces on the ground have often accused them of spying for foreign governments.

The more radical parts of the Taliban feel that because CSOs and activists cooperated with parties to the conflict, they are legitimate targets and should be punished for their role. CSO offices have been raided; all records, equipment and fixtures have been taken away. Many activists fear for their lives as the regime targets people from CSOs that have been vocal on important issues, such as women’s rights, LGBTQI+ rights and human rights in general.

Due to increased threats against human rights defenders and activists, many have gone into hiding or are trying to flee the county. Even if the Taliban regime chooses not to target CSOs, activists and human rights defenders, it remains to be seen if they can provide a secure environment and prevent attacks from other actors, such as Islamic State-Khorasan – the local branch of the Islamic State group in Afghanistan – and other rogue elements.

Are journalists currently able to report on the situation on the ground?

To be honest, press freedom does not exist in Afghanistan any more. Absolute disregard for press and media freedoms is visible in the violent retaliation against journalists and media workers covering the recent protests. Images of the arrest and brutal flogging of two reporters who were detained while covering a women’s rights demonstration in Kabul is just once such incident that has been publicised globally. The senior Taliban leadership claims that journalists are not being attacked or tortured, but there’s a big difference between the Taliban on the media, who are more moderate and articulate, and the Taliban in the streets, who are uneducated, trigger happy and outright violent. Journalists and media outlets are unable to report the situation on the ground due to mounting pressure from local Taliban militias. Many journalists have been threatened with images of beheading to stop them reporting atrocities on ground.

How have you been supporting civil society and activists?

The stunningly swift collapse of the Afghan state created a situation of panic even for someone who has been closely monitoring the political developments in the country. Given the rapid response that was needed, I was able to quickly assess the situation on the ground and mobilise our partners to support Afghan activists, journalists and advocates for women’s rights to identify escape routes and lobby for securing visas, flights, or any kind of way out of Afghanistan to safe locations.

Everything had to be done swiftly as there was high risk that these individuals and their families might be targeted by the Taliban because of their affiliation with international organisations. Assistance for healthcare, including mental health support to overcome trauma and terror, especially for women and children, had to be arranged for people escaping the regime.

What do you think of the response by the international community so far?

Despite urgent warnings from activists and civil society groups about the risks that human rights defenders, activists, marginalised communities and women would face under the Taliban, the international response to support our work has been extremely weak and shameful. It seems that states that over the past two decades played a critical role that led to civil society gains are now ready to sacrifice the blood and sweat of the people who worked to bring change to Afghanistan.

On 7 October 2021, the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council adopted a resolution to create a Special Rapporteur on Afghanistan. The resolution fell short of civil society demands for the establishment of an international monitoring and accountability mechanism. It is crucial that UN member states support the adoption of a resolution to create an independent investigative mechanism on Afghanistan as a matter of priority, that they support civic space freedoms and ensure that CSOs and activists are allowed to operate without fear of torture or death, and that the Taliban regime is held accountable for its actions.

What else can international civil society and the international community do to support Afghan civil society?

Civic space has been under attack in the South Asia region, and in Afghanistan it has become violent. To counter this trend, transnational actors that support civil society need to respond in a multi-dimensional manner. Unfortunately, the international response since the fall of Kabul seems stuck: some useful efforts have been undertaken, but they appear too limited, loosely focused and reactive rather than strategic and long-term.

The international community and donor agencies should exert diplomatic pressure on the Taliban regime so it commits to protecting civic space in line with international human rights norms. They should establish emergency funds for persecuted rights activists and organisations and offer operational support to CSOs. Funders should also continue to expand flexible funding strategies to overcome legal barriers and help CSOs operate in hostile environments, working with intermediaries that can reach a wider range of partners and reducing grantees’ administrative burdens.

For now, the future looks very uncertain. How the Taliban regime will react in the coming months is the million-dollar question. Between hope and hopelessness, I wish that peace can prevail, and that the international community does not turn its back on the people of Afghanistan, who have been victims of global powers’ regional dominance.

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

Get in touch with Arzak Khan through his blog or Facebook page, and follow @arzakkhan on Twitter.

 

 

 

COP26: ‘Awareness that we need to protect the climate to protect ourselves is still missing’

In the run-up to the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26), which will take place in Glasgow, UK between 31 October and 12 November 2021, CIVICUS is interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about the environmental challenges they face in their contexts, the actions they are undertaking to tackle them and their expectations for the upcoming summit.

CIVICUS speaks with Sascha Müller-Kraenner, Executive Director of Environmental Action Germany (Deutsche Umwelthilfe), an organisation that supports sustainable ways of life and economic systems that respect ecological boundaries. It has advocated for the preservation of biological diversity and the protection of climate and natural assets for more than 40 years.

Sascha Muller Kraenner

Photo: Stefan Wieland

What’s the key climate issue in Germany that you’re working on?

Germany and Europe need to phase out fossil gas to have any hope of keeping global warming below 1.5°C. Politicians don’t accept this reality yet, and the public debate is muddied by the gas lobby pushing a misleading campaign to portray fossil gas as clean, cheap and climate friendly. But getting serious about climate protection means that the entire energy system needs to be transformed, and fossil gas has no place in this transformation. We need to stop subsidising it and building new infrastructure for it.

Renewables and energy efficiency need to be scaled up massively to reduce gas demand and provide clean power generation. In the heating sector, we need to ban the sale of new gas heaters and replace existing ones with sustainable technologies such as heat pumps rather than false solutions such as hydrogen.

The emergence of ‘green gases’ such as hydrogen presents a threat and an opportunity in this regard, and designing regulation that is fit for a climate-neutral future is a key challenge. As the supply of green hydrogen will be very limited, because it is very expensive to produce, we need to use it only for sectors that are hard to decarbonise, like high-temperature industrial processes, rather than heating or transport, where other options are available.

Did the devastating floods Germany experienced in July lead to any greater acknowledgement of the climate crisis and willingness to take action?

Acknowledgement, yes. The floods were widely, and correctly, attributed to climate change. However, the debate has not changed much after the immediate crisis was over. The government had to commit €30 billion (approx. US$35 billion) to fix flood-related damages and rebuild the affected regions. Yet, in the context of the federal election, climate policy was debated as a ‘cost’ that society has to pay for altruistic reasons.

Pitting climate policy against economic development is a false dichotomy. The truth is that we need to reduce emissions, even in areas where it is difficult, precisely to avoid massively costly events like floods and droughts becoming more and more frequent. This awareness that we need to protect the climate to protect ourselves is still missing.

To what extent did the climate crisis feature in the campaign for Germany’s October election, and how is the climate movement pressuring the likely new government that will result from the election to do more?

According to polls, climate change was the most important issue in the election. This was partly because of frustration with the outgoing ‘grand coalition’ government, which was complacent about the climate crisis, unable to achieve its own targets and unwilling to take far-reaching decisions in critical areas such as renewables, buildings, transport and agriculture.

The climate movement, particularly Fridays for Future, has become much stronger since the 2017 election. Young people are mobilised and they will keep up the pressure because they rightly fear for their future. The Green party will very likely form part of the new government after achieving its best election result ever. This bodes well for climate policy and also for the influence of the climate movement. The Green party has by far the most expertise and willingness to adopt ambitious climate policy, and it is also the most open to the concerns of the climate movement.

How do you connect with the broader international climate movement?

Deutsche Umwelthilfe is connected with the climate movement in Europe through membership in umbrella associations like Climate Action Network-Europe and the European Environmental Bureau. We participate in regular exchanges and working groups with our European partners on a variety of issues, such as phasing out gas, regulating methane emissions, sustainable finance and sustainable heating.

What hopes, if any, do you have for COP26 to make progress, and how useful generally do you find such international processes?

There is no doubt that international cooperation is crucial if we are to limit global heating effectively, and the Paris Agreement is testimony to that. Despite that, however, since the beginning of the series of Conference of the Parties meetings we have seen a continuous rise in emissions globally. Many also criticise these events on the basis that they are heavily sponsored by industry, and that their outcomes are therefore somewhat tilted towards the expectations of industry.

Thus, international processes are one the one hand crucial, but on the other hand, they are also an opportunity for the fossil fuel industry to gain or at least retain their reputation as part of the solution to the climate crisis, while they continue to block progress in a lot of cases.

We have to be careful then when considering the outcome that COP26 can realistically provide. I do hope that progress will be made towards emission reduction commitments to stay in reach of the Paris Agreement, but it will take civil society to demand and implement the necessary changes, regardless of the outcome of COP26. We are and will continue to be part of that change.

What one change would you like to see that would help address the climate crisis?

In recent years we have seen incredible efforts by the young generation to finally act on the promises made in the Paris Agreement. Yet decision-makers far too often disregard their knowledge and demands around the climate crisis and instead continue with business as usual. I think we would all benefit if young people were given greater influence in decision-making processes that have the potential to halt global heating.

Civic space in Germany is rated ‘open’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Environmental Action Germany through its website or Facebook and Instagram pages, and follow @Umwelthilfe and @sascha_m_k on Twitter. 

 

COP26: ‘False solutions are brandished to divert our attention from those responsible’

In the run-up to the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26), which will take place in Glasgow, UK between 31 October and 12 November 2021, CIVICUS is interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about the environmental challenges they face in their contexts, the actions they are undertaking to tackle them and their expectations for the upcoming summit.

CIVICUS speaks with Lia Mai Torres, Executive Director of the Center for Environmental Concerns (CEC) – Philippines, a civil society organisation (CSO) that helps Filipino communities address environmental challenges. Founded in 1989 through an initiative of organisations representing fisherfolk, farmers, Indigenous peoples, women, people living in urban poverty and professional sectors, CEC focuses on environmental research, education, advocacy and campaigning. It is also part of the secretariat of the Asia Pacific Network of Environment Defenders (APNED), a coalition of organisations working in solidarity to protect the environment and its defenders.

Lia Mai Torres

What’s the key environmental issue in your country that you’re working on?

The main environmental issue that the Philippines is currently facing is the proliferation of environmentally destructive projects and programmes. This situation persisted or even worsened under the pandemic.

Just recently, the current administration lifted a moratorium on mining, based on claims that it will help the economy recover, after it was hard hit by the poor pandemic response. This will usher in around 100 mining agreements in different parts of the country. This was opposed by many communities due to the negative impacts of existing mining operations. An example is in the village of Didipio, Nueva Vizcaya, in the northern part of the Philippines, where a mining agreement with the Australian-Canadian company OceanaGold was renewed for another 25 years. The Bugkalot and Tuwali Indigenous communities are already suffering from a lack of water supply due to the mining operations and they fear that this will worsen with the continuing operations.

Infrastructure projects are also a priority of the government, which claims that they will also help the economy. However, there are projects that are foreign funded under onerous loans that will worsen the situation of residents. An example of this is the China-funded Kaliwa Dam in Rizal province, in the southern part of Luzon island. It will encroach on the Dumagat Indigenous people’s ancestral domain, including sacred sites, as well as a protected area.

Another example are the monocrop plantations that can be found mostly in the provinces of Mindanao. Ancestral domains of the Lumad Indigenous people have been converted into banana and pineapple plantations. Some residents report illnesses from the synthetic chemicals used in the plantations and many are being displaced from their farmlands.

These are a few examples of priority projects that are pushed by the government to bring so-called development. However, it is obvious that these do not genuinely improve the situation of local communities, most of which are already experiencing poverty. In addition, the natural resources of the country are mostly not exploited to the benefit of its citizens, since the products extracted are destined for export. Only very few local and international corporations benefit from them. Natural resources are used for profit and not for national development.

Have you faced backlash for the work you do?

CEC works with local communities, since we believe that environmental struggles cannot be won without the united efforts of the people who are experiencing environmental impact. The real power comes from the organisations on the ground. CSOs like ours and other sectors should support their efforts, connecting local struggles to build a strong environmental movement at the national and international levels.

Because of our support to local communities, we have faced reprisals. In 2007, Lafayette Mining Ltd, an Australian mining company, filed a libel case against CEC’s then-executive director for exposing the impacts of the company’s operations. In 2019 and 2021, our organisation was targeted through red-tagging, a practice by which the government declares individuals and organisations as terrorists or communists, in retaliation for our humanitarian missions following a typhoon and during the pandemic. 

We also received information of a threat of a police raid in our office for providing sanctuary to Lumad Indigenous children who were forced out of their communities due to militarisation, threats and harassment. Our peaceful protest actions are often violently dispersed by the police and private security forces, and a member of our staff was arrested in 2019.

Behind all these attacks are state security forces alongside the private security forces of corporations. The police and military have seemingly become part of the corporations’ security forces, using repressive measure to ensure that their operations run smoothly.

How do you connect with the broader international climate movement?

As many countries, especially from the global south, are experiencing similar environmental problems, we recognise the need to connect with organisations in other countries. In 2015, CEC was among the conveners of the International People’s Conference on Mining, in which environmental defenders were able to learn from each other’s experiences and coordinate local campaigns.

CEC also helped establish APNED, a solidarity campaign network that provides mutual support to campaigns, raises issues at the international level, advocates for greater protection to defenders, conducts capacity-building activities and facilitates services. We believe that it is important to have solidarity among defenders to help strengthen local movements as well as the international struggle for our environmental rights.

What hopes, if any, do you have for COP26 to make progress on your issue, and how useful generally do you find such international processes?

Even before the pandemic, there were concerns regarding the inclusion of frontline or grassroots environmental defenders in international processes such as the climate talks. Lack of inclusivity became more evident under the pandemic, as many CSOs have found it difficult to attend due to additional requirements and expenses. In addition, only accredited organisations can attend formal events, and these are only very few with accreditation. Further, governments’ reports are usually far from reality. The worsening climate crisis is proof that governments are not doing enough.

Despite this, we will still participate in the formal and side events of COP26, aiming to bring attention to how many developed countries and big corporations are worsening the climate crisis through resource grabbing and the exploitation of the natural resources of poor countries, exacerbating existing poverty, and how false solutions are brandished to divert our attention from their responsibility and lack of accountability. We also want to highlight the importance of environmental defenders in protecting our environment and upholding our environmental rights, and therefore the need to ensure that they do not suffer more politically motivated human rights violations that hinder them from doing their important work.

What one change would you like to see that would help address the climate crisis?

We hope that the profit-oriented capitalist framework will be changed in the Philippines. This would ensure resource conflicts will be addressed, environmental protection for ecological balance upheld, genuine climate adaptation programmes established and due attention given to vulnerable groups. This also includes holding countries and corporations that contribute to the climate crisis accountable and providing support for poor countries to adapt.

Civic space in the Philippines is rated ‘repressedby the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Center for Environmental Concerns-Philippines through its website or Facebook page, and follow @CEC_Phils on Twitter. 

 

COP26: ‘Young people are making proposals rather than just demanding change by holding up a sign’

In the run-up to the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26), which will take place in Glasgow, UK between 31 October and 12 November 2021, CIVICUS is interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about the environmental challenges they face in their contexts, the actions they are undertaking to tackle them and their expectations for the upcoming summit.

CIVICUS speaks with Antonella Regular and Joaquín Salinas, Communications Coordinator and Training Coordinator of Juventudes COP Chile (COP Chile Youth), an independent youth platform focused on climate action. The group seeks to create advocacy spaces for young people and be an intergenerational and intersectional space for mutual learning.

Antonella Regular y Joaquin Salinas

What are the key environmental problems you encounter in Chile?

One key problem is that of environmental sacrifice zones or areas with a high level of environmental impact, that is, areas that concentrate a large number of polluting industries that have a direct impact on communities. Another problem is mining and the way in which extractive rights are positioned above the rights of communities and the environment, with operations such as the controversial Dominga project in the Coquimbo region on Chile’s north-central coast. And in the south, the issue of deforestation.

These environmental issues are our entry point into the communities: they allow us to know what their challenges and goals are so that we can exert influence and act, and not just make demands. Our platform seeks to create solutions to address the problems.

The fact that young people do not find spaces where they can be heard and actively participate in decision-making is also a problem. Chile is currently going through a constituent process: there is a very diverse and plural Constituent Assembly, which was directly elected by citizens, and which is drafting a new Constitution. For the first time there is the possibility that some historical demands that have been ignored for the longest time will be met. At this decisive moment it is important for young people to be included in decision-making and to be able to influence the design of progressive public policies.

How do your actions connect with the global climate movement?

The Juventudes COP Chile platform tries to function as a bridge between civil society and international advocacy spaces such as climate conferences. Our goal is for civil society as a whole to be empowered with opinions and demands to exert influence within these spaces. We have opened spaces for participation and established alliances, and all the proposals that have emerged from these spaces will be delivered to COP26. 

Juventudes COP Chile promotes the participation of young people and encourages them to take an active position. We are making proposals rather than just demanding change by holding up a sign.

What progress do you expect from COP26, and more generally, how useful do you find such international processes?

There are many issues left pending from COP25. For instance, there is a need to finalise the rulebook in relation to article 6 of the Paris Agreement, regarding carbon markets, for states and companies to trade greenhouse gas emissions units. We hope that at COP26, states will finally reach an agreement and there will be a breakthrough in this regard. They should also stop postponing Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) until 2050. And NDCs should no longer be voluntary. The fact that they are almost feels like mockery given the state of the climate crisis.

Progress is urgently needed because we are seeing that climate change is real and it is happening. Some changes are already irreversible: we are experiencing them on a daily basis in our relationship with the environment and we may hardly be able merely to adopt adaptation rules anymore.

Parties at COP26 should realise this and put their own interests aside to think about the survival of the human species. They must listen to science and to young people. The participation of young people in these processes cannot be a mere protocol: it must be real, active and meaningful.

What changes would you like to see in the world or in your community that could help solve the climate crisis?

In our communities we hope for more participation and access to information. In Chile there is a great deal of centralisation: everything happens in the capital, Santiago de Chile, and that creates a deficit of citizen participation in decision-making and information delivery at the community level. We hope that progress will be made on issues of decentralisation and redistribution of effective decision-making power.

One of the principles upheld by Juventudes COP Chile is precisely that of decentralisation, and that is why we work with people from different parts of the country. We would like to see a much bigger adoption of some of the practices that we have adopted at Juventudes COP Chile, such as artivism, regenerative culture, horizontal relations and community work.

At the national level, we hope that politicians will start to take this problem seriously. They must work to reduce pollution and alleviate the climate crisis. They must start by recognising that the climate crisis is a human rights crisis, drastically affecting the quality of life of the most vulnerable people and communities. It is important that there is a recognition that this is happening and that it is a serious problem.

An important step to start moving forward would be for Chile to finally sign the Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean, better known as the Escazú Agreement. This is the first regional environmental agreement in Latin America and the Caribbean and the first in the world with specific provisions on human rights and environmental defenders. For years the state of Chile pushed forward the negotiations that resulted in this agreement, but then decided not to sign it. It should do so without delay.

Civic space in Chile is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Contact Juventudes COP Chile through their website or their Facebook or Instagram pages. 

 

 

USA: ‘We cannot trust that increased anti-Asian hate will disappear once the pandemic is over’

Marita EtcubaneCIVICUS speaks with Marita Etcubañez, senior director of strategic initiatives with Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC (Advancing Justice | AAJC), about the recent wave of anti-Asian racism and violence in the USA, and mobilisations by Asian Americans in response. Advancing Justice | AAJC’S mission is to advance civil rights and other human rights for Asian Americans and to build and promote a fair and equitable society for all communities.

In which ways does anti-Asian racism manifest in the USA? How is it similar or different from the discrimination experienced by other groups?

In many ways the racism and discrimination that are experienced by the Asian American community are similar to those experienced by other people of colour and immigrants generally. But there are two things that are different for Asian Americans. One is our image as perpetual foreigners: no matter how long we have been in the USA, even if we have been born here, Asian Americans are often perceived as foreigners, alien others, not fully American. If you pause to think, you immediately realise that is a stereotype, yet it continues to be hard to shake off. Obviously, there are many Asian Americans whose families have been in the country for generations, but at first glance people still don’t see us as Americans.

Another difference is the myth that we are a model minority, that is, the perception of Asian Americans as being universally well-educated and affluent. While on average the Asian American population is better educated and more affluent than the general population, those are just averages that don’t reflect the reality of the lives of countless Asian Americans. If you look at disaggregated data about our communities, you’ll see that some ethnic groups within the Asian American community are doing quite well, but others continue to struggle. It is incorrect to assume that everyone in our community is thriving. There are segments of the Asian American population that have lower education attainment and lower income and continue to live in poverty. It’s important not to focus exclusively on averages and to look at more detailed information about our community and continue to push for more disaggregated data to be available.

Not only is the model minority myth not accurate; it is also hurtful. In many ways, these ideas have been brought forward and continue to persist in connection with white supremacy, because holding up Asian Americans as a model minority, a ‘good’ minority, is often held against other communities of colour. By claiming that Asian American minorities are doing so well, they imply that other communities of colour must not be ‘as good’. This stereotype seeks to divide communities of colour, pitting us against each other, so we must resist it.

Whenever we refer to the concept of the ‘model minority’, we are careful to clarify that it is a myth and not an idea we should embrace and take pride in. It’s something we must push back against because it’s harmful to all communities.

Have discrimination and hate expressions intensified under the pandemic?

There’s been an increase in hate and harassment to the Asian American community during the COVID-19 pandemic, out of misplaced blame for the spread of the virus. Because the virus is thought to have originated in China, many people were quick to point the finger and blame Chinese people. And because many people don’t understand the diversity of the Asian American community, that blame quickly extended to Chinese Americans, other Asian Americans and other people who were perceived as Asian. Logically, it doesn’t make sense.

This has been in addition to the standard ways in which our people were already experiencing harassment and discrimination. Racism and xenophobia are not new to us: our community has always had to deal with them. But racial slurs, verbal abuse, bullying and even physical attacks increased during the pandemic.

Did anything change as restrictions were lifted and the country reopened?

I would say that what has changed is that at the beginning of the pandemic I’m not sure that everyone took us as seriously as they should have when we raised concerns about increased hate and harassment towards Asian Americans. As the pandemic continued, more and more people have reported hate incidents and crimes that they have experienced. We need to create greater awareness around the issue so more people understand what is happening, so we will continue to work to address it.

The way a lot of people talked about COVID-19, following in the footsteps of some elected leaders, contributed to an overall environment that was hostile to Asian Americans and to heightening the racism that people already experienced. Some people thought it was okay to act on their instincts because they were following the actions of President Trump and his administration.

Social media also worked as an echo chamber to a lot of people who surrounded themselves only with the information, ideas, and news coverage consistent with their beliefs. A lot of people use social media platforms in their native languages, so a lot of the same information gets circulated and it’s very hard to address misinformation and disinformation.

I would love to say that hopefully hate and harassment will go away as the pandemic recedes, but unfortunately, the experiences of Middle Eastern and South Asian communities who have experienced heightened and persistent hate following 9/11 alert us to the fact that this may not be the case. Twenty years after 9/11, we are still dealing with anti-Muslim hate and discrimination. I don’t think we can trust that increased anti-Asian hate will disappear once the pandemic is over.

How is your organisation working to address this problem?

We strive for recognition and equity for Asian American communities while taking care to demonstrate solidarity with ally communities, including other communities of color, by supporting and hopefully not undermining their demands. With respect to anti-Asian hate, we focus on education by building awareness and understanding of the harassment that our communities have always faced but that has heightened under the pandemic and encouraging people to talk about these issues and to report hate crimes and hate incidents. But I recognise that this is going to be an uphill battle because people will continue to be reluctant to report when they are targeted; not just because of stigma, but also because our systems aren’t yet properly set up to give people the assistance and the support they need to do so.

We are also involved in bystander intervention training. We have partnered with an organisation called Hollaback!, which works to end all forms of harassment, to create a training series to give people practical and actionable strategies that they can use to intervene if they witness harassment or experience it themselves. We started this training in early 2020 and the demand for the training really intensified this year on account of the recent increase in harassment and physical assaults against Asian Americans. Later this year we will have reached over 120,000 people with our training activities and we continue to hold them to reach even wider audiences.

Our main focus is on advocacy and policymaking because we strive for policy change, particularly at the federal level. In May 2021 we saw some progress with the passage of the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, which places specific emphasis on the increase in violence against Asian Americans and seeks to facilitate the reporting of hate at the local and state levels. This is progress, but we recognise that a single bill is not going to fix everything. There is more work that we must do, so we will continue to advocate for the things we feel our community needs to feel safe so we create the conditions under which we are able to thrive.

How do you connect with the wider movement for racial equality?

We demonstrate solidarity and work hand in hand with other communities, and we do our best to avoid taking any position that would harm other communities. We work closely with other U.S. civil society organisations to make sure that we are supporting one another and advocate for solutions that will lift all our communities, and not one at the expense of another.

Many of us took inspiration from the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 and we have since seen more and more people engaging in conversation about anti-racism and the need to be actively anti-racist, and engaging in struggles for broader social justice. We have seen so many people pouring into the streets and taking action to become actively anti-racist in their own lives. 

We have all been speaking out in support of Black Lives Matter and part of that includes speaking out against violence. One message that we have been pushing out that we hope will resonate with Asian American communities and beyond is this idea that we want all of our communities to feel safe and protected.

Civic space in the USA is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC through its website or Facebook page, and follow @AAAJ_AAJC and @maritaetc on Twitter.

 

PERU: ‘It is necessary to restore trust in elections’

CIVICUS speaks with Iván Lanegra, secretary general of Transparency Civil Association (Asociación Civil Transparencia), about Peru’s recent presidential elections and the state of its democracy. Transparency is an independent civil society organisation that works to improve the quality of democracy and political representation by facilitating dialogue between political, governmental and civil society actors, implementing education and capacity-building programmes for citizen and political leadership, developing public policy proposals and observing electoral processes.

Ivan Lanegra

What was different and what was at stake in this election?

The recent general election was embedded in several political and social processes. First, it took place at the end of a very politically unstable five-year period, in which we had four presidents – Pedro Kuczynski, Martín Vizcarra, Manuel Merino and Francisco Sagasti – and Congress was constitutionally dissolved. At the same time, the economy was no longer growing as much, and social discontent began to increase. In this context, corruption scandals undermined the credibility of political parties. This was compounded by the socio-economic impact of the pandemic, which fuelled greater demands for redistribution.

As a result of all these processes, there was an atomisation of citizens’ preferences. The effects of this situation translated into high fragmentation of the vote in the parliamentary elections of January 2020 and, again, in the first round of the presidential election, held in April 2021, in which the two candidates who came out on top, and therefore went on to the second round, jointly received barely 33 per cent of the vote. There are 10 different political parties represented in our 130-seat Congress.

In the second electoral round, the victory of Pedro Castillo, of the left-wing Perú Libre (Free Peru) party over Keiko Fujimori, of the right-wing Fuerza Popular (Popular Force), showed the importance of the demands for change and rejection of conventional politics that grew in recent years.

However, the announcement of the official results was severely delayed, which created a climate of great uncertainty. In a context of high polarisation, there was an exponential increase in the number of appeals against the election results: normally, fewer than a dozen are filed, but on this occasion there were more than a thousand, none of which were considered well-founded. These appeals were used instrumentally: unfounded allegations of fraud were used to prolong the process as much as possible and to try to prevent the announcement of the results. While this attempt was unsuccessful, it delayed the transfer of power and increased distrust of politics and electoral institutions.

Why did many people not vote?

The rate of absenteeism in the first electoral round was almost 30 per cent, somewhat higher than in the 2020 legislative elections, when it reached 26 per cent; however, it dropped to less than 24 per cent in the runoff election. It is important to bear in mind that the first round of election took place when the COVID-19 pandemic was at its highest point in Peru. In other countries, such as Chile, it was not even possible to hold a vote due to the health emergency, but the elections took place normally in Peru. In fact, what is remarkable is that absenteeism wasn’t any higher.

What role did Transparency play in relation to the electoral process?

In the run-up to the election, as part of the #DecideBien (#ChooseWell) campaign, Transparency disseminated systematic information about the parties, their candidates and their proposals, so that citizens could assess their options. We broke down the parties’ policy programmes so that each person could learn about and compare the proposals of each candidate on the issues that interested them, and vote on the basis on that knowledge.

In addition, we invited citizens to register with the National Transparency Volunteer Network to become election observers. From our perspective, election observation consists of monitoring, providing guidance and bearing witness to the events that take place during election day, as well as educating citizens about electoral conduct and rules.

With this network of volunteers, Transparency observed the election process and from the outset we noted that the electoral process had been conducted normally, with only the kind of minor incidents that tend to occur in all elections, but which do not affect the results.

In view of the unfounded allegations that were made in an attempt to discredit the process, we also worked to counter electoral disinformation. The phenomenon of disinformation on social media, particularly after the runoff election, was much stronger than in previous elections, and the electoral authorities themselves had to set up teams dedicated almost exclusively to debunking ‘fake news’. The climate of polarisation surely contributed to increasing the impact of disinformation.

What political challenges lie ahead in the aftermath of the election?

The main challenges are how to reduce distrust in the state, how to address dissatisfaction with democracy and how to improve political representation. Although compared to these challenges, political polarisation, which was exacerbated in the electoral context, is less of a concern, it must also be considered. While the most radicalised sectors continue to fuel polarisation, they are in the minority. They managed to polarise the election because they were able to get through to the second round despite having received a low percentage of the vote, but after the election, the majority of citizens are far from the extremes. However, it is important to bear in mind that distrust, dissatisfaction and the feeling of lack of representation are elements that those who seek to exploit polarisation can use to their advantage.

It is necessary to restore trust in elections. To this end, we must continue to educate and inform citizens about the rules of elections, politics and democracy. We must also improve the mechanisms available to us for combatting disinformation. It is also necessary to move electoral reforms forward, in order to create incentives for the strengthening of political parties, as well as to improve the quality of political representation.

Civic space in Peru is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Transparency Civil Association through its website or its Facebook, Instagram and Tik Tok pages, and follow @actransparencia and @ilanegra on Twitter.

 

 

DISINFORMATION: ‘A moral case based on rigorous technical research can bring about change’

CIVICUS speaks with Imran Ahmed, founding Chief Executive Officer of the Centre for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), about the rise of disinformation and hate speech in the context of the pandemic, and the roles civil society can play in countering them. CCDH is an international civil society organisation that seeks to disrupt the architecture of online hate and misinformation. Founded in 2018, it develops strategies and runs campaigns to strengthen tolerance and democracy, as well as counterstrategies to resist new forms of hate and disinformation.

ImranAhmed

How did the Centre for Countering Digital Hate get started and what it is trying to achieve?

The Centre for Countering Digital Hate seeks to disrupt the production and distribution of content of hate and misinformation in digital spaces. It exists because digital channels have become one of the primary means through which we transmit information, establish social mores and behavioural or attitudinal norms, and create value as a society.

As it happens, those spaces have been colonised by malignant actors who have undermined some of the basic precepts of our democracy. They use trolling to undermine tolerance and the liberal values that give everyone an equal voice in those spaces and use misinformation not only to destabilise the fundamental tenets of the scientific method but also to spread hate.

We try to counter this by making malignant activity more costly. We use exposure and inoculation to make it more difficult and create costs, whether political, economic, or social, for those undertaking malignant activity.

How did your work change under the COVID-19 pandemic?

As early as February 2020, we pivoted the entire organisation towards fighting COVID-19 misinformation. We saw that extremist groups that were already on our radar were having discussions about COVID-19 as an opportunity, and any opportunity for a neo-Nazi is a threat to a civilised democratic society.

We always try to put our efforts where there is most need. A few months back, in December 2019, we had done a study on vaccines and disinformation for the UK parliament’s All-Party Parliamentary Group on Vaccinations for All, so we were already aware that anti-vaxxers were a sophisticated group of misinformation actors. In a paper that we put together for the UK and US governments in April 2020, we expressed concern about a surge in xenophobia driven by the pandemic and deriving from psychological, sociopsychological and neurological factors. There is a correlation between disgust sensitivity – which is high in a pandemic – and xenophobia. We also realised that anti-vaxxers were a very sophisticated group of propagandists, and if they were able to professionalise the production of COVID-19 misinformation, they would cause a lot of trouble.

How does COVID-19 disinformation connect with identity-based hate?

At a very simple level, because of the correlation between disgust sensitivity and xenophobia, we can look at the research in social psychology by Michael Bang Petersen and at explanations by neuro-endocrinologists such as Robert Sapolsky, which tell us that disgust sensitivity and group thinking are co-located in the insular cortex of the brain. For a year and a half we have warned that there is a problem, as people have been primed at a really basic level, in the sense that if you view anyone who is different from you and outside of your group as a potential threat, it triggers the frantic inner group thinking in your brain.

We know this is going to be an ongoing problem, but we do not know its long-term ramifications. This could potentially set back some of the work we’ve done, for example on migrants’ rights or climate change and taking responsibility for what happens to the world and not just yourself. There is a lazy assumption that we are going to ‘build back better’ because people are feeling positive about things once they feel we are coming out of the pandemic, yet for the past year and a half we have been neurologically and psychologically primed to be very insular.

What programmes and campaigns have you developed to reduce disinformation and hate?

One of the things we do well is produce actionable intelligence. I think what is key about our model is that we do not produce raw data, or research, or even insight, which is the analysis of data in context. We produce actionable intelligence, which is insight plus an understanding of what it is that you can do to change things.

Part of the problem with digital misinformation and hate is that people do not know what they can do about it because the platforms are resistant to doing anything and absolve themselves of the problem. We challenged this understanding through our work on anti-vaxxers.

First, in late 2020 Facebook stated that anti-vax misinformation wasn’t banned on their platform, and then they changed that as a result of our research showing that misinformation causes harm. It may sound trite to say misinformation causes harm in a pandemic, but it does – on a scale that is both massive and grave –, and we had to go out and prove it. Second, their platforms were uniquely being used by these bad actors to organise, and we had to prove that as well. Third, we produced the ‘Disinformation Dozen’, an analysis that showed that 12 anti-vaxxers were responsible for almost two-thirds of anti-vaccine misinformation circulating on social media platforms.

When we put out this research, everyone from President Biden to physicians begged social media platforms to change their behaviour and take responsibility as publishers. They have the biggest audience of any publishing company in the world, 4.5 billion users, and they must take that responsibility seriously. Recently Google announced that they are going to take action against the Disinformation Dozen. This took CCDH 18 months of campaigning. We were told it was a freedom of speech issue and that it would lead nowhere, but we have shown that if you present a moral case based on rigorous technical research, you can shift views and force people to confront the ramifications of the technology they have created. I think we have shown that change is possible, and I am very proud of that.

There are many areas affected by misinformation, from public health and migrants’ rights to sexual health and reproductive rights. In the last few months, for instance, we have taken on anti-abortion, violent extremist neo-Nazis in the Ukraine, using the same model of rigorous research and strong campaigning. We put out a report showing that Google and Facebook were taking money from anti-abortion campaigners by putting up ads. This means that they were enabling terrible organisations to spread misinformation that undermines women’s reproductive rights. In response to our report, they removed those ads the next day. More so, due to our campaign in the last few weeks, Heartbeat International and Live Action were banned from advertising on Google. 

How can civil society come together to put more pressure on governments and big tech companies to hold them accountable?

We need more people who not only have good technical skills but also understand persuasion, campaigning and activism, and who believe and bolster the moral argument to understanding the technology. In a risk society, where human-made risk and scientifically-generated negative externalities increasingly comprise what we campaign on, whether big tech undermining democracy and public health or climate change and the energy mix, these are areas where it is more important than ever that we understand that technical problems require moral argumentations. You need to make the moral argument and have the courage to make it, while also having a strong technical understanding of what is really going on.

For example, if you want to make the case, as President Biden did, that Facebook are killing people, you have to nail down exactly how their technology functions and be absolutely certain before you state it. That is what we do on the basis of our research. It is important to start reaching out beyond our usual allies and build alliances across science, technology and campaigning.

Get in touch with the Centre for Countering Digital Hate through its website or Facebook page, and follow counterhate on Instagram and @CCDHate on Twitter. 

 

COP26: ‘We hope for stricter obligations under the principle of common but differentiated responsibility’

Charles WanguhuIn the run-up to the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26), which will take place in Glasgow, UK between 31 October and 12 November 2021, CIVICUS is interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about the environmental challenges they face in their contexts, the actions they are undertaking to tackle them and their expectations for the upcoming summit.

CIVICUS speaks with Charles Wanguhu, a social activist and coordinator of the Kenya Civil Society Platform on Oil and Gas, a forum in which participating civil society organisations (CSOs) share information, plan and strategise together to conduct joint advocacy, engage with government agencies, companies and the media, and inform and sensitise the public.

What's the key environmental issue in your country that you're working on?

The Kenya Civil Society Platform on Oil and Gas is a not-for-profit members’ organisation working towards a sustainable oil and gas sector in Kenya and just energy transitions. With the discovery of oil in Kenya’s Turkana County, our work includes advocating for policy and legal frameworks that ensure environmental justice and climate considerations in developing Kenya’s oil. We do this through policy and regulation reviews and by building the capacity of local communities to participate effectively in environmental and social impact assessment (ESIA) processes to ensure that their environment is safeguarded. 

We also directly participate in the review of ESIAs, in which we agitate for climate change considerations and environmental protection at the project level. For instance, as Kenya’s Turkana Oil Project is expected to proceed to the production phase, we have participated in the project’s stakeholder consultation forums, where we have raised the need for the project’s ESIA to incorporate climate change impact assessments. We have also been advocating for transparency in the sector through disclosure of petroleum agreements and licences to enable the public to understand the environmental and climate change obligations of oil companies, allowing for increased accountability by the state and these companies.

Have you faced backlash for the work you do?

Shrinking civic space remains a challenge in our operating environment. Civil society groups face backlash from government when they speak out about topical issues. These restrictions mostly take the form of refusal of permits for protests or for holding meetings related to projects of concern. In some instances, government agencies such as the Non-Governmental Organisations Coordination Board and Kenya’s revenue authority have been used to target CSOs.

We also face restrictions from corporate entities, including the deliberate exclusion of CSOs from public participation events. Our members who have expressed concerns or are seen to be vocal about issues related to the extraction of oil and gas resources have found themselves not invited to participate or not allowed to give comments at public hearings.

How do you connect with the broader international climate movement?

We are developing a pan-African just transition programme that will involve working with other regional and international groups to ensure that the global energy transition is just for Africa and is reflective of the impacts of the climate crisis on Africa.

What hopes, if any, do you have for COP26, and how useful generally do you find such international processes?

Inclusion of climate change considerations at the project level already has a legal hook in Kenya through the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Paris Agreement and Kenya’s Climate Change Act of 2016. The delayed implementation of the Act has been a challenge, but we are aware of various draft regulations on climate change that are currently under review for eventual enactment.

Regarding just energy transition, we are hoping for stricter obligations complying with the principle of common but differentiated responsibility, which acknowledges that diverse countries have different responsibilities and capacities to address cross-border issues such as climate change. This would ensure that Africa is not left behind in the transition, or even worse, that the transition does not happen at Africa’s expense.

International processes have been useful to the extent that they have partly facilitated the domestication of climate change legal and policy frameworks, but we certainly hope for an increased commitment by states.

What one change would you like to see to help address the climate crisis?

We would like to see an increase in the speed of the implementation of climate change legal frameworks and obligations both locally and internationally. Further, we would like to see the developed countries of the global north commit to and meet their pledges on climate finance made under the Paris Agreement. This will come in handy to finance just energy transitions in Africa.

Civic space in Kenya is rated ‘obstructedby the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Kenya Civil Society Platform on Oil and Gas through its website, and follow @KCSPOG and @CharlesWanguhu on Twitter.

 

COP26: ‘We need a power shift to communities, especially to women, in managing climate resources’

Nyangori OhenjoIn the run-up to the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26), which will take place in Glasgow, UK between 31 October and 12 November 2021, CIVICUS is interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about the environmental challenges they face in their contexts, the actions they are undertaking to tackle them and their expectations for the upcoming summit.

CIVICUS speaks with Nyang'ori Ohenjo, Chief Executive Officer at Centre for Minority Rights Development (CEMIRIDE), a Kenyan civil society organisation that advocates for the recognition of minorities and Indigenous peoples in political, legal and social processes and works to empower communities to obtain sustainable livelihoods.

What's the key climate issue in your country that you’re working on?

We focus on the worsening effects of climate change, especially on the most vulnerable, such as Indigenous peoples. Despite a myriad of climate programmes, Kenya is not achieving the desired goals. For instance, increased droughts are currently being experienced in the north of the country, with the usual dire consequences, and the president has already declared this year’s drought a national disaster.

The overarching challenge is that policy frameworks do not connect with the agenda of Indigenous communities, including pastoralists, forest dwellers and fisher communities, which leaves them and their mainstay economic systems vulnerable and does not bring solutions that enhance their resilience. Programmes and policies often ignore cultural elements.

Pastoralists, for instance, diversify herds in sex, age and species to spread risks and maximise available pastures. Herd size is balanced against family size, and herd composition is aimed at responding to family needs. Herds are sometimes split as a coping strategy, particularly in times of drought, and to allow an innovative use of available resources. Through mutual support systems, pastoralists take care of each other so they can recover quickly from disaster. Each pastoralist group has a different way of supporting its members, including by finding various ways of earning cash and diversifying livelihoods. However, food aid and handouts have become the policy norm in times of crisis such as the current drought, which makes no economic sense for anyone, least of all the pastoralists.

Fifty years of a food aid-approach has not provided a sustainable solution, hence the need for a serious policy shift from disaster response, which is reactive, to preparedness, which is proactive. This means putting basic resources in place before crisis hits, including cash if necessary, to get communities through tough times while focusing on long-term investment and development to build communities’ resilience to absorb future shocks.

How do you connect with the broader international climate movement?

We engage through various partnerships with numerous global civil society networks, notably CIVICUS, and Kenyan development organisations, grassroots organisations and groups demanding climate action, as well as with academic institutions, United Nations’ agencies and regional and international human rights institutions. The main objective of these engagements is to ensure that the voices of the Indigenous communities of Kenya are heard within the climate change movement and able to influence the international conversations.

The participation of Indigenous peoples in the international climate movement, and Indigenous peoples being part of a conversation that, in a gender-responsive manner, recognises their rights and values their traditional knowledge as well as their innovative practices for climate resilience, are critical in designing and implementing responsive climate policy and action.

At the national level, through the Climate Change Directorate, a department of the Kenyan Ministry of Environment and Forestry, and the Climate Smart Agriculture Multistakeholder Platform, CEMIRIDE has taken part in the process of shaping the Kenyan government’s position towards COP26 and within the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform (LCIPP).

How are Indigenous communities engaging with the Kenyan government?

The Ending Drought Emergencies initiative, which ends in 2022, showed success in climate policy development but made little progress in addressing the problem of drought. There is also the National Climate Change Action Plan (2018-2022), which provides for effective engagement and inclusion of marginalised Indigenous communities, but again, has resulted in very little progress in actually ensuring the structured engagement and involvement of these communities in the implementation and monitoring of the National Action Plan.

The government is also implementing the Kenya Climate Smart Agriculture Project, of which climate mitigation is a key component. Its implementation, however, also lacks structured engagement with Indigenous communities, who therefore have very minimal presence and input into its design and rollout.

What hopes, if any, do you have for COP26 to make progress on these issues, and how useful generally do you find such international processes?

International processes like COP26 are important for creating visibility for Indigenous peoples in climate change conversations. While it took a long time for governments, especially in Africa, to recognise the role and need for the voice of Indigenous peoples at the international climate change decision-making table, it is now appreciated that Indigenous peoples can actually influence the direction of these processes. Specifically, the LCIPP was established to promote the exchange of experiences and best practices, build capacity for stakeholder engagement in all process related to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and harness the power of diverse knowledge systems and innovations in designing and implementing climate policy and action.

CEMIRIDE hopes that the voices of Indigenous peoples will take centre stage and that governments will commit to local solutions that they can be held accountable for rather than make broad global promises that are never fulfilled and they can never be held accountable for. We especially hope that governments will commit to supporting and facilitating the operationalisation of an Indigenous communities’ national engagement framework on climate change actions.

What one change would you like to see – in the world or in your community – to help address the climate crisis?

We wish to see a real power shift to communities, and especially to women, in managing climate resources. Indigenous peoples are a unique constituency not only because of the impacts that climate change is having on them but also because of the role they play in ensuring the success of intervention measures and because of the perspectives and experiences they bring on board through their Indigenous and local knowledge. No one knows their community better than the people who live in it and depend on its resources.

Marginalised Indigenous communities have long developed distinct knowledge and expertise to preserve and conserve the natural environments from which they obtain their livelihoods, and around which have developed their social, cultural, and religious systems and structures. Their direct management of climate resources, therefore, will enable them to positively influence the development, revision, adoption, and implementation of policy and regulations addressing climate change, with a specific emphasis on improving their resilience to climate change impacts.

Civic space in Kenya is rated ‘obstructedby the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Centre for Minority Rights Development through its website, and follow @CEMIRIDE_KE on Twitter. 

 

COP26: ‘My hope lies in the people coming together to demand justice’

Mitzi Jonelle TanIn the run-up to the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26), which will take place in Glasgow, UK between 31 October and 12 November 2021, CIVICUS is interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about the environmental challenges they face in their contexts, the actions they are undertaking to tackle them and their expectations for the upcoming summit.

CIVICUS speaks with Mitzi Jonelle Tan, a young climate justice activist based in Metro Manila, Philippines, who organises with Youth Advocates for Climate Action Philippines and is active in Fridays for Future International.

What’s the key climate issue in your community?

The Philippines is plagued by several impacts from climate change, from droughts that are getting longer and warmer to typhoons that are getting more frequent and more intense. Aside from these climate impacts – that we have not been able to adapt to and leave us with no support when it comes to dealing with the loss and damages – we also face numerous environmentally destructive projects, often undertaken by foreign multinational companies, that our government is allowing and even encouraging.

Youth Advocates for Climate Action Philippines, the Fridays for Future of the Philippines, advocates for climate justice and to make sure that voices of people from the most affected communities are heard, amplified and given space. I first became an activist in 2017 after working with Indigenous leaders of the Philippines, which made me understand that they only way to achieve a more just and greener society is through collective action leading to system change.

Have you faced backlash for the work you do?

Yes, just like anyone who speaks up against injustice and inaction, our government through its paid trolls red-tags and terror-tags activists – it basically calls us terrorists for demanding accountability and pushing for change. There is a fear that comes along with being a climate activist in the Philippines, which has been characterised as the most dangerous country in Asia for environmental defenders and activists for eight years in a row. It’s not just the fear of the climate impacts, it’s also the fear of police and state forces coming to get us and making us disappear. 

How do you engage with the broader international climate movement?

I organise a lot with the international community, especially through Fridays for Future – MAPA (Most Affected Peoples and Areas), one of the global south groups of Fridays for Future. We do it by having conversations, learning from each other and creating strategies together, all while having fun. It’s important for the global youth movement to connect with one another, unite and show solidarity in order to truly address the global issue of the climate crisis.

What hopes, if any, do you have for COP26 to make progress on your issue, and how useful generally do you find such international processes?

My hope doesn’t lie with the so-called leaders and politicians who have continued business as usual for decades for the profit of the few, usually for the global north. My hope lies in the people: activists and civil society coming together to demand justice and to really expose how this profit-oriented system that brought us to this crisis is not the one that we need to bring us out of it. I think COP26 is a crucial moment and this international process has to be useful because we’ve already had 24 too many. These problems should have been solved at the very first COP, and one way or another we have to make sure that this COP is useful and brings meaningful change, not just more empty promises.

What one change would you like to see – in the world or in your community – to help address the climate crisis?

The one change I ask for is a big one: system change. We need to change our system from one that prioritises the overexploitation of the global south and marginalised peoples for the profit of the global north and the privileged few. The way we view development, it shouldn’t be based on GDP and everlasting growth, but rather on the quality of people’s lives. This is doable – but only if we address the climate crisis and all the other socio-economic injustices at its roots.

Civic space in the Philippines is rated as ‘repressedby the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Youth Advocates for Climate Action Philippines through its website or  Facebook page, and follow @mitzijonelle on Twitter and Instagram. 

 

COP26: ‘Marginalised communities should be at the centre of climate action’

In the run-up to the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26), which will take place in Glasgow, UK between 31 October and 12 November 2021, CIVICUS is interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about the environmental challenges they face in their contexts, the actions they are undertaking to tackle them and their expectations for the upcoming summit.

CIVICUS speaks with Jessica Dercontée, co-organiser of the Collective Against Environmental Racism (CAER), a civil society group in Denmark that works to bring racial discrimination and injustice into the Danish climate conversation, calling public attention to environmental racism.

Jessica’s activism and academic engagement focus on climate governance and explore the embedded social and climate injustices pertaining to class, gender, race and politics. She is a project coordinator working in international development projects in the Danish Student Union and the Danish Refugee Council Youth and is currently a research assistant at the consultancy firm In Futurum.

Jessica Dercontee

What are the aims of CAER? 

We are a collective consisting of women and non-binary people of colour who work within the intersection of environmentalism, anti-racism and climate justice. CAER seeks to mobilise and amplify the voices of those who are most affected by environmental racism, including Black, Indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC) in the global south as well as in the global north. Our collective was formed to shed light on and critique the current discussions, representations and differentiating effects of the climate and environmental crisis.

What’s the key climate or environmental issue that you’re working on? 

CAER focuses on the political ecology and neo-colonialism of the mainstream Danish environmental and climate debates. The mainstream Danish public debates on the climate crisis focus on the detrimental impacts that our consumer culture and lifestyles have on the planet’s biosystems, with less attention on the people this affects and the unending desire of big corporations for profit and utility maximisation. While we agree on the urgency of these issues, our collective believes that the debate in Denmark should move beyond the need of governments and various other stakeholders to find big technological solutions to mitigate the climate crisis. The current public debate is too simplistic, apolitical and technical, focused on the search for green solutions. 

CAER highlights the different power dynamics that exist within our current systems, as well as how the present-day practices and ways of thinking perpetuate systems of colonialism and global oppression while being heavily entrenched in capitalism. We do this through workshops, articles, awareness-raising on social media and collaborations with marginalised individuals or groups from the global south. 

An example of how we provide a different perspective on the green transition is through the scrutiny of the way big corporations in Denmark cause environmental degradation and land grabbing in the global south. The Danish wind energy company Vestas has an ongoing case against Indigenous peoples in Mexico, who have accused the corporation of causing negative impacts on Indigenous livelihoods, while also linking it to significant human rights violations towards local protesters and civil society activists who have been subjected to intimidation and death threats for calling out abuses. The governments of both countries have reached agreements that they claimed were mutually beneficial, as they were expected to bring economic growth and development to Mexico as well as helping Denmark green its economy. However, the ensuing land grabbing has further disenfranchised communities in the global south, continuing the cycle of dependence on aid and regurgitating neo-colonial forms of control and exploitation of Indigenous land and peoples.

Another example that is much closer to Denmark is the environmental racism that permeates Denmark’s relations with its former colony and presently Danish Commonwealth nation, Greenland. Due to Denmark’s control over Greenland’s natural resources, people in Greenland are excluded from important decisions on the future of the Arctic, which can be viewed as having large racialised impacts on conservation, environmental politics and consumerism.

CAER’s main aim has been to provide a safe space for BIPOC, including queer and trans BIPOC, who want to mobilise within environmentalism and anti-racism spaces in Denmark. It is often felt that the Danish climate movement has been exclusionary and discriminatory towards BIPOC. We hope to push Danish public discourse beyond using and presenting marginalised communities as case studies, and towards bringing them to the centre of climate action as the legitimate solution providers and active decision-makers.

Have you faced backlash for the work you do?

We have been met with genuine excitement from other organisations and actors who are willing to change their organisational structures and make them more inclusive and capable of finding solutions to the crisis we are in. While we have not experienced any direct backlash as a result of our work or its focus on race and discriminatory environmental policy, we find that society is not equipped to handle the various lived realities of people on the ground, which are different from the very homogenised narrative of the Danish experience. In Denmark laws and policies have been viewed as inclusive, building on the image of our model as progressive, a welfare state that protects all. Thus, it makes it harder for institutions and individuals to understand that their own position of privilege is dependent on the exploitation and oppression of other social groups, throughout history and in the present day.

How do you connect with the broader international climate movement?

We connect with the international climate movement in our aim to decolonise climate activism structures. More so, we actively seek collaborations, and this is reflected in the examples we choose to showcase in our projects and the voices that we amplify. We try to give power and create spaces where marginalised people can tell their own stories and bring forward their knowledge and solutions to the climate crisis. Further, by building and sharing knowledge from as many perspectives and as many global south scholars as possible, we seek to balance the ethnocentric knowledge exchange that pervades climate governance, climate action and environmentalism.

What hopes, if any, do you have for COP26 to make progress on climate issues?

We in CAER hope that although the current setting of COP26 has the major limitation of lacking diverse representation, there will still be room for the vital knowledge of the global south and a diverse set of voices involved in policymaking to make the next round of goals as nuanced and intersectional as possible.

What one change would you like to see to help address the climate crisis? 

We hope that in the close future our movement against environmental racism will grow, and that this development will bridge the gap between the mainstream Danish climate movement and the anti-racist movement so as to mitigate the climate crisis in a manner that is much more inclusive and open towards diversity, and a plurality of knowledge, and across different sectors and institutions in Denmark, as well as the rest of world.

Civic space in Denmark is rated ‘open’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Collective Against Environmental Racism through its Instagram account or by email to .

 

INDIGENOUS PEOPLES: ‘Canadians stand in solidarity with us and want to see change’

TeresaEdwardsCIVICUS speaks with Teresa Edwards, Executive Director and In-House Legal Counsel of the Legacy of Hope Foundation (LHF), about reactions to recently evidence of atrocities committed against Canada’s Indigenous peoples in the context of the country’s longstanding Residential School System, and about civil society efforts to obtain truth, justice and reparations. The LHF is a national Indigenous not-for-profit, charitable organisation that seeks to educate the public, create awareness, foster empathy and inspire action around the issues of inequality, racism and human rights violations committed against Canada’s Indigenous Peoples.

 

What has changed for Indigenous Peoples in Canada since the authorities started to acknowledge the existence of children’s graves in residential schools?

As Indigenous Peoples, we have always known about these atrocities happening from Survivors, our families, our communities for generations. We had also raised these issues with the authorities for years with little to no response.

Since the children’s remains began to be unearthed in May, and Canadians are realising because of the undeniable, irrefutable DNA evidence being uncovered around the schools, we have had an outpouring of support that we could have never imagined. We have been contacted by individuals, families, foundations, elementary and high school students, teachers’ unions and many other unions, small, medium and large businesses, policing and correctional officers, parishioners, and the list goes on – all asking what they can do to help, or contribute to Reconciliation in some way.

The staff of the Legacy of Hope Foundation have been working tirelessly since May to deliver on our usual projects, exhibitions and curriculum while responding to the thousands of inquiries we receive each day, and it has not let up. We have hired more staff and casual workers so that we can try to ensure that we don’t miss an opportunity to produce more educational resources, exhibitions, curricula, workshops and other opportunities to engage with the public. It has been incredibly encouraging to see that Canadians have so much heart now that they are learning about Canada’s real history!

What actions have Indigenous civil society groups taken to raise the profile of issues of abuse and exclusion, including around Canada Day and in the election campaign?

Indigenous groups have tried to raise awareness for decades about the many injustices impacting on all of our Nations, as well as about the particular issues for each territory, with very little uptake by most mainstream media or governments. When the stories about the children’s remains hit social media and smaller media outlets, the larger media outlets then began to cover more about what has been happening. With each new uncovering at a new location at a residential school, more and more Canadians began to ask questions, seek answers and reach out to Indigenous Peoples across Canada. With the pressure mounting, Canadians have looked to the government to respond.

On 1 July, hundreds of thousands of Canadian allies walked with Indigenous Peoples across Canada for a day of reflection, sending the government the message that Canadians stand in solidarity with us and want to see change.

As for the election campaign, we are not a political organisation, but I can say that we did see Indigenous rights considered by some parties more than others. Regardless of who is in power, we are always willing and wanting to work with them toward Reconciliation efforts.

What difference have recent acts of recognition and apology – such as the apology by the Catholic bishops and the observance of the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation in September – made, and what further steps are still needed?

We are encouraged by the Catholic bishops’ apology and commitment to raising funds for Survivors resources and the organisations that serve them. However, we look forward to having the Pope come to Canada to apologise as well and committing to actions to support Reconciliation efforts too.

What are the key challenges that Indigenous Peoples encounter in Canada and what are the barriers to realising Indigenous Peoples’ rights?

There are several, and they vary from coast to coast, but there are many basic human rights that need to be addressed: access to clean running water in every Indigenous community within a country as wealthy as Canada, the need for equitable funding for education for Indigenous children, the need for equitable funding for medical services for Indigenous Peoples, being able to live free from violence or worry of being killed just because you are Indigenous, being able to exercise treaty rights, addressing high rates of poverty and access to economic development are only a few.

We have had seven generations of discrimination and injustice. It is my hope that working with Canadians we can improve things for the next seven generations so when our ancestors look back at what actions we took in our lifetime, they will see that we were working together to create a brighter future.

What actions are needed to advance Indigenous Peoples’ rights, and what support is needed to enable those actions?

Having Indigenous history taught in all schools from kindergarten to grade 12 in an age-appropriate way, as we do for all the other atrocities that have happened throughout history, would be a concrete way to influence the future generations who will be our teachers, doctors, politicians, judges and decision-makers, because that would have a significant impact on how Indigenous Peoples are treated going forward. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission already outlined very clearly 94 Calls to Action that would significantly advance Indigenous Peoples’ rights. Now we just need to continue to implement them.

Civic space in Canada is rated ‘open’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Legacy of Hope Foundation through its website or Facebook page, and follow @legacyhopefound on Twitter.

 

USA: ‘Extremist politicians have been hellbent on stigmatising and banning abortion for decades’

CarolineDubleCIVICUS speaks with Caroline Duble, Political Director of Avow – Unapologetic Abortion Advocacy, about the current backlash against women’s rights in the USA, and in Texas in particular, as well as the activist responses. Avow is a civil society organisation that works to secure unrestricted abortion access for every Texan, following the vision of a society in which every person is trusted, thriving and free to pursue the life they want.

How did we get to the point where abortion has been almost completely banned in Texas? 

For people just now hearing about this cruel ban, which prohibits abortions as early as six weeks into pregnancy, it can be hard to believe that something so extreme could ever be passed into law. But as Texans who have been long fighting for abortion access, we know that extremist politicians have been hellbent on stigmatising and banning abortion for decades. This is clear if you look at the full timeline of medically unnecessary restrictions on abortion procedures that were passed in Texas since the 1973 Supreme Court ruling on Roe v. Wade, which determined that the Constitution of the United States protects a pregnant woman’s freedom to choose to have an abortion without excessive government interference. They have been relentless, deceitful and cruel in their attempts to push care out of the reach of Texans who need it. 

How is this different from previous, less successful attempts to ban abortion in other states? 

Unlike bans in other states, which are enforced by state officials, this bill – known as Senate Bill 8, or SB8 – gives the public unprecedented authority to enforce the ban. It allows anyone – including anti-abortion activists who have no connection to the patient – to act as vigilante bounty hunters and to take to court doctors, health centres and anyone who helps another person access abortion, with the incentive that they will collect US$10,000 for each abortion. In other words, Texas is trying to evade judicial scrutiny and accountability in the courts by encouraging private citizens to do the dirty work for them. But SB8’s legal manoeuvring does not change the fact that banning abortion at six weeks is unconstitutional, and even more importantly, it is unjust and wrong.

What have been the immediate consequences of the ban, and how are people protesting?

SB8 is working as intended. Since the law went into effect on 1 September, it has decimated our already vulnerable care infrastructure and has left Texans who need access to care and support services scared to reach out for help, and advocates afraid to help them. Under this law, Texans are being denied the abortions they want and need. Many people are trying to scrape together thousands of dollars to travel out of state, take time off work and arrange childcare and transportation.

Many Texans are self-managing their abortions, which can be extremely safe but only if the pregnant person has access to information and resources. And tragically, countless Texans are being forced to carry pregnancies against their will. Of course, this is falling hardest on Black, Latinx and Indigenous people, undocumented people and low-income Texans, who are facing the most severe barriers to accessing care out of state and disproportionate harm from this law.

People are protesting by funding abortion. Texas abortion funds have collectively raised well over US$3 million since 1 September, and those funds will largely be used to get people out of state. People are also literally protesting! Check out #BansOffOurBodies to see protest footage from around the country, and particularly the marches for reproductive rights that took place on 2 October. And of course, people are learning about self-managed abortion, because abortion bans don’t curve the need for abortions.

What tactics is Avow using in its work to prevent regression and expand sexual and reproductive rights? 

Avow will continue to fight unapologetically for unrestricted abortion access for all Texans, for any reason. Abortion is essential healthcare, and it should be readily accessible to anyone in our state who needs or wants one. We’re leading this movement and changing the culture with an unapologetic abortion-forward mindset, through community-building, education and political advocacy.

We work to portray abortion in a positive light because abortion is safe, common and normal, although you wouldn’t know that because abortion stigma keeps people from sharing their stories. We are committed to changing the conversation about abortion to reflect that reality. For too long, anti-abortion extremists have dictated how we’re allowed to talk about abortion; by spreading lies and medical inaccuracies they have controlled the narrative so much that even abortion rights supporters don’t feel comfortable saying the word and prefer to use euphemisms such as ‘women’s rights’, ‘reproductive health’ and ‘choice’. This has allowed stigma to permeate abortion care and ultimately shame people who have had abortions, and feeds into a narrative about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ abortions. But we refuse to judge a person’s reason for getting an abortion, and instead support them once they have made their decision. 

Looking ahead to the 2022 midterm elections, Avow is preparing to hold anti-abortion legislators accountable through digital ads, on the ground organising and voter mobilisation. We are also pushing the federal government to do more to protect abortion rights by passing the Women’s Health Protection Act, which seeks to establish a statutory right for healthcare providers to provide abortion care, and a corresponding right for their patients to receive that care, free from medically unnecessary restriction. We are also calling on them to repeal the racist Hyde Amendment, a 1980 legislative provision barring the use of federal funds to pay for abortion. We will also continue our work to bust abortion stigma by helping people talk about abortion openly and what access means to them.

What are the prospects of the ban being overturned?

It is deeply concerning that the Supreme Court did not block this law before even having a hearing. For nearly 50 years the Supreme Court has affirmed that the Constitution guarantees the right to an abortion, but in Texas we are now living under a different reality. Many people assume the Supreme Court is an objective legal body, but justices are appointed by presidents, and presidents have political agendas. The Supreme Court’s refusal to block SB8 from going into effect is simply more evidence of what we’ve known for years: the courts will not save us. It is necessary to pass federal legislation to secure unrestricted abortion access and funding for everyone in this country. 

With that being said, we are grateful that the Department of Justice (DOJ) is taking legal action to fight SB8. The DOJ is requesting a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction in a federal court based in Austin, capital of Texas. If granted, this restraining order would stop the State of Texas, including private parties who would bring suits under the law, from implementing or enforcing SB8. This is a necessary first step in what we expect will be a long court battle to stop this law. A restraining order should absolutely be granted because the law is clearly unconstitutional and because Texans need access to abortion care while the law makes its way through the court system.

What kind of support do abortion rights groups in the USA need from their peers around the world?

The best thing that folks outside of Texas can do for us is support us by contributing to Texas abortion funds and political advocacy organisations, and by uplifting our message. Also, look more closely at how abortion bans and stigma impact on your own community. Instead of boycotting Texas businesses, pass local ordinances that provide practical support funding for people in your region seeking abortions.

Civic space in USA is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Avow through its website, Facebook or Instagram page, and follow @avowtexas and @CarolineDuble on Twitter. 

 

MIGRATION: ‘The spread of COVID-19 is no excuse to confront vulnerable people with more violence’

CIVICUS speaks with Maddalena Avon, project coordinator at the Centre for Peace Studies (CPS) about the situation of migrants and refugees in Europe under the pandemic and the ways in which civil society is responding to increasing border pushbacks from hostile European governments.

CPS is a civil society organisation (CSO) that promotes non-violence and social change through education, research, advocacy, campaigning and activism. Founded in 1996, it works in three areas: asylum, integration and human security; peace education and non-violence affirmation; and combating inequalities. CPS is an active member of the Border Violence Monitoring Network, an independent network of CSOs based mostly in the Balkans and Greece, monitoring human rights violations at the external borders of the European Union and advocating to stop the violence against people on the move.

Maddalena Avon

What have been the key trends in migration in Europe, and specifically in the Balkans, under the pandemic?

The landscape of asylum access has changed drastically since pandemic restrictions came into force. The Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN) had already reported on asylum as an eroded set of rights, but due process for international protection claims has been further challenged in recent months under the health emergency.

Firstly, persistent pushbacks from borders continue to deny people access to claim international protection, with states performing collective expulsion. Secondly, government decisions to pause or close asylum offices with no effective alternative or remedy have placed refugees and other migrants in an effective limbo and at risk of pushback. Accordingly, the development of COVID-19 measures has allowed countries such as Croatia, Greece and Hungary to further restrict internationally mandated access to protection.

In the midst of the escalating COVID-19 outbreak, the European Union (EU) launched its Joint Action Plan for Human Rights. However, the intention of this communication exhibits acute divergence from the reality on the ground. Most notably, violations of fundamental rights continue by EU member states and non-EU countries that have various EU agreements on migration, asylum and border security, alongside funded camp systems. Rather than assisting vulnerable communities in this precarious period, policy and guidance have allowed the strengthening of borders across a majority of member states to erode further the rights to asylum, due process and humane treatment.

According to a recent report by the BVMN, in March and April 2020 Slovenia saw a decrease in the number of irregular border crossings compared to the first two months of 2021 and the same period in 2019, and this was reflected in the much lower number of people detained at police stations due to irregular border crossings. The trend of collective expulsions to Croatia, however, remained consistently high. In early 2020, during the COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent restrictions, Slovenia continued to systematically deny asylum rights and used its readmission agreement with Croatia – which allows it to hand people over to the Croatian police if there is proof that they illegally crossed the border within the last 48 hours – to deport large numbers of people, although the readmission agreement does not apply if the person has asked for asylum or is a potential asylum seeker. It has continued to do so despite full knowledge of the high risk of torture and further illegal pushback to Bosnia and Herzegovina.

In Croatia, as elsewhere, the pandemic has changed many things, but some aspects, such as its pushback regime, have unfortunately stayed the same. The only difference is that these violent collective expulsions now attract less attention, as all eyes are on the pandemic and human rights monitors have not been allowed in the field due to health restrictions. Pushbacks and violence at borders have persisted: in one case out of the hundreds documented by the BVMN, a group including a severely injured person and a minor was beaten with batons by Croatian officers, who also burnt their clothes, and the group was pushed back into Bosnia and Herzegovina.

A relatively new development in pushback practices is the tagging of groups with orange spray paint, as reported by No Name Kitchen, a grassroots organisation and member of the BVMN that provides direct assistance to people on the move in border towns along the Balkan Route. Chain pushbacks from Slovenia via Croatia, with migrants being sent back the same way they came, have also continued.

Reports of increased brutality during pushbacks are worrying due to the increased autonomy that state authorities have gained under the pandemic. Pushbacks are illegal and the spread of COVID-19 is no excuse to confront vulnerable people with even more violence.

How are the CPS and the BVMN responding to these trends?

The value of the work done by the BVMN lies in the interconnection of a variety of methods: field work, including trustful contact with people in border areas, testimony collection and advocacy work with clear demands being presented to institutions to hold them accountable for certain actions. Legal work is also essential, when people who have survived human rights violations want to seek justice. Each of the BVMN’s partners has its own strength in one or more of these working methods, and our collective strength is to combine all of them with a comprehensive approach.

Within the network, CPS conducts research that feeds into our awareness-raising and advocacy efforts on access to the asylum system, protection of refugees’ human rights, illegal conduct of the police, the criminalisation of solidarity and integration, with a focus on employment and education.

On integration, two of our big successes has been the Danube Compass, a web tool including all information relevant to the integration of refugees and migrants into Croatian society, and our non-formal education programme for asylum seekers, Let’s Talk about Society, which introduces our new community members to Croatian society and institutions, informs them of their rights and encourages their active participation in society.

Within the network, CPS is a strong legal actor, as we have so far filed 12 criminal complaints against unknown perpetrators in police uniforms. Through strategic litigation, we prevented an extradition and succeeded in filing two lawsuits against the Republic of Croatia at the European Court of Human Rights. As a result of our advocacy, several EU and international institutions, including the United Nations Refugee Agency, started questioning and condemning the practices of the Croatian authorities.

As a consequence of our public exposure of illegal practices towards refugees, we experienced a lot of pressure, and were banned from entering and working in asylum centres. This made our work more difficult but has not compromised our autonomy.

Do you see any progress in holding Frontex, the European border agency, accountable for its failure to protect human rights?

Frontex has faced severe allegations of human rights violations coming from different actors and institutions, and civil society has come together around multiple campaigns and actions on the matter, including #DefundFrontex. Supported by 22 CSOs and networks, including the BVMN, this campaign calls for the agency to be defunded and its budget redirected towards building a government-led and funded European civil sea rescue programme.

The main challenge is that Frontex operates in a grey legal zone and is perceived to have no responsibility for its actions – responsibility always lies with the member state in which Frontex operates. The agency’s rules are made in a way that allows for it to be largely unaccountable. However, we are seeing small steps towards a change in that regard, for example with the active engagement of the European Ombudsman.

How can civil society put pressure on the EU so that its commitment to human rights extends to migrants and refugees, and how can it encourage member states to respect their rights?

One of the ways that BVMN members found to bring together multiple strengths and be louder on key demands is the building of transborder networks. We believe that the active involvement of civil society in each border area, country and village can make a real difference on the public’s influence. Being loud on the rights of refugees and migrants is extremely important. It’s also important to connect a variety of struggles that are highly interconnected and take place across borders, such as struggles on climate change and women’s rights.

Civic space in Croatia is rated ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Centre for Peace Studies through its website or Facebook page, and follow @CMSZagreb on Twitter.
Get in touch with the Border Violence Monitoring Network through its website or Facebook page, and follow @Border_Violence on Twitter. 

 

COP26: ‘A key priority is to address vulnerability at the community level’

Mubiru HuzaifahIn the run-up to the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26), which will take place in Glasgow, UK between 31 October and 12 November 2021, CIVICUS is interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about the environmental challenges they face in their contexts, the actions they are undertaking to tackle them and their expectations for the upcoming summit.

CIVICUS speaks with Mubiru Huzaifah of Uganda’s Ecological Christian Organisation (ECO), a civil society organisation working for sustainable livelihoods for marginalised, under-served and vulnerable groups in Uganda. ECO’s current initiatives focus on natural resource governance, climate change resilience and adaptation, and ecosystems management and restoration.

 

What's the key climate issue in your country that you're working on?

The issue that most worries us is the high vulnerability levels that climate change is causing in human systems. The long-term change of climatic elements from previously accepted means is causing environmental and human systems to change. According to state of environment reports issued by the Ugandan National Environmental Management Authority, the main issues related to the changing climate include industrial pollution, widespread bush burning, the inefficient use of fuel and poorly planned transport networks, all of which result in high emission levels.

Are there any government initiatives on climate change mitigation?

There is a mitigation project being implemented under the Ministry of Water and Environment – Farm Income Enhancement and Forest Conservation – which gives out free seedlings to be planted to enhance the absorption capacity of the soil. There is the Sawlog Production Grant Scheme, aimed at increasing the incomes of rural people through commercial tree planting by local communities as well as medium and large-scale businesses, which at the same time helps to mitigate climate change effects through intensive reforestation. There are also several solar projects in the Mayuge, Soroti and Tororo districts, which have increased the country’s solar production, and a wetland project – supported by the Green Climate Fund – supporting wetlands conservation and addressing wetland degradation.

Other relevant interventions include the implementation of gravity water flow schemes to enable water supply without use of energy sources; the development of highways with water drainage channels and solar lights and congestion-free road networks that will enable the smooth flow of traffic and cut down on emissions from automobiles; and the adoption of electric or emissions-free motorcycles to further reduce emissions from fossil energy sources, which the Ministry of Energy is working on alongside the private sector.

What kind of work does ECO do on these issues?

ECO’s work is aimed at enhancing the resilience of communities to the impacts of climate change, strengthening disaster risk reduction, enhancing good governance and management of natural resources, especially in the extractives sector, and promoting ecosystems management and restoration.

For instance, as part of a project aimed at promoting and supporting community-conserved areas in the Lake Victoria Basin, we have provided support for legal fishing practices, promoted and provided training on sustainable farming promotion and supported good local resource governance practices. Another project is aimed at increasing transparency, social inclusion, accountability and responsiveness among those responsible for mining in the Karamoja region.

In these and in many other projects we are working on, we always seek drive to change by putting people at risk at the centre and building on local and traditional resources and knowledge. We try to link the humanitarian and development domains by focusing on livelihoods. We work to ensure adaptive planning, trying to link local realities with global processes and integrate disciplines and approaches to encompass different risks. We partner with communities, civil society organisations, government agencies, universities and research institutes, the private sector and the media.

How do you connect with the broader international climate movement?

We connect with the global climate movement through the Climate Action Network-Uganda, which encompasses over 200 national CSOs. We currently chair this. This allows us to participate in COP meetings as observers.

We also participate in the pre-COP consultative meetings organised by the Ugandan government in preparation for international climate change negotiations. In these meetings, we help assess progress in dealing with climate change and complying with our nationally determined contributions.

We turn our lessons learned into advocacy actions that can be adapted for international climate change forums. Some local problems can feed into the national agenda, be turned into policy actions and go on to influence international policy actions.

What hopes, if any, do you have for COP26 to make progress on climate change mitigation efforts?

We hope that COP26 will come up with a new marketing platform for emission trading to replace the Clean Development Mechanism, which allowed countries with an emission-reduction or emission-limitation commitment under the Kyoto Protocol to implement emission-reduction projects in developing countries. We also hope it will result in the commitment of more funds to accelerate the scaling up of renewable energies.

These international processes are relevant as long as they contribute towards the financing of climate mitigation efforts and produce novel funding strategies, such as the Green Climate Fund and the Adaptation Fund, and its pilot programme to foster innovation in adaptation practices in vulnerable countries. Coming from a developing country, I believe that it is critical to increase adaptation funding immediately, since the disruptive impacts of climate change on human systems are already apparent.

What one change would you like to see – in the world or in your community – to help address the climate crisis?

A key priority is to address vulnerability at the community level. Our vision is that of a community with enhanced adaptive capacity to address climate change impacts and its subsequent effects. This can be done by increasing access to working technologies and providing mitigation and adaptation funding through community structures.

Civic space in Uganda is rated as ‘repressedby the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Ecological Christian Organisation through its website or Facebook page, and follow @EcoChristianOrg on Twitter.

 

MEXICO: ‘Alliances, public debate & diversification of voices are indispensable in the struggle to expand rights’

CIVICUS speaks with Verónica Esparza and Rebeca Lorea, respectively lawyer and researcher and Public Policy Advocacy Coordinator at Information Group on Reproductive Choice (GIRE, Grupo de Información en Reproducción Elegida), about the significance of recent Supreme Court rulings on abortion rights, and sexual and reproductive rights in Mexico. GIRE is a feminist and human rights organisation that has been active for almost 30 years to ensure that women and others with the capacity to bear children can exercise their reproductive rights.

Veronica Esparza y Rebeca Lorea From left to right: Verónica Esparza & Rebeca Lorea

What is the situation of sexual and reproductive rights in Mexico?

Currently, women and other people with the capacity to bear children do not find optimal conditions in Mexico to decide about their reproductive life: there are a high number of pregnant girls and adolescents, affected by a serious context of sexual violence that the state continues to fail to remedy; obstacles to access services such as emergency contraception and abortion in cases of rape; the criminalisation of women and other pregnant people who have abortions; daily obstetric violence during pregnancy, childbirth and postpartum; and women who die in childbirth from preventable causes.

The structural failures of the health system are compounded by the fact that the majority of people in Mexico are employed in the informal sector, which limits their access to social security and therefore to benefits such as maternity leave and childcare. Women, who continue to play the biggest role in household and care work, bear the brunt of this lack of access to services, which particularly affects those who experience multiple discriminations, such as girls and adolescents, Indigenous women and people with disabilities.

What does GIRE understand reproductive justice to mean, and how do you work to advance it?

GIRE understands reproductive justice as the set of social, political and economic factors that give women and others who can get pregnant power and self-determination over their reproductive life. To achieve this, it is essential for the state to guarantee these people’s human rights, taking into account the discrimination and structural inequalities that affect their health, rights and control over their lives, and for it to generate optimal conditions for autonomous decision-making.

It is no longer sufficient to understand reproductive rights in terms of legally defined individual freedoms, while ignoring the barriers that limit the effective access of certain populations to these rights. Reproductive justice is a more inclusive analytical framework because it links reproductive rights to the social, political and economic inequalities that affect people’s ability to access reproductive health services and effectively exercise their reproductive rights.

GIRE has worked for almost 30 years to defend and promote reproductive justice in Mexico, making visible the normative and structural obstacles that women and others with the capacity to bear children face in fully exercising their human rights, and promoting change through a comprehensive strategy that includes legal support, communications, the demand for comprehensive reparation for violations of reproductive rights, including non-repetition guarantees at both the federal and local levels, and the collection of data to feed into our work.

Our priority issues are contraception, abortion, obstetric violence, maternal death, assisted reproduction and work-life balance. While we focus on sex and gender discrimination faced by women and girls in Mexico, our quest for reproductive justice recognises that these variables intersect with other forms of discrimination, such as class, age, disability and ethnicity. In addition, we recognise that the discrimination faced by women and others with reproductive capacity affects not only them, but also their communities, and particularly their families.

What is the significance of the two recent Supreme Court rulings on reproductive rights?

In the struggle for legal, safe and free abortion in Mexico, the National Supreme Court of Justice (SCJN) has played a fundamental role. Since 2007 it has issued several rulings recognising access to abortion as a human rights matter.

In April 2018, the SCJN granted amparos – constitutional protection lawsuits – to two young female rape victims in cases that GIRE had brought forward. The two women had been denied abortions by public health services in Morelos and Oaxaca despite the fact that this is a right for victims of sexual violence. The Court stated that this denial constituted a violation of the women’s human rights and that health authorities are obliged to respond immediately and efficiently to these requests, so as not to allow the consequences of the rape to continue over time. This implies that health authorities cannot implement internal mechanisms or policies that hinder or delay the realisation of this right. With these rulings, the SCJN reaffirmed the legal obligation of health service providers to guarantee access to abortion in cases of rape.

On 15 May 2019, in another case promoted by GIRE, the SCJN granted an amparo to a woman who had been denied an abortion despite the fact that continuing her pregnancy could cause her serious health complications. With this ruling, the SCJN recognised that the right to health includes access to abortion and ruled on the particular reproductive health service needs of women, highlighting the serious consequences of denial of termination of pregnancy for health reasons.

On 7 July 2021, the First Chamber of the SCJN ruled on another case joined by GIRE, of a young woman with cerebral palsy and severe limitations on her ability to carry out tasks essential to daily life, which were aggravated by a precarious economic environment. As a result of a seizure, her family had taken her to a hospital in Chiapas, where they were informed that she was 23 weeks pregnant. The pregnancy had been the result of rape when she was 17 years old. A request was made to terminate the pregnancy, but the hospital director rejected the request on the grounds that the 90-day gestation deadline established by the state penal code had passed. The SCJN pointed out that this time limit ignored the nature of sexual aggression and its consequences on women’s health, and reflected a total disregard for the human dignity and autonomy of a woman whose pregnancy, far from the result of a free and consensual decision, was the result of an arbitrary and violent act.

Finally, in September 2021, the Plenary of the SCJN analysed two pieces of legislation that had a negative impact on the right to choose by women and others with the capacity to become pregnant. First, it analysed an action of unconstitutionality (148/2017) on the criminal legislation of the state of Coahuila, which the Attorney General’s Office had considered to be in violation of women’s human rights for classifying abortion as a crime.

In a landmark ruling, on 7 September the SCJN unanimously decided that the absolute criminalisation of abortion is unconstitutional; it became the first constitutional court in the region to issue such ruling. The SCJN pointed out that, although the product of pregnancy deserves protection that increases as the pregnancy progresses, this protection cannot disregard the rights of women and other pregnant persons to reproductive freedom, enshrined in article 4 of the Constitution. In other words, it ruled the absolute criminalisation of abortion to be unconstitutional.

This ruling had several implications. Firstly, the Congress of the state of Coahuila will have to reform its criminal legislation to decriminalise consensual abortion. Secondly, it establishes a precedent, meaning that the central arguments of the ruling must now be applied by all judges in Mexico, both federal and local. From now on, when deciding future cases, they will have to consider as unconstitutional the criminal laws of all the federal entities that criminalise abortion in an absolute manner. In addition, the congresses of the states where voluntary abortion is still restricted and punished now have a set of criteria endorsed by the SCJN to act to decriminalise it.

In the same week, the Court also analysed actions of unconstitutionality (106 and 107/2018) on the recognition of the ‘right to life from conception’ established in the Constitution of Sinaloa. These actions had been promoted by a legislative minority and the National Human Rights Commission. Unanimously, the SCJN considered that the states do not have the competence to define the origin of human life and the concepts of personhood and right-holding status, which is the exclusive domain of the National Constitution. Furthermore, it considered that personhood cannot be granted to an embryo or foetus and then be used as the basis for the adoption of measures restricting the reproductive autonomy of women and other pregnant persons; this is unconstitutional.

Based on precedents set by both the Supreme Court and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the SCJN established that the main efforts of the state to protect life in gestation as a constitutionally valuable good should be directed towards effectively protecting the rights of women and other pregnant persons, guaranteeing the rights of those continuing pregnancies they desire, providing the necessary conditions for dignified births, without obstetric violence, and eradicating the causes that provoke maternal deaths.

What are the prospects for achieving legal, safe and free abortion in all of Mexico in the near future?

In Mexico as in the region, there have been several successes over the past decade in the struggle for access to legal, safe and free abortion, although many barriers and challenges persist.

In our country strong stigma still prevails around abortion, based on the idea of motherhood as women’s inevitable fate. This idea continues to permeate all state institutions and laws, and forms the basis for not only the social but also the legal criminalisation of abortion, which particularly affects women and other pregnant persons living in situations of violence, economic marginalisation and lack of access to reproductive information. It also sends the strong message that the state plays a role in reproductive decisions that should belong to the private sphere.

In most of Mexico, as in Latin America, voluntary abortion is still considered a crime. For decades, feminist activists, collectives and organisations have pushed for the repeal of these laws, pointing out that consensual abortion is part of the reproductive life of women and others with the capacity to bear children, and that criminalisation does not inhibit its practice but rather means that in certain contexts it will be carried out in an unsafe manner.

From the 1970s onwards, Mexican feminists have raised the issue of access to abortion as a matter of social justice and public health and as a democratic aspiration. Despite the forcefulness of their arguments, it took 35 years to achieve – and only in Mexico City – the decriminalisation of abortion during the first trimester of pregnancy. That victory was replicated more than a decade later in three states: Oaxaca, Hidalgo and Veracruz.

In the short term, achieving decriminalisation at the national level is complicated because each of the 32 federal entities has its own penal code, so it would still be necessary for each state to reform its penal and health legislation to stop considering abortion as a crime and then recognise it as a health service and provide public institutions with the human and financial resources to ensure access.

In practice, in recent years both the narrative and the reality of abortion in Mexico have changed due to the increasing prevalence of abortion pills. A few decades ago, clandestine abortion – that is, abortion performed outside the law – was considered to be synonymous with unsafe abortion, but this is no longer the case. Now there are safe abortion support networks, and in contexts of legal restriction, during the first weeks of pregnancy women and others with the capacity to gestate are able to have an abortion with pills at home, without the need to resort to a health institution.

The victory of the Argentinian women’s movement in December 2020 has shown that alliances, public debate and the diversification of voices are indispensable in the struggle to expand rights. The exponential increase in safe abortion initiatives is an expression of the achievements of the women’s movement’s struggle for human rights and reproductive justice. The Green Wave, the movement whose distinctive colour became synonymous with the struggle for abortion rights in Argentina, has spread in Mexico and although access to legal, safe and free abortion throughout the country is still a long way off, in recent years the issue has started to be discussed in various legislative bodies, even in states with highly restrictive legal frameworks.

What kind of additional support would Mexican civil society need from its peers in the region and globally to achieve its goals?

Social support for the causes we feminist human rights organisations defend is indispensable to obtain achievements such as the SCJN ruling of 7 September 2021. The dissemination of our work and the amplification of our voices is also extremely valuable. Local, national and regional networking to share experiences and good practices has also proven to be a tool from which we all benefit. Similarly, connections with other struggles through reflecting about their intersections can strengthen human rights movements.

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

 

COP26: ‘We hope that at COP26 words will translate into commitments that will change behaviours’

In the run-up to the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26), which will take place in Glasgow, UK between 31 October and 12 November 2021, CIVICUS is interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about the environmental challenges they face in their contexts, the actions they are undertaking to tackle them and their expectations for the upcoming summit.

CIVICUS speaks with Theophile Hatagekimana, Executive Secretary of Rwanda Environment Awareness Organisation (REAO), a Rwandan civil society organisation that works to create awareness about climate change and environmental issues and to promote sound environmental management policies.

Theophile Hategekimana

What’s the key environmental issue in your community that you’re working on?

We work on climate change resilience and mitigation with respect for human rights. In recent years we have started collaborating with government efforts to reduce the amount of fuel used for cooking at the household level. We have joined forces with the Rwandan government in this and other initiatives because they are being very proactive in the area of climate change mitigation.

Within this project, we teach vulnerable people, including young women, poor women, adolescent single mothers, and victims of sexual abuse, how to use improved cooking methods such as stoves instead of firewood, which not only saves trees and reduces their exposure to toxic emissions in their homes, but also saves them a lot of time. We encourage them to allocate the time saved in the process to self-development activities including education and social interaction, as well as to engage in income-generating activities.

We also plant trees to restore forests and we plant and distribute agroforestry trees, which make the soil more resilient and able to tackle extreme climatic events such as drought and torrential rain, as well as providing food, forage, industrial raw materials, lumber, fuel, and mulch, helping diversify diets and income. One of our projects focuses on purchasing seeds and planting them in schools, within the framework of a programme that includes ecological literacy, the demonstration of environmental principles by developing green practices on a day-to-day basis, and the development of environmental ethics.

Though it might seem that we work only on environment protection, we are in fact very concerned with the human rights dimension of environmental protection, so we oppose the practice of displacing people without proper compensation. We raise awareness among the public about their rights as provided in law and support them to claim them when necessary. A case in point is that of the Batwa Indigenous people who are often expelled from their land, so we provide them the tools so that they will know their rights as provided in international and Rwandan law.

How do you connect with the broader international climate movement?

Many activists, including myself, maintain personal connections with international organisations and peers around the world. But also at the organisational level, we try to connect with other groups that have a similar mission to ours and take part in climate and environmental networks and coalitions. REAO is a member of the Rwanda Climate Change and Development Network, a national association of environment defenders’ organisations. At the international level, we network with other organisations that work on climate change protection and mitigation, and we have worked in partnership with the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the United Nations Development Programme, among others.

What hopes, if any, do you have for COP26 to make any progress in climate change mitigation?

We welcome all international efforts aimed at making coordinated decisions to protect the environment and improve the wellbeing of communities, and we are hopeful that COP26 will result in the adoption of concrete measures to address climate change and environmental degradation. At the discursive level, of course, all that national leaders say on the global stage is exactly what we want to hear; none of it goes against our mission, vision and values. We hope that at COP26 those words will translate into commitments that will result in positive change in their countries’ behaviour on climate issues.

What one change would you like to see – in the world or in your community – to help address the climate crisis?

On the global level, we want to see action by the countries that are the biggest polluters aimed at reducing it substantially. Countries like China, India, the USA and others should take clear decisions and act on climate change issues or we will all face the consequences of their inaction. We hope that big polluters will pay for climate solutions and the bill will be settled.

At the local level, we hope to see the living conditions of less advantaged communities improve and adapt to climate change with the support of government policies and funding.

Civic space in Rwanda is rated asrepressedby the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Rwanda Environment Awareness Organisation through its website and Facebook page. 

 

EL SALVADOR: ‘The president’s aim is to concentrate power’

CIVICUS speaks with Eduardo Escobar, executive director of Acción Ciudadana, an organisation that promotes transparency, accountability and the fight against corruption in El Salvador, about the political situation since President Nayib Bukele’s party won the February 2021 legislative election.

Eduardo Escobar

Do you think that democracy and the rule of law are being eroded in El Salvador?

We should first ask ourselves whether El Salvador ever had a full democracy with the rule of law. If we reduce democracy to its electoral dimension, we could say that the will of the people has been respected and elections have become the only road to power. Despite some irregularities, we have had democracy in that sense. Since 2009, some progress was also made in terms of the balance of powers: we got an independent Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court, an independent Institute for Access to Public Information (IAIP) and a prosecutor’s office that was striving to do its job.

Thus, when Nayib Bukele became president in 2019, there was a functioning electoral democracy, with some important advances being made in the republican dimension and the rule of law. President Bukele interrupted this process, constantly attacking the freedom of expression, the freedom of the press and the freedom of association. In the context of the pandemic, the government illegitimately and unconstitutionally violated the freedom of movement. What little progress had been made was completely lost.

After the legislative elections held on 28 February 2021, which Bukele won by a wide margin, legal certainty ceased to exist. As soon as the new legislative assembly formed in early May, it dismissed the judges of the Constitutional Chamber and the head of the attorney general’s office. We had come to trust that the Constitutional Chamber would protect us from arbitrariness, but that certainty vanished in an instant. Shortly afterwards, the new Constitutional Chamber enabled the president’s immediate re-election for a second term, so far prohibited by the Salvadoran Constitution.

Have the opposition or civil society been able to do anything about recent changes?

The opposition was not smart. Until May 2021 it held an absolute majority in the legislative assembly but failed to take advantage of it. Opposition parties didn’t think they needed to hurry because they never thought they would lose. Now they have become irrelevant. Their presence is merely testimonial because the president’s party, Nuevas Ideas, and its allies have a supermajority. The opposition is limited to making statements and peddling proposals that everyone knows will not prosper.

Most of civil society has been closed off from participating in the legislative process. It is not that in the past every civil society proposal was approved – in fact, they were often not even discussed – but there were certain thematic areas where civil society participation was vital to pass a law. That is over: now only pro-government organisations are invited and admitted to committee sessions. Independent civil society has little influence over public policy because the government does not understand its role and is unwilling to integrate its input into decision-making. Thus, it has been reduced to a voice of denunciation with no power to reverse illegal or unconstitutional decisions, as there are no independent institutions left to react to its demands.

President Bukele campaigned on an anti-corruption programme. Has there been any progress in this regard?

The instrumentalisation of the issue of corruption was one of the bases of Bukele’s victory; his campaign slogan was ‘give back what you stole’. The issue of corruption is broad and complex, but that slogan was clear and precise, and appealed to many people. But it was only a campaign strategy.

Once in power, he deactivated all existing anti-corruption mechanisms, disregarding IAIP resolutions, preventing audits by the Court of Auditors of government ministries, denying the prosecutor’s office access to public bodies involved in corruption cases, and finally removing the prosecutor and imposing one of his unconditional supporters, who even has legal complaints filed against him. We have no way of knowing the government’s expenditure, particularly those related to the pandemic. The administration has been so opaque that we don’t even have reliable data on how many people were infected with COVID-19, how many were hospitalised and how many died. The government does not provide information, it hides it. And when there are revelations or allegations of corruption, it attacks and defames the whistle-blower.

How has this situation affected Acción Ciudadana’s work?

Acción Ciudadana promotes political reform, transparency, accountability, citizen participation and the fight against corruption and impunity. Hence, much of the work we do is monitoring: we monitor political financing, internal political party elections and electoral propaganda; the work of the attorney general’s office, transparency in public administration and obstacles to access information; and the functioning of institutional mechanisms for the prevention, detection and punishment of corruption.

To do our investigations we need access to public information, but the avenues of access are being closed. For example, the law establishes that information on travel by public officials must be public; however, the government has decided that this information is to be kept confidential for seven years. In this particular case there has been some pressure in the media and on social media, and the government changed its criteria and now withholds this information for up to 30 days after each trip, supposedly to protect the security of the concerned official. This is still illegal.

When we are denied information that should be public, we can no longer turn to the bodies that safeguard access to information because they are either co-opted or frightened. For example, some political parties – starting with the ruling party – do not hand over their financial information to us. We have repeatedly denounced this to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal for almost three years, but the Tribunal does not accept our complaints. So when a party does not provide us with information, we no longer appeal to the Tribunal, and when faced with an unconstitutional law, we no longer appeal to the Constitutional Chamber.

We have also lost much of our advocacy capacity. Normally our monitoring would lead to legal complaints and criminal investigations. But nowadays the most we can do is publish the results of our investigations in some media outlets and offer them to the public. We can no longer feed them into institutional processes. For example, we found that in the 2019 presidential campaign a company donated US$1 million to the Grand Alliance for National Unity, Bukele’s electoral coalition, and in 2020 the government awarded that company a public-private partnership contract to manage and expand the airport. We see this as a case of conflict of interest, but we cannot take the issue to the prosecutor’s office or the Court of Auditors and ask them to investigate.

President Bukele seems difficult to classify ideologically. What is his programme?

If I had to classify the president’s party, I would say that it is a catch-all party, without an ideologically defined political project. Until he was expelled in 2017, Bukele belonged to the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, and he portrayed himself as a revolutionary leftist who embraced Hugo Chávez and spoke of social justice. Then, as president-elect, he gave a speech at the Heritage Foundation, one of the most conservative think tanks in the USA, and he couldn’t have sounded more neoliberal. He has always claimed that the issues that need solutions were not a matter of ideology, and Nuevas Ideas was set up with the logic that everyone could fit in it, regardless of whether they were on the left or on the right. And that’s how it has been; there’s a bit of everything in there.

Bukele does not have an ideological programme; his aim is to concentrate power. He can take right-wing or left-wing measures, but not because he has one ideology or the other, but because it happens to be what benefits him the most. For example, most of the pension system in El Salvador is private and he will probably nationalise it, not because he believes that this essential public service should be managed by the state, but because the Pension Fund moves millions of dollars, and the government wants to get its hands on it because it is short of resources, in debt and without further sources of funding, since the possibility of an agreement with the International Monetary Fund has just collapsed. Of course, privatisation is being presented as an act of justice towards pensioners, who receive miserable pensions. Based on this measure, an outside observer might think that his is a leftist government, but this is not an ideological measure, but rather one made out of convenience. The government is driven by the pursuit of political and economic gain, which is why it often appears erratic or improvised. There is no vision to guide the government’s planning.

What are the causes of the protests currently faced by the government?

The protests that began in early September erupted in reaction to the adoption of bitcoin as an official currency alongside the US dollar. Many people who support and value Bukele have opposed this measure, because they thought it could adversely affect them. This is the first government measure that has been widely rejected, and I think it was not only because of opposition to the cryptocurrency, but also because of the way decisions are being made, in the absence of sufficient information, debate and participation. Bukele made the announcement of this measure at an event in Miami on a Saturday, and the following Monday the bill was submitted to Congress. By Tuesday it had been passed. Everything was resolved in three or four days, amid total secrecy.

Unfortunately, the reaction on this issue has been an exception, possibly because it is a subject that many people don’t understand much about, which causes fear. Generally speaking, most people applaud the president, his handling of the pandemic and his Territorial Control Plan, which is a strategy for militarising citizen security. This is because the narrative constructed by the government has been successful. For example, when the judges of the Constitutional Chamber were dismissed – a manoeuvre that civil society denounced as a coup d’état – the government said that the corrupt had been thrown out and many people believed it. There were people who came out to protest, not only from organised civil society, but also citizens in general, but they were a minority. It is difficult to counter the official narrative.

What support does Salvadoran civil society need to be able to play its full role?

It is quite complicated. Journalists manage to get information leaked to them and get their stories out, but we are not journalists. To get the information we need to play our accountability role we look for it on institutional portals and make information requests. Any effort to get public institutions to disclose information a bit more would help us.

We also need support in terms of personal and digital security, as well as in the area of communications, because evidently civil society has not been able to communicate our messages adequately and we have not been able to build an alternative narrative to the official one.

Civic space in El Salvador is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Acción Ciudadana through its Facebook page and follow @CiudadanaAccio1 and @esec76 on Twitter. 

 

COP26: ‘In response to pressure from below, COP26 should develop interventions for just climate action’

In the run-up to the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26), which will take place in Glasgow, UK between 31 October and 12 November 2021, CIVICUS is interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about the environmental challenges they face in their contexts, the actions they are undertaking to tackle them and their expectations for the upcoming summit.

CIVICUS speaks with Caroline Owashaba, team leader at Action for Youth Development Uganda and volunteer coordinator of the Girls Not Brides Uganda Alliance.

Caroline Owashaba

What is the key environmental issue in your country that you are working on?

A key issue in Uganda is the use of large quantities of single-use plastic bags, which have extreme environmental effects. Plastic bags take many years to decompose; they release toxic substances into the soil and, if burned, into the air; they block drains and may cause flooding; and they kill animals that eat them confusing them for food or that get entangled in them.

A measure to ban the manufacture, sale and use of plastic bags was passed back in 2018, but manufacturers lobbied hard to get more time before the ban went into effect, and as a result its enforcement has been slow and largely ineffective. So earlier in 2021, the government decided to enforce new measures to that effect, alongside a bigger package of environmental measures. 

While the government works to enforce the ban on single-use plastic bags, we are working on an initiative to produce alternative, eco-friendly and biodegradable materials. This is quite urgent, because right now, if the ban on plastic bags was actually enforced, the supply of biodegradable packaging options would by no means be enough.

Action for Youth Development Uganda (ACOYDE) is implementing a project named CHACHA (Children for Alternative Change), which uses banana fibre to produce a variety of useful items, such as door and table mats, pillows, interior decorative items and, of course, bags. The waste generated from the banana fibre extraction and the manufacture of these items is recycled to produce high-quality charcoal briquettes that are used as a heat source by young people and women involved in the project in both their homes and workplaces, reducing consumption of fuel while increasing their household income. 

The whole community takes part in the production process, because they are the major suppliers of banana stems. And the project enables young people, and especially young women, to earn a living for their families. There are possibilities for its expansion, as the emergence of eco-hotels has created an increased demand for eco-friendly products 

How do you engage with the broader international climate movement?

We have engaged with the international movement through regional climate change exchanges such as Africa Climate Change Week and as part of the Climate Smart Agriculture Youth Network. We also follow the discussions of the Least Developed Countries (LDC) Group on adaptation, mitigation and financing.

It has also worked the other way around: ACOYDE has supported efforts to domesticate the international climate framework and fed into the National Climate Change Bill, which was passed in April 2021. The new bill gave the force of law to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Paris Agreement, to which Uganda is a signatory. We then worked to localise the bill. It is key for it to be effectively implemented at a local level because it will help us overcome the climate change injustices in our communities.

We also connect with the broader climate movement from a gender perspective. I am personally interested in the intersections between gender and climate change. In previous COPs, I was able to contribute to the Gender Action Plan (GAP) that has guided and influenced issues of women and youth in UNFCCC negotiation processes. I participated in GAP progress discussions on gender balance, coherence, gender-responsive implementation, monitoring, and reporting. I have also been active in the Uganda National Gender Working Group and other national climate change processes to ensure the domestication of global standards of gender and financing consistent with the Paris Agreement, including by reporting on the implementation of the GAP provisions in Uganda.

What hopes, if any, do you have for COP26?

COP26 should offer spaces to take gender issues to the global level and provide further opportunities for discussion. It should increase women’s participation, undertake gender mainstreaming and ensure GAPs are implemented. It should help amplify the voices of women in climate change negotiations. Women are doing much of the heavy lifting at the grassroots level, but they get too little in return, not just because too little goes to their pockets but also because they continue to be underrepresented and therefore their voices go unheard.

International forums such as COP26 should provide spaces for grassroots participation and, in response to those pressures from below, COP26 should develop strong interventions for just climate action that are respectful of human rights, including Indigenous people’s rights and the promotion of gender equality. 

Civic space in Uganda is rated as ‘repressedby the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Action for Youth Development Uganda through its website and Facebook page.

 

PAPUA NEW GUINEA: ‘The mining company must address its human rights and environmental legacy’

Keren AdamsCIVICUS speaks with Keren Adams, Legal Director of the Human Rights Law Centre (HRLC), about the victory recently obtained in holding the British-Australian mining company Rio Tinto accountable for the multiple human rights violations caused by its operations in Bougainville, Papua New Guinea. Established in 2006, the HRLC is an Australian civil society organisation that uses strategic legal action, policy solutions and advocacy to support people and communities to eliminate inequality and injustice and build a fairer, more compassionate Australia.

What tactics does the HRLC use to hold corporations accountable? 

The HRLC uses a mixture of strategic litigation, high-impact media work, campaigning and shareholder engagement to hold corporations accountable for the human rights consequences of their actions. We work in partnership with affected communities and workers to seek justice and remedy for corporate human rights abuses. We also advocate to improve regulation and oversight over the activities of Australian companies to ensure they uphold their obligation to respect human rights, wherever they operate.

What were the impacts of the Rio Tinto operations on Bougainville Island, and how did the HRLC support the struggle of local communities for justice and accountability?

Rio Tinto’s former Panguna mine on Bougainville left a massive legacy of environmental and social devastation on the island. Panguna had been one of the world’s largest copper and gold mines. During its operation, between 1972 and 1989, over a billion tonnes of waste from the mine were dumped directly into the Kawerong river downstream. The environmental destruction this caused, and its associated social consequences, led to a local uprising that forcibly closed the mine in 1989 and triggered a 10-year civil war on the island. In 2016, Rio Tinto divested from the mine and walked away without accepting any responsibility for this legacy.

As a result, communities all along the Jaba-Kawerong river valley continue to live surrounded by vast mounds of tailings – mine waste – left over from the mine’s operation. Their water sources are heavily polluted with copper and with every rainfall, huge volumes of tailings erode into the rivers, flooding farms and forests downstream with polluted mud, displacing villagers and destroying peoples’ livelihoods. Many people in the area live with serious health problems, including skin diseases and gastrointestinal and respiratory infections, which local health workers attribute to their exposure to pollution. An estimated 14,000 people live downstream of the mine.

In 2020, the HRLC assisted 156 local residents from several villages downstream of the mine to file a human rights complaint against the company with the Australian government, alleging serious breaches of the company’s human rights and environmental obligations. In response to the complaint, Rio Tinto agreed to re-engage with the communities about these issues and in July 2021 committed to funding an independent environmental and human rights impact assessment of the mine to identify impacts and risks posed by the mine and develop recommendations for what needs to be done to address them.

What do you hope will be the outcome of the process once the impact assessment is complete?

The communities we are working with called for Rio Tinto to fund the impact assessment as a first critical step towards addressing the massive and ongoing environmental and human rights problems being caused by the mine. But it is only the first step. They hope and expect that once the impact assessment is complete, Rio Tinto will contribute to a substantial, independently managed fund to help address the harms caused by the mine and assist long-term rehabilitation efforts.

These communities urgently need access to clean water for drinking and bathing. They need solutions to stop the vast mounds of tailings eroding into the rivers and flooding their villages, farms and fishing areas. They need their children to be able to walk to school without having to wade through treacherous areas of quicksand created by the mine waste. These are just some examples of what remediation means in real terms for the people living with these impacts.

What challenges lay ahead in achieving rightful compensation and long-term rehabilitation?

The extent of the environmental destruction at Panguna and the myriad health and social problems caused by the mine, left unaddressed for over 30 years, mean that substantial resources and a long-term commitment will be needed to find solutions and undertake proper rehabilitation of the site.

So far, Rio Tinto has only committed to funding the independent assessment of the mine. While we see this as an important development, it remains to be seen how serious the company is about addressing its legacy on the island and providing remedy in accordance with its human rights and environmental obligations. We will be continuing to work with local communities and other stakeholders like the Autonomous Bougainville Government to ensure that they do so.

Civic space in Papua New Guinea is rated as ‘obstructedby the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Human Rights Law Centre through its website or Facebook page, and follow @rightsagenda on Twitter. 

 

INNOVATION: ‘Conventional human rights structures and practices may no longer be optimal or sufficient’

Ed RekoshCIVICUS speaks with Edwin Rekosh, co-founder and managing partner of Rights CoLab, about the effects on civil society of the emergence of digital infrastructures and the importance of innovation and digital rights. Rights CoLab is a multinational collaborative organisation that seeks to develop bold strategies to advance human rights across the fields of civil society, technology, business and finance. 

What does Rights CoLab do?

Rights CoLab generates experimental and collaborative strategies to address current challenges to human rights from a systemic perspective. In particular, we investigate and facilitate new ways of organising civic engagement and leveraging markets to bring about transformational change.

We see opportunity to support civic engagement by building on trends outside the traditional philanthropic space. For example, we are interested in organisational models coming out of social enterprise, where there may be commercial revenue to sustain operations. We are also interested in the use of technology to reduce costs and achieve civil society goals without a formal organisational structure, through running a website or an app for instance. In addition, we are exploring generational change in the way younger people view their careers, with increasing numbers of young people seeking a work life that blends non-profit and for-profit career goals. We believe it’s imperative to develop more effective ways to collaborate, especially across borders, professional perspectives and fields of expertise.

Among the challenges we seek to address is a resurgence of authoritarianism and populist politics, which has reinforced an emphasis on national sovereignty and the demonisation of local civil society organisations (CSOs) as perceived agents of antagonistic foreign values and interests. We also seek to address shifting geopolitical realities that are undermining the human rights infrastructure built in the last half century as well as the long-term legacies of colonial power dynamics. And we aim to develop new approaches to reining in the negative human rights impact of increasing corporate power, particularly in ways that have been aggravated by the pandemic.

What was the inspiration behind the foundation of Rights CoLab?

The decision to establish Rights CoLab was premised on the understanding that the human rights field has reached a mature stage, filled with challenges that raise questions about structures and practices that have become conventional, but may no longer be optimal or sufficient.

I was a human rights lawyer who had transitioned from legal practice in a large law firm to working for a human rights organisation in Washington, DC. The experience I had managing a project in Romania in the early 1990s completely transformed how I viewed human rights and my role as an American lawyer. I started working hand in hand with locally based CSOs, playing a key role as a behind-the-scenes supporter and connector of civil society, linking CSOs to each other and to resources, and supporting the implementation of other solidarity-based strategies.

Soon after, I founded and then served as president of PILnet, a global network for public interest and private sector lawyers within the civil society space. Around the time I decided to leave that role, I was becoming focused on the closing space for civil society that I saw happening around me, particularly affecting work we were doing in Russia and China. I wound up reconnecting with Paul Rissman and Joanne Bauer, the two other co-founders of Rights CoLab, and we began comparing notes about our respective concerns and ideas about the future of human rights. The three of us set up Rights CoLab as a way to continue the conversation, looking at current challenges in human rights from three very different perspectives. We wanted to create a space where we could continue that dialogue and bring in others to foster experimentation with new approaches.

How much has the civil society arena changed in recent years due to the emergence of digital infrastructures?

It has changed dramatically. One key consequence of the emergent digital infrastructure is that the public sphere has expanded in myriad ways. The role of the media is less constrained by borders and there is much less intermediation through editorial control. That represents both opportunity and threat for human rights. Individuals and groups can influence public discourse with fewer barriers to entry, but on the other hand, the public sphere is no longer regulated by governments in predictable ways, which erodes traditional means of accountability and makes it difficult to ensure a fair playing field for the marketplace of ideas. Digital technology also allows for solidarity across borders in ways that are much less constrained by some of the practical limitations of the past. In short, although new threats to human rights stem from the emergence of digital infrastructures, digital tools also offer opportunity.

How crucial are digital rights and infrastructures to the work of civil society?

In a lot of ways, digital rights are secondary to the structures, practices and values of civil society. Civil society is inherently derived from respect for human dignity, the creative spirit of human endeavour and the politics of solidarity. The modes in which people organise with each other in order to engage with the world around them depends primarily on socially oriented values, skills and practices. Digital technology can only provide tools, which do not inherently possess any of those characteristics. In that sense, digital technology is neither necessary to civil society organising, nor is it sufficient. Nevertheless, digital technologies can enhance civil society organising, both by exploiting some of the new opportunities inherent in the emerging digital infrastructure as well as by assuring the digital rights we need in order to avoid negative human rights consequences from the emergent digital infrastructure. 

We are making efforts to identify civil society approaches that can help address these issues. One example is Chequeado, an Argentine non-profit media outlet that is dedicated to verification of public discourse, countering disinformation and promoting access to information in Latin American societies. Chequeado, which exists as a tech platform and app, was able to adapt rapidly to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic by developing a fact-checker dashboard to dispel misinformation on the origins, transmission and treatment of COVID-19 and combat misinformation that leads to ethnic discrimination and growing mistrust in science. Therefore, while understanding the potential uses of digital technology is essential, so is keeping the focus on elements that have little to do with technology per se, such as values, solidarity and principle-based norms and institutions.

How does Rights CoLab promote innovation in civil society?

We pursue civil society innovation in several dimensions: how civil society groups organise themselves, including their basic structures and revenue models; how they use technology; and changes needed by the international civil society ecosystem to mitigate the negative effects of counter-productive power dynamics that stem from colonialism.

For the first two dimensions, we have partnered with other resource hubs to co-create a geo-located map of case studies illustrating innovation in organisational forms and revenue models. We have developed a typology for this growing database of examples that emphasises alternatives to the traditional model for locally based civil society groups – in other words, alternatives to cross-border charitable funding. With our partners, we are also developing training methodologies and communication strategies that aim to facilitate further experimentation and wider adoption of alternative models for structuring and financing civil society activities.

Our effort to improve the international civil society ecosystem relies on a systems-change project that we have launched under the name RINGO (Reimagining the International NGO). A key focus of the RINGO project is the intermediation between the large international CSOs and more local civic spaces. The hypothesis is that international CSOs can be a barrier or an enabler to a stronger local civil society, and the way it’s organised now – with dominant roles concentrated in the global north and west – needs a rethink.

RINGO involves a Social Lab with 50 participants representing a wide range of sizes and types of CSOs, coming from a diversity of geographies. Over the course of a two-year process, the Social Lab will generate prototypes that can be tried out with the intention of radically transforming the sector and how we organise civil society at the global level. We hope to extract valuable lessons from the prototypes that can be replicated or reformulated and scaled. There are already many good practices, but there are also systemic dysfunctionalities that remain unaddressed. So we are looking for new, more transformational practices, processes and structures. While we don’t seek utopia, we do seek systemic change. Hence the inquiry process with the Social Lab is vital as we dig deep into the root issues that paralyse the system, moving beyond palliative, superficially appealing practices.

Get in touch with Rights CoLab through its website and follow @rightscolab and @EdRekosh on Twitter.

 

TANZANIA: ‘What is needed is a new constitution reflecting the will of the people’

CIVICUS speaks about the prospects for democratic change under a new president in Tanzania with Maria Sarungi Tsehai, a communications expert and founder of Change Tanzania. Change Tanzania is a social movement that began on social media as an informal group of people focused on bringing positive, sustainable change to Tanzania.

Maria Sarungi Tsehai

What is the current state of civic space – the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly, and expression – in Tanzania?

Civic space continues to be restricted, as the legal framework has not changed. Amendments have been proposed to the 2020 Electronic and Postal Communications (Online Content) Regulations, which have led to the severe restriction of online freedom of expression and digital media freedoms. However, these amendments are limited good news, as critical issues such as the criminalisation of what is perceived as ‘fake news’ or misinformation remain and the authorities have retained ultimate arbitrary power to take action and have so-called ‘prohibited content’ removed within two hours. The list of prohibited content, which is open to interpretation and has been used to restrict media freedom and the freedom of expression in the past, remains.

Regarding the freedom of peaceful assembly, restrictions have become harsher, to the extent that internal political party meetings are now banned and have been disrupted by riot-geared police, as witnessed recently in the case of a number of meetings and convenings held by the main opposition party, the Party for Democracy and Progress – better known as CHADEMA for its acronym in Swahili – as well as in the case of the National Convention for Construction and Reform, another opposition party, whose internal council meeting was broken up by the police on 28 August 2021.

Those who continued to gather in defiance have been illegally detained and kept incommunicado. In some cases, this has involved dozens of people, while recently in Mwanza, in northern Tanzania, it has affected close to 100 CHADEMA supporters. The chairman of CHADEMA, Freeman Mbowe, was recently abducted by masked security forces and held incommunicado for days before being charged with terrorism – all because he defied police calls and flew to Mwanza to be part of a symposium on constitutional reforms.

President Samia Suluhu Hassan has accused citizens leading movements for constitutional reform of fostering foreign interests and seeking to destabilise the country for personal gain, therefore designating their actions as ‘sedition’.

When CHADEMA supporters assembled outside the court building the day Freeman Mbowe was due to appear in court, they received rough treatment from the police and were picked off the streets and detained just for standing silently with banners and wearing opposition t-shirts. Many women have been detained in such a way and denied their basic rights to food, water and sanitary pads while in illegal detention. One female CHADEMA leader, Neema Mwakipesile, was detained for over 14 days, and was initially denied any access to a lawyer or contact with family members.

The government has also frequently instrumentalised the COVID-19 pandemic to limit political gatherings. Specifically, any gathering deemed to be critical of the government is restricted using COVID-19 regulations, while mass gathering in stadiums for sports and entertainment are still allowed.

As for restrictions on the freedom of expression, harsh reprisals against those speaking up have not been limited to opposition members and critics but have recently started to target dissenting voices within the ruling Party of the Revolution (Chama Cha Mapinduzi, CCM). On 31 August 2021, a CCM member of parliament, Jerry Silaa Ukonga, was suspended because during a meeting with his constituents he said that parliamentarians should pay income taxes. His suspension will deter other lawmakers from speaking up any matter that may be deemed critical of the government, as the parliamentary leadership is an extension of the executive rather than an independent pillar of government.

Has the new government under President Suluhu – who came to power following the death of President John Magufuli – taken any steps to improve the conditions for civil society and the expression of dissent?

First of all, calling it a ‘new government’ is a misnomer, because it is basically the same government, in which the former vice president became president and a little cabinet reshuffle took place, but most key positions were retained by the same group of people. There was some hope around the new minister responsible for foreign affairs, but for civil society not much has changed, as the mechanisms for the oversight of civil society organisations (CSOs) and the legal framework have remained in place.

In fact, a by-law has been recently introduced whereby CSOs are not allowed to give out joint statements without previously developing a memorandum of understanding that needs to be submitted and registered with the NGO Registrar. So it’s the same laws and the same people who continue to be a threat to any open dissent. This continuity is visible in the government’s response to Tanzania’s Universal Periodic Review examination at the United Nations Human Rights Council, which hardly seems to have addressed any area of concern.

The only visible difference under the new president has been the government’s admission of the existence of the COVID-19 pandemic. The new president has introduced and encouraged COVID-19 preventative measures and Tanzania officially joined the COVAX initiative, as a result of which it has received vaccines.

However, there has been no change regarding the key people overseeing health policies, and as a result trust in the government is low. The mixed messaging has led to apathy and disbelief; therefore, vaccine uptake is slow and even precautions are not enforced genuinely and systematically. Additionally, COVID-19 data has not been released in a regular and systematic manner. The government randomly releases ad hoc and aggregate numbers that are impossible to assess. There are evidently a lot of COVID-19-related deaths that go undocumented.

Do you think the fact that the country has its first female president will make a difference for women’s rights?

So far, nothing has changed. In fact, President Suluhu has fronted herself as a patriarchy enabler, both in rhetoric and appointments. She has adopted approaches similar to those used by previous governments to target opposition and dissent. She has even refused to lift a ban on pregnant schoolgirls from re-entering formal education after delivery.

For real change to happen, a shift in fundamental structures needs to take place, starting with constitutional and legal reforms to enable political competition and allow access for more female decision-makers who are not dependent on patronage by the male-dominated leadership of the CCM. But President Suluhu is ignoring calls for constitutional reform. 

What would the government need to do so that Tanzania becomes more open and democratic?

Unfortunately, the government led by the CCM, which is in power as a result of an openly rigged election that was accompanied by one of the most violent post-election repression episodes, is not capable of driving any democratic reform. What is needed is a new constitution reflecting the will of the people. A good place to start would be the ‘Warioba draft’ – named after the chairperson of the Constitutional Review Commission, retired judge Joseph Warioba - that was published in 2013 and ditched at the last minute by CCM in October 2014, during its failed attempt to pass a new constitution through a constituent assembly.

The process has to be revived and it has to be multi-party and involve the citizenry more broadly. But President Suluhu seems unwilling to do this, and in some cases, as in that of Freeman Mbowe, she has shown outright hostility towards the opposition. If its only goal is to cling to power, the government will not work on any real reforms. The sooner this becomes clear to everyone, the better.

Besides writing a new constitution, the government would also need to improve accountability, especially by following up on the Controller and Auditor General’s (CAG) Annual Report. The first thing that President Suluhu did when she was sworn in was to ask the CAG to submit its report and promised that measures would be taken against those civil servants who were involved in wrongdoing. She also ordered a CAG special audit of the Central Bank for the first quarter of 2021. But the report was never published, and only a press statement was released which said that everything was in order. Regarding accountability and transparency, rejoining the Open Government Partnership would be a good starting point. The government should also introduce police and prison reforms and make new appointments for positions including judges, the Inspector General of Police, the Attorney General, the Chief Justice, and other positions to improve justice and social services.

How can global civil society support civil society in Tanzania?

The main focus should be on high-level, intense pressure on the government of Tanzania to engage with the opposition and credible civil society representatives and citizen groups in ushering in constitutional reforms so that by 2025 we will have laid down the foundations for free and fair elections. Otherwise, the next elections may put Tanzania on a very dangerous path in many regards.

Global civil society needs to make sure that Tanzania is held accountable and that in all discussions fundamental structural and legal framework reforms are emphasised. It should make sure not to succumb to nice promising rhetoric and superficial cosmetic changes because allowing the government to get away with such flimsy actions will have very grave consequences.

Those funding projects in Tanzania need to consider funding social movements and more loose coalitions of citizens and groups rather than small circles of civil society actors that embrace a top-down approach. This will have significant impacts on building a society conducive to the greater good and serving the wider population.

Civic space in Tanzania is rated asrepressedby the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Change Tanzania through its Facebook page and follow @ChangeTanzania and @MariaSTsehai on Twitter. 

 

JAMAICA: ‘After 20 years of advocacy, now there is sustained public conversation around LGBTQI+ rights’

Karen Lloyd

CIVICUS speaks with Karen Lloyd, Associate Director of J-FLAG, about the situation of LGBTQI+ rights in Jamaica and the significance of a recent report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) that held the Jamaican government responsible for violating rights. J-FLAG is a human rights and social justice organisation that advocates for the rights, livelihood and wellbeing of LGBTQI+ people in Jamaica.

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

Gender and sexuality-based discrimination continue to be of concern and impacts on people in many ways, including their right to work, education, health, life and equality before the law. The law does not protect people from discrimination on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity, and same-sex intimacy is criminalised.

In April 2011, the Jamaican government passed the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms, but calls to include sexual orientation and gender identity as grounds for non-discrimination went unheard. The 2012 National Survey on Attitudes and Perceptions towards Same-Sex Relations, commissioned by J-FLAG, found that one in five Jamaicans respected LGBTQI+ people and supported the inclusion of sexual orientation as a ground for non-discrimination. In addition, about one-third of the population believed the government was not doing enough to protect LGBTQI+ people from violence and discrimination.

Members of the Jamaican LGBTQI+ community are routinely deprived of their human rights and suffer from widespread discrimination, exclusion, violent attacks, police abuse, joblessness and a distinct lack of legal protection, among other issues. Many LGBTQI+ Jamaicans live in fear because of discriminatory policies, laws and attitudes and the lack of political will to protect their human rights. Since 2009, over 600 cases of abuse and violence have been reported to J-FLAG, and the National Survey carried out in 2015 revealed a 12 per cent rate of tolerance toward LGBTQI+ people among the public.

A 2016 report found that out of 316 LGBTQI+ Jamaicans, 32 per cent had reported being threatened with physical violence over the previous five years and 12 per cent had reported being attacked; 23.7 per cent reported being threatened with sexual violence and 19 per cent being sexually assaulted. However, 41 per cent had not reported these incidents because they did not think the police would do anything, and 30 per cent thought the matter was too minor. One in four feared a homophobic reaction from the police and one out of five felt too embarrassed and did not want anyone to know.

This reality is compounded by homophobia and transphobia as well as by laws criminalising same-sex intimacy between men, weak and largely inaccessible anti-discrimination legislation, weak protections against sexual and domestic violence and lack of legal recognition of same-sex relationships.

In February 2021, the IACHR issued a report on LGBTQI+ rights in Jamaica. What was the significance of this?

Several sections of the Offences Against the Person Act (OAPA) of 1864 prohibit sexual activities between men. Section 76 criminalises buggery, section 77 criminalises any attempt to commit buggery and section 79 criminalises acts of gross indecency, which can include kissing, hand holding and other acts of male-to-male intimacy. Men convicted of buggery face a maximum of 10 years of hard labour. This and other laws relating to sexual offences that precede the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms are protected from rights-based challenges.

In the cases examined by the IACHR, the petitioners – Mr Gareth Henry, who is gay and Ms Simone Edwards, who is a lesbian – alleged that Jamaica was in violation of its obligation under the American Convention on Human Rights by continuing to criminalise private consensual sexual activity between adult males and by protecting these laws from being challenged. They claimed that this perpetuates Jamaica’s culture of violent homophobia and encourages the state and the general population to persecute not only male homosexuals, but also the broader LGBTQI+ community. They said they had both been victims of homophobic attacks. 

The report by the IACHR concluded that the Jamaican government was responsible for these violations of their rights. The last we heard about it, the Attorney General’s department had acknowledged the decision and was preparing a response. For civil society, it reinforced ongoing calls for amendments to the OAPA and became part of existing engagement with policymakers to have it changed. Advocacy efforts with legislators have continued to be difficult, however, because they are unwilling to be publicly associated with a call for repeal due to potential backlash by religious extremist groups and some members of the public.

How is J-FLAG working to try to improve the situation?

J-FLAG is the foremost human rights and social justice organisation in Jamaica advocating for the rights, livelihood and wellbeing of LGBTQI+ people in Jamaica. Our work seeks to build a Jamaican society that respects and protects the rights of everyone. Our board and staff are committed to promoting social change, empowering the LGBTQI+ community and building tolerance for and acceptance of LGBTQI+ people. We promote the values of all-inclusivity, diversity, equality, fairness and love. These values are at the heart of all we do, as we seek to become effective agents of social change.

To achieve our goals, we work on four main areas. First, we seek to improve the provision of non-discriminatory health services, engage key stakeholders and employees to address employment-related discrimination, and provide LGBTQI+ young people with a dedicated organisation that focuses on issues that directly affect their life outcomes.

Second, we seek to increase participation in policy development and review processes by empowering young LGBTQI+ people and youth leaders and increasing collaboration among the LGBTQI+ young people involved in mainstream youth organisations.

Third, we create service packages for LGBTQI+ Jamaicans aimed at increasing their access to information and counselling, reducing homelessness, increasing access to non-discriminatory social services, and increasing access to safe entertainment and networking.

Fourth, we advocate for the human rights of LGBTQI+ people by legitimising the needs of the community, sensitising the population and parliamentarians around human rights, stigma and discrimination, increasing the capacity of LGBTQI+ leaders, civil society organisations (CSOs) and other stakeholders and duty-bearers to be better equipped to respond to the needs of LGBTQI+ people, and increasing the visibility of the experiences and the issues affecting them. 

What have been some of your achievements and lessons learned so far?

Our achievements over the past decade included the training of over 700 healthcare workers, in partnership with the Ministry of Health and Wellness, on how to treat LGBTQI+ clients; successful mass media campaigns such as We Are Jamaicans, #iChooseLove and #OutLoudJA, which sought to raise awareness about LGBTQI+ people among the general population; Our public Pride celebrations; four national surveys on attitudes and perceptions of the public on LGBTQI+ people and issues; the provision of capacity building for CSOs and youth leaders; and numerous research and publications on LGBTQI+ issues.

Since our inaugural Pride event in 2015, Jamaica has held annual celebrations during the ‘Emancipendence’ period – the holidays celebrating both the end of slavery and independence from British colonial rule. The first thing to note is that Jamaica Pride has been conceptualised and implemented through a culturally appropriate lens; for example, it does not include a parade and instead takes the form of a diverse set of events and activities that are important to Jamaicans, including a sports day, church service, trade show, concert, party events and a day of service. At our inaugural Pride in 2015, the keynote speaker at our opening ceremony was the Mayor of Kingston, Dr. Angela Brown-Burke, which meant to signal that the community had allies among policymakers and parliamentarians.

Another success has been having mainstream dancehall artistes such as Tanya Stephens, D’Angel, Jada Kingdom, Tifa, Ishawna, Yanique Curvy Diva and Stacious perform at Pride events. This focused national attention on our celebrations and signalled a positive shift regarding cultural spaces that had been highly contested.

For the first time this year, J-FLAG did not host all the Pride events itself; instead, it provided financial and logistical support for members of the community to spearhead their own events. Dubbed #PrideShare, the initiative featured events led by community members, including arts events and a lip-sync battle, whose success indicated that our efforts are a step in the right direction.

After 20 years of advocacy, now there is sustained public conversation around LGBTQI+ rights, increasing public tolerance and a growing willingness among parliamentarians, policymakers and key decision-makers to engage with the local LGBTQI+ community, including steps in working with LGBTQI+ rights organisations and advocates to improve the lives of members of the community. Notably, J-FLAG has built and sustained a significant partnership with the Ministry of Health that has led to the training and sensitisation of over 500 healthcare workers to fight stigma and discrimination in the health sector.

Notwithstanding these gains, the movement has been dogged by sluggish law and policy reform, limited availability of spaces for community mobilisation and engagement, limited financial support to address homelessness and displacement, and low engagement of LGBTQI+ people living in rural areas. J-FLAG in particular has outlined the need for greater support in strengthening community systems as a means of scaling up advocacy efforts and ensuring wider reach and greater impact.

How can international civil society best support the struggle of LGBQTI+ people in Jamaica and more generally in the Caribbean?

International civil society can support the local and regional movement in many ways, including by giving us a seat at the table during global conversations, and understanding that we are the experts on what is happening in our societies. Where possible, it should also support our resourcing efforts with international donors. It can also help by sharing best practices and relevant research and raising awareness about the issues we face in Jamaica and the Caribbean among wider audiences.

Civic space in Jamaica is rated as ‘narrowedby the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with J-FLAG through its website or its Facebook page, and follow @EqualityJa on Twitter.

 

 

UNITED KINGDOM: ‘The government is set on hiding from accountability and scrutiny’

CIVICUS speaks to Sam Grant, Head of Policy and Campaigns for Liberty, a UK civil society organisation, about the introduction of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill and its impacts on the right to protest. Founded in 1934 in response to brutal police attempts to stop peaceful protests, Liberty is the UK’s largest civil liberties organisation, with more than 10,500 members and supporters, campaigning for everyone in the UK to be treated fairly and with dignity and respect.

Sam Grant Interview

What prompted the UK government to introduce the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill? What are civil society’s major concerns about it?

The current government is set on hiding from accountability and scrutiny wherever it can, whether that’s by making it harder for people seeking justice to take them to court, sidelining elected parliamentarians through secondary legislation or introducing voter ID laws. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is another iteration of this attempt by the government to shield itself from being held accountable, this time by making it harder for people to protest.

Civil society has three main concerns with this bill. Firstly, it represents a crackdown on protest rights. It gives the police greater powers to dictate where, when and how people can protest, it ramps up sentencing and will funnel protesters into the criminal justice system. The cumulative effect of these measures – which target the tools that make protest rights meaningful – constitute an attack on a fundamental building block of our democracy.

Secondly, Liberty and, more generally, UK civil society sees this Bill as an outright attack on the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller nomadic way of life in the UK. The impact these new powers will have on an already marginalised community in this country could be catastrophic.

Finally, Liberty is raising the alarm about the impact on over-policed communities who will be exposed to profiling and disproportionate police powers through the expansion of stop-and-search powers and data-sharing agreements between the police and public bodies.

The bill has already passed through the House of Commons and will start moving through the House of Lords in early September 2021. If the Lords make any amendments, these will need to be approved by the House of Commons in a so-called ping-pong process, until agreement is reached. If it becomes law, this bill will dramatically reshape protest rights in this country, tipping the balance of power further in favour of the government and the police and vastly impacting on marginalised and over-policed communities such as Gypsy and Traveller communities and people of colour.

What is civil society doing to try to prevent the passing of the bill?

The breadth of the coalition working against the bill is growing every day, ranging from environmental, human rights, racial justice and criminal justice groups to Gypsy, Roma and Traveller community groups.

A total of 245 organisations joined together to condemn the bill, over 700 academics called for it to be dropped, three United Nations Special Rapporteurs and Europe’s top human rights official warned it threatened our rights and over 600,000 people signed a petition to call for it to be scrapped.

Organisations continue to work together to show the disastrous impact this bill will have and the importance of our protest rights.

What are civil society’s other concerns about restrictions to civil liberties in the UK?

We are worried about other restrictions because this bill is part of a wider trend of this government trying to evade accountability and attack our rights. Going hand in hand with the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill are attempts to restrict judicial review, which would make it harder to challenge government actions in court, plans to weaken the Human Rights Act, which is our central human rights piece of legislation, and plans to bring in a voter ID, which could prevent millions of people from marginalised communities voting.

How have UK authorities responded to recent protests?

We are seeing an increasingly hostile atmosphere for protest rights in the UK. In recent years, the police have targeted some protesters with facial recognition surveillance technology. People belonging to certain protest groups, including environmental rights groups such as Extinction Rebellion, have been considered extremists and added to counter-terror lists. People arrested at protests have faced the possibility of hugely disproportionate prison sentences that go far beyond fair consequences for their actions.

During the pandemic, police forces have wrongly claimed that COVID-19 regulations placed a blanket ban on all protests and have arrested and fined hundreds of people for demonstrating against injustice. They have even arrested legal observers who act as independent witnesses to police behaviour at protests to help ensure people’s rights are respected.

What can international civil society do to support civil society in the UK?

It is always important to share solidarity where possible. International civil society can support us by raising concerns through appropriate avenues and speaking up about the impact this bill could have even beyond the UK. We’ll be working closely with CIVICUS to identify these opportunities.

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

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

 

 

COLOMBIA: ‘Young people experience a feeling of wanting to change everything’

CIVICUS speaks about the protests that began in Colombia in April 2021, triggered by proposed tax increases, with a young social and human rights activist who chose to remain anonymous for security reasons. The interviewee belongs to a network of youth organisations and young activists that promotes solidarity, organisation and the struggle of excluded groups and that works in the capital, Bogotá, and in the city of Medellín.

What were the causes of the protests, and what are protesters’ demands?

The tax reform was just the straw that broke the camel’s back, as it added to a host of problems. In the assemblies in which we participated, hundreds of demands, and demands of all kinds, were collected, from filling holes in neighbourhood streets to overthrowing the government led by President Iván Duque and seeking justice for the so-called ‘false positives’, that is, cases of civilians killed by the military and presented as casualties of the armed conflict. What young people are experiencing is a feeling of wanting to change everything, of not wanting to continue living as before.

But despite the diversity of demands, there are some that unite young people from the lower classes the most. I think that, in economic matters, young people from the lower classes are demanding employment and opportunities to get ahead, and in political matters these young people, particularly those who were on the protest frontlines, are demanding dignity, to not be humiliated anymore. Nothing unites these young people more than their deep hatred of the police, as the main representative of the outrages and humiliations they experience on a daily basis. They feel like outcasts with no economic future, with no hope of getting a job beyond the daily grind to survive, rejected by society and persecuted like criminals by the police just because they are young and poor.

Students – also young people but more intellectual, some from the middle class – were also a significant force in the protests, but tended to emphasise demands against political repression and human rights violations, the issue of the ‘false positives’, the assassinations of social leaders and the criminalisation of protest.

How do these protests differ from those of previous years, and are there any lines of continuity with them?

Basically, motives are the same as those of the 2019 and 2020 protests. In the 2019 protests, the crisis of unemployment and hunger weighed more heavily, while in the 2020 protests, the issue of repression, not wanting to continue to be humiliated and killed, became more important. Those that broke out in April 2021 combined the motives of the two previous waves, because not only had neither of the two problems been tackled at the root, but not even palliatives had been offered; on the contrary, the economic crisis worsened and political repression continued.

Perhaps one difference is that the latest protests have received greater international attention, which reflects the strength with which the Colombian people took to the streets. The protest had broad legitimacy among social groups that do not usually mobilise. The economic and political crisis and suffocation was such that groups such as medium-size and even large business owners supported the protests. The massive character of the protests also forced everyone, from artists to congresspeople, to take sides.

There were Colombians abroad who protested in their respective countries, speaking up about what their relatives back home were telling them. Some may think that this increased international attention was due to the repression, but I tend to believe that what magnified the message was the size of the middle-class groups that mobilised. Repression has been very present in previous cycles as well as in the face of protests by groups of peasants. I think what was decisive in this case was the diversity of social strata that supported the protest.

How has the government reacted to the protests?

Generally speaking, it reacted first by violently repressing them, then by delegitimising them by using the media to attack some groups, and in particular young people, and finally by trying to divide them in order to demobilise some social groups and isolate young people from the lower classes. For the latter, the government engaged in several negotiations with a self-proclaimed National Strike Committee, and also carried out negotiations at the local level to try to contain or calm down some social groups.

Particularly at the local level, even in localities with so-called centrist and independent governments, the government set up dialogue roundtables that do not solve anything, where demands are listened to but nothing specific is offered in response to those demands. Many local governments washed their hands of the repression, blaming it on the central government alone, but they did everything in their power to demobilise the protests, sending representatives to calm down protesters and promising people that if they stopped protesting they would listen to their demands, something they had not done during the whole previous year.

Violence by some groups seems to have become a problem. How did activists and civil society organisations deal with this?

Violence has often been a spontaneous reaction to repression. Confronting the young person who is throwing a rock with judgement and scolding serves no purpose except to radicalise them further and earn their distrust. In order to change this violence, we must begin by understanding it and distinguishing it from the violence that comes from the state, rather than putting them on the same level. This is not to say that violence is desirable; indeed, it diverts the initiative of many young people. But getting between them and the Immediate Response Command (Comando de Atención Inmediata) – the police unit that operates in urban perimeters – to try and stop them ends up having more of a reverse psychological effect than a deterrence or educational one.

In my experience, civil society organisations that do not reach out to these young people and offer them alternative spaces for politicisation and awareness-raising end up isolating them and losing the ability to influence them. Our organisation has dealt with this through the strategy of avoiding negative judgement and, instead, approaching them with understanding and trying to create alternative spaces for political participation and the organisation of young people.

What roles has your organisation played in the protests?

Our organisation played an active role: we organised the participation in the protests of young people and families in the neighbourhoods where we carry out community work and promoted a solidarity campaign with protesters to collect economic support and other resources, such as first aid, support through community kitchens and human rights advocacy, to help various protest points in the cities of Bogotá and Medellín.

In Bogotá, we provided support to find information on missing persons and participated in solidarity campaigns with people who had been injured. In Medellín we established community kitchens and repaired roofs and other damage caused by protests in neighbourhoods close to the major protest hotspots in the city. Finally, throughout the protests we developed awareness-raising activities and promoted the involvement of young protesters in more lasting processes of social and community building.

What impacts do you think this cycle of protests and repression will have on the upcoming elections?

In my opinion, the protests increased the political capital of the former mayor of Bogotá and former presidential candidate for the left, Gustavo Petro. The government did not give any real response to protesters’ demands and people are still looking for alternatives, and – although our organisation has no interest in campaigning for him or intention to do so – I think Petro is the only available option. In the next elections I would expect a higher rate of youth participation, and I would not be surprised at all if Petro wins.

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

 

ECUADOR: ‘Women’s rights have experienced an emergency situation since well before the pandemic’

CIVICUS speaks with Virginia Gómez de la Torre, president of Fundación Desafío, about the progress made and the challenges remaining in the area of sexual and reproductive rights in Ecuador. Virginia tells us about the significance of the breakthrough that took place in April 2021, when abortion was decriminalised in cases of rape. Active since 2000, Fundación Desafío is a feminist coalition dedicated to the defence and promotion of women’s sexual and reproductive rights and the right to a life free of violence in Ecuador.

Virginia Gomez de la Torre

What are the challenges for women’s rights in Ecuador?

Women’s rights in Ecuador continue to be a challenge because in every area there are unresolved issues due to discrimination, exclusion and sexist violence. In terms of access to work and opportunities for economic and personal development, for example, women have suffered disproportionately from the pandemic and the slowdown in activity; the elimination of small businesses and the reduction of opportunities for informal sales hit them hardest, and it has been difficult for many to regain those spaces.

Inequalities affect women from different social groups in different ways. Ecuador has a large Indigenous population and there is a large female peasant force, but women do not own land. There is a lot of discrimination, and Indigenous and Afro-descendant people have much more difficulty accessing opportunities. Indigenous and Black peasant and internal migrant women are more vulnerable because they suffer the violence of a system that devalues Indigenous and peasant lives.

In Ecuador there is also a large presence of women in a situation of mobility, mostly young women of reproductive age. They arrive without papers and enter through unauthorised migratory passages, which exposes them to situations of trafficking, sexual exploitation and rape, as well as xenophobic violence. In this sense, women’s rights have experienced an emergency situation since well before the pandemic.

All these exclusions are accompanied by violence, and Ecuador has yet to develop a strategy to confront this violence. Although psychological violence remains the most prevalent, all forms of violence have increased. For instance, obstetric violence – that is, the actions or omissions by health personnel that violate women’s rights during pregnancy or childbirth – is extremely high, affecting 42 per cent of women, and is much more prevalent in rural areas and among certain ethnic groups. The state makes little effort and does not give priority to the issue of femicide; last year we had 118 cases. This year we have already had 131, including violent deaths of women related to gang or criminal vendettas. Violence against women is a very serious problem in Ecuador, and as long as it does not deal with it, the government will be noncompliant with the rights enshrined in the constitution.

The Ecuadorian state should issue protection and restraining orders and investigate femicides. It should also combat the violence that is present in all areas of daily life, and which manifests itself very strongly in the form of sexual violence, as well as other forms of violence such as political violence.

This is the context for sexual and reproductive rights. Only on 28 April 2021 was abortion decriminalised in cases of rape. The fact that is something so basic and so long fought for shows the extent to which the Ecuadorian state is tied to the interests of economic power groups that are strongly linked to religious power groups. Every year, between 2,000 and 3,000 girls become pregnant in Ecuador. In 2019 there were 4,000 under the age of 14, and under the pandemic there were about 3,000; according to the Criminal Code, these pregnancies are the result of rape.

What was the process that led to the legalisation of abortion in cases of rape?

Until April 2021, abortion was only permitted when a woman’s life or health was in danger or if the pregnancy was the result of rape of an intellectually disabled woman. In response to several unconstitutionality lawsuits filed by women’s rights organisations, the Constitutional Court of Ecuador decriminalised abortion for all cases of rape.

This has been a struggle of many years. Women’s rights organisations have been defending therapeutic abortion and abortion in cases of rape since 2008, when the new constitution was drafted and when anti-rights groups tried to repeal therapeutic abortion. They wanted to deprive Ecuadorian women of access to abortion under any circumstances.

Within this framework, the proposal to legalise abortion in cases of rape was brought forward in 2012, when a new Criminal Code was drafted. In 2013, then-President Rafael Correa – the most powerful of anti-rights activists – excluded this possibility. He threatened to resign and used the typical cliché that the constitution guarantees and protects life from the moment of conception.

In 2019, the issue of the decriminalisation of abortion in cases of rape was raised again as a result of a legislative initiative coming from the Public Defender’s Office. The National Women’s Coalition of Ecuador (CNME) and Fundación Desafío once again worked for decriminalisation in cases of rape. But at the last minute, during legislative negotiations, the issue was used as a bargaining chip, and we lost the vote. We had the 70 votes needed to pass a motion in the Assembly, but several Assembly members from parties that had pledged their support ultimately voted against it. We got 65 votes against 59 for the anti-rights side. We lost and the process took another course, that of the Constitutional Court.

Two months before the vote, Fundación Desafío and CNME had already filed a complaint of unconstitutionality and a complaint of non-compliance with the Constitutional Court, because women of this country have no confidence that the powerful will look after our interests. In December 2019 these two lawsuits were admitted and in November 2020 other women’s organisations joined in, as well as the Ombudsman’s Office.

Following the Constitutional Court’s ruling, the determination of time limits remains an immense challenge. We proposed that there should be no time limit, but some doctors and health professionals are already putting them into the bill, so this is something we are going to have to fight for in the Assembly.

What roles has Fundación Desafío played in the process?

In addition to filing the claims of unconstitutionality and non-compliance, we have played a leadership role in legislative lobbying. This work was in addition to the contribution of many other organisations that worked with the population, holding workshops, organising networks to accompany women undergoing abortions and opening up spaces that give women the possibility to decide, even if in a context of illegality.

In the legislative processes of 2013 and 2019 we did all kinds of things. We ran communication campaigns, we produced short videos with people who have great public visibility, we worked in networks and we presented our research. We played a day-to-day role in the Assembly’s Justice Committee, which worked on the two reports that were later passed on to the plenary. We channelled the presence of Human Rights Watch, which from a comparative law perspective urged the Assembly to move forward on legalisation, and of several women who gave their testimonies, including a woman who had been raped and another woman who worked in the area of violence against children. We also campaigned for the passage of the Health Code, which included several articles on sexual and reproductive rights. Following eight years of debates, the Health Code was passed by the Assembly in August 2020, but it was fully vetoed the following month by then-President Lenín Moreno.

Lastly, we supported the constitution of the Ecuadorian Faith Network, formed by progressive evangelical Christians. This group made public presentations and statements. The trade union movement and the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador were also in favour of the process. All this documentation was submitted first to the Assembly and then to the Constitutional Court.

What impact do you think this legal change will have?

For those of us who have devoted our lives to this and will continue to do so, this change has a great symbolic impact, even though it is a small step. Obviously, the legalisation of abortion in cases of rape is something huge for raped girls, of whom there are many in Ecuador, and more generally for the women who can now end a pregnancy that is the result of a crime, if they choose to do so. And although no progress has been made in recognising the right of all women to decide about their own bodies in any circumstance, symbolically it is a huge step forward because it demystifies abortion and the possibility of making decisions about the course of a pregnancy in cases of rape. It is now legal to make decisions about the body of a pregnant woman who has been raped; the state has given its approval and for the first time has put the victim at the centre of the debate. So why shouldn’t women who have not been raped be able to make similar decisions about their bodies? I think these are the shifts that are implicitly taking place.

The next step in the very short term will be to also decriminalise abortion in cases of lethal foetal malformation. The scenario of total decriminalisation needs to be raised in the Assembly, as has happened in other countries. The Assembly may say no, but that is the way forward and someone needs to do it.

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

 

COLOMBIA: ‘Those who demonstrate put their integrity and their lives at risk’

CIVICUS speaks about recent protests in Colombia with a group of members of the Committee for Solidarity with Political Prisoners Foundation (FCSPP) and the Defend Freedom: Everyone’s Business Campaign, who responded collectively to our questions. FCSPP is an organisation that promotes respect and enforcement of the human rights of all people in Colombia, with a focus on the rights to life, liberty, physical and moral integrity, dignified treatment, fair and impartial trial and other rights of persons deprived of their liberty, prosecuted for political crimes and tried for participating in protests. The Defend Freedom Campaign is a network of social, student, cultural, community and human rights organisations working to denounce arbitrary detentions, judicial persecution and the criminalisation of social protest in Colombia.

What are the main causes of recent protests in Colombia?

From our perspective, the reasons behind the protests in Colombia are diverse. In addition to tax injustice, reflected in the proposal submitted by the national government to collect more taxes, the government's poor handling of the health crisis and the economic, ecological and socio-environmental crises exacerbated by the pandemic is also a cause. In the context of the pandemic, a key demand was related to the inefficient management of the Colombian health system and the need for a reform focused on protecting those working in the health sector and providing comprehensive and preventive care to the general population. The inefficient management of the public pension system and the lack of public policies to promote equitable access by Colombia’s young people to free, quality education and quality employment also came to the fore.

In addition to the socio-ecological injustices caused by a mining and energy policy promoting predatory extractive megaprojects, the lack of commitment by the national government to sign the Escazú Agreement on environmental rights has been accompanied by an unabated wave of murders and other attacks against social, community, environmental, territorial, community and human rights leaders. This violence is perpetuated by the impunity guaranteed by the judicial system to those within the security forces and more generally the state apparatus responsible for human rights violations.

The protests have also highlighted the absence of guarantees for the exercise of the right to social protest, which instead of being protected is being stigmatised and attacked by the state.

How do these protests connect to those that took place in previous years?

The current protests are in direct continuity with the protests of 2020, given that the pandemic resulted in an extended hiatus during which social protest was prevented from taking place physically. During this period, however, the structural issues that motivate social protests were not forgotten, let alone did they disappear, but on the contrary they often deepened and worsened.

How have the authorities responded to the protests?

The National Police have responded with a violent, disproportionate and often unlawful reaction against protesters. According to data collected by the Defend Freedom Campaign, between 28 April and 21 July 2021 this violence resulted in 87 deaths of civilians in the context of protests, 28 of them attributable to the security forces, seven to unidentified civilians and 46 to unidentified perpetrators. During this time, 1,905 people were injured as a result of the disproportionate actions of the National Police, the Mobile Anti-Riot Squads (ESMAD) and unidentified civilians. In addition, 326 human rights defenders were attacked in the context of their work accompanying social protests, 106 were victims of gender-based violence and 3,365 people were detained, many of them arbitrarily, resulting in 1,603 complaints of abuse of power and police violence. These figures are evidence of the unwillingness of the authorities to engage in dialogue and of the way in which the right to social protest is being violated in Colombia. Those who demonstrate put their integrity and their lives at risk.

Rights violations not only occur during protest itself, but are also compounded when it comes to the institutions that are supposed to pay attention, gather data and follow up on violations. We have documented cases of injured people who have not been attended to in hospitals and medical centres. Likewise, the records of missing persons kept by the Ombudsman’s Office and the Prosecutor's Office diverge widely; as of 5 June, the Ombudsman’s Office recorded 89 people missing in the context of the protests, while the Prosecutor’s Office recorded 129. This shows a lack of clarity and coordination between the state institutions that should play a key role in documenting, attending to and providing efficient and timely follow-up to human rights violations.

What were the effects of repression on protesters?

After the media publicised some cases, especially of killings and sexual violence allegedly committed by the security forces, citizens continued to demonstrate in acts of solidarity and collective memory. Further, with the aim of coordinating actions, informing citizens, debating and establishing clear common demands, three National Popular Assemblies were held, two in person – one in Bogotá, from 6 to 8 June, and another in Cali, from 17 to 20 July – and a third virtually, on 15 August. All of them were widely attended by popular organisations and social movements. Discussions were also held in localities, municipalities and cities to build an understanding of interests, needs and proposals. This demonstrated the willingness of citizens who had been protesting to engage in permanent dialogue with government bodies to put forward their demands.

How was it possible to sustain mobilisation for several months, and are protests expected to continue?

In some territories, protesters found a series of conditions that allowed them to meet peacefully and originate new organisational processes through the exercise of their right to the freedom of association. These processes were based on previously established relationships of solidarity, not only among organisations but also within less formal civil society, which mobilised in peaceful marches and by donating non-perishable goods, basic medical supplies, items for protection and other forms of support to the young people who mobilised on what is now known as ‘the frontlines’.

The mobilisation was sustained thanks to new and creative forms of organisation that helped distribute roles in the midst of intense days of police repression, with some people in charge of holding up defensive barriers with improvised or relatively elaborate shields, others in charge of returning teargas canisters and mitigating deterrence tools used by the police, others in charge of providing medical, psychosocial, emotional and legal first aid to those who needed it, and others playing care roles, providing food and hydration to protesters. The result was the emergence of spaces such as ‘Puerto Resistencia’ (Resistance Port) in Cali and ‘Espacio Humanitario al Calor de la Olla’ (Humanitarian Space at the Heat of the Pot) in Bogotá, which were replicated at other resistance hotspots around the country. These spaces bring together inter-organisational and inter-generational networks which, through dialogue and assembly meetings, build consensus and prioritise actions adaptable to each territory’s context.

It is to be expected that the protests will continue, given that they have not only arisen from historic centres of protests, such as workers’ confederations and teachers’ unions, but there are also now multiple protest hubs in cities and highways around the country where people mobilise a diverse range of organised, organising and unorganised citizens with different motivations and people take to the streets due to a variety of situations. Commemorative dates are coming that will surely generate mobilisation, perhaps not on a daily basis as happened between April and July, but with actions that will keep alive the demands made visible both by the National Roundtables of the National Strike Committee and by other spaces promoted by civil society at the local and municipal levels.

How have attacks by armed civilian groups affected demonstrations?

The Campaign has documented multiple situations in which armed civilians attacked protesters, mainly in the departments of Cundinamarca, Risaralda, Norte de Santander, Tolima and Valle del Cauca, and the city of Bogotá. Several of the aggressions recorded were committed by civilians accompanied by members of the security forces, who did not take any action to stop them but rather supported them. Many of these civilians call themselves ‘defenders of private property’.

A clear example of this, taken from the records of the Campaign’s Information System of Aggressions against Social Protest (SIAP), occurred in Cali on the afternoon of 9 May, when agents of the National Police, together with several civilians mobilised in pick-up trucks, attacked the Indigenous Guard, a civil resistance group mobilised in defence of the territory and the life plan of the Indigenous communities. The attack left 10 people injured, one of them in serious condition with a double bullet wound to the stomach. Another case recorded by SIAP occurred in Cali on 6 May; on this occasion, armed persons in civilian clothes got out of a truck and shot at protesters. As a result of citizens’ demands that the army stop them, the interior of the truck was searched and a police jacket was found, and when its number plates were checked, the vehicle was identified as police property.

In other cases, armed civilians act without police being present. It is important to mention the presence of paramilitary groups: in places where mobilisation increased, graffiti and pamphlets from paramilitary groups such as the Black Eagles and the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia were found, aimed at intimidating the population to dissuade people from participating in protests.

How has the government responded to the recommendations issued by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR)?

In public statements referring to the IACHR recommendations, President Iván Duque once again stigmatised the exercise of the right to social protest and highlighted the effects of protest roadblocks on the rights to free movement and work. The government invoked the constitution to reject the proposal to separate the National Police from the Ministry of Defence and was defensive about the possibility of creating a mechanism to monitor human rights.

Despite the recommendations, human rights violations continued unabated. As of 7 July 2021, the day the IACHR recommendations were made public, the Campaign registered 152 detentions, most of them arbitrary, 92 people injured by the actions of ESMAD, the National Police and armed civilians, four cases of gender-based violence, 29 attacks on human rights defenders, 72 complaints of police abuse and violence, and 29 raids. This occurred despite the fact that mobilisations had decreased in intensity and frequency; a large part of these violations happened on a single day, 20 July. But a change in repressive strategy was observed, as the number of raids increased dramatically.

How can international civil society support Colombian civil society?

International civil society can support us through campaigns such as SOS Colombia, but on a more permanent basis, and not limited to peak moments of repression. They could also help us by assisting the countries that act as guarantors of Colombia’s 2016 Peace Accord in doing an exhaustive review of the execution of peacebuilding resources, and by supporting those organisations that have denounced police and state abuses through investigative, communicative and political advocacy strategies in international human rights forums and advocacy spaces, thus giving more visibility to the social, humanitarian and ecological crisis facing Colombia.

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

Get in touch with the Committee for Solidarity with Political Prisoners through its website or Facebook page, and follow @CSPP_ on Twitter. Contact the Defend Freedom Campaign through its website or Facebook page, and follow @DefenderLiberta on Twitter.

 

HONDURAS: ‘The ruling of the Inter-American Court marks a before and after for LGBTQI+ people’

CIVICUS speaks with Indyra Mendoza, founder and general coordinator of Red Lésbica Cattrachas (Cattrachas Lesbian Network), a lesbian feminist organisation dedicated to defending the human rights of LGBTQI+ people in Honduras. In March 2021 the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR) made a ruling in the case of Vicky Hernández. Vicky, a trans woman, and human rights defender, was murdered between the night of 28 June and the early morning of 29 June 2009, in the city of San Pedro Sula, Honduras, while a curfew was in force following a coup. Her killing came in a context of enormous discrimination and violence, including by the security forces, against LGBTQI+ people.

Indyra Mendoza

What was the process that resulted in the IACtHR ruling? What was the role of Cattrachas?

Cattrachas Lesbian Network’s Violence Observatory recorded Vicky’s case and immediately identified it as a potential strategic litigation case, as it was one of the first murders of an LGBTQI+ person following the coup d’état.

Even before the coup, Cattrachas had identified a pattern of non-lethal violence against transgender women by police officers. And while we had already recorded 20 violent deaths of LGBTQI+ people between 1998 and 2008, the killings of transgender women increased after the 2009 coup. The Observatory recorded a total of 15 violent deaths of transgender women, most of which occurred during curfews or states of exception decreed illegally by the government, when state security forces were in absolute control of the streets.

In Vicky’s case, Cattrachas learned that no autopsy had been performed, so we contacted her family and found out that very few investigative steps had been taken. On 23 December 2012, Cattrachas filed the initial petition for Vicky’s murder with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, a USA-based human rights organisation, later joined in. The Commission issued its merits report, which established that human rights violations had taken place, on 7 December 2018 and sent the case to the IACtHR on 30 April 2019. The public hearing was held on 11 and 12 November 2020. 

Finally, on 26 March 2021, the IACtHR issued a ruling declaring the State of Honduras responsible for the violation of Vicky’s rights to life, personal integrity, equality and non-discrimination, recognition of legal personality, personal liberty, privacy, freedom of expression and name. It also ruled that the State of Honduras failed to comply with the obligation established in article 7.a of the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment, and Eradication of Violence against Women, also known as the Convention of Belém Do Pará. Additionally, the IACtHR established that Vicky’s death was not investigated with due diligence, and therefore condemned Honduras for the violation of due process, judicial protection and the obligation established in article 7.b of the Convention. Finally, the Court declared that the right to personal integrity of Vicky’s relatives had also been violated. The ruling was notified on 28 June 2021, 12 years after the coup d’état and the transfemicide of Vicky Hernández.

The resolution of this case was exceptional. What was the reason for this exception?

Its resolution was exceptional because of the multiple intersectionalities of violence present in Vicky’s life. Vicky was a young Honduran transgender woman and human rights defender, a sex worker living with HIV, with limited economic resources, and at some point in her life, precarious employment had forced her to emigrate. Vicky’s is the first case of lethal violence against an LGBTQI+ person that occurred at the intersection of two relevant contexts: the 2009 coup d’état and the context of structural violence that LGBTQI+ people, and particularly transgender women, face in Honduras.

The case allowed the Court to reiterate standards on the right to gender identity, equality, and non-discrimination, and to insist that, in contexts of historical violence, subordination, and discrimination, in this case against transgender people, international commitments impose a reinforced responsibility on the state. Furthermore, through an evolutionary interpretation, the Court established that transgender women are women, and are therefore protected by the Convention of Belém Do Pará.

What is the significance of this ruling for LGBTQI+ people in Honduras?

The ruling in Vicky’s case marks a before and after, as it establishes guarantees of non-repetition that must be turned into public policy in favour of LGBTQI+ people.

The measures set by the ruling include the establishment of an educational scholarship for transgender persons, which will bear the name of Vicky Hernández, the implementation of education, awareness-raising and training plan for the Honduran security forces, the adoption of protocols for the diagnosis, data collection, monitoring and investigation of cases of violence against LGBTQI+ people, and the adoption of a procedure to recognise gender identity in identity papers and public records. This procedure should be guided by the standards of Advisory Opinion 24/17, which implies that it should not require any law, should be expeditious, should not require pathologising tests, should not require a historical record of changes, and should be, as far as possible, free of charge.

More than a decade after the murder of Vicky Hernández, what is the situation of LGBTQI+ people in Honduras?

LGBTQI+ people in Honduras face constitutional and legal limitations based on sexual orientation, gender expression and gender identity that prohibit us from accessing equal marriage as well as the recognition of marriage celebrated abroad, de facto union, adoption, intimate visits in prisons, change of name based on gender identity and blood donation. Specifically, in relation to changing names, the IACtHR ruling in Vicky’s case mandates the state to establish an adequate and effective procedure to recognise the identity of transgender people.

Honduras is the country with the highest rate of violent deaths of LGBTQI+ people in Latin America and the Caribbean. Since the transfemicide of Vicky, to date 388 LGBTQI+ people have been murdered in Honduras and one person is missing; 221 of those people are gay, 112 are transgender and 46 are lesbian. Only 83 cases have been prosecuted, resulting in 11 acquittals and 34 convictions, which reflects a 91 percent impunity rate.

In sum, LGBTQI+ people face not only major legal obstacles but also a very high level of lethal violence and lack of access to justice.

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

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

 

CONNECT WITH US

DIGITAL CHANNELS

HEADQUARTERS
25  Owl Street, 6th Floor
Johannesburg,
South Africa,
2092
Tel: +27 (0)11 833 5959
Fax: +27 (0)11 833 7997

UN HUB: NEW YORK
CIVICUS, c/o We Work
450 Lexington Ave
New York
NY 10017
United States

UN HUB: GENEVA
11 Avenue de la Paix
Geneva
Switzerland
CH-1202
Tel: +41.79.910.34.28