The Irish referendum, an exercise in deliberative democracy

Ahead of the publication of the 2018 State of Civil Society Report on the theme of ‘Reimagining Democracy’, we are interviewing civil society activists, leaders and others about their work to promote democratic practices and principles, the challenges they encounter and the victories they score in doing so. CIVICUS speaks to Ivana Bacik, an Irish Labour Party Senator and campaigner for abortion rights, in the aftermath of the historic May 2018 vote that repealed the eighth amendment of the Irish Constitution. Passed in 1983, this constitutional amendment had recognised equal rights to life to an ‘unborn’ and a pregnant woman, banning abortion under any circumstances.

1. Were you surprised by the scale of the vote in favour of repealing the eighth amendment? What do you think the result says about changing attitudes and opinions in Ireland?

The scale of the vote in favour of repeal reflected what we were hearing on the doors during our months of canvassing before the referendum. The growing public awareness of the immense harm and hardship caused by the eighth amendment became increasingly apparent to me over the campaign. That awareness explains the immensely significant referendum vote in support of reform on 25 May. It shows that as a society we recognise the need for our democratically elected legislators to introduce an appropriate legal framework for the regulation of lawful termination of pregnancy.

Over the years, public opinion had shifted towards supporting repeal of the constitutional ban and for legal abortion to take place in Ireland. This change was also influenced by a number of international law cases in which the Irish state was found to have breached women’s human rights by forcing them to carry pregnancies to term even in cases where they knew their babies would not be born alive.

Following the public disclosure of the death in a Galway Hospital of Savita Halappanavar in late 2012, the contentious Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill of 2013 finally legislated for the X Case, allowing for terminations in limited circumstances where a woman's life was at risk. The positive experience of the marriage equality referendum in 2015 showed that Irish people were capable of great compassion and showed how successful a civil society campaign for social change can be. Then, in April 2017, the Citizens' Assembly voted 64 per cent to recommend that the termination of pregnancy without restriction should be lawful. In late 2017, the Joint Oireachtas (the Irish Legislature) Committee on the Eighth Amendment found cross-political support for holding a referendum and legislating for terminations at up to 12 weeks. The mandate for change arising from these public and parliamentary processes showed a huge willingness to accept the reality of abortion in a modern Ireland.

Like so many Yes campaigners, I was overjoyed when I saw the Irish Times and RTÉ exit polls on the night of the vote. I was pleasantly surprised by the consistency of the Yes vote across Ireland. Commentators were quick to characterise the Yes vote as being young and urban, but the outcome showed that in fact, men and women, both urban and rural and of all age groups except from over 65s, voted for repeal. This resounding endorsement across all demographics gives great reassurance that the Irish people are ready for change. The Behaviour & Attitudes exit poll, commissioned by RTÉ, which surveyed 3,779 voters, found that the overriding influencing factor for voters was a woman's right to choose, at 62 per cent – 57 per cent for men and 66 per cent for women. This says a huge amount about the respect for women's health in Irish society. The same poll found that 24 per cent of those who voted Yes had changed their mind over the last five years, which would reflect the national experience of change during recent years.

2. Can you tell us more about the Citizens’ Assembly process by which the repeal proposal came about, and the strengths, weaknesses and lessons of the process?

The Citizens' Assembly is a body comprising a Chairperson and 99 citizens, randomly selected to be broadly representative of the Irish electorate, established to consider some of the most important issues facing Ireland’s future. The Assembly deliberates on the topics outlined in the resolution approving its establishment, and any other matters that may be referred to it. Their conclusions on each topic form the basis of individual reports and recommendations that are submitted to the Houses of the Oireachtas for further debate by our elected representatives.

Since October 2016, the Assembly has met on a regular basis under the chairmanship of the Honourable Mary Laffoy. The Assembly is an exercise in deliberative democracy, as was the Constitutional Convention, held in 2013, which among other topics voted overwhelmingly in favour of same-sex marriage. The Assembly applies six key principles to its work: openness, fairness, equality of the voice, efficiency, respect and collegiality. The process has two main strengths: first, the random selection of participants, which ensures that they are representative of Irish society; and second, the use of expert witnesses, including from the legal and medical profession, which ensures that participants deliberate on the evidence before them. The process has shown how much citizens engage with the facts and are willing to learn. With a topic as sensitive as abortion, the public benefitted hugely, not just from the Citizens' Assembly, but from the subsequent process of deliberation at the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment.

3. More broadly, what do you think are the opportunities and risks involved in direct approaches to democracy, given recent referendum results in other contexts? How can these risks be avoided?

The eighth amendment was introduced in 1983 by way of a referendum, due to effective pressure from so-called ‘pro-life’ campaigners. Therefore, the only way to remove the amendment from the Constitution was by way of another referendum. The successful campaign this year shows how important it is to have a considered campaign which really engages with citizens. Due to the importance of the Constitution, and the sovereignty of the people, Ireland has a long record of holding referendums and this has contributed to widespread public engagement and interest with the topics under debate. While the Brexit referendum in the UK in 2016 could make countries wary of holding referendums, the experience in Ireland shows how important it is to have an open and transparent process leading to such a vote, which gives voters the chance to engage fully with the implications of the vote. Perhaps if a similar deliberative democracy process had been undertaken in the UK, the result of the Brexit vote would have been different.

4. What were the key tactics employed by the Yes campaign, and what do you think was most responsible for its success?

The main message of the Yes side was that sometimes a private matter needs public support, and this really resonated with voters. A number of brave individuals and couples told their own stories of having to travel for terminations and this struck a chord as well. From the very start, the Yes campaign ensured to engage with undecided voters, those who were unsure of how to vote but recognised that some change was needed. For many years, opinion polls had indicated very high support for a right to abortion in limited circumstances, such as in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities, rape and incest, or a risk to the health of the woman. The message to these voters was that no change whatsoever was possible without repeal of the eighth amendment. The focus of the Yes campaign was very clear: that Irish women are having abortions in their thousands each year, either travelling to the UK for terminations, or taking unregulated abortion pills here in Ireland. A vote to repeal allows us to address this reality and treat women compassionately with the care they need at a time of crisis. The campaign also engaged with male voters successfully. Turnout was particularly high: 64.13 per cent. Among voters aged 18 to 24 years, the Yes vote was overwhelming, at 87.6 per cent, an indication of how successfully the Yes side engaged with young voters through social media platforms. Another key tactic of the Yes side was having many well-respected doctors, and particularly obstetricians, as spokespeople for the campaign. 

5. What needs to happen next to advance women’s rights in Ireland, and what role should Irish civil society play in this?

The next thing that needs to happen is to ensure that the proposed legislation to provide for the termination of pregnancy is enacted by the end of the year, and that free contraception is introduced with it. Aside from the area of reproductive rights, the next step in reforming our Constitution will be to amend Article 41.2, which places women in the home, so that instead we respect the role of carers, male or female. At the present time, older women are suffering a loss in their pensions due to lost earnings imposed on them by the marriage bar on employment, which only ended in 1973. Separately, many older vulnerable women who were incarcerated in Magdalene Laundries up until the early 1990s are only now receiving redress and justice; it is important that this group of women gain the respect they deserve. There are plenty of other reforms needed regarding migrant and traveller women, who suffer a double discrimination. The gender pay gap is another area that is currently being addressed, after I introduced a Private Members Bill to bring in mandatory reporting of the pay gap in companies. The National Women's Council, which played a pivotal role in the Together for Yes campaign, has a key role to play in advancing these reforms too.

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

Get in touch with Senator Ivana Bacik through her website or Facebook page, or follow @ivanabacik on Twitter

 

‘People invested in wanting a change’ – civil society and the Malaysia elections

Malaysia’s May election saw the ruling party defeated for the first time in 61 years, amid widespread public anger about corruption. CIVICUS asked Gayathry Venkiteswaran, media activist and Assistant Professor of media and politics at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus, for her perspective on recent events, and what these meant for civil society.

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA: A Malaysian voter casts her ballot in a polling station in Kuala Lumpur 
on May 9, 2018. Photo by Alexandra Radu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

1. Given that the same party had been in power since independence, what factors do you think led to their defeat this time?

I think it’s too early to tell, but I will say that the electorate certainly rejected the kinds of politics and corruption practised by the previous government. The transgressions were too obvious, and it was a matter of how big the loss would be for the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition - but we didn't expect the fall to be this big. This election was significant because despite the challenges and obstacles placed in terms of the electoral processes, people were determined to reject the propaganda of the BN and insisted on change.

2. In what ways was civil society active in the run up to the elections, and what challenges did civil society encounter?

Civil society work to build political awareness and participation has been ongoing but it took a significant turn after the emergence of the Reformasi (reform) movement in 1998, and then the Bersih movement’s protests for electoral reforms. Bersih provided a focus for the change, even though various interest groups also brought their particular concerns such as anti-corruption, environment and indigenous rights. This mobilisation, together with exposés by independent and citizen media on the corrupt practices of the previous government, raised the stakes for citizens to demand change.

During this election, voters demonstrated commitment, including outstation and overseas voters, and people participated by being monitors at polling stations and provided other forms of checks and support to prevent cheating or malpractice on polling day. These are indications of people invested in wanting a change. The use of social media to share information, especially on voting practices, and the post-election vigilance of the newly elected government also shows a society that wants governments - whether at the federal of state levels - to be accountable.

While there was momentum for change and a number of initiatives that saw civil society coalitions or collaborations focused on the outcomes of the elections - for example, by issuing alternative manifestos - there was little real discussion on the possible scenarios, given the uncertainties and concerns that unlawful methods would be used to resist this change. It wasn't clear what civil society's stance would have been had the outcomes been different, and how it proposes to move forward in this environment.

3. What are civil society’s main hopes and fears now following the change of government?

Certainly, it is an environment filled with hopes. There are opportunities to carry out real institutional reforms, and hopes that the government will be more open to engaging with human rights-based civil society organisations (CSOs). The results showed a rejection of fear-mongering and bribery, and a willingness to bridge race/religion narratives as the main reference point for electing parties.

It is hoped that there will be room for a more inclusive and liberal approach in addressing the real concerns of citizens about their identities, needs and expectations. Having said that, there were and may still be fears that the BN coalition, especially members of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) party and organisations associated with them, use provocations to destabilise the situation, and that Malay/Muslim electorates are pressed hard to become more fundamentalist in response to a multiracial narrative. At the same time, there are concerns that the ruling coalition could backtrack on its promises in order to accommodate the opposition and resistance from among BN and UMNO supporters.

4. What three things could the new administration do to most improve the conditions for civil society in Malaysia?

The main step is to respect the rights of civil society members on their freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression. This can be done by refraining from using existing laws to curb their activities - among them, the Peaceful Assembly Act, the Immigration Act, Sedition Act and the Anti-Fake News Law, and announce plans on reforming these restrictions.

Given the newly formed Institutional Reform Committee, it is hoped that the government will institute mechanisms for engagement with civil society, particularly in the areas of policy making and law making. Among others, there should be meaningful consultations before the drafting of policies and laws at the executive level, by departments and ministries, and at the legislative level, in select committees or parliamentary hearings. The public should have access to information on these processes and be given the rights to submit inputs and feedback.

5. What should Malaysian civil society do next to make the most of the opportunity presented by the change in government, and what support does civil society need now?

I think it is urgent for civil society to sit down and come up with a road map of action plans, which can include recommendations and mechanisms to check on the government's actions. Civil society can pool its resources to build its own monitoring platforms and processes for engaging with the government. But most importantly, there should be leadership and commitment to ensure that change is for the long term, irrespective of which political parties come into power. We've done this in the past, after the 2008 elections, with the setting up of the Coalition for Good Governance (CGG) for the state of Selangor, and the Penang Forum. The CGG didn't last, but these are worth considering as a model, with adequate fine-tuning so that there is clear focus, accountability systems and sustainability plans.

 

Silence by the international community gives Israel the green light to continue its human rights violations

CIVICUS speaks to Amjad Al Shawi about the disproportionate use of force and extreme violence against peaceful protesters in Gaza and the reasons why the world cannot remain silent about these monstrous acts. Amjad works with the Palestinian NGO Forum and lives and works in Gaza.

1. Please tell us what happened during the protests that have been ongoing since 30 March in the Gaza strip?

Palestinians from all walks of life have been taking part in The Great March of Return and Breaking Blockade to protest their forced evictions and displacement since 1948, demanding the right of return, as stipulated in the UN Resolution 194.  Protesters are also calling for an end to the 11-year blockade imposed by Israel on Gaza. Palestinians are protesting peacefully to be able to live freely, which is something that concerns everybody. For this reason, women, elders and children took part in the protests to show the world the real face of Gaza.  We are calling for the implementation of the UN resolution and for the international community to pressure Israel to respect international humanitarian law and to end the illegal blockade on Gaza.

We are devastated that the Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) used lethal force to attack civil demonstrators. We did not pose any danger to the Israelis and we were simply calling for them to respect our right as human beings. Since March 30th, 110 Palestinians have been killed and over 10,000 wounded while taking part in the peaceful protests. The bloodiest day was May 14th where at least 61 Palestinians were killed including 8 children and over 2771 injured including 225 children and 86 women by the Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF). Health personnel and Palestinian Security Service have also been targeted by the IOF as 44 of the paramedics and the civil defence security personnel were injured with live bullets and gas suffocation.

2. Why are the protests taking place?

Palestinians in the Gaza Strip are experiencing a catastrophe in all aspects of life. We are living under an 11-year continuous blockade imposed by Israel. As a result, we live in dire socioeconomic conditions, experience shortages in basic needs and this has translated into a humanitarian crisis. The overall situation in the Gaza Strip is dramatically deteriorating and people are frustrated because they feel that nothing can be done. The peaceful protests were an example of the little that the Palestinians in Gaza can do to raise the attention of the international community that the situation in Gaza is a catastrophe in all aspects of life. The situation in Palestine can be compared with Apartheid in South Africa.

Due to the blockade and the grave violations of basic human rights, we are struggling more than ever. 65% of the population in Gaza is youth and 80% of population receives humanitarian aid. We have received humanitarian aid from various sides but recently the funding from the UN Agency for Palestinian Refugees was reduced from 320 million to 70 million dollars. A lot of financial support was raised after the 2014 offensive but we have only received 37%.

The peaceful protests were an initiative from Palestinians in Gaza and the massacre on peaceful protesters was a culmination of the last 70 years of oppression and suffering of the Palestinian people. People of Gaza are only calling for justice and human rights but the IOF even injured medical staff and journalists, which is against the Geneva conventions. This harsh situation requires an urgent intervention from the international community to protect human rights in the Gaza strip.

3. Who are the drivers of the problem?

Besides from the IOF continuously violating basic human rights of Palestinians, the coming to power of Donald Trump has negatively affected the lives of Palestinians. Freedom of assembly is a basic right but what we experience and see on the border is the opposite of this. We have seen police throw tear gas and snipers shoot demonstrators. There is no accountability and the silence of the international community is cause for concern.

Negative narratives targeting Palestinians are being promoted and supported. It all started with the issue of Jerusalem. The world is ignoring the rights of Palestinians and any potential for a two-state solution and right to return. The Trump administration is ignoring Palestinian victims and has given the green light to the IOF to continue violating human rights in Gaza, promote illegal settlements in West Bank and sustain the blockade of Gaza.

4. What have made people go back to the streets in spite of the violence since March 30th?

We have no other option than to go. No other hope. We will continue to raise the voices and then the international community will listen. People here are dying every day. We were surprised that so many numbers came. Families used their Friday holiday to go, elders symbolically held keys of their houses they left in 1964. Children who still dream to be free to play football, sing, and dance to popular Palestinian songs, came out and protesters raised Palestinian flags. People in Gaza are only asking for their basic rights. It is about self-determination and rights to end occupation. It is a demand to have a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as our capital, the right to our natural resources and the right to live in dignity and freedom.

5. What can international civil society, international institutions and people around the world do to help?

Humanitarian aid is needed but mostly we need support for our basic freedoms. We need statements from international NGOs outlining the grave violations committed by the Israelis. We also call on the Secretary General of the UN to send an inquiry mission to investigate the unlawful killings. The Americans and Israelis refuse the proposal to send any inquiry to investigate the crimes committed there.  The human rights violations we witness every day in Gaza is indicative of the failure of the international community and the lack of accountability encourages the IOF to continue using excessive use of force against peaceful protesters. The time to act is now and to ensure justice for Palestinians.

The conspiracy of silence has led Israel to violate different conventions and different rights included in international law. During the UN General Assembly, representatives from civil society organisations in Palestine were prevented from leaving Gaza to meet colleagues and share our recommendations. The premises of civil society organisations were attacked by Israel during the wars even though the premises were funded by international donors. We called our donors to compensate or to hold Israel accountable but what can we then do? Die in silence? Our youth have no jobs and there is no future in Gaza. Nobody is safe here. We have never experienced what we are going through now.

Our message to citizens in other countries is that this is a time to show solidarity with Palestinians as we are calling for human rights and democracy. We are very sad to see our beautiful youth killed in this way. We want to see a proper future for our children and for them to grow up in an environment like children in other countries. There are people living in Gaza who have never left Gaza because of the Israeli blockade. Your voice your stance is needed to show that Palestinians in Gaza are facing this brutal occupation. Your silence would be considered a green light for Israel to continue its atrocities.

 

Burundi referendum a blatant violation of its Constitution

Ahead of the controversial referendum scheduled to take place in Burundi on 17 May 2018, CIVICUS speaks to human rights lawyer and civil society activist Janvier Bigirimana about the referendum’s implications for democracy. Janvier has represented victims of human rights violations in Burundi, East and Central Africa. He currently lives in exile because of the political crisis and human rights violations in Burundi.

 

Case of Zambia’s 42-for-42 tests freedom of expression and assembly

On May 17, six Zambia activists, civil society leader’s and a musician will appear before the magistrates in Court 3 in the capital Lusaka. This is not the first appearance as their case has been postponed several times. The six (pictured) are jointly charged with disobeying lawful orders after they held a protest last September questioning the government why it has used 42-million Kwacha to purchase 42 firetrucks, a cost that the six say is exorbitant. Laura Miti of the Alliance for Community Action who is also one of the six accused tells CIVICUS briefly about the case and why it is important.

Defiant and standing strong: Six of the Zambian activists and civil society leaders at one of the many court appearances after they held a protest in Lusaka last year questioning the government over expenditure

1. Can you tell us more about the court case in which you are appearing for in court on May 17?

The court case is the result of a peaceful protest that the Alliance for Community Action led on Parliament on 29 September 2017. The protest was called for together with civil society organisations and the general public to demand that accountability for a purchase by government of 42 fire trucks for 42 million Kwacha. Protesting and freedom of expression are both values enshrined in our Constitution so we were not breaking the law. The protest was broken up by the police and 6 protesters arrested and charged with disobeying lawful orders. Instead we were arrested and held for 10 hours and later released after being charged.

2. What does this case mean for the state of the freedom to protest and freedom of expression in Zambia?

By misapplication of the Public Order Act, Police in Zambia routinely prevent or break up protests that are even mildly critical of the government. However, protests or marches in support of government are allowed to go on even if the protester are openly breaking the law by being carrying weapons and being violent. The way this case has been held is an assault on both freedoms and it is concerning for us.

3. What challenges do you face as a woman human rights defender?

The terrain for women who speak out and challenge authorities is not easy for activists and it is even tougher for women due to the patriarchal nature of our society. As happens with all female activists, those who are unhappy with my work tend to attack my person and speak about my private life rather than engage with the issues at hand. This then discourages other women from speaking out and holding the state to account.

4. How can international civil society support you and the other 5 you are jointly charged with?

The defence of human rights in Zambia is for Zambians to ensure but a breakdown of human rights anywhere in the world, affects us all. We therefore believe that the excesses of the Zambian government should be called out by all who believe in a just world. When representatives of the Zambian government travel to international fora, they should be asked to explain the steep degeneration of the Zambian democratic space and respect for human rights in the last few years.

5. Please describe in one paragraph what you or your CSO does in Zambia

The Alliance for Community Action (ACA) works to grow the routine demand and supply of public resource accountability in Zambia, with focus on instituting the demand in the general public. The ACA would like Zambians to routinely link the quality of services they access to the budgetary and expenditure choices made by government and to demand accountability. The ACA encourages Zambians to speak up and ask targeted questions about how public money is spent and capacitates ordinary citizens to do so.

 

Syria’s CSO sector and population buckle under humanitarian crisis

Following the chemical attack in Syria and the subsequent airstrikes on Syria by the United States, United Kingdom and France, CIVICUS interviews a representative of The Arguendo Initiative about the humanitarian crisis and human rights violations taking place in Ghouta, Syria. The objective of the Arguendo Initiative is to enhance collaboration and information sharing to help people create a better and more informed society. The Arguendo Initiative is a member of CIVICUS and expresses concerns over the crisis in Syria and the lack of an adequate response from the international community to address the human rights violations.

 

Filipino activists stand firm after government adds them to list of terrorists

The Philippines government recently listed activists and a UN Special Rapporteur as terrorists and has threatened to pull out of the International Criminal Court. CIVICUS speak to Bestang Dekdeken, Secretary General of the Cordillera Peoples Alliance on these threats and the drivers behind them.

1. Tell us more about the recent crackdown on indigenous rights activists in the Philippines and the labelling of them as “terrorists” by the authorities

A culture of impunity continues to reign in the Philippines, with indigenous peoples experiencing unrelenting human rights violations under the government’s counter-insurgency policy Oplan Kapayapaan, martial law in Mindanao, USA’s war on terror, and the crackdown against political dissenters. The latest in the series of attacks against indigenous peoples and human rights defenders is the recent Philippine Department of Justice’s petition to proscribe the Communist Party of the Philippines and the New People’s Army (NPA) as terrorist organisations. The petition was pursuant to the National Security Act 2007. It listed around 650 names, including leaders of the Cordillera Peoples Alliance, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Vicky Tauli-Corpuz, and indigenous rights defenders, alleging that they are “terrorists”.

The Department of Justice petition is baseless and malicious with intent to vilify, harass and intimidate the people struggling for their democratic rights and indigenous communities fighting for their rights to their ancestral lands and self-determination. It is meant to cripple the growing peoples’ movement in the country and criminalise the legitimate struggles of the people. It is an attack on the legitimacy of people’s organisations such as the Cordillera Peoples Alliance and signals the intensifying curtailment of our fundamental and democratic rights and freedoms. Cordillera Peoples Alliance has been fighting for the defence of ancestral domains and self-determination of Cordillera indigenous peoples for more than three decades, which is an exercise of fundamental rights. The terrorist proscription list also puts at risk the lives of indigenous human rights defenders. It is for these reasons that we are soliciting international support to pressure the Philippine government to immediately dismiss the legal petition and uphold its human rights obligations.

2. What do you think is driving the crackdown on indigenous rights and against human rights and civic freedoms more generally?

President Rodrigo Duterte is determined to impose his dictatorship in the country through martial law, and Charter change (constitutional reform) under the guise of a shift to a federal form of government. He is hell-bent at silencing political dissent, especially those against human rights violations and his selling-out of Philippine sovereignty and patrimony in exchange for promises of foreign investments. Hence, there has been a snowballing mass protests against the regime’s total disregard of human rights and an intensifying resistance against the fascist rule of Duterte. Indigenous peoples and human rights defenders have also been strongly opposing the continued onslaught of development aggression in our ancestral lands and natural resources through corporate extractive projects, such as mining, dams and mono-crop plantations, coupled with the militarisation of indigenous communities.

3. How is civil society responding to President Rodrigo Duterte’s onslaught against human rights?

The serious deterioration of the human rights situation in the Philippines is galvanising the peoples’ movement to resist the fascist rule of Duterte and to stand up for our fundamental freedoms and democracy. At national level, the Movement Against Tyranny (MAT) was launched in August 2017, aimed at uniting all freedom loving Filipinos against tyranny and to counter the increasing fascism and militarist rule of the Duterte government. MAT opposes fascist measures such as the demonification of human rights victims and defenders as “terrorists”, “drug addicts/pushers/coddlers”, “extortionists” and the use of red-baiting to muddle issues and justify extrajudicial killings and other atrocities. Following the national launch, MAT formations are being established at regional and provincial levels. Series of direct mass actions on specific issues are being held almost on a weekly basis in the past year.

4. Why has President Duterte threatened to pull out of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and what has been the response in the Philippines? What is civil society is doing to resist this?

On March 16, the government of President Duterte notified the United Nations Secretary General of its decision to withdraw from the International Criminal Court (ICC) in protest of the ICC’s decision to start its probe on the extrajudicial killings under Duterte’s War on Drugs. Withdrawing from the ICC is the latest move of President Duterte to try to evade accounting for the extrajudicial killings in the country and crimes committed against the people. It also further shows his disregard of international bodies that intend to investigate the human rights situation in the country, such as the ICC and the United Nations. It is a fact that a culture of impunity reigns in the country obliging concerned international bodies to conduct their own investigation. The civil society in the country have started expressing concern that Duterte is doing this to continue to act with impunity.

5. What are three things that need to change for the rule of law and human rights to be respected and for democracy to flourish?  

Public servants should seriously push for the government’s adherence to national human rights laws and international human rights agreements that the Philippines is a signatory of. The fundamental rights and freedoms of the people, democratic rights, and Philippine sovereignty must not be trampled upon and should be safeguarded by the people in the government instead of allowing tyrannical rule. The government should also put an end to the martial law in Mindanao, its counter-insurgency operations Oplan Kapayapaan, and the Inter-Agency Committee for Legal Action that have been victimising indigenous peoples and human rights defenders and legitimising and systematising political persecution and political extrajudicial killings.

6. What can the international community and international CSOs do to support Philippines civil society?

We appeal for solidarity support from the international community and international CSOs to help us put pressure on the Philippine government to uphold its human rights obligations, and put an end to political persecution, criminalisation and harassment of indigenous rights defenders and environmental activists, extrajudicial killings, militarisation of indigenous communities, and plunder of indigenous lands and resources.

7. How are journalists and media outlets responding to the attempts by the government to restrict or shut them down?

In light of President Duterte’s attacks on the press and freedom of expression in the country, journalists, media outlets and artists launched a new alliance called Let’s Organize for Democracy (LODI) in 2017. LODI aims to fight attacks against the freedom of expression and human rights violations. LODI and other press media workers have also been actively participating in the activities of the Movement Against Tyranny and mass protests to register their fight and solidarity with the wider Filipino movement for genuine freedom and democracy.

8. Has there been an impact on civic space from President Duterte’s misogynist and derogatory statements concerning women?

President Duterte’s misogynist, derogatory and demeaning statements about women have catalysed a wider and stronger women’s movement against violations of women and people’s rights in the country. Duterte’s animosity towards women’s rights further exposed Duterte’s fascism by openly encouraging violence against women and human rights violations with impunity. With this, women’s organisations have gained wide support from various groups, sectors and advocates in denouncing Duterte’s blatant disregard of women’s rights.

 

Another puzzling break-in prompts Uganda CSO to move operations to police station

CIVICUS speaks to Human Rights Awareness and Protection Forum (HRAPF) executive director Adrian Jjuuko (pictured) after their offices were broken into recently. He also speaks on the situation of human rights defenders and civil society in general in Uganda.

 

‘La presencia de mujeres en espacios de representación política es buena no solo para las mujeres sino también para la democracia’

English

En noviembre de 2017 Argentina aprobó una ley de paridad de género con el objeto de garantizar un 50% de representación femenina en su Congreso Nacional. CIVICUS conversa con Natalia Gherardi, Directora Ejecutiva del Equipo Latinoamericano de Justicia y Género (ELA), una organización de la sociedad civil argentina que persigue la equidad de género mediante acciones de incidencia, trabajo en redes y el desarrollo de capacidades de actores políticos y sociales. Fundada en 2003 y basada en Buenos Aires, ELA es un equipo interdisciplinario de mujeres con trayectorias en el Estado, la práctica del derecho, la academia, los organismos internacionales y la sociedad civil.

  1. Según datos de la Unión Interparlamentaria, solo 12 países en todo el mundo tienen más de 40% de mujeres en sus cámaras de diputados o legislativos unicamerales. ¿En qué situación se encuentra la Argentina, y qué cambiará con la aprobación de la ley de paridad de género?

Argentina fue un país pionero cuando en los años ’90 aprobó una ley que estableció una cuota mínima de mujeres en ámbitos legislativos. Esta reforma se hizo a través de la introducción en el Código Nacional Electoral de un cupo femenino del 30% en las listas partidarias para las elecciones de diputados y senadores nacionales. En los años que siguieron, todas las provincias argentinas sancionaron leyes similares paras sus legislaturas provinciales. Esa medida de acción afirmativa buscaba subir el umbral de incorporación de mujeres en el ámbito legislativo y ese objetivo se alcanzó, aunque no sin dificultades. Según un estudio que hicimos en 2011, las legisladoras nacionales pasaron de menos de 5% en 1983, cuando recuperamos la democracia, a casi 40% en 2011.

Durante los 25 años que lleva de vigencia, sin embargo, fueron frencuentes las trampas en la implementación de la Ley de Cupo Femenino. Esto dio lugar a varios procesos judiciales por la impugnación de listas que burlaban el cupo de mujeres requerido por la ley. Todavía en 2015, el 10% de las listas presentadas en las elecciones nacionales incumplían de diversas maneras el mandato legal, sin que la justicia electoral ejerciera acabadamente su función de control.

El proyecto de reforma electoral que el Poder Ejecutivo impulsó en 2016 podría haber incorporado medidas para mejorar la implementación del cupo, pero no lo hizo. En todo caso, ese hubiera sido un objetivo pequeño. El compromiso con una democracia de calidad exige bastante más: la paridad. El debate en América Latina ya se estaba formulando en estos términos. Por ese motivo, en Argentina las mujeres de diversos partidos políticos se unieron en torno de diversos proyectos de ley para incorporar el principio de paridad, hasta llegar en noviembre de 2017 a la sanción de la ley de reforma del Código Nacional Electoral.

Como consecuencia de esta nueva ley, a partir de las elecciones de renovación legislativa de 2019 las listas que los partidos políticos presenten para las elecciones nacionales deberán incluir un 50% de mujeres, alternando la composición de la lista entre una mujer y un varón de modo de repartir en forma equitativa las posiciones elegibles.

Esperamos que la aplicación de esta ley tenga impacto al menos en dos niveles. En un sentido muy práctico, implicará un aumento en la cantidad de mujeres en los espacios legislativos, y eso se traducirá también en mayor cantidad de mujeres en todas las áreas del Congreso. Pero además, la aplicación de esta ley contribuirá a profundizar el consenso social acerca de la necesidad de contar con mayor presencia de mujeres en todos los espacios de poder y en todas las áreas de la vida social, política, económica y cultural de nuestro país.

  1. En los últimos años hemos escuchado a muchos, casi indefectiblemente hombres, insistir en que ya no hay en Argentina discriminación y desigualdad de género desde el momento en que una mujer ha podido llegar a presidente. ¿Qué es lo que falla en este razonamiento, y cuál es la mejor manera de rebatirlo?

Fue muy importante contar con una mujer en la presidencia (así como hoy en la gobernación de la provincia más grande de Argentina) porque abrió la puerta a un mundo de posibilidades. En estos años las mujeres han demostrado con creces que pueden ocupar lugares de poder en muy diversos espacios, no solo en la presidencia sino también en la Corte Suprema, en el Ministerio Público y en la gestión de las políticas universitarias. Estos cambios se fueron dando tanto a nivel nacional como en varias provincias. Se trata de modelos de rol que permiten ir transformando las miradas que la sociedad tiene sobre las mujeres (y que las mujeres -sobre todo las jóvenes- tienen sobre sí mismas) y los modelos de ejercicio del poder.

Sin embargo, los detractores de las medidas de acción afirmativa se toman de los casos particulares para argumentar que las mujeres “lo han logrado todo”. Básicamente, sostienen que si una mujer ha llegado a uno de esos espacios, entonces las medidas de acción afirmativa ya no son necesarias. Sin embargo, justamente el hecho de que podamos nombrar a “la” mujer que ha accedido a la presidencia, a la Corte Suprema, la gobernación, el decanato de la facultad o la dirección de la compañía demuestra que esa mujer es la excepción antes que la regla. Si las podemos nombrar, las podemos contabilizar, y eso es porque siguen siendo pocas en comparación con los cargos disponibles.

Los adversarios del cupo también argumentan que el establecimiento de una cuota o una regla de paridad socava el mérito como regla para acceder a los cargos públicos, e insinúan que no habría suficientes mujeres calificadas para ser legisladoras. Sin embargo, esto es desmentido por diversos indicadores. Por ejemplo, desde hace más de 20 años el 60% de los graduados de varias facultades de universidades nacionales son mujeres. En el Congreso Nacional, las mujeres que integran las cámaras tienen mayores credenciales educativas que sus pares varones: las mujeres con un título de educación superior superan en un 10% a los varones con similares títulos. Además, parecen ser más eficaces en su trabajo ya que a pesar de ser menos numerosas, impulsan más de la mitad de los proyectos de ley.

Otros dicen que debemos ser pacientes ya que con el tiempo se desarrollarán liderazgos femeninos que podrán acceder a lugares de decisión sin necesidad de políticas que impulsen el proceso. Este argumento no solo soslaya los mecanismos de poder que operan en la confección de las listas partidarias por efecto de la limitada democracia interna de los partidos políticos (donde abunda el nepotismo, pero el tema solo parece preocupar cuando la nominada es una mujer) sino que además pasa por alto el hecho de que la participación de las mujeres en el Congreso lleva largo tiempo estancada. En 2001 entró en vigencia la reforma impulsada a partir del reclamo interpuesto por una dirigente de la Unión Cívica Radical ante la Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos (CIDH). María Teresa Merciadri de Morini había denunciado que el partido había violado la ley que establecía el cupo de 30%, ya que al conformar la lista de seis candidaturas electorales había colocado a dos mujeres en los puestos tercero y sexto, aunque el partido solo renovaba cinco cargos. Como consecuencia de la intervención de la CIDH el Estado nacional reformó la reglamentación vigente para resolver el problema que dio origen al reclamo. Desde entonces, hubo un aumento constante en la participación de las mujeres en el Congreso, que creció a un ritmo de 2,5 puntos por elección hasta 2009. Desde entonces y hasta 2015 la tendencia comenzó a decaer: la capacidad de promover la paridad a partir de la implementación del cupo del 30% se agotó hace casi una década.

Otro argumento frecuente contra el cupo sostiene que las mujeres no tendrían interés en ocupar esos cargos de responsabilidad, y que por eso no persiguen oportunidades de liderazgo o las declinan cuando se presentan. De acuerdo con esta línea de pensamiento, las mujeres prefieren otras formas de desarrollo personal, principalmente ligado a la construcción de una familia a la que dedican gran parte de su tiempo y esfuerzo en el trabajo invisible de cuidado. Este es un argumento interesante, porque parte de datos ciertos. De acuerdo con la Encuesta sobre Trabajo No Remunerado y Uso del Tiempo, en la Argentina las mujeres dedican el doble de tiempo que los varones a las tareas de cuidado. El análisis de las trayectorias personales de los integrantes del Congreso Nacional muestra que las mujeres son en mayor proporción viudas, solteras o divorciadas y tienen (en promedio) menor cantidad de hijos que sus pares varones. Eso parece indicar que para aprovechar las oportunidades políticas (y otras) las mujeres deben tener menos responsabilidades directas de cuidado. Pero hay varios aspectos que deben puntualizarse: ¿todas las mujeres realizan las mismas elecciones? Esas elecciones ¿no están en determinadas en cierta medida por el contexto cultural? Y finalmente, ¿qué rol deben cumplir las políticas públicas para favorecer una organización social del cuidado más justa en términos de género, de modo que el trabajo no remunerado no recaiga desproporcionadamente sobre las mujeres? El Congreso mismo fue hasta hace poco tiempo indiferente a la necesidad de garantizar políticas públicas para responder a esta problemática generalmente relegada a la privacidad de las familias: sólo recientemente se reformó el reglamento para habilitar a las diputadas usar el jardín maternal de la Cámara de Diputados, cuando una diputada fue madre durante su mandato e hizo el pedido. Entonces, ¿deben retirarse las mujeres o debe cambiar el Congreso?

Entender que las mujeres pueden y deben ocupar puestos de liderazgo como parte de su derecho a participar plenamente de la vida social, política y económica es un proceso en construcción. Por eso es importante no retroceder en los avances que se han logrado y responder a los argumentos falaces con que se trata de detener el proceso.

  1. ¿Por qué es bueno que haya más mujeres en cargos políticos? ¿Es bueno para las mujeres, o es bueno para la democracia?

Asegurar la diversidad en la integración de los cargos públicos, y en particular en el Legislativo que es el ámbito deliberativo por excelencia, mejora la calidad del debate público y fortalece los valores de la democracia.

La experiencia nos indica que en muchos casos –aunque ciertamente no en todos- han sido las mujeres quienes impulsaron políticas de igualdad, leyes contra la violencia de género y políticas para garantizar los derechos sexuales y reproductivos, entre tantos otros avances de las últimas décadas. Sin embargo no es esa la razón por la cual ha de promoverse a las mujeres a espacios de poder, ni tampoco deberían ser las mujeres las únicas responsables de promover la igualdad de género. Esta es una obligación derivada del compromiso auténtico con la democracia y los derechos humanos, y en tanto que tal debemos exigirla de todas las personas que ejercen poder en el ámbito que sea.

Sin embargo, las estructuras partidarias siguen siendo en general poco abiertas a las mujeres. Es interesante preguntarse porqué. ¿Es por efecto de los estereotipos que afectan a las mujeres? ¿O porque esas estructuras son parte de un sistema que concentra el poder en pocas y siempre en las mismas manos? Porque lo cierto es que no solo las mujeres están excluidas de los espacios de poder: la falta de diversidad no tiene que ver solamente con el género.

La paridad es un compromiso ético y político que parte de la convicción de que las mujeres deben estar presentes en los espacios de representación política porque eso es bueno no solo para las mujeres sino también para la democracia. El intercambio de ideas propio de todo proceso democrático se enriquece con la diversidad de miradas que aportan personas con distintas trayectorias y experiencias.

A partir de esta convicción se conformó en Canadá un gabinete paritario: no porque así lo dispusiera ley sino porque eso es lo que demanda una sociedad moderna, integrada e igualitaria. “Porque estamos en 2015” fue la justificación espontánea de Justin Trudeau, el Primer Ministro canadiense, en la conferencia de prensa que siguió a la presentación de un gabinete que reflejaba la diversidad de Canadá más allá del género, ya que incluía a varones y mujeres, personas con discapacidad y personas de distinto origen étnico y distintas orientaciones sexuales.

Hacia esa convicción debemos ir en Argentina y en América Latina.

  1. ¿Cuánto trabajo le insumió a la sociedad civil lograr que el tema fuera tratado y que la ley de paridad fuera aprobada?

En América Latina varios países avanzaron antes que Argentina en la regulación legal de la paridad en los espacios legislativos. Tales son los casos de Bolivia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, México y Nicaragua. Los consensos regionales que surgen de las Conferencias Regionales sobre la Mujer de América Latina y el Caribe hace ya varios años que promueven las políticas de paridad como un compromiso ético y político que mejora la calidad de la democracia.

En Argentina ya antes de 2015 había en el Congreso varios proyectos de ley que buscaban avanzar hacia la paridad. Así, cuando el Ejecutivo planteó la reforma electoral, muchas mujeres y algunos varones referentes de todas las fuerzas políticas se unieron para apoyar una propuesta ampliamente superadora del proyecto oficialista. Es importante destacar la colaboración de mujeres del oficialismo y la oposición, que trabajaron articuladamente entre ellas y con las organizaciones de la sociedad civil, el movimiento de mujeres y las feministas con un objetivo común. Las organizaciones de mujeres, académicas y de derechos humanos acompañamos el reclamo a través de la campaña #MujeresALaPolítica.

Entre las estrategias que utilizamos para contribuir a instalar y sostener el tema en la agenda pública se cuentan la organización y participación en mesas de debate, la elaboración y difusión de estudios sobre el impacto de las mujeres en la política, la publicación de notas de prensa y artículos de opinión, la generación de espacios de intercambio permanente con mujeres de las diversas fuerzas políticas y las campañas en las redes sociales y en la vía pública.

Así se logró avanzar en un dictamen conjunto que incluyó el principio de paridad en la reforma electoral que había presentado el Poder Ejecutivo, que la Cámara de Diputados aprobó en octubre de 2016. Al mismo tiempo avanzó y logró media sanción un proyecto independiente que buscaba incorporar el principio de paridad en el Código Nacional Electoral, y que fue aprobado por la Cámara de Senadores el mismo día de octubre de 2016. De ese modo se terminó ese año legislativo con dos proyectos de ley de objetivos similares: incorporar el principio de paridad en el Código Electoral. Paradójicamente, ninguna de las cámaras trató el proyecto iniciado en la otra, y ninguno de ellos logró convertirse en ley.

En ese situación se inició el año legislativo de 2017. Ese año, diputadas del gobierno y la oposición asumieron el compromiso público de avanzar en la sanción del proyecto que ya tenía media sanción del Senado. Esto se hizo realidad, finalmente, en la última sesión ordinaria del Congreso, nuevamente gracias a la articulación inteligente de las mujeres de distintas fuerzas políticas. Una vez colocado el proyecto en el temario, la enorme mayoría de la Cámara acompañó la sanción de la ley.

  1. ¿El trabajo de ustedes ha terminado aquí, o anticipan que habrá problemas de implementación que tendrán que monitorear?

No, el trabajo no termina aquí. La aprobación de una ley no es un punto de llegada sino el punto de partida de otro proceso complejo para garantizar su aplicación. Tal como sucedió cuando se reformó el Código Nacional Electoral para incluir el cupo femenino en los años ‘90, también en esta oportunidad los próximos años serán fundamentales para garantizar una adecuada reglamentación y aplicación del principio de paridad. Deberemos estar muy atentas a que la justicia electoral cumpla con su función de contralor. La provincia de Buenos Aires ya nos recordó la necesidad de mantener una mirada atenta sobre la implementación de los logros normativos, cuando la autoridad electoral emitió una resolución para eludir la aplicación de la ley de paridad que ya regía en la provincia. Contra esa resolución presentamos un recurso que todavía no ha sido satisfactoriamente resuelto.

  1. ¿Se ha vuelto más inclusiva la democracia argentina en los últimos años? ¿Hay perspectivas de progreso en esa dirección?

La ciudadanía se ha vuelto más exigente con la democracia, y eso es muy positivo. Un proceso democrático no solo requiere que se respeten la formalidad de la votación cada dos años. Una democracia robusta requiere debates informados, acceso a la información, procesos de discusión con la participación más amplia posible. Y sí, también requiere la inclusión de la diversidad, y no solamente en términos de género.

Avanzar en equidad de género requiere ir transformando la cultura y ese es un proceso lento que requiere consolidarse a lo largo del tiempo. En ese camino, contar con modelos de rol permite a una nueva generación de niñas y jóvenes verse en espejos distintos y proyectarse en una mayor variedad de posibilidades. Al mismo tiempo, ayuda a los varones valorar las capacidades de las mujeres con una mirada más igualitaria.

Claro que para sostener ese proceso es imprescindible revisar atentamente los mensajes que los medios de comunicación contribuyen a modelar y difunden. Y también debe enfatizarse la corresponsabilidad en el cuidado, no solo de niños y niñas sino también de personas adultas mayores y de todas las personas en situación de dependencia. Este debe ser asumido por mujeres y varones en condiciones de igualdad, con políticas publicas adecuadas para reducir su impacto en términos no solamente de género sino también socioeconómicos. Ignorar este tema impacta no solo en la igualdad y el acceso equitativo al poder, sino también sobre el empleo y demás condiciones para el ejercicio de la autonomía.

Espero que la incorporación del principio de paridad en el ámbito legislativo permita avanzar en la concreción del compromiso igualitario que da sustento a nuestra democracia. Además, espero que permita acercar al espacio de representación de los intereses del pueblo un reflejo más fiel de sí mismo, al tiempo que contribuya a establecer una conversación sobre la participación de las mujeres en otros espacios de decisión. En definitiva, la paridad de género se plantea como un principio rector de la democratización de las relaciones sociales entre los géneros.

 

 

El espacio cívico en Argentina es clasificado como ‘estrecho’ por el CIVICUS Monitor.

Contáctese con ELA a través de su página web o su perfil de Facebook, o siga a @EquipoELA y a @NataliaGherardi en Twitter

 

‘Opaque laws, erratic application of rules and lengthy bureaucratic processes cost lives during a humanitarian response'

CIVICUS speaks with Jeremy Wellard, Regional Representative for Asia of the International Council of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA). ICVA is a global civil society network that advocates for principled humanitarian action, enhanced recognition of the vital role of civil society by governments and international organisations, and high-quality partnerships among humanitarian stakeholders. Established in 1962 by a small coalition of civil society organisations (CSOs) focused on refugees and migration, ICVA has grown into a diverse network of CSOs operating at global, regional, national and local levels. It promotes a rights and needs-based approach and maintains its historical focus on forced displacement while also addressing other areas of concern related to crisis-affected populations.

  1. What are the immediate needs that civil society seeks to respond to in a humanitarian crisis?

Humanitarian response takes place in the aftermath of natural disasters, conflict or forced displacement of people and is focused on meeting key lifesaving needs, which may include protection, health, water and sanitation, shelter and food, communications, education and livelihoods services. Often imagined as a short-term response to crisis, in fact humanitarian action can continue in some protracted settings for decades. Recent examples from the Asia region include the Nepal earthquake of 2015, the Marawi conflict in the Philippines throughout 2017 and the most recent displacement of Rohingya refugees into Bangladesh, beginning mid-2017. In Asia, humanitarian CSO actors are facing a particular set of challenges, particularly when working in countries where strong government leadership is present. In discussing these, it should be noted that perspectives may not always be applicable to humanitarian action in other contexts.

Humanitarian action by civil society generally takes two main forms. On one hand, there is the response by locally based individuals and actors, which are either part of the community, home-grown organisations or organisations already based in the country and delivering ongoing programmes. On the other hand, there is response by international actors seeking to meet needs that cannot be met by existing in-country structures. Because of their proximity to those affected by a crisis, locally based civil society organisations (CSOs) are often first to respond and have the best idea of the critical needs after an emergency. This gives them a unique advantage; however, this very closeness to those affected, and the fact that responding CSOs are often part of these communities themselves, also adds challenges regarding their ability to meet humanitarian needs. International CSOs play a complementary role, supporting and strengthening the work of local actors and, where necessary, delivering services or providing expertise at a scale beyond what most local actors can manage.

  1. How are challenges in humanitarian response exacerbated when there is contestation of and restrictions in the space for civil society?

Whilst acknowledging that there are many challenges that come with operating within an increasingly diverse humanitarian landscape, particularly due to the changing roles of United Nations (UN) agencies and other actors, it is governments, both as host and donor, who exercise the most influence in curtailing the space for CSOs to operate. For CSOs, these difficulties are often manifested through increasingly burdensome regulatory environments; reduced availability of donor funding; limitation on access to affected populations; provocation and stigmatisation in the media; and in the worst cases, intimidation, threats and attacks on humanitarian actors and infrastructure. In one recent example from Asia, a combination of these factors led to the near-complete shutdown of civil society action in affected areas. In cases where governments remain strong yet access to certain populations is denied due to deliberate government policies or military action, the very core tenets of humanitarian action are challenged by this inability to respond effectively.

The Asia region has recently experienced a growing number of crises where civil society actors have been denied access to a population in need. It is concerning to continue to hear of cases where CSO staff seeking to deliver humanitarian aid are themselves attacked and persecuted for these efforts, forcing CSOs to choose between the safety of their staff or meeting the needs of the communities they are trying to serve.

I would summarise the main challenges currently faced by humanitarian CSOs in three points: the erosion of humanitarian space, negative perceptions of CSO action and uncertain regulatory environments.

Traditionally, humanitarian space has been regarded as a unique space, with protections and advantages enshrined in the humanitarian principles of humanity, independence, neutrality and impartiality. These principles, anchored in international humanitarian law, are recognised by all UN member states, as they have ratified the 1949 Geneva Conventions, and include rules on the rapid and unimpeded passage of humanitarian aid and the freedom of movement of humanitarian personnel. Humanitarian CSOs work on the understanding that their adherence to humanitarian principles facilitates access and acceptance, allowing humanitarian workers to carry out their work in a protected space, separate from development, environmental, peace and other areas of work.

However, these days there are very few purely humanitarian CSOs. In Asia it is hard to find a CSO delivering humanitarian aid that is not also delivering programmes in areas such as development, rights or disaster risk reduction. A key challenge for these CSOs is having governments understand these dual roles. Adding to this, the complexity of the environment is increasing. For example, there is presently a concerted effort by the UN and World Bank to align humanitarian action more closely with development and peace action. However, this brings associated risks for this principled approach. Within a broadly shrinking space for civil society, we must remain aware that any blurring of the boundaries between humanitarian action and other fields may also threaten to weaken or remove such protections.

Second, a central argument for strengthening CSOs is that humanitarian action is more effective when the complementary capacities of a range of actors are brought to bear. Stronger government leadership does not necessarily translate into better services, particularly where government policies deliberately or otherwise make it difficult for governments themselves to deliver effectively to all people affected by a crisis. Civil society’s actions in a humanitarian space can fill the gaps where services break down or there is insufficient capacity within existing mechanisms. To help explain this to governments and other actors, ICVA promotes the use of the Principles of Partnership, which were developed in 2007 as a means to try and promote understanding of strong, complementary partnerships between all humanitarian actors.

Unfortunately, rather than being seen as a necessary complement to government action, the humanitarian work of CSOs is often seen as an interference or a front for the wide range of religious, political, social and rights agendas CSOs are rooted in. CSOs will argue that when delivering a humanitarian response, they put other considerations aside in order to negotiate access and ensure that services can be delivered. However, CSOs need to acknowledge that governments may not automatically understand or appreciate this critical distinction.

In some cases, the actions of CSOs have given reason for deepening mistrust of motives and in a number of countries the resulting vilification of high-profile CSOs in the media has added public support to government actions to curtail their humanitarian work. CSOs may be specifically targeted due to their closeness to certain populations, their willingness to negotiate access with non-state actors or their perceived alignment to the political or religious views of their donors. In a recent South Asian response, approval of access was initially granted to, and then quickly withdrawn from, a number of faith-based CSOs due to concerns voiced by parts of the government that these organisations had links to what they considered were dangerous or undesirable religious or political groups. In another example, anti-terrorism policies were used as a reason to place CSOs under surveillance, raid offices and intimidate staff. In some cases, governments have refused registrations, cancelled visas and work permits, or evicted organisations entirely.

Finally, it should be noted that a strong regulatory environment can either facilitate humanitarian action or introduce new challenges for CSOs. Often, as regulations are strengthened to limit CSO action in other areas, they also limit flexibility and responsiveness in humanitarian settings. This is particularly so because often government registration or approval processes do not tend to distinguish between different types of CSO action. From a humanitarian perspective, regulation is not necessarily a bad thing if it clarifies how to gain access, but it must be matched with reasonable and responsive triggers for flexibility and speed, and include overall clarity from governments regarding the provision of lifesaving aid. Currently in Asia, as governments develop disaster law frameworks, improve customs and border protections and strengthen visa processes, a wider set of possible restrictions can be brought to bear. Opaque laws, erratic application of new rules and lengthy, bureaucratic government processes, which are frustrating to CSOs at the best of times, cost lives and livelihoods during a humanitarian response. Some actors are working to promote open discussion between CSOs and governments around regulations that may impact on humanitarian action, so mutually agreed checks and balances can to be put into place.

One way in which CSOs in Asia are attempting to address this is by engaging more in disaster preparedness work, alongside government, UN, military and other actors. CSOs tend to have stronger links with governments at local levels, or at the level of national disaster management agencies, than at the political level, and therefore can engage on technical matters. There have been many positive examples in Asia. However, one challenge to engaging primarily at technical level is that a major crisis is always politically charged. Different government ministries will be engaged in these situations, with Ministries of State, Foreign Affairs, Home Affairs, Security and Disaster Management and the Prime Minister’s or President’s office all becoming involved in decision making regarding CSO action. In a recent refugee crisis, the need for CSO action was widely acknowledged, yet opaque and complex criteria for registration of new CSO projects and the involvement of an increasing number of government ministries delayed the delivery of aid significantly. Project approvals were valid for just a few months, processes changed on a daily basis and government directives on approved activities forced CSOs to operate outside their areas of expertise. The unintended result was that the small number of local organisations that had approvals to operate bore the responsibility for delivering more and more projects, with some reports of organisations scaling up over 10 to 50 times in budget and size within weeks. I recall that six weeks into the response, one small organisation that previously specialised in providing long-term psychosocial support to refugees was delivering over 10 different project streams ranging from water, sanitation and hygiene to education, but had received no new funds to perform its core functions.

  1. What challenges do civil society actors encounter in coordinating with other responders and with government agencies?

In practice, response to even major disasters or crises is now almost always led by national governments. Increasing government leadership in coordination of both national and international humanitarian response can be seen as a positive step, if states have capacity and comply with international law, but also can present new challenges to the independence of humanitarian CSOs. For example, in more extreme cases, some governments are pushing for complete control of disaster relief distribution, requiring increasing portions of financial and material aid to be channelled through their mechanisms and refusing access to CSOs that do not comply. Thankfully this is not yet the norm and, in most cases, governments will model the international system and form some equivalent of a humanitarian country team, disaster management team or similar, including representatives of UN, emergency services, military and other actors. Yet despite their impact and expertise, CSOs are not always seen by governments as necessary contributors and find their opportunities to engage directly with these decision-making forums restricted, particularly at the national level. CSO engagement therefore is relegated through intermediaries such as the UN. ICVA is currently working to promote awareness of the important role of CSO forums of collective representation in national-level coordination mechanisms and there have recently been positive trends of increased CSO representation in some countries, which now need to be modelled and shared as best practice.

  1. What support does civil society need in responding in such contexts?

There is need for increased dialogue with governments to show how principled humanitarian action in an independent and protected space can be complementary rather than confrontational. Governments by nature tend to represent some parts of the population more than others, and this is more the case when the government is more authoritarian or military-backed, as is often the case in Asia. Humanitarian CSOs, on the other hand, act to serve all parts of the population, particularly those who are excluded due to political, religious or cultural prejudices, intra-communal violence or otherwise.

Ideally humanitarian civil society could work with governments with the Humanitarian Principles and Principles of Partnership as a starting point. For this to happen, states intent on showing strength and reinforcing their sovereignty need to also remember their responsibility to protect all people, citizens or otherwise, in times of crisis. They should not be able to have their cake if they also intend to eat it.

As a network, we are grappling with these issues and would like to learn from CSOs in other sectors facing similar challenges. We are open to ideas, suggestions and collaboration to cope with trends that affect us all in a fast-changing and increasingly complex world.

  • Get in touch with ICVA through their website, or follow @ICVAnetwork on Twitter

 

We believe in citizens taking action on the issues that affect their lives, without needing vast resources

CIVICUS speaks to Katherine Baird, International Projects Manager at the Change.org Foundation, an organisation that envisions a world in which no one is powerless, and to that aim incubates and accelerates movements giving disenfranchised people a voice. In-country teams provide resources and systematic support, including training and technology, to civic leaders and organisations who are behind movements addressing some of the world’s biggest challenges, such as violence against women, environmental destruction, access to healthcare and lack of access to democratic institutions.

  1. While many of us will have signed a petition on Change.org, perhaps fewer have heard of the Change.org Foundation. What does this organisation do?

The Change.org Foundation builds on what the Change.org platform has achieved over the past seven years. Change.org is an online platform and a vehicle for people anywhere in the world to start a petition or a campaign on any issue that they feel strongly about, to spread the word, gather support and engage with politicians and decision-makers in order to obtain a certain decision or result. Change.org has been very successful and has engaged over 200 million people around the world in campaigns that were started by individuals.

The Change.org Foundation is quite new: it’s been around for about two years. With the Foundation, we have basically moved into civic space ourselves, in order to leverage the reach and the network that is already there and take the next step in terms of impact.

For the time being we focus on Asia and Latin America and we work on two broad global issues: civic participation and democratic accountability, and women and gender equality. We decided to work on those issues because they relate a lot to the global trends of civic space restrictions that we are seeing, and also because they are already out there in the petitions that many people have started on their own. But political contexts are different in the various countries where we work, so we are trying to find out what these issues look like in each specific country and what issues are emerging where. The foundation will allow us to experiment and innovate on different models of civic participation.

At the Change.org Foundation we believe that people should take action on the issues that affect their lives and that they care about. They don’t need to work for a civil society organisation (CSO) or to have access to vast resources; having an experience of something and being able to talk about it compellingly can create change. We therefore put citizens at the centre of our work. We also work with organisations and often link people who have started campaigns with organisations that are working on those themes, but our focus is on individuals bringing about change to their communities, cities and countries.

  1. Have you devised any way of measuring the impact that the Change.org Foundation is having?

Yes, that is something the Foundation is working on, because measuring the impact of a campaign is something that not just us, but other organisations as well, usually struggle with. When for instance a woman starts a campaign to gain access to medicine or a hospital for her child, and goes on and gets the law changed at the national level so all children now have access to the same thing – that’s pretty easy. But most often it is not like that, so we typically struggle with two sets of questions. First, what makes for an impactful project, programme or campaign? Does impact mean changing the law, or maybe changing the national conversation around an issue, or raising awareness about it in the media? And how shall we measure this? Second, what’s the impact on people themselves? That is, what is the effect that becoming a champion on a certain issue may have on a person? What journey does an individual go through from being a person sitting on a sofa, angry about something, to being a person that goes forward and talks to their parliament or writes in a newspaper? Those are the two areas in which we are looking at impact.

We believe in citizens raising issues themselves and therefore taking a step into civic space. But governments haven’t so far really stepped up and the mechanisms they use to involve citizens have not proven to be particularly effective. So here is where we come in. About one and a half years ago we piloted a project in Mexico City. A new city constitution was being drafted and the government wanted a way for citizens to bring input into the constitutional process. Our team was a little nervous about this because levels of cynicism around politicians and government are very high in Mexico, so they wondered why people would participate in these when they didn’t feel particularly engaged. But Change.org was used so that people would propose ideas of what they wanted included in the constitution, and the government promised that if enough people signed onto them, they would look into those ideas and submit them for consideration to the constitutional council. Over 200,000 people participated!

We realised that the problem wasn’t that people refused to participate, but that the channels usually available for participation were not appropriate because they didn’t fit into people’s everyday lives and concerns. So it was just a matter of the government going to where people were, and offer a channel for taking civic action that they were familiar with. In Mexico City, the level of engagement with Change.org was already high, so it was clever for the government to use the platform and meet people there.

We also realised that there was an appetite to move beyond petitions and do more with the network that we already have – maybe finding out what issues people in a particular country care about and then engaging politicians directly with commitments and pledges on those issues, or something bolder still to be defined. There must be something we can do to help bridge the disconnect between what the media, the government or CSOs are talking about, and what people on the ground care about, feel and want.

  1. Who’s your typical user: an individual or an organisation? If the former, do you think the platform functions as a substitute for organisation?

We have a variety of users. In Latin America, for instance, about 26 million people are using the platform, and their age range is extremely broad. Given that this is a technology-based platform, the fact that it is not concentrated overwhelmingly among young people is quite surprising. Users are spread out in terms of gender as well, although this varies from one country to the next. In India, for example, there is a much lower percentage of women on the platform, and this is an issue that we are working on. But broadly speaking, across countries the composition of users is quite balanced in gender terms.

The platform itself is about engaging people who are not the ‘usual suspects’ – that is, already civic-minded and socially engaged. Many people are driven to the site by personal stories, not by issues. So they may not be mobilised around, say, health issues, but they see a story about a woman who didn’t get access to the healthcare that she needed and this drives them to become involved in the campaign.

In terms of the balance between people and organisations, if you look at all the campaigns ever started on Change.org, you will see an overwhelming prevalence of individuals. This is something that we push for quite strongly, so even when an organisation wants to start a campaign, we let them know that their campaign will be more successful if an individual runs and leads it. This is because we have found that the stories of individuals are usually more powerful and have wider mass appeal to people beyond CSOs.

On the other hand, what we do when someone starts a petition on a certain issue is connect them to local resources and CSOs that may be able to support them. For example, in campaigns on domestic violence there are often legal aspects or other kinds of support that a person working on them might need, and we are in a position to offer it by connecting them with the right people.

  1. How does the transition between the online and the offline spheres of social activism take place? In other words, how does a petition started on the Change.org platform get - or doesn’t get - to have an afterlife in the offline world?

This is a very crucial issue, because starting a petition doesn’t in and by itself create change. Having lots of people sign your petition does not suffice to effect real change. A petition is just a first step, and there are a few key things that we think can make this transition successful. One of them is media engagement. We encourage people whose campaigns are taking off to get the word out and put some thought into the framing of their issues. For instance, in some countries with less open governments it is difficult to run campaigns on human rights issues, but it helps if the campaign is framed as the story of an individual. Of course it depends on the context, and there is more need to be careful in some countries than in others, but this way can be a way to get a warmer reception by the authorities and more coverage by the media.

Another crucial thing we have learned is that a campaign needs to be specific and targeted in its demands. If you want the government to make a change you need to find out who in the government is able to get it done, and how you can connect with that person. This is the key offline step, so once the signatures have been collected, we encourage those who have started a campaign to reach out to the official in question, seek a response and engage in dialogue.

We can potentially provide support for this, particularly in the context of a bigger campaign in one of the countries where we work and on specific issues that we want to engage with. There is a first layer of support that we provide to all users, through online resources that can be accessed directly from our webpage. But clearly there is no substitute for actually having someone there to help you, and this is the role that in-country teams play.

Besides running the platform, then, in some countries we also have staff teams who know the local context well. Sometimes our staff reach out to people who have started a campaign, and sometimes they reach out to us. In India, for example, we have a project to increase the number of women starting campaigns, and in that context we are proactively identifying campaigns and women to support at a higher level than we would support the average campaign starter.

  1. Change.org is about helping people mobilise to get the change they want. Is there any restriction or limit on the type of change that can be sought through the platform, or any mechanism in place to keep anti-rights groups out?

We do have some mechanisms to keep anti-rights groups away. First, we have strict community guidelines, which basically means that we are not Twitter: we don’t tell people that our platform is theirs to say or do anything they want. We have rules regarding hate speech and discrimination, and we use those for monitoring to make sure that campaigns and even conversations are respectful to the rights of others. We have tools that allow us to kick out of the platform anybody who does not respect these rules.

The campaigns that we choose to amplify tend to be more closely related to human rights. Vast numbers of campaigns are started on the platform, because it is so easy to do so, but the ones that generate more movement are a small subset of those, and within that subset there are some that we choose to engage with specifically as an organisation.

Sometimes there is energy in a direction that a team would not necessarily advocate, but we have studied quite a lot how people who are interested in some issues can become interested in some other issues, and found out that people are generally not all black or white, and there are ways in which to channel energies generated around specific issues towards other, more rights-related issues.

  1. This is new compared to the classic CSO model of advocacy and campaigning. Do you see any connections between your work and the classic CSO approach?

Such connections are necessary to create change. The most interesting, thrilling and at times challenging part of what we do is the fact that we don’t directly run the campaigns. We provide advice and support, but ultimately the responsibility lies with the person running the campaign. This is exciting, it captures media attention and may engage decision-makers, but it cannot fit into a six-month strategy. It can be unpredictable and can go off in directions that you don't always necessarily predict –in a direction that you might not suggest if you were planning this on paper, as a formal CSO. Of course we work on campaign strategy and there are steps we follow which we explain to campaign starters, but ultimately they run their campaigns themselves. There are inevitable tensions that arise when people have real ownership of the campaigns, that is, when they are not just the faces that organisations put on the campaigns they run or when they don't just act as an organisation’s spokesperson.

We also work with traditional CSOs with issue expertise. We are not experts on every issue, and that’s where our role in linking people with organisations that have been working on their issue for a long time is extremely important. When this goes well, it can create powerful opportunities to push for change on an agenda that both the person running the campaign and the formal CSO are working on.

  1. How do you deal with governments that restrict civil society and civic space?

In Asia, we have country staff in India, Indonesia, Japan and Thailand; and within Latin America, we work in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and Mexico. All of them are countries that have interesting things going on politically and civically, but some countries are more complex.

In Thailand for example, restrictions exist against people gathering physically in groups, and if you sent out a flyer inviting people to a meeting on human rights, many members of the public would not come. So we strive to stay open as an online space where it is still possible to gather virtually and have a conversation that is not always possible to have offline.

This tension hasn’t stopped us, or the Thai people, from working on many campaigns including the push against the single internet gateway. At the moment there is a campaign on changing the bail system, because people who cannot afford bail can sometimes end up serving six months of jail while waiting for trial. As with the other countries we work in, we are not running the campaigns ourselves; they are led and supported by Thai people. But it’s a tightrope that we are walking on at all times.

Now many people in Thailand will have known Change.org through many kinds of campaigns on animals and environmental protection, consumer rights, education, public healthcare and so on. This diversity happened both organically and by design. They help governments in countries like Thailand see that we are a platform that has campaigns on a range of different people’s causes and enable us to stay open as online space for citizens to engage and take action.

Get in touch with the Change.org Foundation through their website.

 

‘A diferencia del Brexit, la demanda independentista catalana tiene un componente democratizador’

English

CIVICUS conversa sobre la situación en Cataluña con Anaïs Franquesa Griso, abogada penalista especializada en derechos humanos y movimientos sociales y Directora de Litigio de Irídia, Centro para la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos. Irídia es una asociación de la sociedad civil de Cataluña que combina la intervención directa ante situaciones de vulneración de derechos con la incidencia política y social para promover cambios de más largo alcance en las políticas públicas. Anaïs se desempeña en el Servicio de Atención y Denuncia de Situaciones de Violencia Institucional de la organización y su labor se centra en las violaciones de derechos humanos ocurridas en el marco del ejercicio del derecho a la protesta.

  1. ¿Qué hace Irídia, y qué motivó su fundación?

Mi organización tiene poco tiempo de vida; la presentamos públicamente dos años atrás. Yo vengo del activismo en los movimientos sociales anti-represivos de Barcelona. A lo largo del tiempo los movimientos sociales hemos ido creando mecanismos de respuesta bastante efectivos ante la represión de la protesta. Por ejemplo, antes había un teléfono para emergencias que iba cambiando de número y que solo conocían los activistas, y que para quienes no estaban muy organizados era difícil de acceder. Esto empezó a cambiar en 2011, con el 15M, un movimiento ciudadano que nació en las plazas públicas de distintas partes del país, primero en Madrid (en la plaza del Sol) y un día después en Barcelona, en forma de acampada, justo después de manifestaciones masivas con el lema “No somos mercancía en manos de políticos y banqueros”. Durante semanas, miles de personas se congregaron en las calles en asambleas masivas, donde se cuestionaban tanto las políticas económicas acordadas por el gobierno para hacer frente a la crisis financiera, como también el propio sistema político español, considerando que no representaba los intereses de la ciudadanía. Por ello otros de los lemas que se hicieron populares fueron “¡No nos representan!” y “lo llaman democracia y no lo es”. A partir de entonces, las protestas se hicieron más frecuentes y mucho más masivas, y entendimos que había que crear algo que fuera más útil para más gente, en especial para aquellas personas que no estaban organizadas.

En 2012 la represión se agudizó ante las huelgas generales y las manifestaciones multitudinarias en protesta por la crisis y las medidas de austeridad, por entender que ponían en riesgo derechos económicos y sociales básicos, como el derecho al trabajo, a la educación y a la sanidad. En ese contexto, ante el aumento de la represión, creamos una plataforma anti-represiva para brindar apoyo legal, psicosocial, económico y comunicativo en caso de detención. En las manifestaciones se repartía información sobre qué hacer en caso de detención, el números de contacto e instrucciones para actuar en caso de ser testigo o víctima de violaciones de derechos en las manifestaciones. Esto se fue generalizando hasta el punto en que recibíamos llamadas de personas que avisaban que acababan de ver a unos chavales que estaban siendo detenidos en las puertas de sus casas, lo que nos permitía triangular información y obtener testigos para procesos judiciales. A partir de esta experiencia detectamos un vacío en la respuesta ante el maltrato policial. Es decir, en caso de detención sí se creaba un grupo de apoyo o era cubierto por la plataforma anti-represiva, pero en caso de maltrato policial la carga del proceso recaía en las víctimas. Eso era así no solo en el contexto de la protesta, sino también en el espacio público o en centros de privación de libertad como las cárceles. De ahí la creación de nuestra organización, uno de cuyos pilares es el Servicio de Atención y Denuncia Ante situaciones de Violencia Institucional (SAIDAVI). Una de sus áreas está precisamente enfocada en las situaciones de protesta.

Desde 2015 la legislación española que se aplica a las protestas se endureció mucho. El 1 de julio de ese año entró en vigor la Ley de Seguridad Ciudadana, también conocida como “ley mordaza”. También hubo una reforma del Código Penal muy regresiva en términos de derechos, con la introducción de la cadena perpetua (llamada “prisión permanente revisable”).

En ambos casos se trató de respuestas directas a los movimientos de protesta que se habían multiplicado desde el 15M. Entre otras cosas, la ley mordaza pena toda “perturbación grave de la seguridad ciudadana” que se produzca frente a las sedes del Congreso, el Senado y los parlamentos autonómicos. Esta reforma fue introducida en reacción al surgimiento de movimientos tales como Rodea el Congreso. La ley también sanciona “el uso no autorizado de imágenes o datos personales o profesionales” de agentes policiales “que pueda poner en peligro la seguridad personal o familiar de los agentes, de las instalaciones protegidas o en riesgo el éxito de una operación”. Esto ocurre precisamente ante el auge de las grabaciones realizadas con celulares y las redes sociales como herramientas para registrar y difundir información e imágenes de uso excesivo de la fuerza policial, que en muchos casos han servido como prueba en procesos judiciales.

La ley mordaza también criminalizó las prácticas empleadas para detener desahucios, en un contexto en que, tras el estallido de la burbuja inmobiliaria, aparecieron colectivos como la Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca, dedicados a empoderar a las personas afectadas, denunciar el sistema inmobiliario y financiero y dar una respuesta a la crisis habitacional, ya fuera parando desalojos, negociando con las entidades o con acciones de protesta. En ese momento los bancos, que habían sido rescatados de la quiebra con dinero público, estaban dejando en la calle a miles de personas que no podían pagar sus hipotecas. Ante esto, varios colectivos adoptaron una estrategia de desobediencia civil, de modo que cuando llegaban los funcionarios del juzgado a desalojar a una familia se encontraban con 50 o 60 personas que impedían el desalojo. Antes de la ley mordaza había formas de evitar las sanciones penales, ya que podía argumentarse que esas personas hacían legítimo uso de su derecho a las libertades de expresión y reunión pacífica. Los colectivos anti-desalojos también se manifestaban ocupando las sedes bancarias durante el día, en forma festiva, con cantos y bailes para llamar la atención, pero sin violencia, para que otros clientes del banco se dieran cuenta de que había muchos otros en la misma situación, y para empoderar a los damnificados. Estas manifestaciones forman parte del núcleo esencial del derecho a la libertad de expresión y reunión pacífica, pero la nueva ley introdujo un capítulo específico para penarlas e intentar neutralizarlas.

Otra conducta que pasó a estar sancionada fue el “escalamiento de edificios o monumentos sin autorización cuando exista un riesgo cierto de que se ocasionen daños a las personas o a los bienes”, disposición que parece apuntar contra actos de protesta como los que realizan Greenpeace y Ecologistas en Acción. Incluso las prácticas más comunes de la resistencia pacífica fueron puestas en riesgo por disposiciones de la ley mordaza que sancionaron la “resistencia a la autoridad” (también sancionada en el código penal con una redacción bastante ambigua) y habilitaron a la policía a multar a quienes se negaran a disolver manifestaciones en lugares públicos.

En suma, se restringieron derechos mediante la codificación de conductas antes permitidas como delitos o faltas administrativas, y se otorgaron más poderes sancionadores a las autoridades. Antes había muchas conductas que la Ley de Seguridad Ciudadana no cubría, y si estas acciones generaban alguna consecuencia, era mediante procesos penales que tenían lugar en un juzgado de instrucción y con las garantías del derecho penal. En la práctica eso comportaba que se lograran muchísimas absoluciones, porque los jueces generalmente consideraban o bien que la conducta en cuestión no era delictiva, o que no había quedado suficientemente probado quién había hecho qué. Todo esto cambió con la nueva ley, que eliminó las faltas del código penal y las convirtió en infracciones administrativas (algunas de ellas delitos leves), dando a los agentes de la autoridad facultad sancionadora y presunción de veracidad (es decir, es la persona quien tiene que probar que lo que dice el agente no es verdad), con sanciones desproporcionadamente altas.

  1. ¿Qué rol desempeñó la organización durante el referéndum de 2017?

A mediados de septiembre estábamos asistiendo con preocupación a vulneraciones graves de derechos civiles y políticos, como la entrada de cuerpos de seguridad en sedes de medios de comunicación o el registro sin orden judicial de imprentas para impedir el referéndum por la independencia catalana del 1 de octubre. Por ello, algunas organizaciones decidimos que era necesario crear un mecanismo de defensa de los derechos humanos. De ahí que junto con Novact, Lafede y otras organizaciones lanzamos la Campaña #SomosDefensoras.

En primer lugar, publicamos un manifiesto explicando que esta campaña era una respuesta a las vulneraciones de derechos humanos que ya estaban ocurriendo, sobre todo del derecho de reunión pacífica, el derecho a la información y la libertad de expresión. En una rueda de prensa anunciamos que estábamos elaborando un informe de derechos humanos, es decir, que estábamos monitoreando las violaciones que ocurrían para reportarlas ante las instancias internacionales. Esto pretendía tener una función preventiva. También anunciamos que estábamos formando activistas de base de otras organizaciones, no todas ellas de derechos humanos, para que funcionaran como observadores de derechos humanos. Capacitamos a más de 100 personas, de las cuales seleccionamos a 70 para que el 1 de octubre estuvieran todo el día repartidas por la ciudad y pudiéramos recibir informaciones en tiempo real de lo que estaba ocurriendo, como complemento del monitoreo de redes. Queríamos, si había víctimas, tener testigos o al menos personas capacitadas para recoger testimonios, además de socorrer y asesorar a las personas sobre lo que podían hacer. Porque sabemos que cuando sucede algo, el principal problema es la obtención de pruebas. Finalmente, coordinamos un grupo de 60 abogados que estaban disponibles, no solamente en Barcelona sino también en otros puntos del área metropolitana, además de 30 psicólogos para atender emergencias el día del referéndum y los días posteriores, y difundimos números de teléfono adonde las personas podía llamar si eran detenidas o agredidas.

Hicimos esto en las semanas y días anteriores al 1 de octubre, y por desgracia desde primera hora de la mañana vimos que habíamos acertado porque hubo muchísima violencia. El 1 de octubre nuestra organización atendió a unas 130 víctimas, y en las semanas siguientes atendimos por teléfono, correo electrónico y personalmente a 294 personas.

  1. ¿Había habido antecedentes de represión violenta de la protesta? ¿Qué tuvo de novedoso la represión del pasado 1 de octubre?

En el marco de las protestas del 15M, el 27 de mayo de 2011 los Mossos d’Esquadra, la policía autonómica que tiene las funciones de orden público en Cataluña, desalojaron brutalmente la Plaza de Catalunya en Barcelona. Fueron seis horas de represión constante, golpeando a gente que estaba pacíficamente sentada en el suelo y con las manos levantadas, y hubo más de 100 heridos. Esto fue retransmitido en directo y lo vio todo el mundo, y en consecuencia marcó un antes y un después en las percepciones de la violencia policial por parte de la ciudadanía. Mucha gente se sorprendió al ver el maltrato policial que los que estábamos involucrados en movimientos de protesta conocíamos desde hace rato.

El discurso de la consejería del interior de esos años buscó deslegitimar y criminalizar a los movimientos de protesta, y fue acompañado de cambios en el armamento policial así como de las mencionadas reformas legales. Hace poco publicamos un informe que da cuenta precisamente de la involución y la progresiva desprotección del derecho de reunión pacífica que se produjo entre 2011 y 2015.

De modo que lo que ocurrió el 1 de octubre de 2017 no fue una completa novedad. Teníamos claro que podía haber violencia por parte de los cuerpos y fuerzas de seguridad, y sabíamos que teníamos que hacer algo al respecto. Creo que en ese sentido incluso llegamos tarde. Este proceso ha sido bastante singular, con dudas muy razonables de si realmente el referéndum del 1 de octubre se podría hacer o no, por lo que al igual que otros sectores, las entidades de derechos humanos no caímos en la cuenta de que podíamos aportar experiencia en nuestro campo. Así que en vez de empezar a organizarnos en junio recién lo hicimos en septiembre. Si hubiéramos tenido más tiempo, sin duda algunas cosas las hubiéramos hecho distinto o por lo menos con mayor previsión.

Pero en todo caso, el tipo de violencia que vimos el 1 de octubre tuvo características nuevas. Por ejemplo, tuvo un claro componente de género, tal como lo explicamos en un informe reciente. Nosotros hablamos con mucha gente, víctimas y testigos, y vimos muchísimos videos. Numerosos relatos, de hombres y mujeres, coincidieron hasta en la expresión: “iban a por las mujeres”, con las mujeres se ensañaban más. La idea machista de fondo era que si bien nadie hubiera debido estar allí, mucho menos debían estar allí las mujeres, pues ese claramente no era su lugar. También hubo casos de vejaciones sexuales que antes no habíamos visto. Y en todo caso, nuestra generación no había asistido nunca a una represión tan generalizada contra la población civil (las cifras oficiales hablan de más de 1.000 personas heridas en todo Cataluña, de todas las edades) y mucho menos por algo tan básico como querer votar.

Además, se usaron balas de goma, que en Cataluña se prohibieron en 2013 y se dejaron de utilizar en abril de 2014. La prohibición se hizo efectiva gracias al trabajo de muchas entidades y colectivos de los movimientos sociales como Stop Balas de Goma o Rereguarda en moviment, así como gracias a la visibilidad del caso de Ester Quintana, una mujer que perdió un ojo en el marco de la represión de la huelga general del 14 de noviembre de 2012. Unido al esfuerzo previo, el gran trabajo comunicativo y legal en este caso, con la campaña Ojo con tu Ojo, se consiguió que el cuestionamiento del uso de este tipo de armamento llegara hasta el Parlamento de Cataluña. Aunque no se logró la condena de los policías que hirieron a Ester Quintana, sí se logró la prohibición del uso de balas de goma por parte de los Mossos d’Esquadra, además de órdenes de indemnización de las víctimas.

El uso de balas de goma el 1 de octubre de 2017, además de costarle la visión de un ojo a otra persona, Roger Español, tuvo un gran valor simbólico porque fue un retroceso en lo que creíamos que era una batalla ganada. Por ello tenemos claro que trabajaremos para que Roger sea la última víctima de las balas de goma en el país.

  1. ¿Cómo se llegó a la situación del 1 de octubre? ¿Cómo y cuándo se produjeron los avances del autonomismo que desembocaron en el referéndum por la independencia?

Siempre ha habido un porcentaje de la población catalana que ha querido la independencia. Alrededor del año 2000 ese porcentaje se estimaba en un 12 o 13%. Pero más allá de esto, había algunos consensos que estaban muy claros, tales como el uso vehicular de la lengua catalana en las aulas (obviamente combinado con una buena enseñanza del castellano). Según el llamado proceso de normalización lingüística, toda persona escolarizada en Cataluña debe salir del colegio sabiendo catalán y castellano. Esta fue una reivindicación de la clase obrera que en los años ’60 y ’70 había llegado desde fuera de Cataluña, porque hablar catalán confería ventajas de inserción laboral a las que no podía acceder quien no estuviera expuesto al idioma en su hogar, de modo que la enseñanza del idioma en la escuela era una suerte de igualador social. Esta es una arista de la reivindicación del idioma que es poco mencionada.

Y luego está la concepción del pueblo catalán, que existe desde hace muchos años y ha vivido distintos procesos. Cuando se aprobó la Constitución Española de 1978 se discutió mucho sobre si incluir o no el concepto de nación en los territorios históricos – Cataluña, País Vasco y Galicia. Al final se prefirió hablar de “nacionalidades históricas” más que de nación, sobre la base de la idea de que la nación es una sola e indivisible. Además, se pasó de reconocer cierta distinción de trato a esas nacionalidades históricas, que habían gozado de un estatuto de autonomía durante la República (1931-1939), a lo que se conoció como “café para todos”, una política homogénea para todas las regiones, tanto nacionalidades históricas como meras entidades geográficas. Así nació la división del Estado en autonomías, cada una de ellas con un parlamento y un ejecutivo propio.

Durante años, las demandas de mayor autonomía se fueron salvando con un constante estira y afloja, combinado con un apoyo casi sin fisuras a los gobiernos estatales por parte de la derecha catalana, en el poder en Cataluña durante más de 20 años. Con ello, también las diferencias económicas entre los distintos territorios del Estado se fueron agudizando, empeoradas por una falta clara de transparencia. Las llamadas “balanzas fiscales”, es decir, cuánto aporta cada territorio al Estado y cuánto recibe, nunca se hacían públicas. Aquí el País Vasco tiene un estatus diferenciado, por razones históricas –las guerras carlistas en el siglo XIX, entre otras-, conservando la potestad de recaudar impuestos para luego entregar un porcentaje pactado al estado español, mientras que en Cataluña la mayor parte de los impuestos los recoge directamente el estado español y luego regresa solo una parte. Eso, sumado a una falta de inversión en infraestructura bastante palpable –sólo hay que ver por ejemplo el sistema ferroviario catalán-, ha ido generando una sensación de desajuste entre lo que aporta Cataluña y lo que recibe (es el “Madrid nos roba” popularizado por Jordi Pujol, Presidente de la Generalitat, durante 23 años) que en el resto del Estado ha sido percibido como insolidaridad. A ello se han sumado ataques constantes a consensos establecidos, tales como el generado en torno de la lengua catalana en la escuela.

Históricamente, Cataluña ha reclamado mayor autonomía en muchos asuntos. Alrededor de 2002, se inició el debate para la modificación del Estatuto de Autonomía, es decir de la constitución interna de Cataluña, en reemplazo del estatuto de 1979. El estatuto debe ser aprobado por el parlamento catalán, luego por el Congreso de los diputados españoles, y luego sometido a referéndum. El nuevo estatuto fue aprobado en 2006, pero el proceso duró varios años. En ese momento el presidente del gobierno español era el socialista José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, quien había dicho que apoyaría el estatuto que aprobara el pueblo catalán. Este estatuto no era ninguna maravilla, pero representaba algunos avances en materia de derechos ciudadanos y competencias autonómicas.

Ya en ese momento, el Partido Popular del actual presidente del gobierno español Mariano Rajoy hizo una campaña feroz contra el Estatuto Catalán. El Partido Popular recogió firmas en su contra y recurrió ante el Tribunal Constitucional varios artículos del Estatuto de Cataluña que eran idénticos a los contenidos en los estatutos de Andalucía y Valencia, que se estaban discutiendo al mismo tiempo, los cuales sin embargo no fueron cuestionados. Cuatro años después, en 2010, el Tribunal Constitucional suprimió algunos de esos artículos del Estatuto Catalán, aunque artículos similares siguen vigentes en los estatutos de Andalucía y Valencia. Esto fue percibido por la opinión pública catalana como un ataque dirigido específicamente contra Cataluña.

La sentencia del Tribunal Constitucional de junio de 2010 fue un punto de inflexión. En reacción a ella se produjo una de las manifestaciones más masivas de la historia de Cataluña, que según diversas estimaciones reunió entre 1 y 1,5 millones de personas. Con el lema ‘Somos una Nación, nosotros decidimos’, se realizó el 10 de julio de 2010 y tuvo el apoyo de la mayoría de los partidos políticos representados en el parlamento catalán, el movimiento sindical y centenares de organizaciones de la sociedad civil. Ahí fue cuando se empezó a generalizar la sensación de que con este Estado español no era posible convivir. Las elecciones de noviembre de 2011 llevaron al Partido Popular a la presidencia del gobierno de España. En ese entonces el presidente de la Generalitat catalana fue a Madrid con la intención de negociar un nuevo acuerdo fiscal similar al del País Vasco y ni siquiera fue recibido.

La masividad de la convocatoria se repitió el 11 de septiembre de 2012, fecha de la fiesta nacional de Cataluña, cuando la manifestación que usualmente reúne a algunas decenas de miles de personas se transformó en una protesta de más de un millón. El partido que gobernaba Cataluña, que nunca había sido independentista, se vio superado por las multitudes que clamaban por la independencia. A partir de este momento cada manifestación del 11 de septiembre ha sido más masiva que la anterior, de tono claramente independentista, y cada año ha tenido innovaciones que le han dado un carácter espectacular, bien adaptado a la cultura audiovisual contemporánea.

Los movimientos sociales de base de Barcelona son bastante autónomos, y una parte de ellos no se sentían interpelados con la causa independentista, porque hay una porción muy amplia de la sociedad civil que no es nacionalista. De hecho, muchos independentistas se reivindican como no nacionalistas, y ven la independencia como una estrategia para conseguir mayor democracia y derechos, no como una cuestión nacionalista. La verdad, creo que quienes más han hecho por el crecimiento del independentismo en Cataluña han sido Rajoy y el Partido Popular, que no han hecho otra cosa que antagonizar con las demandas más razonables de autonomía y derechos, generando una radicalización masiva que no existía algunos años atrás. Si se hubiera hecho un referéndum por la independencia en 2012, muy probablemente hubiera ganado el ‘no’. Pero cada ataque del gobierno español ha generado nuevos independentistas y también mayor consenso en relación al hecho que Cataluña tiene derecho a decidir su organización territorial y política. De hecho, la propia represión del 1 de octubre aumentó en pocas horas la participación, ya que llevó a las calles y a las urnas a mucha gente indignada que en otras condiciones tal vez no hubiera salido.

  1. ¿Te parece que lo que está pasando en Cataluña es parte de un proceso más amplio de ascenso del nacionalismo, o tiene una lógica propia?

Hasta donde yo sé, los argumentos empleados a favor del Brexit fueron de un nacionalismo con connotaciones más bien xenófobas, al menos eso es lo que nos llega a nosotros por los medios de comunicación. Pero estos no han sido nunca los argumentos a favor de la independencia de Cataluña. De hecho, al mismo tiempo que se hacían manifestaciones multitudinarias por la independencia de Cataluña se hizo en Cataluña la mayor manifestación que tuvo lugar en Europa a favor de dar acogida a refugiados, con cientos de miles de personas en las calles. La demanda independentista tiene incluso un componente democratizador, y es por eso que se han sumado muchos movimientos sociales, aunque para ellos la independencia sigue sin ser una prioridad. En Cataluña ha habido procesos democratizadores que no han ocurrido en el resto de España, desde la anulación de los juicios sumarísimos del franquismo hasta la prohibición de las balas de goma, pasando por la demanda de cierre de los centros de internamiento para extranjeros. Eso no significa que en el resto del Estado no se esté presionando para conseguir eso - de hecho nuestra organización, Irídia, tiene mucha vinculación con movimientos sociales y entidades de defensa de los derechos civiles y políticos. Pero sea como sea aquí hemos conseguido incidir mucho más en este tipo de demandas que con el gobierno central. Eso genera un clima distinto entre sociedad civil e instituciones.

Si el gobierno español hubiera accedido a negociar las condiciones de la autonomía en dirección de un trato bilateral percibido como justo con Cataluña, seguramente la demanda independentista hubiera cedido. Y cabe subrayar que un trato justo también hubiera debido contemplar aportes sustanciales de las regiones más ricas en favor de las más desfavorecidas. Pero el gobierno español no tiene un política de negociación o diálogo arraigada, sino que se mueve más en términos de vencedores y vencidos y de humillación.

Aún así, no es seguro que la demanda independentista sea mayoritaria, aunque ha crecido mucho. Lo que sí reúne el consenso de la abrumadora mayoría de los catalanes es la convicción de que la decisión debe surgir de una consulta a la ciudadanía. Es decir, que debe reconocerse la capacidad de decidir del pueblo catalán y hacerse un referéndum. Ese es el motivo por el cual todos los partidos participaron de las elecciones autonómicas del 21 de diciembre de 2017, aún cuando éstas fueran una imposición del gobierno español y tuvieran lugar con la Generalitat intervenida como resultado de la cuestionada aplicación del artículo 155 de la Constitución española.

  1. ¿Cómo sigue el proceso; hacia adónde se dirige?

Es difícil de decir. De un lado tenemos preocupantes resoluciones judiciales del Tribunal Supremo que son difíciles de entender desde el punto de vista del Estado de derecho y la separación de poderes. Nos encontramos con personas presas con cargos de sedición y rebelión, a pesar de que todas las movilizaciones han tenido siempre un carácter marcadamente pacífico y así lo reconocen las resoluciones en su contra. Aun así, consideran que el hecho de que fueran movilizaciones masivas implicaba “intimidación” o que la violencia de los cuerpos de seguridad del Estado el 1 de octubre es responsabilidad de los líderes políticos catalanes. El argumento es que si no hubieran animado y organizado el referéndum ilegal, el Estado no se “habría visto obligado” a utilizar la fuerza. Este tipo de argumentos hoy se usan para acabar con el independentismo – con incierto resultado - pero mañana se pueden utilizar contra cualquier tipo de reivindicación.

En todo caso, y a efectos prácticos hoy por hoy estamos peor que en el comienzo: líderes sociales y responsables políticos en prisión preventiva, el gobierno catalán intervenido, y los derechos a la libertad de expresión, información, reunión y manifestación en retroceso. Además, el gobierno español advirtió antes de las elecciones del 21 de diciembre que si ganaban los partidos independentistas la administración seguiría siendo controlada desde Madrid; es decir, de algún modo anunció que no reconocería los resultados si no le eran favorables. El período pre-electoral fue utilizado por la Junta Electoral Central para definir qué palabras y conceptos podían utilizarse en la campaña, y hubo numerosos actos de censura. Mónica Terribas, una de las periodistas más reconocidas de Cataluña, dijo en su programa de diario que no se podía calificar de ‘libres’ a unas elecciones realizadas con la mitad del gobierno en prisión y la otra mitad en el exilio, y con semejantes ataques contra medios y manifestantes. Por sus palabras la radio fue sancionada.

Se llegó a las elecciones en estas condiciones porque tras varios meses de mucha intensidad política la gente estaba cansada y expectante, y porque nadie quería dar excusas para que hubiera más represión. La participación en las elecciones - 81,9%. - fue la más alta hasta el momento. Y el independentismo volvió a ganar, con más de 2 millones de votos (100.000 votos más que en las anteriores elecciones), obteniendo la mayoría absoluta de escaños en el Parlamento (70 de los 135). De otro lado, el partido más votado fue Ciudadanos (25,4%; 37 escaños), un partido liberal, defensor de la unidad de España, que obtuvo sus mejores resultados hasta el momento.

Sin embargo, las dificultades para formar gobierno son elevadas porque el candidato a la presidencia se encuentra en Bruselas y no puede volver sin riesgo de ser encarcelado, al igual que algunos representantes políticos elegidos en las últimas elecciones, como Oriol Junqueras. Por ello está claro que con unas elecciones no alcanza; para salir de esta situación se requiere un auténtico acto de soberanía, mucho diálogo y sobre todo respeto a los derechos fundamentales.

  • El espacio cívico en España es clasificado como ‘estrecho’ por el CIVICUS Monitor.
  • Contáctese con Irídia a través de su página web o su perfil de Facebook, o siga a @centre_IRIDIA y a @Anais_Franquesa en Twitter

 

 

 

‘The anti-corruption protests have turned the inhabitants of Romania into a whole new generation of alert citizens’

CIVICUS speaks to Viorel Micescu, Executive Director of CENTRAS: The Assistance for Non-Governmental Organizations, an independent non-profit organisation aimed at contributing to the development of democracy in Romania through the strengthening of civil society. Established in 1995, CENTRAS provides training, technical assistance and informational support to communities, civil society organisations (CSOs), businesses and governments interested in civil society and democracy development. CENTRAS has a branch in Constanta (the third largest county in Romania) and supports a network of regional resource centres.

  1. What triggered the protests that took place in Romania in early 2017, and how would you describe them?

In January 2017, a new government came into office. It had been elected on a series of financial promises but instead, the first thing they did was pass legislation to amend the Criminal Code and decriminalise certain acts of corruption. This was intended to create much better conditions for politicians who had been involved in corruption to get away with it, thereby effectively slowing down the ongoing fight against corruption. The Ministry of Justice tried to pass this legislation through an emergency decree. Upon becoming aware of these plans, in mid-January 2017, citizens active on social media organised two marches to put pressure on the government. As a result, the president intervened to have the government drop this piece of legislation. However, the law was subsequently adopted by surprise in the middle of the night on 31 January 2017.

As soon as the word spread that the government had done this despite public protests, people were back on the streets. First the government ignored them but later, as numbers grew and the protest in front of the government building went on day after day, it was forced to withdraw the emergency legislation. These were the biggest protests in decades. At some point, it was estimated that half a million people took to the streets, including more than 200,000 in the capital, Bucharest. The protests were mostly peaceful, although clashes periodically erupted between police and protesters. When demonstrators threw objects at the police, officers responded with tear gas. In the aftermath of one clash in Bucharest, 20 people were arrested and eight were injured.

Within 10 days of the protests, the government had backed down. But this didn’t stop the demonstrations, because people kept expressing their anger and frustration with the undemocratic way in which the decree had been initially pushed through and passed, and were now demanding that the government step down. Government officials refused to resign; however, they did give up on the emergency decree and eventually the Minister of Justice, Florin Iordache, was forced to resign. A non-partisan personality from academia was appointed as his replacement.

However, the former Minister of Justice, who as the author of the controversial decree that would have protected politicians from prosecution for corruption offences had been at the centre of the story, ended up occupying a high position in parliament. In October 2017 Iordache was appointed president of the parliamentary committee for ensuring legislative stability in the field of justice. So in the end, the struggle moved from government to parliament. The government backed off but members of parliament still defied public outrage. Several months after the facts, people occupied the square in front of the government building in Bucharest.

  1. Did your organisation play any role in supporting the protests?

We are, above all, a resource centre for civil society development. In view of the ongoing events, since February 2017 we provided support to informal groups of citizens who organised on Facebook and other social media. As a result, there are now three large communities that are very active and exist not only on Facebook but also in the form of organised offline structures. They are monitoring closely what is happening. We estimate that between 50,000 and 80,000 citizens are involved in these groups.

Many people who took part in the protests had not been involved in civil society or political action before. As a result of the government’s actions in January and February 2017, a lot of people who were living within a narrow private triangle – work, family, vacation - suddenly became engaged citizens.

It suddenly became obvious for everybody that there was a huge gap between the people and the so-called political class. CSOs were out in the streets and the square as well. In this context, the reasonable thing for us to do in order to collect and disseminate credible information was to reach out to mobilised people. So once the ways in which the protest movement was being fuelled through social media became apparent, and those groups started gaining prominence and leading the events, we got in touch. The whole idea was to explain to the people out there that it is not enough to be a ‘protest citizen’ and only get out to the streets when something really bad happens. You must undertake civic work every day on top of your job and family obligations.

Protesters were mostly people who came from educated backgrounds and hold good jobs, and who also want the social and political environment to improve so they can enjoy life. The wishes and expectations of citizens who want a better life cannot really be fulfilled just by marching on the streets. From the streets you can stop a legislative initiative but you can’t interact sustainably with the government. We tried to make clear to these people that this would be not be the ultimate war against corruption, and that much more would be required to win. The people in the protests needed to organise for the long haul, and they had to do it quickly or otherwise it would be difficult to mobilise people again when a new backlash took place.

We realised that these active citizens with enough financial resources are the most likely to support the civil society sector. So along with one of the protest groups, in March 2017 we launched a small fund, which we named the Fund for Democracy, backed by donations from Romanians living in and outside Romania. We told people who cared about strengthening civil society that they could achieve this aim by putting money into the fund, which we would coordinate. Within a week we gathered €22,000 (approx. US$27,000), all of it in private donations transferred through the banking system. We initially received recurring donations only from selected donors, but we will eventually widen our base of support by going public. We make sure donations are managed properly by isolating projects from the rest of the organisation and having a separate board make decisions about them.

Once we got the funds, we launched a call for ideas on social media and funded eight civic projects. These are all centred on the idea of civic values and range from education to civic involvement and monitoring good governance, and they are open not only to formal CSOs but also to informal groups of citizens and investigative journalists. All of this is happening at a time when there is a huge funding gap at the international level, and there is virtually no money for civic-minded civil society.

  1. Did protesters also gather in CSOs after demonstrations ended?

Protesters did not have an actual leadership; only those who started the Facebook page had some kind of organisation, and most were doing their organising in addition to their day jobs. This would not have been sustainable, and in fact about a month and a half into the process some of those people started talking to each other and some groups merged as they became aware that they had to specialise. In this process, they acquired some kind of structure with an executive leader, with some kind of division into areas of work and task forces. Organisations emerged that dealt not just with corruption and governance issues, but also with health, education and the environment, among other issues.

Lots of people in the CSO community tried to provide protesters with information on how to get organised. The whole point was to help them get organised on their own by equipping them with the capacities to build the organisations that were best adapted to their needs. These were large emerging masses of people who were just starting to feel and behave as citizens, and persuading them to fit into existing structures was by no means the best available solution.

Many of these new organisations are still not registered as CSOs. The largest groups will surely eventually register, but not in the short term: this takes a lot of time, and registering an organisation with tens of thousands of members is complicated. Most importantly, we know that politicians have only just given us a break, and we have not won for good. The battle is ongoing, and nobody has much time for bureaucratic procedures. Every day we must produce, process and disseminate new information – so much of it, that it is difficult to keep up. Nobody really has much time to do anything else.

  1. Did the government make any changes in terms of its anti-corruption policies in the aftermath of the protests?

In April 2017, the government responded to requests from the European Union (EU), the USA and other actors, to analyse the legislation properly, including through debates and consultations with judges and magistrates. In doing this, the government took the slow road; however, the results of the inquiry were unsatisfactory to party and government leaders because they showed that practitioners didn’t want the legislation softened in any way.

Regarding pardoning prerogatives, for instance, the only consensus that exists in the judiciary is that they should not apply to people convicted in corruption cases. The majority believe that allowing public officials imprisoned for bribery, official misconduct, conflict of interest or influence trafficking to benefit from pardons would introduce the wrong incentives into our judicial system. So many people, including justice officials, now have the feeling that their own government has betrayed them.

In June 2017, the government lost the support of the ruling party for failing to respond to their political urges to slow down anti-corruption reforms. The government collapsed but the Prime Minister refused to resign. In August, the Justice Minister proposed new reforms that, according to critics, would undermine not just the fight against corruption but also the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary. In other words, this took us back to square one – or almost.

As a result of the turmoil of February and March 2017, the ruling party now has big internal problems. However, elections have passed in 2016, and politicians managed to get through them by bribing people – by promising, for instance, to raise their salaries by 50 per cent. Their next encounter with voters is years away. In the meantime, the leaders of both houses of parliament are under criminal investigation on corruption charges, and will be convicted unless they manage to change the legislation. Many other members of parliament are in trouble as well, as they face various corruption charges. So all of them want a more favourable legislation, and in particular they rely on the introduction of pardoning prerogatives for corruption cases.

So in November 2017, nine months after the first protests, Romanians again protested against proposed legislative changes and to remind the government that they remained vigilant in case there was any attempt to slow down the fight against corruption.

More recently, on 15 January 2018, the ruling coalition forced yet another government, including the Prime Minister, to resign – mainly based on accusations that they have not done enough to pass the desired modifications to laws on justice – so citizen groups summoned a massive protest in Bucharest for 20 January 2018. So it seems that a political crisis is under way, and street mobilisation will continue. It shall be another busy winter for the citizens of Romania, as the 'criminal interest group' has managed to hold on to power in the ruling party, albeit their position is being seriously weakened.

  1. What has been the role of the international community throughout this process, and how could international civil society support Romanian civil society to fulfil its role?

In Romania, when the government gets on the wrong track, the international reaction is usually sufficient to set it straight. But this time it has been different. There was a majority parliament, and the EU and USA have been immersed in their own problems, and couldn’t or wouldn’t intervene immediately. That’s why it’s so good that people got out to the streets and protested. This caught the attention of the international public and allowed for a bigger reaction. But the fact that this reaction eventually took place was important – protesters in the streets would not have sufficed.

The whole process was self-reinforcing. People invested lots of energy and creativity in the protests. They used humour, created witty slogans and memes and repurposed symbols of pop culture. This allowed them to win over the hearts of the international media, who saw everyday Romanians get out in the cold weather after work, stay there for hours into the night and exhibit all that creativity. I remember meeting a number of journalists from big international TV stations and other global media outlets one of those days, quite late in the evening, in a small café by the square. They commented that they were impressed by the vividness of the protest and by protesters’ ability to respond to questions in several languages while displaying their slogans. As a result, they provided extensive and positive coverage of the events in the international media, which put pressure on European politicians to do something about it, and therefore for European countries to react strongly, which they did.

Romanian civil society is not yet mature; it needs international support and is very pleased when its efforts are acknowledged – it gets all the more energy when its actions get wide international coverage. In that sense, the visit of a delegation of the European Parliament in March 2017 was particularly significant. The visitors met with protest group leaders, lots of journalists wrote about them and the world discovered that Romanian citizens want good governance, hold European values and support anti-corruption efforts. Whenever someone writes and publishes something along these lines it is news for the Facebook community, and it gives civil society increasing strength.

  1. What impact do you think the protests might have on future citizen participation in Romania?

CSOs like ours have spent a quarter of a century trying to make citizens out of the inhabitants of Romania, with relatively little success. It was as a result of the recent protests that we regained hope. We now have a whole new generation of alert citizens. Politics has become one of the most likely subjects of everyday conversation. Debates and forums are being organised to channel all these energies, because people have not been in the business of practising civic values for a long time, and they are just learning how to participate, how to form and express an opinion, how to interpret political events.

In normal times, a typical protest against some form of government abuse would gather a few hundred people. Sometimes, environmental organisations would manage to summon around 10,000 people, but in February 2017, close to 600,000 came out from all over Romania on a single night. Most importantly, the protest reached places like small cities and towns, where there had never been protests before.

Eastern Europe does not have a big protest tradition, and these were by far the largest protests ever experienced in this part of the world. Additionally, protests against corruption and in favour of European values mean a lot more in times of uncertainty, after the Brexit vote and the progress made by the extreme right in the Dutch and French elections. These protests gave a message of unity around European values, and in that sense they can be viewed as model protests for the times to come.

These are fascinating times. On one hand, never before have we had politicians who are so mean and selfish, and of such little human and professional quality. On the other hand, there is now a large mass of new people entering the civic arena, getting ready to monitor the government and eventually to help educate politicians. Politicians will be educated only if citizens educate themselves first: there is a need for millions more to wake up and understand that there is another way of living their life.

  1. What challenges do you see moving forward?

Most importantly, our anti-corruption struggle is ongoing. Despite daily public protests in front of the parliament, new laws on judicial organisation were passed in December 2017 and submitted to the president for approval. The president could veto them, but the ruling parties have a sufficient majority to override the veto. The adoption process was marred by abuses and lack of consultation, which was not surprising, given that the parliamentary committee that drafted them was led by the same former Minister who started the fire in January 2017. These pieces of legislation as well as their adoption process will surely come under the scrutiny of the Constitutional Court in the following months.

Additionally, the same parliamentary committee is now getting ready to amend the Criminal Code and the Criminal Procedures Code. This is the big stake for politicians; if passed, these amendments will make even the emergency decree passed in January 2017 look soft.

Still, public support for the ruling party has not gone down enough. To keep popular support, the government keeps trying to deliver on their promise to double salaries, although this is not sustainable, as it would create a huge pressure on public finances.

CSOs are also being the target of restrictive legislation. It will not be as bad here as it has been in neighbouring Hungary, but the political majority is moving along the same lines. A smear campaign against CSOs is ongoing, and it is being repeatedly insinuated that CSOs have a hidden interest in destabilising the country. In June 2017, a draft bill was proposed to allow for the forced closure of any CSO that does not publish reports of its revenues and expenses, as well as the names of all of its donors, twice a year. This is an arbitrary burden, much more demanding than that applied to other sectors, meant to increase political control over civil society. Although the bill was put on hold for the summer due to the negative public reactions it caused, it was tacitly adopted by the Senate in November 2017, and was then sent to consideration by the Chamber of Deputies. We are confident that we will be able to block it, but we also know that a new move by the government will follow to restrict civil society.

  • Civic space in Romania is rated as ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
  • Get in touch with CENTRAS through their website.

 

‘Democracy is much more than street protest and institutional politics, and Hong Kong people are now resisting in all possible and impossible ways’

Ahead of the publication of the 2018 State of Civil Society Report on the theme of ‘reimagining democracy’, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their work to promote democratic governance, and the challenges they encounter in doing so. CIVICUS speaks with student leader Yiu Wa Chung about his involvement in the pro-democracy movement and the prospects for democracy in Hong Kong.

  1. Three years after the 2014 protests, what has happened to the pro-democracy movement?

Two separate processes have unfolded over the past few years: street protests and an institutional process that took place around the Legislative Council elections. What we demanded through street demonstrations in 2014 was true universal suffrage. We wanted China to change its electoral guidelines and the pro-China Chief Executive to resign.

Since Britain returned it to China in 1997, Hong Kong has been governed under the “one country, two systems” principle, which means the Hong Kong government has jurisdiction over internal affairs and trade relations, while the government of China is in charge of Hong Kong’s defence and foreign policy. We therefore enjoy limited self-determination and political rights, although we do have an independent judiciary and a free press.

Hong Kong has the status of a Special Administrative Region, and our government is led by a Chief Executive who is chosen by a “nominating committee” of 1,200 people, most of them from pro-China elites. The Legislative Council is the legislative branch of government.

The thing is, when Hong Kong was returned to China, we were promised that we would be able to elect our Chief Executive by universal suffrage by 2017; however, in 2014 it became clear that free elections were not going to happen, as a reform framework was passed in August that established that only a few committee-vetted (pro-China) candidates would be allowed to compete in these elections. And that was the trigger for the massive 2014 protests known as the Umbrella Movement, one of the biggest – if not the biggest – in Hong Kong’s history.

The main reason that mobilisation decreased in the years after 2014 is that people were discouraged by the lack of results. After such a big movement and 79 days of occupation that paralysed major roads in the financial centre, we got no reply from the government, and there was no institutional change. People devoted a lot of energy, time and effort and they sacrificed so much. Almost every single young protestor who appeared on camera or was interviewed by the media in 2014 is being prosecuted or is in jail. And it was all for nothing. In other words, the costs of protest increased and the expected gains decreased, so the momentum passed and street protest declined.

However, in the years since 2014 there were two elections, for the local District Councils in 2015 and for the Legislative Council in 2016. Because of the atmosphere and because voting in elections has much lower cost than going out to the streets, the results of those two elections were quite good for the pro-democracy camp.

But it is important to note that half the legislative seats are filled through small circle elections within functional interests, which works almost like an appointment, so regardless of how well we fare in the elections we still face considerable obstacles when looking at the overall composition of the Legislative Council. Moreover, what happened in 2016 is that after the elections that the pro-democracy camp won, the government found an excuse to disqualify six of the elected legislative councillors. For instance, they argued that one of the councillors had not taken his oath properly because he had changed the tone of his words, so his promise to obey the laws of the People’s Republic of China sounded more as a question than a statement. He hadn’t changed a single word, but according to the government he pronounced them in a questioning rather than a neutral tone. Another elected councillor took the oath properly, in a neutral tone and all, but after he had been sworn in, he chanted a pro-democracy slogan, “Rights to the people.” Another one paused excessively in between words and mispronounced the word “China,” and so on.

The judicial process following a demand for disqualification takes about a year, during which time these elected councillors were banned from taking part in the Council’s deliberations. And when they were eventually disqualified, they were required to pay back the salaries they had received. This is something that not just anybody can afford. In other words, the government is using every means at their disposal to bend people’s opinion, including by forcing us to go bankrupt. The message that Beijing is sending to people in Hong Kong is that resisting is pointless.

In sum, both in the streets and at the institutional level, the pro-democracy movement is currently in decline.

  1. Do you think a “culture of protest” emerged out of the Umbrella Movement, and that the public is now more prone to mobilising than in the past?

It did look like it around 2015, but the enthusiasm has long since dissipated. By 2015 the government was not as authoritarian as it is today, and community organising flourished. There were lots of new organisations that put their efforts into all kinds of issues, including labour rights, universal suffrage and institutional change. But by 2016, with the government on the offensive, trying to disqualify elected lawmakers, passing restrictive bills and jailing people, protest and mobilisation had declined.

I believe that the current authoritarian trend is no accident; it fits the long-term plans of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Since the handover, the CCP has devoted a lot of human and financial resources to setting up satellite organisations in Hong Kong. They have consistently worked to infiltrate each and every sector and change the democratic culture, step by step. Hong Kong people resented this; resentment built up and resulted in the 2014 protests. The Umbrella Movement took the CCP and the Hong Kong government by surprise; nobody expected so many people to take to the streets. But they chose to ignore it and let it wear out by providing no response whatsoever to its demands. The occupation lasted 79 days, during which the CCP clearly sized the movement up. They got to know its weaknesses and limits perfectly well. They were aware that people were getting tired. They saw us as a wave coming from the ocean, gathering strength and gradually wearing out, and they waited it out. As the movement weakened, the CCP asserted its power. Increasingly authoritarian methods are hard to resist once you have used up all our energy. All that has been done has yielded no results, so people have retreated further and increasingly refrain from voicing their opinion.

It should be noted that unlike in China, control in Hong Kong can be subtle. Different methods are being used, the prosecution and jailing of protestors being just the most blunt of them. But the government has also been deliberately increasing the cost of living in Hong Kong, and most notably rent, which is already the highest in the world. The effects of this are appalling: for many people, it means they have to work longer hours, with little time or energy left for leisure or politics, and that they have no leftover money for anything else, and organising obviously costs money. Additionally, the Hong Kong economy is very dependent on China, and if you have business with China you will lose everything for not playing by their rules, which include political alignment.

Control is also cultural and educational. There is an increasing control of the school curriculum, and changes are being introduced in the content of schoolbooks, so young children learn from an early stage that they have to love and obey China and its leaders. Children are being told to love the CCP, the “most democratic” party there is. There is also an ongoing attack on our language, as they are trying to impose Mandarin instead of Cantonese in schools. In short, combined control tactics are being applied from all sides – they are truly a tight network of control - so there is no room to even think of resisting.

The democratic camp has kept trying to mobilise support, but people are tired and less ready to respond. Public reactions against authoritarianism and rights violations have become exceptions rather than the rule in the present context.

  1. A number of pro-democracy activists were jailed in 2017. What was the background to this, and what was the civil society response?

In August 2017, three student leaders of the pro-democracy movement were sentenced to between six and eight months in jail. They had originally been sentenced to community service for storming a fenced-off section of the government headquarters. They were charged with unlawful assembly, and inciting people to take part in illegal rallies. However, the local government appealed against the case arguing that community service was too light a punishment, and they were eventually sentenced to jail. Additionally, they were barred from running for public office for five years, which meant that one of them, who was considering running for a legislative position, would no longer be able to do so.

In reaction to the sentencing tens of thousands of people took to the streets and marched to the Court of Final Appeal. This was the biggest demonstration since 2014. Sadly, it was only an isolated reaction, which probably was due to the fact that these students were some of the most visible leaders of the Umbrella Movement and their cases drew lots of attention.

In contrast, in December 2017 the government approved changes in the Legislative Council’s Rules of Procedure that would break the balance between pro-democracy and pro-China camps, and there was no visible reaction. The democratic camp called for a protest, but only a couple of hundred people showed up and were easily removed. These procedure changes were accomplished because, with six of its democratically elected legislators disqualified, the pro-democracy camp did not have enough votes to block them. Over several weeks, numerous pro-democracy legislators were kicked out of the chamber for disrupting the debate with filibustering tactics, and the amendments eventually passed. As a result, the president will now have the power to reconvene meetings, to ban and combine amendments, and to stop legislators from raising adjournment motions.

  1. Looking ahead, what are the main challenges to the sustainability of the pro-democracy movement, and how are they being addressed?

All the major tools that we had are gone. For protesting in the streets you get arrested and thrown into jail, and if you try the institutional path, you get disqualified or stripped of decision-making power. The cost of involvement in both arenas is going up.

Democracy is much more than street protest and institutional politics, and it is much more than what you can see on camera. People in Hong Kong are now resisting in all possible and impossible ways, such as setting up a tiny bookstore to counter state-sponsored indoctrination, using public space for cultural activities or creating semi-public spaces for reading groups.

But of course we are not going to defeat the network of control that oppresses us by ourselves, with a music concert or a reading group. We need help. This could take the form of the international media focusing more on Hong Kong, the United Nations setting up a special commission, or foreign governments putting economic pressure on China to change its Hong Kong policy. However, we all know that this will hardly happen. Not even Britain, our former colonial power, reacted strongly as China recently stated that their Joint Declaration on Hong Kong, which laid the blueprint for Hong Kong to organise after its handover to China, no longer had any practical significance. China is not fulfilling its promises and Britain is not doing anything about it. There’s a lot the international community could do, but there’s not much they are willing to do, given the facts of China’s economic and military rise. They all want to do business with China and do not dare bring up the Hong Kong issue. The cause of Hong Kong is unfortunately not nearly as popular as that of Tibet.

 

‘Civil society won the debate on inequality but still needs to win the actual fight against it"

CIVICUS speaks to Ben Phillips, Launch Director of the Fight Inequality Alliance, a growing movement of citizens from across the world uniting to take on the crisis of widening inequality, and build a world that works for all. Committed to countering the excessive concentration of power and wealth in the hands of small elites, the Fight Inequality Alliance includes leading international and national civil society organisations (CSOs), human rights campaigners, women’s rights groups, environmental groups, faith-based organisations, trade unions, social movements and other CSOs.

  1. Why is widening inequality such a worrisome phenomenon?

Widening inequality – and how we start to beat it – is the defining issue of our time. Anti-apartheid leader Jay Naidoo calls the widening chasm between a powerful few and the rest “Apartheid 2.0.” Rising inequality is holding back progress on poverty, hurting growth, making societies less healthy and liveable, widening mistrust and instability, exacerbating violent conflict, facilitating extremists, holding back action on climate change, corrupting politics, weakening the voice of ordinary people and concentrating ever more power in fewer hands. Privilege and wealth are reshaping economic and social systems at the expense of people as a whole and the planet. We are witnessing a world in danger not just of a slowdown in social progress but of a reversal of it.

Seven out of 10 people live in countries where the gap between rich and poor is greater than it was 30 years ago. As I saw for myself in Zambia when I met with dispossessed farmers there, despite the country moving from officially poor to officially middle income status, the number of poor people has actually increased. China, India and Russia have all seen steep rises in the gap between rich and poor. Five per cent of Indians own 50 per cent of the country’s wealth. Growth has seemingly been decoupled from jobs and from broad benefit for ordinary people. Lives and livelihoods are being lost because those who design policies are following a damaging model.

Inequality is intersectional and all forms of inequality influence each other. Our societies are rooted in patriarchy, racism and many other forms of discrimination. Women, especially women of colour, are also the hardest hit by rising economic inequality: they are the workers in the most precarious employment; they suffer the most from cuts in public services; and much of their work, paid and unpaid, is not recognised and rewarded. Challenging patriarchy, challenging discrimination, and challenging the power of the 1 per cent are all essential and inseparable to building societies where all are valued. Governments are loosening their watch over major corporations and big finance, and tightening their watch over civil society, including unions, community organisations and citizens. Civil society space and democratic rights are being eroded to make way for overly powerful elites. So too, an increasingly economically divided world is becoming an increasingly angry and intolerant one, and groups that blame an ‘Other’ (defined through their race, ethnicity, religion or sexuality) have dramatically grown. Every progressive cause, and the dignity of every person, is threatened by the inequality crisis. Uniting to fight inequality is essential for all of us.

  1. While inequality is truly damaging, the need for action to tackle it, once a controversial idea, is now accepted even in mainstream economic discourse. Does this mean the movement to fight inequality has won?

If only! As civil society, we face the paradox of having won the debate but still needing to win the fight. To hope that commitments would be made by governments to tackle inequality was once seen as an overly ambitious advocacy goal. It has been more than passed. It may have felt like winning. But real government actions to tackle inequality are like flowers in a desert. The mainstream consensus has shifted to recognise inequality without a consequent shift in action. We are feasting on words and fasting on delivery. This is not just because it takes time. It’s because widening inequality is a consequence of a political economy cycle in which ever more power and wealth are concentrated in fewer hands, warping society and politics to further concentrate power and wealth. To break this cycle and catalyse a renewed virtuous cycle therefore requires a process of shifting power.

That is why the focus on the Fight Inequality Alliance is on organising to build up collective power from below, and across organisations and borders. None of this is easy. But that’s also the point: we are faced with a structural challenge of dominance by powerful elites who are not simply waiting to be better informed by civil society before they voluntarily make things fairer. The approach to how we advance change needs to be commensurate with the scale of transformation required. The power of the people can challenge the people in power – but when, and only when, we organise. The Fight Inequality Alliance is helping people build that power today.FightInequality Interview

  1. How is the Fight Inequality Alliance working to achieve its very ambitious goal?

The Fight Inequality Alliance seeks to reverse widening inequality and build economies and societies that work for all. Amongst the shifts the Fight Inequality Alliance is calling for from governments and international institutions to ensure this are: action to combat discrimination and tackle entrenched privilege; fairer taxation and progressive spending for quality universal public services and social protection; minimum living wages and strengthened workers’ rights; strengthened land rights; fair and bold action to address climate change; protection of migrants and refugees; and protection for democratic rights and civil society space. At national and regional levels alliance members are developing their own, more detailed, visions and narratives that reflect the regional or national contexts and agreed campaigning priorities.

Crucially, Fight Inequality Alliance members don’t only share a set of values of the kind of society we are working to advance. We also have a shared recognition that it can’t be achieved merely by asking for it from leaders, through insider advocacy, policy papers and pilot projects. As much as these are important, the fight against inequality will be won by deepening people’s collective power and advancing practical actions that challenge and change the status quo and shift power.

Inequality is ultimately a question of power – and societies are only truly more equal when power is more equal. Reversing rising inequality is not just about changing the rules but also about changing who gets to make the rules. That is why we are working together to build people’s power to pressure leaders to act. The alliance’s key added value is in building the strength of people to press for change. The model is one where securing small wins is useful not only in itself but also in strengthening people’s confidence and capability for further small and larger wins. A movement of national alliances is seen as the key driver of change, supported by regional and international solidarity and action to amplify it.

  1. Who is involved in the Fight Inequality Alliance, and how is it organised?

The Fight Inequality Alliance brings together social movements, trade unions, and progressive CSOs in a common struggle for a more equal world. Those involved in it include the International Trade Union Confederation, CIVICUS, Femnet, Africans Rising, Asian People’s Movement on Debt and Development, Greenpeace, ActionAid, Oxfam, ACT Alliance, the Global Alliance for Tax Justice and many national organisations and movements including Gambia Has Decided, Fees Must Fall, India Social Action Forum and others. It’s a wonderfully diverse group that came together because inequality and its root causes are the common thread in the challenges we face the world over in building societies that work for all, and because all those involved are really clear that they cannot do this on their own, and that if inequality is to be tackled we need to name that as our explicit goal and work together in an alliance.

The Fight Inequality Alliance is coordinated by a steering group representing the different sectors and regions of the world. Global gatherings were held in 2016 on a community-owned farm set up by anti-apartheid leaders in South Africa, in early 2017 in a poor community in Manila, the Philippines, at a convent of radical nuns who had helped defeat Ferdinand Marcos, and in late 2017 at a youth activist-managed hostel in Copenhagen, Denmark. Through these meetings and other joint work, allies have been able to come together with a common platform for change and a common approach, overcoming the challenges faced by different parts of civil society in doing joint work, going beyond the ‘egos and logos’ that can hold back cooperation, and building an alliance big enough to make a difference. It’s a facilitative and enabling way of working driven by the needs of people working for change in their countries. It’s an open and growing movement and we’d welcome any interested readers getting in touch.

  1. In October 2017 the Fight Inequality Alliance organised a powerful global mobilisation to challenge the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on how their actions contradict their words on inequality, and it is now organising another one to counter the elite gathering of the World Economic Forum at Davos. What happened last October and what can we look forward to in January 2018?

Back in October the mobilisation of Fight Inequality Alliance members surprised and shook the World Bank and the IMF, and helped re-energise civil society groups, by bringing people out on the streets to highlight how the World Bank and IMF’s actions continue to widen inequality. World Bank security had earlier in the week tried, unlawfully, to shoo us away from outside their building, and then we had a bit of a scare when a far-right US pro-gun group claimed on social media that they would counter-protest the Fight Inequality protest, but on the day the sun shone and the Fight Inequality protest brought the attention of the public and media to the inequality crisis and the role of the international financial institutions in perpetuating it, and the World Bank and IMF were shown up by refusing even to comment to the Al-Jazeera correspondent who asked them about a list of examples we gave of the damage they were doing on the ground.

This January, at the same time as political and business elites will meet at the World Economic Forum and claim that they are fixing the problem of inequality, Fight Inequality Alliance groups across the world will show through mobilisations and actions that answers do not come from those elites who actually are making inequality worse; that instead, the way to tackle inequality is through strengthening the power of people by uniting for change and listening to their solutions.

As the world's 1 per cent gather in the luxury Swiss mountain resort of Davos, rallies will be taking place around the world on mountains of a very different sort – the mountains of garbage and of open pit mines that millions of the most unequal call home. People will be gathering in events in countries including Bangladesh, Denmark, the Gambia, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Mexico, Nepal, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, Senegal, South Africa, Tunisia, United Kingdom, Zambia and Zimbabwe to demand publicly an end to inequality. Events worldwide include a pop concert at a slum next to a garbage mountain in Kenya, a football match in Senegal, a public meal sharing in Denmark, a rally at an open-pit mine in South Africa, a sound truck in Nigeria, and a giant ‘weighing scales of injustice’ in the UK.

Mobilising globally in this way is helping to expose how we cannot put our faith in elites to fix an inequality problem they perpetuate, and that instead we need to recognise as citizens that we, together, are the people we’ve been waiting for. Mobilising together across the world inspires people to recognise their own power and grow in confidence, builds up the movement, and builds up the links that build collective power.

We have rising inequality because the super-rich are determining what governments should do. Davos can never be the answer because the problem is caused by the influence of the people at Davos. Governments around the world must listen instead to their citizens, and end the Age of Greed. We know that governments will only do that when we organise and unite, so we are coming together as one.

  1. What needs to happen for widening inequality to be reversed?

We, all of us, need to happen! Elites won’t self-correct. The arc of the universe won’t bend on its own towards justice, but collective people power can bend it down.

We’re optimistic. This optimism does not come from a naïve assumption that recent elite declarations of intent to act on inequality will automatically be followed through without public pressure. Rather, the possibility for change comes from people organising and connecting. Around the world, extraordinary ordinary people are fighting inequality – from women garment workers in Bangladeshi factories fighting for living wages; to youth activists in Zambia fighting for mining companies to pay their fair share of tax to fund public schools and health clinics; to LGBTI activists in Liberia fighting discrimination and hate speech; to indigenous communities fighting to prevent fossil fuel companies from destroying their land. The growing Fight Inequality Alliance is connecting these struggles, building a movement to bring people together to challenge privilege and counter the excessive concentration of power and wealth. We are standing together to build a world of greater equality, opportunity and dignity – where all people’s rights are respected, living within the planet’s boundaries.

The struggle to reverse rising inequality is a cause that can be won. Through supporting collective organising and linking that strengthens the power of people, civil society can help ensure that together we can start to push inequality back.

Former CIVICUS leader Kumi Naidoo put it to me this way: “We’ve spent too many years looking upwards at governments, we have to change our gaze and focus on people’s mobilisation.” This is why, in the Fight Inequality Alliance, we do less lobbying and more mobilising and organising. The most important change happens from the ground up. People gather in a circle, see that they are not alone, and start to talk. And from that the most powerful actions build. The change we need won’t be given to people; it will be won by people. 

This is a lesson learnt by others who struggled against inequality in the past. As Frederick Douglass, former slave and great anti-slavery campaigner, put it in 1857: “The whole history of the progress shows that all concessions have been born of earnest struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all-absorbing, and for the time being, putting all other tumults to silence. It must do this or it does nothing. If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favour freedom and yet deprecate agitation want crops without ploughing up the ground; rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
The good news is that people are organising and connecting. We can win. We can beat inequality. Together.

 

 

United States: ‘Even in challenging times, civil society needs to be proactive in setting the agenda"

CIVICUS speaks to Nick Robinson, a legal advisor at the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL) and lead of their United States Program. ICNL is a civil society organisation that works with governments, civil society and the international community in more than 100 countries to improve the legal environment for civil society, philanthropy and public participation. 

  1. How is ICNL engaging with the impacts on civil society of the current political climate in the United States?

ICNL has engaged with the current political environment by developing a set of initiatives focused on the United States. For example, in one of our central initiatives, the US Protest Law Tracker, and related freedom of assembly work, we analyse and advocate against anti-protest laws and overly aggressive prosecution of demonstrators. In another initiative, we are engaging Congress and other policy-makers about concerns we have regarding recent legislative proposals to strengthen the enforcement of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). Dating from 1938, FARA requires those who engage in political activities on behalf of foreign principals to register as a ‘foreign agent’ with the Department of Justice. While the Act has traditionally been rarely enforced, its provisions are so broad and vague that if it was implemented it could lead to many civil society organisations (CSOs) having to register as ‘foreign agents’. It is worth noting that ‘foreign agent’ acts in other countries, like Russia, have stigmatised and undercut civil society. In fact, as we’ve documented in a recent report, many of these other countries claim to have based their legislation on FARA.

Other projects include one that provides support to CSOs concerned about politicised government legal compliance actions against them and third party attacks; and a project that aims to help address vulnerabilities we see in the US university space.

  1. What has been the impact on US-based civil society groups in this first year of the Trump Presidency? What rights and groups do you perceive as being in the most danger?

We see a number of types of civil society groups and activities being particularly vulnerable at the present moment. As the prosecution of so-called ‘J20 protesters’ made clear, the use of collective liability is on the rise against protesters. This is deeply disturbing. In the J20 case, which was a case resulting out of protests in Washington DC against President Trump on Inauguration Day (20 January 2017) that damaged property, almost 200 protesters had charges brought against them that could bring decades in jail. The prosecutors never claimed they had evidence that the specific individuals who were charged had damaged property or assaulted anyone; instead, they were trying to hold liable anyone who was present at the protest under a theory of collective liability.

The protesters in the first batch were found innocent on all charges by a jury in December 2017, but it took 11 months to get a verdict. The other protesters charged are still awaiting trial. Keep in mind, this is a prosecution brought not by an obscure local prosecutor, but by the federal government – the Department of Justice. Along with CIVICUS and the Charity & Security Network, ICNL was able to bring our concerns about the freedoms of association, assembly and expression to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). We brought one of the charged J20 protesters, Elizabeth Lagesse, to give her testimony at an IACHR hearing that anyone interested in the case should check out.

We’ve also seen discriminatory or aggressive actions taken against civil society groups. For example, in September 2017, Representative DeSantis introduced a bill that would have banned Islamic Relief Worldwide from receiving federal funds based on unsubstantiated claims that they had ties to terrorist organisations. ICNL participated in a coalition that spoke out against this bill, which was ultimately withdrawn. However, this is part of a larger pattern of trying to target some groups by claiming they have ties to terrorist groups.

Finally, we’ve seen a number of impacts on civil society because of the administration’s new immigration policies. Organisations have mobilised to fight some of these policies because of the effect they will have on the country and people’s lives, but they also affect the functioning of organisations. Employees or volunteers of many groups are now facing deadlines by which they have to leave the US or are facing the threat of deportation. The visa bans of targeted countries, most of which are predominantly Muslim, have made it difficult, and sometimes impossible, for civil society groups to do something as simple as bring a speaker for a conference from one of these countries.

This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list, but it gives you a sense of some of the challenges we are seeing.

  1. Can you tell us more about your US Protest Law Tracker, its uses and main findings?

My colleague Elly Page has led ICNL’s efforts on the US Protest Law Tracker. ICNL created it when we realised there was an increase in the number of anti-protest bills being introduced in states across the country. As of the beginning of 2018, 28 states had considered 50 bills that restrict the right to protest since November 2016. Eight of these bills have been enacted, while a number of others are still pending. The tracker provides succinct analysis of each bill and categorises them under topics like ‘campus speech’ and ‘trespass’. Activists, the media, and the public can then search the tracker to find out the latest information about what bills are being considered.

We’ve seen not only an uptick in these laws, but a proliferation in the ways that the right to protest can be chilled. Perhaps most disturbing has been the number of bills that apply theories of collective liability or that increase the penalties for relatively minor offences frequently related to demonstrations – like blocking traffic or trespassing.  We’ve also been troubled by governors declaring states of emergency in response to protests – even in situations where this might make sense, like the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville in August 2017, these powers aren’t being tailored sufficiently. And we are concerned that these powers are beginning to be used whenever there is the mere threat of violence at a protest. This can chill participation in protests.

  1. How big an impact do you think democratic regression in the US is having at the regional and global level?

Other governments are picking up on US rhetoric and actions. For example, in Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán started using rhetoric around “Hungary comes first”, modelled on President Trump’s slogan “America First”, to justify the passage of a restrictive bill targeting international funding of civil society. President Trump’s practice of labelling certain stories “fake news” has been picked up and used by governments in countries like Cambodia, China, Russia and Syria against media reports documenting their human rights violations. It’s an easy way to delegitimise critics.

It’s important to note though that we don’t just see these challenges in the US, but across several developed democracies. Australia has seen proposals to ban foreign funding to CSOs and limit the amount of advocacy they are allowed to engage in. France has seen the repeated extension of national states of emergency and the use of other national security measures that can undercut a free and open civic space. It’s a bigger challenge than just the US.

  1. What message would you like to convey to international civil society groups working in challenging circumstances?

I would leave them with two thoughts. First, as the US government takes a step back from taking a lead on protecting civil space globally, and I think it is taking a step back, international civil society needs to push governments of other democracies to step up and take on more of a leadership role. There is a vacuum that needs to be filled.

Second, and related, in times like these it’s understandable that many of the responses of civil society are defensive. We need to defend the gains we’ve made over the years. Yet I think it’s also really important that we continue to pursue a vision of the independent pluralistic civil society that we want to create in the world. Even in difficult times we want to be proactive, and set the agenda we want to set – not just react to the latest crisis or concern. It’s difficult to do, but a vital task.

  • Civic space in the United States is rated as ‘narrowed’ in the CIVICUS Monitor
  • Get in touch with ICNL through their website or Facebook page, or follow @ICNLAlliance 

 

Catalonia: ‘It might take years to rebuild the political, social and emotional bridges that the pro-independence process has blown up’

Catalonia’s independence movement hit the headlines in 2017, and Catalonia’s future remains undecided. CIVICUS speaks to Francesc Badia i Dalmases, editor of democraciaAbierta, openDemocracy’s Latin American section. openDemocracy is an independent media platform that seeks to challenge power and encourage democratic debate through reporting and analysis of social and political issues. With human rights as its central guiding focus, openDemocracy seeks to ask tough questions about freedom, justice and democracy. Its platform attracts over eight million visits per year.

 

Nigeria: ‘If passed, the NGO Bill will reduce the ability of CSOs to hold the government accountable and ensure that human rights are respected’

CIVICUS speaks to Oluseyi Babatunde Oyebisi, Director of the Nigeria Network of NGOs (NNNGO) about the draconian NGO bill under consideration by Nigerian lawmakers and the implications that it would have for civil society. Based in Lagos, NNNGO supports Nigerian NGOs in their commitment to reduce poverty, promote human rights and spread the benefits of development among all people. NNNGO provides a range of services and opportunities to help its members achieve their organisational aims and exert influence on issues relevant to the national agenda.

 

‘Against hopelessness, we need to work not to lose the very small windows of freedom that we can find under this dictatorship’

CIVICUS speaks to an Iranian woman human rights defender about the causes and significance of the recent protests in Iran, as well as the prospects for change in a country with a closed civic space and a theocratic government that maintains a firm grip on power. She asked to remain anonymous for security reasons.

 

‘There are signs of hope, but we are not waiting with our arms crossed but pushing for reforms that improve our lives’

Angola saw a change at the top in 2017, when President José Eduardo dos Santos stepped down after a staggering 38 years in power, to be replaced by President Joao Lourenco. His rule was characterised by close control of the nation’s oil wealth, to the benefit of his family and the ruling elite, which necessitated a tight grip on civil society to prevent it exposing corruption and demanding a fairer distribution of wealth. As part of the state’s repression of civil society, in 2015, 15 young activists were arrested and detained for taking part in a group that discussed a book on liberation. The group were held in poor conditions, mistreated and, after an unfair trial, found guilty of rebellion. One of that group, activist and rapper Luaty Beirão, speaks to CIVICUS about what changes may be underway in Angola, and how civil society is trying to engage constructively to seek reform under the new president.

1. What changed for Angolan civil society in 2017?

2017 was a very interesting year for us. After six years of struggle aimed at our President, José Eduardo dos Santos - who when we started had been in power for 32 years, and in 2017 marked 38 years in power - he finally did not run for the presidency again. So we have a new president for the first time. I was born under dos Santos, and finally I have a second president.

It’s the same regime and the same party that has been in power for 42 years, so we were not expecting the new president to act against his predecessors. What dos Santos did towards the end of his term was put his family, especially his children, in very sensitive positions in our economy. His daughter Isabel dos Santos was chair of the national oil company, Sonangol - oil is our main resource - and his son José Filomeno dos Santos managed the US$5 billion sovereign wealth fund. We did not expect the new president to move so swiftly, but in under 90 days he’d sacked Isabel dos Santos and got José Filomeno dos Santos under control: he should not last much longer because he’s recently been implicated in the Panama Papers scandal. Two other children - Welwitschia and José Paulinos dos Santos - were in charge of two private companies, Westside and Semba Comunicações, which had a US$30 million contract with the state to run public TV service Channel 2. But now they have lost the contract and Semba Comunicações has closed.

The new president is also giving some space for judicial and state investigators to track how public money was used. Some cases are starting to arise, including some that affect the former president’s family interests. Isobel dos Santos, the richest woman in Africa, is also being sued abroad. Things are starting to catch up on them really quickly. It is interesting to see the new president allowing this to happen, although it might come back to bite him: it is impossible for him be clean because he has been in government for so many years.

One of the main reasons why we thought the new president would not do anything is that under the Angolan electoral system we vote for a party, not a candidate for president, and dos Santos remains the president of the ruling party. We expected him to tell party members what to do. We knew there was disruption within the ruling party, but the level of disruption is only now becoming apparent.

2. How is civil society reacting to these changes and the new opportunities that may open?

For us, there are signs of hope. The new president’s intentions appear to be good, so we should give him the benefit of the doubt.

In 2011, we decided that confrontation was the only way to go, because if we tried to do small projects on the side, they would only come and shut us down. We decided that to get our ideas working, we first needed to liberate ourselves from totalitarian rule.

Now the old president is gone and the new president is showing some openness, so we want to explore the situation and find out how far this openness reaches. Instead of looking for confrontation, as we had to do in the past, we have started to propose ideas, especially on social media. This is because to cast an image of himself as more democratic and open to modern society, the new president has official accounts on Facebook and Twitter, as do the Minister of Communication and the Governor of the capital city, Luanda. So we know they are reading our comments and they know we are there not just to be critical, but that we want to give them the benefit of the doubt. There are things we want to propose and see how they react to them, so we are testing them. I hope this interesting phase we're now in will shift us away from the need that we had before to be confrontational.

Even huge opponents of the old regime are applauding some of the new president’s initiatives. Hope is rising in Angola. We hope he is wise enough to keep it going longer. I hope he takes in all this positive energy and he finds it contagious and carries on going.

But we are not just waiting with our arms crossed. We are pushing for reform initiatives and showing the government that we are ready to back its actions if they are going to have positive repercussions in improving our lives and lifting the limitations we suffered from 1975 to 2017.

3. What changes should take place to show that the new president is serious in seeking reform?

There are many simple things that can be done, and small steps can keep hope alive. We want to carry on believing. We don't want to be disillusioned.

The new president should acknowledge the need for a strong civil society, rather than try to co-opt it into government. It would help if civil society actors saw their points of view taken into consideration when major decisions are made. The government should show more openness, for instance by being more present on social media and making live broadcasts of meetings.

There should be a constitutional reform. The 2010 constitution was designed to suit dos Santos. It gives too many powers to a president that is not even directly elected by the people. The president appoints judges to the Constitutional Court, the Supreme Court and the Military Court, and these judges report directly to the president, so there is no separation of powers. This needs to change. If the president wants to effect real change, he should reduce his own powers.

Regarding corruption, the new president should open a public debate and the public should accept that it is useful to know who were guilty of stealing public money and where the money went. But rather than focusing on sending those people to prison, we need to find a way to recover the money and have it invested in Angola.

We don’t expect the new president to transform the country in two days, but we do want him to show he is willing to listen and put into practice other people’s ideas, to experiment and open up.

We want to not have to be constantly fighting and confronting the powers that be. It’s exhausting, especially when you get beaten up, you get stitches in your head and you have to spend a year in prison. I would really love to shift my activism. I just want to feel like an active citizen. I want to carry on sharing my thoughts and ideas without being involved in conflict the whole time.

4. Apart from corruption, what are the major challenges that the new president faces?

There is urgent need to invest in education and health. Although theoretically we have free access to these public services, in practice that is not the case, and people in the ministries that are supposed to make these services work have stolen money, so we lack basic equipment and supplies. There is need for serious investment, starting with education, which will also help with public health knowledge. We need educated Angolans to manage the country. We are still very reliant on foreign capacities and foreign consultants, who charge huge amounts of money. We should also be developing tourism, but for the time being it is very hard to get visas for Angola.

Long-term investment is needed. Our national budget for the last 15 years has had double the amount going to security than to education and health. We are not at war and face no military threat. The only explanation for this is that the military control society. In fact, there are three different secret services operating in Angola.

Holding local elections is another important task for the new president. Local elections have been delayed for over seven years so far, with excuses such as lack of money or the need for a new law that has not been drafted. Of course, the ruling party doesn’t want elections because it risks losing constituencies.

There are good things going on in this part of the continent. Why can’t we follow the good examples instead of always comparing ourselves to the worst cases?

5. What role should the international community and civil society play? Do we need to change our approach to Angola?

When we started our movement in Angola, we were not thinking about finding supporters. We just did it out of urgency. But when you act following your heart and convictions, you draw international attention. Luckily for us, when we landed in prison a worldwide civil society movement advocated on our behalf.

There are always more things that can be done. But the situation on the ground is so dynamic that it's hard for big structures to follow through and adapt quickly. One of the things big structures need to do is acknowledge their difficulty to adapt and recognise that civil society movements worldwide are becoming increasingly less formalised. On the other hand, for informal groups it is also hard to adjust to the formal ways of access to international civil society organisations. We don't even know the jargon or terminology. We don’t know how a letter to the UN should be structured. There may be a need for capacity building in that regard. It might help if we were shown how to identify and reach out to the right people in the right places, and if we had help in building networks and identifying similarities and parallels that could serve as a basis for dialogue.

  • Civic space in Angola is rated as ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor, indicating serious restrictions in the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression.
  • Get in touch with Luaty Beirão through his Facebook page, or follow @LuatyBeirao on Twitter.

 

‘The idea that a certain group does not belong in a country is instrumental in enabling discrimination and persecution against it’

CIVICUS speaks to Susannah Sirkin, director of international policy and partnerships and senior advisor with Physicians for Human Rights (PHR). Founded in 1986, PHR uses medicine and science to document and call attention to mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. PHR’s work focuses on the physical and psychological effects of torture and sexual violence, the forensic documentation of attacks on civilians, the unnecessary and excessive use of force during civil unrest, and the protection of medical institutions and health professionals working on the frontline of human rights crises. Sirkin oversees PHR’s international policy engagement, including its work with the United Nations, domestic and international justice systems, and human rights coalitions, and is also responsible for managing and multiplying PHR’s strategic partnerships globally.

1. What is the current situation of the Rohingya people in Myanmar’s Rakhine state and in the refugee camps in Bangladesh?

The situation is absolutely desperate and devastating, both inside Myanmar, as far as anybody can tell, and in Bangladesh, as the world is able to see on television. Essentially, what we have witnessed over the past six months – although this has been building up for years – is what the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) has referred to as possible genocide, and what most organisations concerned with international law and human rights have denounced as crimes against humanity. Dozens of Rohingya villages have been burnt to the ground, forcing people to flee on long journeys through the jungle to reach a very precarious situation in Bangladesh. People fleeing have been pursued and attacked with guns and other weapons not just by the military but also by civilian members of the Burmese population.

In Bangladesh, refugees are living in incredibly overcrowded, under-resourced, and dangerous camps – it’s hardly fair to even call them “camps,” although the situation has improved a bit over the past couple of months. More than 620,000 Rohingya, about half the population, have so far fled Rakhine state, and they have nowhere else to go. So they are forced to stay on a very small piece of land in one of the poorest and already most densely populated countries in the world. There have already been outbreaks of infectious diseases, and given the problems of overcrowding and lack of basic hygiene and sanitation, which my own team at Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) has recently reported, it is possible for infectious diseases to spread rapidly and with lethal results.

Essentially, the world has witnessed the virtual destruction of a culture, a community and a portion of the Burmese population. Myanmar and Bangladesh have recently reached an agreement for the Rohingya to return to Myanmar, but nobody really believes such an agreement can be implemented under the present circumstances. In the first place, refugees shouldn’t be sent back to Myanmar unless citizenship and basic rights are guaranteed. In the second, the provisions in the agreement involve Rohingya providing documents according to citizenship laws that don’t recognise them as citizens. This is obviously hugely problematic. What’s more, they have no homes to return to, as their villages have been burned, their lands and cattle seized by their non-Muslim neighbours, and many in their families and communities killed. There have also been very serious reports of mass rapes of women and girls, as well as killings of babies and young children, so the situation couldn’t be worse on any count.

2. Why is the Rohingya minority being specifically targeted?

There’s a long history of discrimination and persecution of minority groups in Myanmar, not only of the Rohingya but also of the Chin, Kachin, Karen, and Shan minorities. PHR has documented the persecution of ethnic minorities in Myanmar for a decade, and other human rights groups have done it long before us.

Historically, it has been a problem for people who are not Burmese to live in Burma or Myanmar. There is a hyper-nationalist strain among both the population and the country’s leadership, and, on top of this, the country has lived for decades under a military dictatorship that persecuted not only the political opposition but also ethnic and religious minorities.

Myanmar has failed to recognise diversity and human rights for all its population. The Rohingya, a Muslim minority in a country that has a Buddhist majority, have long been deprived of their citizenship and treated as if they were illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Many Rohingya have lived in Rakhine state for several generations, well over a hundred years, and belong in Myanmar as much as anybody else. However, in the latest census they were not counted among Burmese minorities but rather as foreigners lacking the protections that citizens receive under the law.

The idea that a certain group does not belong in a country is instrumental in enabling discrimination and persecution against it. A few years ago, PHR released a report on the burning of Muslim homes in Buddhist-dominated areas of Myanmar. We documented a well-known massacre in the town of Meikhtila, where police and security officials stood by and watched as local population burned houses and people alive. These actions had long been encouraged by racist and anti-Muslim rhetoric, fuelled by a few very charismatic Buddhist monks that had much influence with the population.

Before the 2015 crackdown and subsequent crisis, more than one million Rohingya lived in Myanmar, most of them in Rakhine state. Their relationship with their Buddhist neighbours had been tense for quite some time, and outbreaks of violence had been relatively frequent in the past. The current crisis broke out in August 2017, when government forces were attacked by militants and a “clearance operation” was launched by Myanmar security forces in response. Mass expulsion of the Rohingya has since been executed under the pretence of a counter-insurgency operation, with the local population joining in burning villages and killing people. This looks like a very well-coordinated effort between officials and citizens, which is very disturbing.

In present Myanmar, the situation is compounded by the denial of human rights on multiple levels. We have recently seen a frightening crackdown on the freedom of expression in the country, and for some time the area in northern Rakhine State has been closed off to journalists. For some years now, it has been very difficult for humanitarian aid to reach the area. When a government shuts down access in such way, one can only fear the worst, because it strongly suggests that they are trying to hide something.

3. Has progressive and human rights-oriented civil society in Myanmar and Bangladesh done anything to respond to this crisis? If so, what challenges have they faced?

There have been efforts by very courageous individuals and organisations inside Myanmar, especially those representing minority groups, as well as human rights and humanitarian organisations. But it is extremely dangerous, if not impossible, to be an independent civil society voice inside Myanmar right now. For the Rohingya in Rakhine State, speaking up means sure death, and there is no access even for journalists to document what is going on in the area. So, unfortunately, even the most courageous members of civil society have been silenced by persecution.

In Bangladesh, there are a number of efforts underway, particularly by the humanitarian community, to help the refugees. But it’s not the best possible situation in terms of humanitarian response, either. The fact that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was not designated as the lead agency has been viewed negatively, although there has been strong coordination between the International Organization for Migration and UNHCR. In any case, the refugee influx has been overwhelming and the early response was insufficient. Moreover, this is happening in a challenging environment, and we need to understand that such an influx of refugees can be nothing but overwhelming for a country like Bangladesh – which makes an adequate international response all the more important.

4. You mentioned that the area where the atrocities are occurring is closed to journalists and civil society. What challenges have PHR and similar organisations faced in documenting the abuses?

The number one challenge is that human rights groups can’t get into Myanmar. It is therefore extremely difficult to do what we are supposed to do in terms of properly and independently documenting and assessing the facts inside the country where the crimes have occurred. The prohibition not only applies to human rights civil society organisations – representatives of the UNHCHR and the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar have also been barred from visiting the country. On the other hand, entry was allowed for the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, who was able to interview survivors and confirm reports of atrocities.

As we lack access to Myanmar, we have instead documented what has happened to this people by interviewing them in Bangladesh. Thankfully, human rights groups and humanitarian organisations have had access to refugee camps, and this has been critical to documenting the plight of the Rohingya and their current humanitarian situation, and reporting on it. Doing this in the middle of a huge humanitarian crisis poses specific challenges. We are basically interviewing survivors who are desperately in need of trauma recovery, medical care, shelter, food, water, sanitation, and information about their missing family members. We have interviewed people who lost everybody in their families and are the sole survivors; people who have seen their homes burned to the ground, who had family members raped and shot dead, who were shot at even while crossing the river to get to Bangladesh. Documenting these kinds of human rights violations is certainly challenging for the person that is being interviewed, but it is also challenging for the one doing the reporting, because the need is so intense and the trauma is so acute – and we are a medically-based organisation, after all.

5. What support should the international community offer to resolve this crisis?

First, what most urgently requires a response from global governments is the humanitarian crisis unfolding on the ground in Bangladesh, in order to meet the most desperate needs of the refugees.

Second, there is a need for governments of the most powerful countries with influence on the Myanmar government – including China, which has consistently supported the government – to exert pressure so Myanmar immediately stops persecuting this population and gives them the citizenship and associated guarantees that they are due.

It is important to note that there have been high expectations regarding the role of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who is now Myanmar’s nominal head of state, and her apparent lack of concern and acknowledgment of what her government has been doing have been very concerning. On one hand, we need to understand that she has limited control over the country’s military forces enacting the brutal campaign against the Rohingya. On the other hand, however, the international community needs to send Suu Kyi a strong message, since so much of the Burmese population views her as a leader and a hero, and her voice could change the tenor of this crisis – it could turn the population away from prejudice, discrimination, and persecution of the Rohingya and other minorities.

Third, there needs to be credible efforts to establish accountability and justice. This is critical, given the seriousness of the crimes that have been committed. Unfortunately, efforts to refer the crimes in Myanmar to the International Criminal Court for assessment have been blocked by China, among others.

Finally, it is also crucial to confront the flaws of the repatriation agreement, so that anybody who chooses to return to Myanmar is able to do so safely and with guarantees for all their human rights, including the right to reclaim their land, property, livelihood, and employment, as well as to practice their religion freely and safely. On the other hand, those who choose not to go back need to be guaranteed the right to claim asylum and find safe haven in another country. Policy-wise, the biggest challenge will be defining what will happen to these people who have fled in such high numbers.

This will not be an easy crisis to solve. Global politics are not looking particularly good at the moment. World leaders and the Security Council have many other crises to deal with, including the North Korea situation, Iran, Syria, Yemen, South Sudan, and so on. Many of us are worried that people are going to forget about this particular crisis unfolding in a remote part of the world, so it is vital to continue to call attention to these serious human rights abuses and not let the world forget that this is an ongoing humanitarian crisis. As recently as last week, we’ve seen reports of outbreaks of diphtheria, and there are fears of a cholera epidemic, which will not be easy to contain. The long-term solution to this crisis will most definitely require continuous surveillance, reporting, and action by UN bodies, regional organisations, individual governments, and civil society.

  • Civic space in Myanmar is rated as ‘repressed’ in the CIVICUS Monitor, indicating serious restrictions in the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly, and expression.
  • Get in touch with PHR through their website or Facebook page, or follow @P4HR and @susannahsirkin on Twitter

 

‘Market discourse has captured the development agenda to a point that may be incompatible with UN mandates’

CIVICUS speaks with Barbara Adams, senior policy analyst at the Global Policy Forum (GPF), an independent policy watchdog that monitors the work of the United Nations and scrutinises global policy-making. Founded in 1993 by a group of progressive scholars and activists, GPF promotes accountability and citizen participation in decisions on peace and security, social justice and international law. It does so by gathering information and circulating it through a comprehensive website, playing an active role in civil society networks and other advocacy arenas, organising meetings and conferences and publishing original research and policy papers.

1. What is driving the turn towards the private corporate sector for development funding?

To implement the 2030 Agenda, many in the international community have addressed the financing gap, proclaiming the need to go from “billions to trillions” of dollars. This has propelled a turn to the private sector, and not just the private sector - given the trillions needed - but more so the corporate sector.

According to this view and the analysis of multilateral development banks, as reflected in a 2015 report by the World Bank, the global community needs to move the discussion from billions in official development assistance to trillions in investments of all kinds, to meet the investment needed to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). While admitting that the majority of development spending happens at the national level in the form of public resources, advocates stress that the largest potential for additional funds is from private sector business, finance and investment - working in partnership with governments. Assessments, however, have not adequately addressed the accompanying policy influence,  programme distortions and undermining of the 2030 Agenda and ability to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. This has been the conclusion recently reached by the Reflection Group on the 2030 Agenda.

A related trend is the emphasis put on multi-stakeholder partnerships by some governments and United Nations (UN) agencies and the former UN Secretary-General. This has been reinforced by the 2030 Agenda, and the push for its implementation and achievement of the SDGs.

For instance, a report released in 2015 by the UN Environment Programme emphasised the need to “access private capital at scale, with banking alone managing financial assets of almost US$140 trillion and institutional investors, notably pension funds, managing over US$100 trillion, and capital markets, including bond and equities, exceeding US$100 trillion and US$73 trillion respectively.”

2. To what extent has market discourse captured the development agenda, and why has this happened?

The fact that the action phase of the ‘big three’ landmark agreements - the 2030 Agenda, the Addis Ababa Action Agenda (AAAA) and the Paris Agreement - is dominated by attracting private financing demonstrates the extent to which market discourse has captured the agenda. On a planetary scale this discourse or narrative capture continues patterns well underway at national and global levels.

Inadequate quantity and quality financing of the UN and its mandates by the member states has prompted different patterns of finance, including through philanthropists and big business. Core or un-earmarked resources have plummeted from nearly half of all resources in 1997 to less than a quarter today. According to a recent report by the UN Secretary-General, some 91 per cent of all UN development system activities in 2015 were funded with non-core and earmarked or project-based resources. A report that we published a couple of years back showed that between 1999 and 2014, total non-core resources for UN-related activities increased by 182 per cent in real terms, while core resources increased by only 14 per cent. Much of this increase has gone through a proliferating number of UN trust funds.

The growing use of trust funds - where contributions have jumped by 300 per cent over the last decade - allow donor governments and corporate interests to direct UN funding choices outside the ‘one country, one vote’ UN policy processes. This represents a substantial change in the funding architecture of the UN development system, characterised by the growing ‘bilateralisation’ of funding for multilateral aid.

The Third International Conference for Financing for Development launched the Financing for Development Business Compendium, which highlights 33 efforts aimed at mobilising business sector capital, claiming these provide “a strong indication of the broad scope of ongoing initiatives and the potential for scaling up to achieve the demands of the Sustainable Development Goals.” It also launched the Global Infrastructure Forum to bridge the “infrastructure gap.” The AAAA conference outcome document agreed that “to bridge the global infrastructure gap, including the $1 trillion to $1.5 trillion annual gap in developing countries, we will facilitate development of sustainable, accessible and resilient quality infrastructure in developing countries through enhanced financial and technical support.”

To mobilise this support, the AAAA endorsed blended finance and emphasised public-private partnerships (PPPs) as a method of high potential among the instruments of blended finance. In order to assess this potential, it called for “inclusive, open and transparent discussion when developing and adopting guidelines” for PPPs and iterated that they “should share risks, reward fairly, include clear accountability mechanisms and meet social and environmental standards.”

To date, PPPs have been more commonly executed in developed countries, as lower-income countries are less likely to attract large private investors. The extensive use of PPPs in Portugal and Spain contributed to their domestic financial crisis, yet domestic experiences are not informing the donor push for PPPs in developing countries. This is despite warnings that modalities that were unsuccessful in Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) member countries are even more unlikely to succeed in less developed countries, where cost recovery is more difficult.

At a global level, the embrace of partnerships with the business sector brings with it a number of risks, side-effects and spill-over effects that have not received careful consideration and adequate independent scrutiny regarding compatibility with UN mandates for human rights and sustainable development; and their extra-budgetary funding lines remove the global partnerships from regular review and impact assessment.

3. Are civil society actors being recognised as UN partners alongside corporate actors?

The emphasis on public-private partnerships and multi-stakeholder partnerships has technically included civil society organisations (CSOs). For example, member states have adopted mechanisms to support such engagement, such as in the resolution of the High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development and in structuring the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) as a multi-stakeholder forum (A/RES/68/1). However, this inclusion tends to be procedural and more needs to be done to recognise the expertise and experience of civil society and its contribution in enriching substance in the context for policy decisions as well as in implementation strategies and monitoring. It is essential to differentiate the classifications of non-state stakeholders, rather than lumping them together as partners, and to recognise their different mandates and commitments to the public good.

However the emphasis on multi-stakeholder partnerships tends to be driven by the funding gap issue and it favours the corporate sector.

While CSOs focus on the enabling environment for their participation in key policy streams, it is important to broaden this attention. While the embrace of partnerships continues, the UN Secretary-General’s June 2017 report, ‘Repositioning the United Nations development system to deliver on the 2030 Agenda: ensuring a better future for all’, (A/72/124) has put in motion the mandate from the Quadrennial Comprehensive Policy Review (QCPR) (A/RES/71/243) to “recalibrate and enhance other critical United Nations skill sets to match the needs of the 2030 Agenda,” and seeks “revamped capacities in partnerships and financing.”

Additionally, the UN Human Rights Council resolution establishing an Open-ended Intergovernmental Working Group on Transnational Corporations and other Business Enterprises with respect to Human Rights (OEIGWG), seeks “an international legally binding instrument to regulate, in international human rights law, the activities of transnational corporations and other business enterprises” (A/HRC/RES/26/9).

The UN General Assembly partnership resolution has been on the General Assembly’s agenda since 2000 and is the main intergovernmental framework in place to govern non-state partnerships and hold them to account. But it lacks robust reporting and implementation. Its latest iteration is ‘Towards global partnerships: a principle-based approach to enhanced cooperation between the United Nations and all relevant partners’ (A/RES/70/224). While it references for the first time the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) adopted by the UN Human Rights Council, its main emphasis continues to be the UN Global Compact’s 10 principles, which pre-date and are inadequate for the comprehensive 2030 Agenda and the SDGs.

In December 2017 the UN General Assembly adopted decision A/72/427, in which member states decided to “defer, on an exceptional basis, the consideration of the item entitled ‘Towards global partnerships’ and to include it in the provisional agenda of its seventy-third session.”

4. What can civil society do to respond to these trends?

There are a number of ways to respond, starting with an analysis and understanding of the overall context within which partnerships are promoted - the inadequate financing of the UN and its mandates by the member states. Crucial for CSOs is to assess their own situation and actions and the extent to which organisations have become passive participants in processes that are very limited, if not counter-productive to the pursuit of human rights and to strengthening the normative ability of the UN.

Another way to take action is to monitor these trends at the UN more broadly than in specific processes and siloes, and be more actively involved in the partnership resolution dynamics and the importance of championing the public interest. This will require strategic substance-led alliances, not ‘big tent’ groupings in which strategies based on substance tend to evaporate.

Additionally, it is important for civil society to undertake monitoring and to mobilise to prevent UN system activities, practices and appointments that undermine UN values-based mandates and that contradict the objectives of the 2030 Agenda.

Finally, civil society actors need to support each other to strengthen the independence of civil society monitoring, not only in developing countries but all countries. An independent civil society cannot rely only on financing through development assistance that focuses primarily on developing country policies and programmes.

 

‘If citizens are not able to recognise what is going on and mobilise, Romania will very likely join the club of ‘illiberal democracies’ of the region’

The special theme of the 2018 State of Civil Society Report will be ‘reimagining democracy’. The report will explore how citizens and civil society organisations are working to build more participatory forms of democracy, and how civil society is responding to the citizen anger and sense of disconnection that is driving more extremist and polarised politics in many countries. Ahead of publication, we’ll be interviewing civil society activists and leaders in countries experiencing these trends. Here, CIVICUS speaks to Stefan Cibian, president of the Federation of Non-Governmental Development Organisations of Romania (FOND) and Board member of the Romanian Association for International Cooperation and Development (ARCADIA). Founded in 2006, FOND includes some of the most important civil society organisations in the country, and currently has 33 member organisations. Since its inception, it has organised capacity-building training for its members to become more active in the field of international development cooperation, volunteering and humanitarian assistance as well as landmark events for the Romanian development community, such as the Romanian Development School and for the broader region, including the Black Sea NGO Forum.

1. How would you describe the state of democracy in Romania? Has the practice of democracy changed over the past few years?

I would describe the current state of democracy in Romania as worrying. In essence, there used to be a positive trend at the grassroots level, where individuals and communities came to life after the treacherous totalitarian regime that lasted until 1989. More recently, however, the political mood has reverted back towards the totalitarian practices of before 1989. This is unfortunately part of a broader trend, with several countries in the region being led by democratically elected leaders who are, in essence, destroying or undermining the democratic systems that brought them to power. Country after country in Central and Eastern Europe - and not only in that region - are following the same approach: Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Russia, Turkey and now Romania.

In Romania’s case the practice of democracy had improved over the past decades. The positive side includes, or rather included, a strengthened judiciary with an increasingly efficient anti-corruption agency, that until now managed to increase respect for public assets; a media landscape with some weaknesses in terms of ownership structure and politicisation, but nevertheless is free and diversified; an increasingly stronger civil society with grassroots movements that give life to broadly disempowered communities; and an increasingly empowered citizenry that expresses itself through mass protests and online, as well as through community engagement, increased donations and participating in sporting activities. This trend is made possible by a new generation shaped by access to information and technology – a generation that has partially different aims and behaves fundamentally differently from its predecessors.

Romanian democracy faces, however, challenges that are similar to those faced by many countries experiencing an externally-assisted democratisation process. Its most important weakness relates to its citizens’ capacity to fulfil their constitutional mandate. While democratic systems place power in the hands of citizens, democratisation processes to date have largely ignored the capacity of citizens to make good use of the power they possess (including the way a citizen votes, decides to be involved and holds political leaders and state institutions to account). The key problem is a lack of critical thinking and abilities to put into practice the rights offered by democratic constitutions. Understandably, if they are not able to live and practise the freedoms brought about by democracy, citizens are not going to defend their democratic system, whenever needed.

A set of other challenges relate to inherent weaknesses in the sustainability of organised civil society. Democratisation driven by donors’ assistance has not generated any sustainable organised civil society in terms of resources, nor in terms of connection to the governmental sphere, or indeed, often to local communities.

A last set of challenges relate to the party system. Rather than holding to democratic principles, the parties that emerged after the Communist period in Romania function as mechanisms to capture the state for various private or even illegal interests.

2. Is Romanian civil society currently able to fully contribute to democratic governance?

I would say it is partially able to do so. While protests have made a positive contribution over the past few years, the democratic system has been significantly altered when it comes to the relations between civil society and political parties or state institutions. With the exception of some new parties born out of civil society initiatives, relations between political parties and society are not yet embodying democratic principles. Parties attempt to control society, not to represent it, and civil society is weak in terms of organisation and its ability to articulate common interests, while keeping a distance from the main political parties. Therefore, in the way the current system works, it is unlikely that civil society will be able to contribute fully to democratic governance.

3. What triggered the anti-corruption demonstrations that took place earlier in 2017? What fuelled them, and why did they continue after the government rolled back the decree that motivated them in the first place?

There are two key aspects here: first, the dynamics were not only about corruption, but also about the type of power that is deployed along with it. Second, the word we live in is being fundamentally transformed by technology, which is creating societal needs that cannot be catered for by current organisational models. This poses fundamental challenges to the way in which our societies are organised. Whether we talk about civil society, political or business organisations, those changes are taking us towards a new world that exposes new ways of being and living.

In Romania’s case, protests have been about corruption, but they have also been about much more – a fundamental lack of trust in political parties and core institutions, which are de jure but not de facto democratic. Protests have continued for a good reason, as recent laws passed by the Romanian parliament, including new regulations on civil society organisations (CSOs), and emergency decrees issued by the Romanian government, have indicated that public institutions are being used to dismantle democracy and limit the space for civil society. Therefore, the aim is not corruption; corruption is just the means. The true aim is to hold control over society, and gaining discretionary power over resources is necessary in that regard. That is also the reason why, although the government’s reactions to citizens exercising their right to protest was soft at the beginning, there has been a growing tendency for the government to intervene to limit protests, spark violence, and then use that violence as an excuse for repression.

4. Would you say a full-fledged anti-corruption movement has emerged from the protests?

No. What this year’s mobilisations have produced is, on one hand, an increasing number of angry people, and on the other a growing number of disempowered people. Established CSOs have played a role in the protests, but up to now it has been a marginal one. Their ability to mobilise citizens, or even to coordinate amongst themselves, has remained alarmingly low.

While some connections have been established with like-minded mobilisations in other parts of the world, these have taken place mostly at an inspirational level, and for very few of those involved.

For the time being, the 2017 mobilisations have only succeeded in postponing the ruling party’s plans, which are now being rolled out through parliament. Citizen reactions, on the other hand, are now far from the strength that they had at the beginning of 2017.

This is a crucial moment for Romanian democracy. If citizens are able to recognise what is going on and they mobilise, they will be able to protect their rights and re-establish a democratic system. If they do not, Romania will very likely join the club of ‘illiberal democracies’ of the region.

  • Civic space in Romania is rated as ‘narrowed’ in the CIVICUS Monitor, indicating the existence of some restrictions on the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression
  • Get in touch with FOND through their website or Facebook page, and contact ARCADIA through their webpage, or follow @stefancibian and @FONDRomania on Twitterdemocracy 

 

‘Even the most progressive UN agencies have become vulnerable to the threat of corporate capture; fortunately, there are precedents of the UN tackling this kind of challenge’

As the 2017 State of Civil Society Report identified, private sector influence on international governance is an increasing civil society concern. CIVICUS speaks on this issue with Thea Gelbspan, Membership and Solidarity Director at ESCR-Net – the International Network for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. ESCR-Net is a collaborative initiative of groups - grassroots organisations, social movements, civil society organisations and academic centres - as well as individuals from around the world working to secure economic and social justice through human rights. With over 280 members in 75 countries, ESCR-Net seeks to strengthen all human rights, with an emphasis on economic, social and cultural rights, and further develop the tools for achieving their promotion, protection and fulfilment. ESCR-Net members engage in mutual learning and exchange, deepen solidarity, enter into collaborations and join collective work in efforts to build a global movement to make human rights and social justice a reality for all.

1. What are the current major trends in private sector partnerships with the United Nations system, particularly with regards to Agenda 2030?

All agencies and offices of the United Nations (UN) are subject to frameworks that the UN system adopts and operates under, including the last of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), SDG 17, to revitalise the global partnership for sustainable development. That goal clearly states that its “sustainable development agenda requires partnerships between governments, the private sector and civil society.” Moreover, it cites an urgent need for action to “unlock the transformative power of trillions of dollars of private resources.” Through Goal 17, the UN system has, regrettably, enshrined a mandate for its various agencies and operations to explore partnerships with companies and private investors. The UN Secretary-General's Guidelines for a Principle-Based Approach to Cooperation between the United Nations and the Business Sector, adopted in 2000, also detail the UN’s internal rules and procedures and have provided further guidance that directs this trend.

In the face of these developments, ESCR-Net members have expressed a growing concern about what they have termed the corporate capture of UN processes and institutions. Corporate capture refers to the means by which an economic elite undermines the realisation of our human rights and our environment by exerting undue influence over decision-makers and public institutions, in domestic and international spheres. Softening regulations, weakening regulatory powers, bankrolling elections, utilising state security services against local communities, causing judicial interference and implementing revolving-door employment practices are just some of the instances of corporate capture that ESCR-Net members have tracked.

We are concerned that even the most progressive UN agencies and offices have become vulnerable to the threat of corporate capture. For example, on 16 May 2017 the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) announced a new five-year partnership with Microsoft, consisting of a US$5 million grant, plus a commitment of pro-bono assistance to the OHCHR. After an exchange between the ESCR-Net Secretariat and the OHCHR, on 17 October 2017 the members of ESCR-Net’s Corporate Accountability Working Group sent a letter to raise concern regarding the actual or perceived effect that this partnership will have on the OHCHR’s independence.

2. What do you think is motivating partnerships, both from the private sector and UN viewpoints?

The UN Charter establishes that its member states are fiscally responsible for UN activity expenses (Chapter IV, article 17.2). Yet, as many UN member states fail to fulfil their obligations in terms of member dues and the overall financing of agreed-upon priority activities, a worrying gap has emerged that the private sector is now seeking to fill. Similarly, in the face of a substantial crisis in terms of public development financing, we have witnessed the whole-hearted embrace of public-private partnerships across the UN system, with a notable deficit in terms of critical assessments of this model.

3. What are the implications of this on the space for civil society participation at the international and local levels?

Human rights defenders (HRDs) play a critical role in identifying, mitigating, exposing and ensuring accountability for the adverse human rights and environmental impacts associated with some corporate activity and development projects. Yet all too often, governments have criminalised legitimate activity to defend and promote human rights and corporate accountability. We have witnessed a series of attacks, harassment, restrictions, intimidation, reprisals (including arbitrary arrest and detention), disappearances, judicial harassment, torture and killings of HRDs confronting human rights abuses that derive from private sector activity. Too often the application of restrictive or vague laws - such as those relating to national security, counter-terrorism, and defamation - inhibit the work of HRDs at the behest of private sector interests. Business actors also have been known to interfere with access to information and communication, financial freedom and trade union activities undertaken by HRDs.

Unfortunately, as the UN system has forged more and more partnerships with private sector interests, the ability of its human rights mechanisms to uphold universally recognised standards effectively with actors who do not believe that such standards apply to them could be compromised, as could the system’s ability to provide protection for HRDs at risk.

To counter these trends, ESCR-Net members have called on states to recognise and support the leadership and contributions made by communities affected by business-related abuses and generate sustainable economic and development models that align with human rights and minimise environmental impacts. In order to create an enabling environment for the defence of economic, social and cultural rights, states must mandate human rights and environmental due diligence, including project assessment, implementation, monitoring and evaluation, and ensure the rights of people affected, or potentially affected, by corporate activity to participate actively, freely and meaningfully in those processes.

4. What can be done in the face of these challenges?

I think that a challenge of this magnitude truly requires collective efforts - across borders and regions - to confront these trends and elevate alternative approaches to advancing sustainable development that promote an environment that is friendly to human rights and those who defend those rights.

This model of work can prove to be quite effective. For example, the ESCR-Net Corporate Accountability Working Group (CAWG) was central to the advocacy that led to the UN Human Rights Council’s creation of an Open-Ended Intergovernmental Working Group on Transnational Corporations and Other Business Enterprises (IGWG) to begin drafting a binding treaty on transnational corporations and human rights. As part of this work, CAWG participants in three regional consultations and strategy meetings repeatedly raised the issue of corporate capture, as well as the possibility of using the UN process, and the international attention it attracts, to confront this trend at the national level.

Now, as the negotiations within the IGWG have progressed, ESCR-Net members are calling attention to the risk of corporate capture of the binding treaty process itself and advocating for clear lines to be respected in terms of private sector participation.

This is not the first time the UN system has grappled with the threat of undue influence that corporations or industry sectors may exert over the very treaties or bodies that are supposed to regulate corporate practices. The World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control contains an explicit recognition that establishes the tobacco industry’s irreconcilable conflict of interest in public health matters. Its article 5.3 states: “In setting and implementing their public health policies with respect to tobacco control, Parties shall act to protect these policies from commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry in accordance with national law.” Accordingly, precedents exist. We can insist on clear lines that keep private sector interests out of spaces that are not appropriate for their participation.

In any accord, human rights are clear, universally accepted and non-negotiable standards that imply clear obligations for states and, progressively, responsibilities for non-state actors including those from the private sector. ESCR-Net understands human rights to transcend the UN system and the purview of law, being derived, essentially, from long legacies of struggles by social movements and communities for a life of dignity. We must stand together to support these values that we share, in the face of ongoing efforts to turn public affairs over to market forces. Together with CIVICUS and other important civil society networks, ESCR-Net envisions a world where all people can enjoy human rights and social justice.

Get in touch with ESCR-Net through their website or Facebook page, or follow @ESCRNet on Twitter.

 

Armenia: ‘For the quality of democracy to improve, judicial independence must be guaranteed and labour rights need further protection’

Elections held in Armenia in 2017 resulted in the ruling party holding onto power, but were marred by allegations of fraud, including vote-buying and misuse of state resources. CIVICUS speaks to Artur Sakunts, chairman of Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly - Vanadzor Office (HCA Vanadzor), a non-political, non-religious and not-for-profit civil society organisation that seeks to advance the values of human rights, democracy, tolerance and pluralism in Armenia. HCA Vanadzor works in the areas of research, dissemination, litigation, training, lobbying, campaigning and the promotion of public debate.

1. How would you describe the current state of democracy and human rights in Armenia?

Since 2013, human rights and democracy have considerably regressed in Armenia. The constitutional referendum, held in 2015, and elections to the National Assembly and Yerevan City Council in 2017 were marked by fraud and procedural violations. As a result of the constitutional referendum, Armenia changed from a semi-presidential to a parliamentary republic, and the changes began to be implemented during the 2017 elections. The new parliamentary system strengthened the dominant position of the Republican Party, which is the main party, and the power of its leader. A number of opposition figures have suffered and still suffer persecution. Any demonstration of civic activism has faced a harsh reaction and pressure by law enforcement agencies, and the space for civil society organisations (CSOs) and civil society initiatives has further shrunk. Additionally, the Four Day War with Azerbaijan in April 2016 led to a large loss of human lives and exposed the country's vulnerability to external threats. All these processes have occurred in an atmosphere of impunity. Meanwhile, the steps towards reform taken by the authorities have been reactive or aimed at solving problems by increasing the social burden on citizens rather than by making systemic changes.

In December 2015, a new phase of negotiations was launched between Armenia and the European Union (EU). The Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement was initialled in March 2017 and eventually signed in November 2017. However, the unpredictable behaviour of the Armenian authorities creates uncertainty in terms of the expected developments in EU-Armenia relations, even after the agreement has been signed.

2. Have recent changes in CSO regulations affected civil society’s ability to contribute to democratic governance?

On 16 December 2016, after long-held discussions, the Law on Non-Governmental Organisations was adopted, entitling CSOs to represent the public interest in court, albeit only in the field of environmental protection. It should be noted, however, that in its ruling of 7 September 2010, the Armenian Constitutional Court recognised the right of CSOs to represent the public interest in national courts without any limitation.

Another risk associated with the Law on Non-Governmental Organisations was that it initially prescribed state supervision over the financial activity of all CSOs. However, as a result of public debate, this requirement was eventually prescribed only for state-funded CSOs.

In short, contrary to expectations, the new regulations ended up being a positive development for civil society.

3. What is the environment like for human rights defenders in Armenia?

In early 2016 a well-known human rights defender, Karen Andreasyan, stepped down as Armenia’s Human Rights Ombudsman without providing any reasons. It should be noted that in the autumn of 2015, during the presentation of his annual report to the National Assembly, Andreasyan was strongly criticised and personally insulted by Republican Party deputies. His resignation exposed the vulnerability of the Human Rights Ombudsman’s office. In December 2013 Andreasyan had published a well-substantiated report on the spread of corruption in courts and the lack of independence of judges, which was harshly criticised by the Prosecutor General's Office, the Republican faction of the National Assembly and several judges. None of the concerns raised by the report on the state of the judiciary have been considered or examined.

Following the National Assembly’s appointment of a new Human Rights Ombudsman, the concentration of oversight and protection mechanisms over different fields of human rights, including children’s rights and the rights of persons with disabilities, has increasingly raised serious concerns. Along with such centralisation, space for other human rights institutions is becoming more limited and the variety of human rights protection mechanisms is being reduced. Given that since the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office was introduced, all Ombudsmen have resigned before the end of their term under pressure from political and executive powers, the concentration of protection mechanisms in the hands of a single person makes the Human Rights Ombudsman and human rights protection mechanisms extremely vulnerable.

In early July 2016, an armed opposition group known as Sasna Tsrer seized a police station and took hostages. As Sasna Tsrer members underwent trial, significant restrictions were imposed on various stakeholders engaged with the Human Rights Ombudsman’s office, and particularly on attorneys and on the public monitoring group on penitentiary institutions. Before Sasna Tsrer’s surrender, members of the Group of Public Observers Conducting Public Monitoring in Penitentiary Institutions and Bodies of the Ministry of Justice were illegally banned from meeting Zhirayr Sefilyan, a political prisoner detained at the Vardashen penitentiary institution. Later, members of the Group of Public Observers were also banned from meeting Sasna Tsrer members detained at the Nubarashen penitentiary institution, after information was aired that on 28 June 2017 Sasna Tsrer members had been subjected to violence at the General Jurisdiction Court of the Avan and Nor Nork administrative districts.

It should be also noted that during the former Minister of Justice’s tenure, draft regulations were put forward suggesting that any new members of the Group of Public Observers would need to be confirmed by the Ministry of Justice, although the Group's Charter states that new members only need to be accepted by the Group itself. The draft regulation was rejected, but it was an attempt to restrict the activities and independence of the Group of Public Observers. The current Human Rights Ombudsman has not reacted in any way to this attempt, which is yet further evidence of the dangers of concentrating human rights defence mechanisms.

Illegal attempts were made to search the defence attorneys of Sasna Tsrer members before they entered the courtroom. As the attorneys resisted those searches, the court adopted a tactic of imposing sanctions on the attorneys and replacing them with public defenders, which posed a risk of substantially reducing the protection of Sasna Tsrer members. The legal community also faces pressures through disciplinary proceedings initiated against lawyers on suspicious grounds. An added challenge is the behaviour of the Bar Association, which imposes its own disciplinary sanctions on individual attorneys. The Bar Association’s chairman has openly argued against laws preventing domestic violence and has repeatedly made homophobic statements.

The environment has also been unfavourable for journalists, including legislative restrictions and physical attacks, particularly during protests, as well as legal actions meant to silence them.

4. How have the authorities responded to peaceful protests over the years?

President Serzh Sargsyan's second term in office, which began in 2013, has been marked by increasing civic activism, which has in turn been suppressed by the police and other state bodies. Citizens’ protests have mostly been related to various issues of public or social significance, particularly transportation and electricity price hikes, the introduction of a mandatory funded pension system, the dismantling and destruction of cultural monuments and environmental issues.

On 2 December 2013, the day of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s state visit to Armenia, a large number of citizens held protests in Yerevan, the capital, against Armenia joining the Eurasian Customs Union and Eurasian Economic Union. The police dispersed the protests using violence and apprehended 110 peaceful protesters, who were kept in police stations for eight hours without access to legal assistance.

The summer of 2015 was marked by the so-called ‘Electric Yerevan’ protests against the hike in electricity prices, which lasted almost two weeks. On 23 June 2015 at 5am, the police used water cannons to disperse a peaceful sit-in on Baghramyan Avenue. Using physical violence, the police apprehended around 240 protesters and attacked 21 journalists, damaging their equipment. Following the police violence, the number of sit-in participants dramatically rose, but at the end of June 2015 protesters split up as some of them obeyed police warnings and moved to Liberty Square. The number of sit-in participants on Baghramyan Avenue gradually decreased, and on 6 July 2015 the police eventually dispersed the demonstration. Criminal proceedings were initiated, against both protesters and police officers that used violence against them. Four police officers faced charges for using violence against journalists, but none has so far been held liable for the violence.

In July 2016, following the Sasna Tsrer incident, a series of mass protests was held in Khorenatsi Street and Liberty Square in Yerevan, and the police again used violence against the demonstrators. Hundreds of people were illegally apprehended and the protests were brutally dispersed through excessive force. According to official data, between 17 July and 4 August 2016, 775 people were arrested. On 20 and 29 July 2016 police used unprecedented violence against protesters; as a result, several protesters and journalists received serious bodily injuries. For the first time in the entire history of the Republic of Armenia, protesters were violently taken to the Police Internal Troops barracks and illegally deprived of their freedom. Many people compared this with the situation in Chile in 1973 when dictator Augusto Pinochet kept people captive in a football stadium.

As a rule, no police officer that uses violence against protesters or violates their rights in any way are held accountable, while protesters are liable for administrative and criminal offences. In this regard, it should be noted that in 2012 a Police Disciplinary Commission was created with a provision allowing for the inclusion of representatives from five CSOs. The Disciplinary Commission’s membership and procedures were decided by the government. However, through a decree issued on 31 March 2016, the government handed this power over to the Chief of Police. This change may lead to a conflict of interests and to a further reduction of the Commission’s independence.

5. Have any civil society freedoms been restricted around the 2017 elections?

The new draft Electoral Code resulting from the constitutional amendments first became available on 22 February 2016 on the official website of the Venice Commission (the Council of Europe’s advisory body on constitutional matters), in English. Its Armenian version was posted on the Armenian government’s website no sooner than 3 March 2016.

Unlike what had happened with the draft constitutional amendments and the initial draft of the Electoral Code, which had been prepared within a narrow pro-government circle, wider participation was ensured during the further amendment of the Electoral Code. At the suggestion of Levon Zurabyan, a deputy with an opposition party, the Armenian National Congress, negotiations on the draft Electoral Code started between the ruling party, the political opposition and civil society in a 4+4+4 format. As a result, the Electoral Code included a number of recommendations, mostly of an administrative nature, put forward by the opposition and civil society. However, the authorities made no concessions on issues of political significance or that would affect the distribution of power in the parliament to be formed. It should be noted that civil society members took part in the negotiations only at the initial stage and refused to sign the agreements that were eventually reached by the government and the opposition.

The Electoral Code adopted in May 2016 imposed significant restrictions on observers and mass media representatives. In particular, the Code gave precinct electoral commissions the right to set a maximum number of observers and mass media representatives allowed at a polling station. The Code set a requirement for election observation organisations to have had a provision on human rights and democracy in their statutory goals for at least the past year and imposed an accreditation requirement for mass media, allowing for only a limited number of representatives. As a result, a media outlet may have a maximum of 50 representatives throughout the country. The new Electoral Code also stipulates that commission members may remove observers, mass media representatives and proxies from a polling station by a vote.

It is noteworthy that the Electoral Code considers CSOs as the main entities engaged in civic oversight and particularly in electoral observation, but it gives them no right to appeal against the actions or inactions of electoral commissions, or election results, or to file any other complaints.

The Code extended the voting population, as the right to vote was granted to persons who have committed crimes of minor and medium gravity and have served their sentences, and to persons doing military study abroad; however, the rest of the approximately 450,000 to 500,000 Armenian nationals living abroad were not granted the opportunity to vote.

As a result of amendments passed a few months later, the Electoral Code also provided for the publication of signed voter lists, something that the opposition and civil society had been demanding for years. Citizens were given the right to file an application for voter impersonation cases, although the Armenian Criminal Code included an article on false statements regarding such applications. According to the Central Electoral Commission’s report, only one person filed an application on voter impersonation in the context of the National Assembly elections of 2 April 2017. Among other reasons, this might have been due to the relevant article of the Criminal Code, though it is widely held that the number of cases of multiple voting or voter impersonation during the elections was not considerable, and the authorities mostly distorted the election through the abuse of administrative resources and vote-buying.

During the National Assembly elections of 2 April 2017 and the Yerevan City Council elections of 14 May 2017, widespread abuses were identified that took the form of fake observation. The Central Electoral Commission accredited around 28,000 observers from 49 organisations to observe the National Assembly elections. The overwhelming majority of those observers acted at polling stations mostly as proxies representing the interests of the Republican Party or the Tsarukyan Bloc, which came second in the election.

6. What needs to change for the quality of democracy to improve in Armenia?

First, more protection of labour rights is needed in both the government and business sectors, where rights are not protected. This was explicitly revealed during the recent elections. At the same time, the independence of the business sector and the protection of their rights from the ruling elites should be ensured as well.

The second important issue is judicial independence from executive power. Control of the judiciary is the main tool that the government uses to reinforce impunity, and this is an obstacle for the effective protection of citizens and civil society groups.

  • Civic space in Armenia is rated as ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor, indicating the existence of significant restrictions on civil society rights.
  • Get in touch with HCA Vanadzor through their website or Facebook page, or follow @HCAVanadzor on Twitter

 

Making progress, preventing regress: civil society at the Human Rights Council

We asked Phil Lynch, Director of International Service for Human Rights, to look back at the past year’s experience of civil society engagement with the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. His perspective provides a brief overview and analysis of civil society engagement and advocacy at the Council in 2017, while also offering some reflections on opportunities to strengthen the Council and make it more accessible, effective and protective for human rights defenders and victims of violations.

1. What is the significance of the UN Human Rights Council for civil society?

The work of human rights defenders has perhaps never been more important nor more imperilled. As space closes at the national level – from China to Egypt, from Russia to Venezuela, and from Burundi to the Philippines – more and more defenders are seeking to use the international human rights system to expose violations, to push for accountability, to obtain justice and protection, and as a lever to increase pressure for national-level change.

The UN Human Rights Council in Geneva is a key mechanism for civil society in this regard, meeting three times per year in ordinary session, convening special sessions on crises and emergencies, and overseeing both the Universal Periodic Review and the work of Special Procedures (the UN’s independent human rights experts).

2. What were the major advances and challenges in Geneva in 2017 for human rights monitoring and accountability?

For many civil society actors, the decision made by consensus at the 36th session of the Council in September to establish an independent investigative body on the conflict in Yemen was the highlight of 2017, albeit a decision that should have been made at least two years earlier in line with calls by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. The body – comprising eminent international and regional experts – is mandated to investigate war crimes and other violations perpetrated by all parties to the conflict, with a view to both promoting accountability and deterring future abuses. Such crimes include the bombing of civilians, torture and enforced disappearances, the use of landmines and cluster bombs, and the denial of access to food, water and humanitarian aid, among other gross deprivations. The adoption of the resolution followed sustained advocacy by a coalition of over 60 international, regional and Yemeni human rights civil society organisations (CSOs), complemented by principled leadership by a group of states led by the Netherlands, together with Belgium, Canada, Ireland and Luxembourg. Significant in its own right, the adoption of the resolution also sent a strong message to the likes of Saudi Arabia that membership of the Human Rights Council is not a guarantee against scrutiny by that body and may even expose a country to heightened international attention.

While the Yemen resolution came at least two years too late, the Council did act more quickly, albeit not preventatively, in relation to gross human rights violations in Myanmar. It established a Fact-Finding Mission at its 34th session in March, extended the mandate of that Mission at its 36th session in September, and then convened a special session on the situation in early December. The special session was significant, with the call for the session initiated by Bangladesh with strong support from other members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation – states better known for championing principles of sovereignty and non-interference than those of accountability and justice. It remains to be seen, however, whether this is a posture particular to the ethnic and religious dynamics of the situation. To date, the government of Myanmar has refused to cooperate with the Fact-Finding Mission, demonstrating the need for such mechanisms to be complemented and supported by other actors with leverage, such as states and multinational enterprises with business, trade and investment interests in the country.

While action on Yemen and Myanmar were significant positive developments, the year was also marked by inaction on a range of other serious situations of concern, with the Council failing to address gross and systematic violations in states including Bahrain, China, Egypt, the Philippines, Turkey and Venezuela, to name just a few. This is despite the situations in those countries manifestly meeting the objective criteria for action committed to by a group of more than 50 states through joint statements led by Ireland in 2016 and the Netherlands in 2017. Lack of state leadership and political will – rather than any lack of information, capacity or tools – remain the greatest impediments to the Council’s effectiveness.

3. What are the trends in civil society space and participation at the Human Rights Council?

Countering the global trend, CSOs partnered both to prevent regress and achieve some progress in protecting defenders and combating reprisals at the Council in 2017.

Against the backdrop of what the UN’s independent expert has described as an “unprecedented attack” on defenders, in March the Council adopted a Norwegian-led consensus resolution extending the mandate of the Special Rapporteur. In November, the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly similarly adopted a resolution on defenders, although the consensus masked fractures, with China disassociating itself from a paragraph that referred to the work of defenders as “legitimate.” More positively, the General Assembly resolution was co-sponsored by states from all regions, including a number of African states – such as Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire and Mali – that have not been traditional co-sponsors but have taken recent national law initiatives towards the protection of defenders.

Acts of intimidation and reprisals against human rights defenders, victims and others who seek to cooperate with the UN violate not only the rights of the individuals concerned, but amount to an assault on civil society and a rules-based international order. Seen this way, a September report by the UN Secretary-General that found evidence of “a strategy on the part of some states to prevent the activities of individuals providing information or otherwise cooperating with the United Nations” is profoundly disturbing. The report highlighted that the incidence of reprisals is becoming “broader,” and the “means used increasingly blunt.” It identified cases of travel bans in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia; the freezing of CSO assets in Egypt; intimidation of human rights defenders in India and Myanmar; torture of defenders in Burundi and Egypt; arbitrary detention of defenders in China, the United Arab Emirates and Uzbekistan; and the killing of defenders in Honduras, among others. Spurred by this report, together with the strategic advocacy of CSOs, the Council adopted a significant but contested resolution on reprisals in September – the first such resolution since 2013.

The resolution – led by core group comprising Fiji, Ghana, Hungary, Ireland and Uruguay – affirmed the right of all people to safe and unhindered access to and communication with international human rights bodies. It also mandated the Council to hold a dedicated dialogue to address acts of intimidation and reprisals and affirmed the particular responsibilities of the Council’s members, president and vice-presidents to investigate and promote accountability for such acts. The holding of a dedicated dialogue within the Council will increase the visibility of acts of intimidation and reprisals, provide a platform to denounce and seek accountability for such acts, and increase the political cost for perpetrators

Prior to the vote on the resolution, 50 CSOs from all over the world called on member states to reject 19 hostile amendments led by China, Egypt, India, Russia and Venezuela. Perhaps not coincidentally, each of those states has been accused of perpetrating reprisals by the UN Secretary-General and UN experts in recent years. Despite these hostile efforts, the ultimate adoption of a strong, substantive resolution by an overwhelming majority sends a clear message that reprisals will not be tolerated and must end.

4. What is civil society doing to try to make the Human Rights Council more accessible, effective and protective?

The world needs a legitimate and influential high-level human rights body that is accessible, effective and protective for rights holders, defenders and victims.

In 2016, on the occasion of the Council’s 10th anniversary, a group of 20 national, regional and international CSOs, coordinated by ISHR, collaborated to develop a series of practical recommendations to strengthen the Council. 2017 saw a number of these recommendations taken up by progressive states, partly in response to a problematic US push to reform the Council, demonstrating the potential to craft opportunities from crises. Most significantly, at the 35th session of the Council in June, the Netherlands worked in close partnership with ISHR and Human Rights Watch to devise a joint statement, subsequently endorsed by almost 50 states from all regions, outlining and committing to a series of 11 measures to enhance the Council’s legitimacy and effectiveness.

Among other measures is a commitment by signatory states to strive for competitive elections to the Council and support candidates based primarily on human rights-based considerations. States that are responsible for gross and systematic human rights violations, or that refuse to cooperate fully with the UN and uphold a rules-based international order, should have no place on the Council. The ongoing Council membership of Burundi, together with the recent election of the Democratic Republic of Congo, demonstrate the imperative of operationalising this commitment.

States that signed the Dutch-led joint statement also pledged to be guided by objective and human rights-based criteria, previously elaborated in an Irish-led joint statement in 2016, in determining whether and how the Council should respond to situations of concern. Such criteria include whether the UN’s human rights experts have recommended or called for action, the extent of the country’s cooperation with the UN human rights system, and the situation of human rights defenders and other civil society actors in the country. Such an approach to triggering action at the Council has been long advocated by CSOs, and the onus is now on states to demonstrate principled leadership in applying the criteria. If a small state such as Iceland can lead a joint statement on extrajudicial killings in the Philippines, as it did at the Council’s 35th session in June, then it behoves other states that profess a commitment to human rights and their defenders to show similar resolve. CSOs have less and less patience for states that espouse a rhetorical commitment to thematic human rights issues – such as the protection of human rights defenders, the freedom of expression or peaceful assembly – but that fail to take up those issues in concrete situations where perceived political, economic or other interests may be at stake.

5. Looking ahead, what is the role of civil society in building a Council fit for purpose?

The Council approaches a critical juncture in 2018. While there is no formal review or reform process presently mandated, it is clear that the Council will have to strengthen its approach to prevention and implementation, become more streamlined and efficient in its working methods, and find ways to enhance state cooperation and adherence to membership standards if it is to be the credible and responsive human rights body the world needs.

For states that share a vision of the Council as a vital mechanism for monitoring and exposing violations, promoting accountability for perpetrators and achieving access to remedy and justice for victims, civil society must be an indispensable partner in strengthening efforts. A reform agenda motivated primarily by a desire for efficiency or devised primarily by international diplomats and think tanks will not be fit for purpose and will not respond to the real and pressing needs of rights holders, defenders and victims on the ground.

Phil Lynch is Director of the International Service for Human Rights (www.ishr.ch). Follow him on Twitter @PhilALynch.

 

Blocage de l'accès internet au Cameroun prive la société civile des ressources essentielles

English

Le Cameroun a vu l'État imposer toute une série de restrictions aux droits fondamentaux de la société civile en 2017, notamment une fermeture d'Internet de quatre mois dans les régions anglophones du pays en réponse aux protestations contre la marginalisation de ces régions. CIVICUS parle avec Maximilienne Ngo Mbe, Directrice du Réseau des Défenseurs des Droits de l’Homme de l’Afrique Centrale (REDHAC). Créé en 2007, le REDHAC est un réseau d’activistes et d’organisations de la société civile d’Afrique centrale qui compte des membres dans huit pays de la région et se concentre principalement sur la protection des droits humains fondamentaux.

  1. Comment décririez-vous l'état actuel de la démocratie au Cameroun? La pratique de la démocratie dans le pays a-t-elle changé au cours des dernières années?

La démocratie est actuellement en recul au Cameroun malgré des nombreuses structures successivement mises en place par le gouvernement pour garantir la pratique démocratique. Tels sont les cas de l’Observatoire National des Élections (ONEL), une structure indépendante de supervision et contrôle du processus électoral créé en Décembre 2000; et ses successeurs l’ONEL1 et ELECAM (Elections Cameroun) de 2006. Tous les membres d’ELECAM sont des cadres du Rassemblement Démocratique du Peuple Camerounais (RDPC), le parti au pouvoir, nommées par décret présidentiel et financés par le gouvernement. En conséquence, son impartialité n’est pas garantie.

Il y’a une décennie on observait que la pratique démocratique se mettait en place étant entendu que c’était un processus. Mais cela n’a été que de courte durée car en 2013 le président a déclaré la guerre à la secte terroriste Boko Haram qui sème la terreur à l’Extrême Nord du Cameroun. En conséquent, la démocratie a pris un coup dur, sous la forme d’une loi électorale qui ne favorise pas la transparence et l’alternance, qui n’est pas indépendante et qui limite la participation par les coûts exorbitants, alors que le salaire minimum est de 25000 francs; des lois restrictives des libertés fondamentales; de l’absence d’application des lois votées; et de l’établissement d’un État de non droit.

L'Etat du Cameroun reste répressif. Nous assistons chaque jour à la violation des libertés fondamentales, et en particulier de la liberté d'expression et de la liberté d'association. La prédominance du pouvoir exécutif sur les pouvoirs législatif et judiciaire reste constante. La pratique de la démocratie n'a véritablement pas changé au cours de ces dernières années, car nous avons toujours eu le même président depuis 35 ans. En plus de cela il y a l’absence véritable d'un vrai parti d'opposition car toute manifestation d'un parti autre que le parti au pouvoir est réprimée par le gouvernement.

  1. La société civile est-elle actuellement en mesure de contribuer à la gouvernance démocratique au Cameroun?

On peut répondre par oui et non: Oui, car elle reste la moins corrompue et la plus neutre parmi les autres forces (traditionnels, religieuses, élites, administratives); et non, parce qu’elle est déstructurée, amateur, sans financement.

  1. Comment les restrictions récentes à la liberté d'expression, telles que le blocage de l'accès à Internet, ont-elles affecté la société civile?

Les restrictions à la liberté d’expression sont devenues une règle au Cameroun, et incluent la censure, des menaces, des arrestations et détentions arbitraires, des intimidations, des cambriolages dans les locaux des OSC, des fermetures des medias, des impôts très élevés pour les patrons de télévision privés, et la mise en résidence surveillée. De novembre 2016, date à laquelle la crise a commencé dans le Nord-Ouest et le Sud-ouest du Cameroun, on a assisté à des restriction additionnelles: la coupure de la connexion internet pendant trois mois (janvier-avril 2017) et des perturbations de la communication et coupures dans les organisations de la société civile hors des deux régions où les activistes qui manifestait avaient été arrêtés. En conséquent, la société civile a été privée d’accès à l’information, de moyens pour diffuser et partager de l’information et pour s’organiser efficacement, et de la possibilité de recevoir des rapports pour poursuivre des activités, ce qui a produit des retards auprès des bailleurs et le ralentissement de la mise en œuvre des activités. En plus, la société civile a été affectée par l’interruption du soutien financier par des partenaires en raison de leurs délais dans la soumission des rapports narratifs.

  1. Comment la société civile y a-t-elle réagi?

La société civile a très mal appréhendé la coupure d’internet dans les régions du nord et du sud-ouest Cameroun suite à une décision du gouvernement. Du coup elle a mobilisé toutes ses forces et énergies afin de convoquer ce dernier à rétablir la connexion internet dans ces deux régions. Plusieurs organisations de la société civile d’autour le monde, et notamment les sociétés civiles camerounaises à l’instar du REDHAC, se sont démarquées par ses multiples communiqués de presse condamnant ce geste du gouvernement. Bien plus, le représentant spécial du Secrétaire général et chef du Bureau régional des Nations Unies pour l’Afrique centrale (UNOCA), François Louncény Fall, a décrit la décision du gouvernement comme ayant créé une «situation déplorable». Après d’énormes efforts et de multiples combats fournis par les organisations de la société civile, internet fut rétablit trois mois plus tard.

  1. Quel soutien ou solidarité la société civile internationale peut-elle vous offrir en ces temps?

Nous avons besoin de plusieurs formes de soutien. Premièrement, de soutien financier à moyen et à long terme et avec une certaine souplesse dans la soumission des projets et rapports, ainsi que des fonds d’urgence permanents capables de réduire les vulnérabilités des défenseurs en danger. Deuxièmement, on a besoin de soutien technique, sous la forme par exemple de l’approvisionnement de matériel sophistiqué de sécurité (cameras de surveillance, systèmes d’alarme, empreinte digital, cameras photo avec la capacité d’authentifier des photos et vidéos lors du monitoring et la soumission de rapports) et autres outils informatiques sécurisés. Finalement, on a besoin aussi des formations permanentes pour renforcer les capacités de la société civile en termes de sécurité numérique, physique et de gestion de leurs données informatiques; des formations relatives à la consolidation de la démocratie et l’état de droit et à l’implication au processus électoral et à la bonne gouvernance; des formations sur la surveillance et le signalement des violations des droits humains en toutes circonstances et en particulier dans les périodes de conflit ou de terrorisme; et des formations en plaidoyer national, régional et international.

·         L'espace civique au Cameroun est classé comme ‘répressif’ par le CIVICUS Monitor, indiquant de sérieuses restrictions aux libertés d'association, de réunion pacifique et d'expression.

 

 

 

‘Threats to women’s and LGBTI rights are threats to democracy; any retrogression is unacceptable’

Recent years have seen an apparently growing tendency for anti-rights groups to seek to claim the space for civil society, including at the intergovernmental level. CIVICUS speaks about it with Gillian Kane, a senior policy advisor for Ipas, a global women’s reproductive health and rights organisation. Founded in 1973, Ipas is dedicated to ending preventable deaths and disabilities from unsafe abortion. Through local, national and international partnerships, Ipas works to ensure that women can obtain safe, respectful and comprehensive abortion care, including counselling and contraception to prevent future unintended pregnancies.

  1. Do you observe any progress on sexual and reproductive rights in the Americas? What are the main challenges looking ahead?

Ipas has robust programmes in Latin America, and we have definitely seen progress on legislation that increases women’s and girls’ access to safe and legal abortions, including in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Uruguay and Mexico City. Still, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy organisation, more than 97 per cent of women of childbearing age in the region live in countries where abortion is restricted or completely banned. A woman who lives in restrictive settings and wants an abortion will have to do so under illegal conditions and at great risk to not just her health, but also her security. Women who have abortions are vulnerable to harassment, intimidation, arrest, prosecution and even jail time.

We also see that restrictive abortion laws are damaging the provider-patient confidentiality relationship. A study by Ipas and the Georgetown Law School’s O’Neill Institute found that an alarming number of medical staff across Latin America are reporting women and girls to the police for having abortions. Many countries now require, protect or encourage medical providers to breach their confidentiality duties when they treat women seeking post-abortion care.

  1. Are we facing a democratic regression at the global level? Do you think women are being targeted?

We are indeed facing a democratic regression, and I do think women are being targeted, both which are incredibly alarming. With the United States leading, we’re seeing the rapid degradation of the political and legal infrastructure that is designed to promote and protect the interests of citizens. For example, you see this in attacks against the Istanbul Convention, which is intended combat violence against women. You would think this would be uncontroversial. Yet, there are right-wing groups like the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) objecting to the Convention, claiming that it takes away parental rights and that it promotes gender as social construct, and not as a binary biological truth, as they see it. This is also happening in international spaces. This year at the United Nations’ Commission on the Status of Women, the US State Department appointed two extremists to represent it. One was an executive leader of a known LGBTI-hate group, and the other was from an organisation that has advocated for the repeal of legislation that prevents violence against women. And at the country level, for example in Brazil, conservative leaders are downgrading the power of ministries that promote equal rights for women and black communities.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Women are responding forcefully. Poland provides an amazing example of women organising and effecting change. In late 2016 thousands of women and men crowded the major cities of Warsaw and Gdansk to join the ‘Black Monday’ march, to protest against a proposed law banning abortions. The full ban wasn’t enacted, which was a huge victory. And of course, the women’s marches and the #MeToo movement are incredible, and global.

  1. Not many people in Latin America have ever heard of the Alliance Defending Freedom. How is this organisation surreptitiously changing the political conversation in the region?

ADF is a legal organisation. It was founded in 1994 by a group of white, male, hard-right conservative evangelical Christians. It was designed to be the conservative counterpoint to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which they saw as out to squash their religious liberties. They are huge, and have a global reach, which they say is dedicated to transforming the legal system through Christian witness. To that end they litigate and legislate on issues linked to the freedoms of expression and religion.

I wouldn’t say that their actions are surreptitious; they’re not deliberately trying to fly under the radar. They are intervening in spaces that don’t necessarily get a lot of news coverage, such as the Organization of American States (OAS). But in recent years they have definitely increased their activism both at the regional and country level in Latin America. In terms of the conversation, what they are doing is reframing rights issues to use religion as a sword, rather than a shield. Right now they are litigating, in the United States Supreme Court, the case of a baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple. As my colleague Cole Parke has explained, they are corrupting religious freedom. They are claiming it is legal to discriminate against a gay couple because of religious beliefs: that religion trumps all other rights. They are doing the same with conscientious objection: they have supported a midwife in Sweden who has refused to provide abortion as required by law. The list goes on.

  1. What strategies have anti-rights groups used, and what accounts for their success in international forums?

As I have explained in a recent op-ed, in international forums these groups express concern for the wellbeing of children, who they claim are being indoctrinated by permissive governments in the immoral principles of ‘gender ideology’. Of course there is no such thing as a gender ideology, and much less governments forcing children to learn inappropriate material. The wellbeing of children is being used as a cover to disable efforts to enforce rights and protections for girls, women and LGBTI people.

The 2013 General Assembly of the OAS, held in Guatemala, witnessed the first coordinated movement agitating against reproductive and LGBTI rights. This was, not coincidentally, also the year when the OAS approved the Inter-American Convention against all forms of discrimination and intolerance, which included protections for LGBTI people.

At the 2014 OAS General Assembly in Paraguay, these groups advanced further and instead of only being reactive, began proposing human rights resolutions in an attempt to create new policies that they claimed were rights-based, but were in fact an attempt to take rights away from specific groups. For instance, they proposed a ‘family policy’ that would protect life from conception, in order to prevent access to abortion.

From then on, their profile increased with each subsequent assembly, in the same measure that their civility declined. At the 2016 General Assembly in the Dominican Republic, they even harassed and intimidated trans women attending the event as they entered women’s restrooms. As a result, the annual assembly of the OAS, the regional body responsible for promoting and protecting human rights and democracy in the western hemisphere, turned into a vulgar display of transphobic hate.

  1. Should progressive civil society be concerned with the advances made by these groups in global and regional forums? What should we be doing about it?

Progressive civil society should definitely be concerned. Constant vigilance is needed. There are many ways to respond, but being informed, sharing information and building coalitions is key. I would also recommend that progressive movements think broadly about their issues. Consider how groups like ADF have managed to attack several rights, including abortion, LGBTI and youth rights, using one frame, religion. We need to be equally broad, but anchored, I would argue, in secularism, science and human rights. We started the conversation talking about democracy, and this is where we should end. We need to show how threats to specific rights for women and LGBTI people are threats to democracy. Any retrogression is unacceptable.

Get in touch with Ipas through their website or their Facebook page, or follow @IpasLatina and @IpasOrg on Twitter.

 

‘Civil society must increase the pressure so even countries that aren’t part of the Arms Trade Treaty feel compelled to abide by it’

CIVICUS speaks to Anna MacdonaldDirector of the Control Arms Secretariat, which leads a global civil society coalition comprising over 300 partners in all regions of the world working for international arms control. Control Arms played a key leadership role in the campaign for the Arms Trade Treaty that was finally adopted at the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in April 2013. This was achieved as a result of more than a decade of sustained activism, including coordinated advocacy, research and policy analysis, international popular mobilisation, digital media outreach, the involvement of a wide range of stakeholder organisations, and a partnership approach with supportive governments.

  1. Why is disarmament such an important issue in present times? Are there any heightened challenges that you are facing? 

Disarmament is a key issue because there is political instability and poverty in many parts of the world, and instability, poverty and armed violence are all so inextricably linked. It is essential that governments take much greater steps to regulate and reduce weapon flows in the world’s worst conflict hotspots, which are also poverty-stricken areas plagued by human rights abuses.

Disarmament work is always two steps forward, one step backwards: you make progress, all the while facing setbacks, but ultimately I think we are gradually moving in the right direction. Over the past year we have seen both progress and setbacks. Among the former is the adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, the first binding international agreement that prohibits nuclear weapons and pursues the goal of eliminating them completely. This treaty was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in July 2017, and is testimony to the great work of ICAN (International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons).

Another step forward was the subsequent awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to ICAN for its efforts towards the adoption of the nuclear treaty. I think this recognition will have a positive impact on all coalitions and movements that are working on disarmament and arms control, because it demonstrates the credibility and seriousness of civil society groups working to reduce violence and conflict, it puts the spotlight onto those countries that are not yet in compliance with international norms, and it generally raises the profile and the political importance of these issues. So it is a very positive development for all of us engaged in this field.

The very fact that the Nobel Price was given to a coalition working against nuclear weapons also represents the recognition that we currently face very real and great danger as a result of the escalation of hostilities between the United States and North Korea. The Trump administration evidently represents a huge setback, and it would definitely be a mistake to downplay or underestimate it. But it shouldn’t be treated as an isolated phenomenon either: we are simultaneously watching the development of movements in countries around the world that are looking at alternate ways forward for international relations, focused on peace-building and non-violent methods of dispute resolution. And governments in many countries are willing to work with civil society and are trying to change the nature of aggression and conflict. So I think there are positive signs in the midst of what has overall been a very worrying year.

  1. Can you tell us more about the work you do at Control Arms: your mission, recent history, strategies and key successes?

We work to try to reduce violence and conflict through international arms control. Our most notable success has been the pursuit and adoption of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), the first multilateral treaty to regulate the global trade in conventional weapons, and to do so on the basis of human rights and humanitarian law. The ATT was adopted by the UN General Assembly in April 2013, opened for signature in June 2013 and entered into force in December 2014, 90 days after the date of its 50th ratification.

We successfully campaigned for the Treaty with the Control Arms Coalition of partners and members from around the world, including a wide variety of civil society organisations, spanning from those working directly on disarmament and weapon-specific issues to those working on poverty alleviation, human rights, transparency and anti-corruption, as well as networks focusing on youth, survivors and women. Our Coalition includes a whole range of organisations, which means that it encompasses a great breadth and depth of experience and expertise. It’s this unity of effort and purpose towards trying to reduce the devastation brought about by the unregulated flow of weapons around the world that has contributed to our success.

We use a mix of strategies. We facilitate and coordinate the representation and attendance of civil society at official forums, through formal processes, working groups and meetings. We have a core programme with partners and members around the world, who are working at the national and regional levels around treaty implementation and universalisation. We have also engaged in popular campaigning, movement building and, generally speaking, actions designed to engage the general public and raise the political profile of the need for a change.

Monitoring is an important part of our work as well. We have a big programme built around research and monitoring of the ATT, which does not have a global verification mechanism. This is a gap that civil society has filled through the creation of the ATT monitoring project, which monitors both the universalisation of the treaty – how many countries are joining and what steps they are taking to put in place appropriate legislation – and its implementation, that is, how much impact it is having and what difference it is making to the global arms trade.

In sum, we use a whole mixture of strategies, including research and analysis, advocacy and popular campaigning, movement building and monitoring.

  1. How much progress has there been in terms of universalisation and implementation of the ATT?

For a treaty of the depth and impact of the ATT, universalisation has been relatively swift. The treaty formally entered into force just 18 months after it was adopted, which is pretty quick in treaty terms. This happened following a campaign that we led, ‘The Race to 50’, aimed at reaching the threshold of 50 ratifications that had been established as a requirement for the Treaty to enter into force. We also saw many countries that did not have any formal arms legislation in place develop national control systems, better methods of border security and border control, and bring together the necessary ministries and government agencies to try and coordinate around the regulation of arms imports and exports. So there’s been considerable success in moving forward from what used to be an extremely patchwork network of arms controls.

Of course we are also seeing challenges: we are seeing countries blatantly violate the treaty, most notably those arms exporters that are still transferring weapons to Saudi Arabia despite numerous and overwhelming evidence of violations of international human rights law in the conflict in Yemen. We are extremely disappointed that the governments of the United Kingdom, the United States and France, in particular, continue to supply weapons to the Saudi regime in the face of this evidence.

At the same time, there have been encouraging signs from governments that have changed their arms transfer decisions to Saudi Arabia by either cancelling or suspending arms transfers. That is a positive step forward; it is encouraging that these governments have looked at the ATT’s criteria and then changed their positions regarding the arms trade with Saudi Arabia as a result of the situation in Yemen.

In sum, as can be expected with a new treaty, we have a mix of violations and adherence, and one of the roles that civil society is pursuing very strongly is to push for the creation of a global standard whereby even those countries that aren’t part of the treaty feel the political pressure to abide by its standards. As a result, we will hopefully see a gradual reduction in the flow of weapons towards human rights abusers and conflict zones.

  1. How can civil society at large assist in your efforts towards peace and disarmament?

By recognising the strong links between armed violence and conflict, on one hand, and underdevelopment, on the other. Take the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): many SDG targets cannot be met while armed violence and violent conflict persist. There is a specific recognition of this in Goal 16, which calls for a reduction in illicit arms flows, but there are also strong implicit linkages with every other goal, from poverty reduction to gender equality, anti-corruption and measures for greater transparency. The way we can all work together is for the broader civil society movement to recognise the inter-linkages among all these issues. There is no such thing as a silo for arms issues, separate from another silo for poverty issues, and another one for human rights issues; all these issues are inextricably linked and therefore must be dealt with holistically. We welcome interaction and joint work with other civil society organisations and coalitions, so I would like to encourage CIVICUS members to get in touch with us with their ideas or simply to discuss possibilities or ways in which we may work together. I think civil society movements and organisations are stronger and achieve all the more impact when we work together.

Get in touch with Control Arms through their website or Facebook page, or follow @controlarms or @annamac33 on Twitter.

 

‘The democratic revolution is currently in hibernation; from a scale of 1 to 10, I would rate Egypt’s democracy as below zero’

Ahead of the publication of the 2018 State of Civil Society Report on the theme of ‘reimagining democracy’, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their work to promote democratic governance, and the challenges they encounter in doing so. CIVICUS speaks to Mohamed Zaree, a human rights activist and legal expert, and the Egypt Country Director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS). Following the crackdown on Egyptian human rights organisations, CIHRS was forced to relocate its headquarters to Tunis, and Mr Zaree is currently being prosecuted for his human rights advocacy. He risks life imprisonment if convicted. In October 2017 he was awarded the annual prize of the Martin Ennals Foundation for his contribution to promoting human rights amid the government’s escalating harassment and intimidation of activists.

  1. How would you describe the state of democracy in Egypt? What happened to the democratic resurgence of 2011?

There is no democracy in Egypt. It is obvious to everyone here that this is a dictatorship: there is no rule of law, there is a lack of an active civil society and political parties, and the space for civil society (civic space) is closing. Even if there is an appearance of democratic institutions, including parliament, there is no democracy of any kind. Institutions are controlled by the security apparatus. Even the elections for parliament have not been a competition among political parties as much as a competition between security apparatuses, so members of parliament don’t represent the people as much as they represent the security apparatus. This situation is reflected in all the laws that have been recently enacted, including the infamous NGO (non-governmental organisation) Law (also known as Law 70) that has been widely criticised.

So I wouldn’t like to say that the 2011 democratic revolution has been defeated, but at least we must acknowledge that it has been momentarily set back. We put high expectations on the 25 January Revolution, and it gave us some hope, which still lives on. But technically, nothing is left from the revolution except for the benefits for the army, the police and the judiciary – there have been no gains for the people who participated in or led the revolution. Many people who took part in it are now in jail or in exile. But it is still not over yet; even if we are going through the hardest of times, a step was taken on 25 January 2011 that is very difficult to erase. So I would rather say the revolution is in hibernation right now.

  1. What do you see as the minimal conditions for a functioning democracy, and what should be the role of civil society in it?

Elections are a very important democratic procedure, but at the end of the day they are just a procedure. The practice of democracy is the art of compromise among different opinions; it involves the peaceful coexistence of diverse views and requires a dynamic and lively society. So democracy means a free media, free civil society and free political parties, or, in other words, the freedom of assembly, freedom of expression and freedom of association.

Elections are therefore necessary, but they are not enough. To fulfil their purpose, elections need to meet a number of conditions that cannot be taken for granted. In the upcoming presidential elections, to be held in early 2018, we are supposedly going to vote for a president, but the election could easily become a referendum on the incumbent president, Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, since there is no democratic atmosphere that can guarantee that there is a meaningful competition among candidates for office. We are currently living under a state of emergency, with military courts and military trials for civilians, and a potential presidential candidate is facing a politically motivated trial; if convicted, he would be prevented from running.

The highly repressive NGO law that was passed earlier this year cripples the ability of civil society organisations (CSOs) to monitor the elections. The 1914 Assembly Law and the 2013 Protest Law severely restrict the ability of citizens to gather and demonstrate. The state and the security agencies control the media, even nominally private channels, so there is no chance for a variety of opinions to be heard. So the elections are likely to turn into a referendum.

  1. How far is Egypt from achieving a functioning democracy, and what should the government do in the short term towards that end?

From a scale of 1 to 10, I would rate Egypt as below zero. So for starters, for the upcoming elections to be actual elections, some changes should take place immediately: the state of emergency and the Assembly and Protest Laws should be repealed so that candidates are able to organise assemblies and run their campaigns. Political activists and media workers who are in jail should be released. An independent entity should oversee the media in order to guarantee a fair coverage for all candidates, instead of the ongoing disproportionately negative coverage of opposition candidates on state-owned media. Media channels should be open to all citizens. And for civil society to be able to play its role, the NGO Law should be repealed.

  1. 4. What do you think the government was trying to achieve with the NGO Law? What restrictions does the new law impose on the activities of civil society?

The government was, and is, trying to close civic space completely. Or rather, the president along with the security apparatus is, and not necessarily the government, since the president is in practice ruling alone.

The NGO Law is clearly not an isolated piece of legislation; it fits perfectly within a wider strategy to restrict civil society. It is not targeted specifically at human rights organisations, but encompasses all of civil society, including charity and developmental organisations. Under the new law, a CSO can be fined and its director can be jailed for up to five years for conducting a poll or publishing a report that has not been approved by the government, or for hiring a foreign worker. A sentence of two years in prison can be imposed for merely changing the organisation’s headquarters without notifying the authorities.

Similar to the National Security Council provided for in the constitution, which is responsible for identifying ways to secure the country and respond to crises and disasters, the bill provides for an entity known as the National Agency for the Regulation of Foreign Non-Governmental Organizations. To be constituted by presidential decree, the agency will consist of representatives from three security bodies, as well as representatives from the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Justice, International Cooperation, the competent ministry for civic associations, the Central Bank, the anti-money laundering unit, and the Administrative Control Authority. Under the law, this agency will determine all matters related to the affairs of international CSOs, funding and cooperation between Egyptian associations and any foreign body. In utter disregard for constitutional principles, the law specifies that applications to the agency receiving no response within two months will be considered denied. In an attempt to combat civic action by all possible means, the law gives the government the right to object to all internal association resolutions, nominations to their boards of directors, and the regularity of their meetings.

So this law is truly a declaration of intentions from the president toward civil society. The message is: you will work under very strict supervision, and if you are not able to work at all, that is fine with us, because you are not wanted.

 

  1. Have you or your organisation directly experienced restrictions? How has this clampdown on civil society affected your work - and your life?

I don’t think the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies will be very affected by the NGO Law specifically. There are a lot of articles in the Penal Code that are affecting civil society a lot more than the NGO Law. For instance, the assets of our Director have been frozen, but this happened as a result of the application of the Penal Code rather than the NGO Law. I have been under a travel ban not because of this law, but because of the Penal Code. I have been under investigation and faced three charges, two of them under the Penal Code and the third, the softest, under the NGO Law.

The latter charge is punishable with up to six months in prison. The other two, in contrast, can lead to life imprisonment. The two most serious charges I face, which have nothing to do with the NGO Law, are related to receiving unauthorised foreign funding and setting up an organisation of an international nature without a permit. Although this case, also known as the Foreign Funding Case against CSOs, or Case 173, dates back to 2011, these crimes became more serious after the Penal Code was amended in 2014. As I am facing two charges, I could receive two back-to-back life sentences. A life sentence in Egypt amounts to 25 years, so I could receive more than 30 years imprisonment overall, if I were convicted.

As a result of the travel ban, I was unable to travel to Geneva to receive the Martin Ennals Award. The organisers tried to contact the President and the Minister of Foreign Affairs to have it lifted, but they didn’t receive any response, so my wife and two daughters travelled to receive it on my behalf.

Of course all of this has affected me. I am in denial; I try not to think that I may be going to prison. In fact, I avoid this kind of thought and try to live a normal life. My family are also worried, and all of this has affected their morale, so it was good for them to go to Geneva to get my award. In Egypt you cannot predict anything; there is always fear of what could happen next. I could finish this interview only to find the police knocking on my door to arrest me. This could happen at any time, so it’s better not to think too much about it.

  1. You, your organisation and other civil society organisations keep working nonetheless. What are you doing to counteract these threats?

We have learned that challenging restrictions such as travel bans and freezing asset orders through legal means is somehow useless, given the destruction undergone by the Egyptian judicial system. What we are doing instead is raise these issues with the international community. Pressure from the international community doesn’t automatically make our situation better, but at least it helps so that our situation does not get any worse. International actors have been in many meetings with government officials, in Cairo and abroad, to put pressure so that no additional charges are raised and the cases against us are closed.

From our end, we also keep challenging the legality of the procedures followed on our cases. Some human rights defenders have challenged the legitimacy of the judge presiding on their cases. The Cairo Institute has questioned the decision to extend the appointment of the judge presiding over Case 173 and claimed that this and other legal and procedural violations have marred the case.

Besides, we keep trying to do our normal work on a daily basis. As we monitor human rights abuses, we have more work than ever. We are experiencing the worse restrictions just at the time when we are needed the most. Many human rights organisations have downsized or have moved some of their staff abroad. I am still in Cairo, but many people with the CIHRS have left the country and the organisation has been based in Tunisia since 2014.

In sum, we are pursuing two strategies to counteract restrictions: legal challenge and international pressure. But in terms of effectiveness, international pressure definitely comes first.

  1. What additional international support does Egyptian civil society need to be able to respond better?

We need the international community to keep putting pressure on the government, facilitating the work of human rights organisations in Egypt and abroad, and providing protection for threatened human rights defenders.

The Egyptian government is now facing the threat of extremism, and insist that we should all stand together against terrorism. But what they need to understand is that security and human rights are very much linked. Rather than dealing individually with terrorists by arresting or bombing them, they need to deal with the root causes of radicalisation in Egypt. It is important that they realise that repression is not part of the solution as much as it is part of the problem.

The leaders of democratic societies are in the best position to put this kind of pressure. I don’t want French President Emmanuel Macron to lecture anyone on human rights. That is not his job; it is actually my job. What he could do is show integrity by providing protection and using his leverage to bring about slight improvements in the human rights situation, instead of selling Rafale warplanes and other military equipment to Egypt. So far, remaining silent and praising a dictator has been the price tag of those Rafale fighters.

  • Civic space Egypt is rated as ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor, indicating serious restrictions in civil society rights.
  • Get in touch with CIHRS through their website or Facebook page, or follow @CIHRS_Alerts on Twitter

 

‘Solo un gobierno auténticamente democrático podrá enfrentar seriamente el problema del cambio climático’

English

CIVICUS conversa con Enrique de León, dirigente del Comité Nacional de Lucha Contra el Cambio Climático (CNLCC), una organización de la sociedad civil dominicana que lucha por la desaceleración del calentamiento global. La organización trabaja para diseminar información y educar a la ciudadanía sobre el cambio climático, monitorear y presionar para que el gobierno cumpla con los compromisos contraídos en la materia, y promover las energías renovables y la descarbonización de la economía nacional.

  1. ¿A qué se debió el fuerte impacto que tuvieron los recientes huracanes Irma y María sobre el Caribe? ¿Cabe considerarlos desastres solamente “naturales”, o tuvieron causas humanas y acaso hubiera podido hacerse algo para morigerar sus impactos?

En el Caribe siempre hemos tenido huracanes; los ha habido antes de que se iniciara el registro histórico. Pero han cambiado su intensidad, su frecuencia y su previsibilidad. Este año los ciclones fueron consecutivos y en línea, lo que no había pasado en mucho tiempo, por no decir nunca desde que se tenga registro. Y han tenido un comportamiento muy difícil de prever. Esto se debe al cambio climático, y más precisamente al aumento de la temperatura por efecto de la creciente concentración de partículas de dióxido de carbono. Sabemos que el enorme volumen de emisiones de dióxido de carbono en todo el planeta está creando las condiciones para que los huracanes en el Caribe sean más frecuentes, intensos y difíciles de prever.

Lo que se puede hacer para evitarlo lo sabemos hace mucho, aunque algunos lo nieguen: tenemos que disminuir las emisiones de dióxido de carbono. Es difícil, porque nuestra civilización está basada en la quema de combustibles fósiles – carbón, gas natural, petróleo - que emiten gases de efecto invernadero, causantes del calentamiento global. Pero la solución al problema está en manos de la humanidad, y en particular de la parte de la humanidad que es responsable de la mayor parte de la emisión de gases, es decir de los países altamente industrializados – aunque también los países menos industrializados tenemos un alto nivel de emisiones en términos relativos.

Las emisiones de dióxido de carbono y el consiguiente calentamiento global constituyen una amenaza particularmente grave para los países insulares, vulnerables a la elevación del nivel del mar. Tal es nuestro caso, que además vivimos de nuestras playas. Más del 80% de nuestra población vive en las costas, y estamos perdiendo territorio. La elevación de la temperatura está afectando también la biodiversidad en nuestros arrecifes y, por consiguiente, la viabilidad de la pesca. De modo que también está en juego nuestra seguridad alimentaria.

Los huracanes están provocando fenómenos extremos: en 2014-2015 tuvimos una gran sequía, mientras que a fines de 2016 tuvimos un diluvio en una época inhabitual, que fue un verdadero desastre. En 2017 tuvimos tres huracanes que vinieron en fila india, y si bien la isla de Santo Domingo – que la República Dominicana comparte con Haití – se libró por poco de su impacto directo, Puerto Rico fue atravesado por el huracán María, y todavía no consigue recuperar ni siquiera la energía eléctrica.

En suma, se puede hacer algo para modificar la intensidad y el comportamiento de los huracanes en el Caribe: disminuir las emisiones de dióxido de carbono tal como lo establecen los Acuerdos de París de noviembre de 2015. Pero es difícil, porque ello depende de la introducción de cambios profundos en el sistema económico global.

  1. Más allá de lo que pase a nivel global, ¿hay algo que los países más afectados por estos fenómenos puedan hacer para protegerse?

Ante todo, podemos y debemos emprender una acción política, consistente en apelar a la comunidad internacional, y en particular a los países con mayor responsabilidad en la emisión de dióxido de carbono, para que reduzcan sus emisiones. Y nosotros también debemos hacer lo mismo, dado que si bien son bajas en términos absolutos, las emisiones per cápita de la República Dominicana son muy altas (3,8 toneladas anuales). De modo que somos corresponsables, y no podemos demandar que otros reduzcan sus emisiones si nosotros no hacemos lo mismo.

Por lo menos es necesario cumplir con las metas fijadas por el Acuerdo de París, aunque habría que fijar metas más ambiciosas, ya que está comprobado que con aquellas no será suficiente para llevar el calentamiento global a niveles aceptables. El Comité Nacional de Lucha Contra el Cambio Climático (CNLCC), al igual que todo el movimiento ambientalista latinoamericano y mundial, sostiene que los países más vulnerables, que son los estados insulares del mundo en desarrollo, deben exigir que los mayores responsables por un lado reduzcan las emisiones, y por el otro ayuden a mitigar los efectos del cambio climático y a establecer un sistema económico más sostenible.

Este tiene que ser un movimiento político. Hemos hecho una apuesta fuerte en la Conferencia de las Naciones Unidas sobre el Cambio Climático (COP 23) que tuvo lugar en Noviembre de 2017. Con el liderazgo de los compañeros peruanos, que han resultado muy golpeados por el cambio climático, hemos formado una coalición latinoamericana con apoyos europeos que presiona para que se alcancen acuerdos puntuales, tales como la eliminación para 2020 del uso del carbón para generar electricidad. Aunque la eliminación de la minería de carbón pueda llevar más tiempo, al menos no deben seguir construyéndose nuevas plantas eléctricas de carbón. También hemos planteado, sobre todo con los compañeros bolivianos y brasileños, que para 2030 se mantenga por lo menos el 80-85% de las reservas mundiales de hidrocarburos bajo tierra. Como contrapartida, deben usarse energías renovables tanto para la generación de energía eléctrica como para el transporte y otras necesidades.

Lamentablemente, dependemos de la voluntad de los gobiernos y de los políticos, que en muchas partes del mundo responden a intereses económicos muy mezquinos. El mejor ejemplo de esto es el presidente de los Estados Unidos, que es realmente un energúmeno, pero no uno cualquiera sino uno que representa a otros energúmenos cuyos intereses y fortunas están vinculados a la reproducción de una economía basada en la quema de combustibles fósiles. El hecho de que Estados Unidos se haya retirado de los Acuerdos de París es un retroceso catastrófico, así como la expresión de que la cúpula dominante de ese país está dispuesta a arriesgar un holocausto global con tal de conservar sus tasas de ganancia.

Esta es una batalla política que no puede ser de unos pocos, y que como todas las luchas cruciales debe librarse en las calles. Tenemos que sacar a la humanidad a la calle, como lo hicimos en 2015, para dejar en claro que no está dispuesta a sacrificarse en aras de las ganancias de una minoría, y exigir que los yacimientos de hidrocarburos permanezcan bajo tierra y que se impulsen con fuerza las energías renovables en todas sus expresiones. En las islas del trópico, por ejemplo, debe promocionarse la energía solar y eólica.

  1. Internamente, en la República Dominicana, ¿libran ustedes en tanto que sociedad civil  una lucha similar con su propio gobierno, o acaso el gobierno dominicano está alineado con estas posturas?

Efectivamente libramos una lucha similar. El nuestro es un gobierno canalla: de un modo ilegal y corrupto hasta un grado nunca visto en nuestra historia, desde 2013 construye dos plantas de carbón de 770 megavatios en Punta Catalina, a 50 kilómetros de la capital. Al mismo tiempo, en noviembre de 2015 nuestro presidente fue a París a liderar a los estados insulares más amenazados en el planteo de la demanda de reducción de la huella de carbono, y a prometer una disminución del las emisiones de 25% para 2030. Cosa que será imposible de cumplir si se pone a funcionar unas plantas de carbón que por sí solas generarán 6,34 millones de toneladas anuales de dióxido de carbono, lo cual supone un incremento de más de 20% en las emisiones totales del país.

Así, mientras construye estas plantas de carbón que van a disparar nuestras emisiones de carbono, que ya son altas en términos relativos, el gobierno se compromete con la comunidad internacional a reducirlas sustancialmente. Frente a esto, desde principios de 2016 el CNLCC, junto con otras veintitantas OSC, sobre todo del movimiento ambientalista, desarrolló una campaña intensa para que nuestro país ratificara los Acuerdos de París. Una vez que, gracias a la campaña, logramos que el Congreso de la República ratificara los acuerdos, y que lo hiciera de manera rápida, unánime y en una sola lectura, tuvimos que esperar tres meses para que del despacho de la Cancillería se dignaran a informárselo a la Secretaría de la Convención sobre el Cambio Climático de las Naciones Unidas. Para que eso sucediera tuvimos que movilizarnos; el gobierno se resistía a la ratificación porque sabía que con las nuevas plantas de carbón le sería imposible cumplir con las metas, más allá de su plan de sembrar un millón de árboles de caoba, con los cuales en 50 años con suerte lograrían absorber la cuarta parte del dióxido de carbono que esas plantas van a emitir.

Nuestro país tiene una gran necesidad de energía eléctrica porque, aún bajo un modelo de gran desigualdad y exclusión, la economía está creciendo. Actualmente tenemos déficit energético, con producción de energía cara e ineficiente, y por eso tenemos grandes apagones. O sea que sí necesitamos producir más y mejor energía, pero lo que no necesitamos es que esa energía salga del carbón, cuando nosotros ni siquiera somos productores de carbón. Gracias a la lucha de la sociedad civil dominicana, en 2012 fue aprobada la ley de la Estrategia Nacional de Desarrollo, que en su artículo 27 estableció la meta de reemplazar antes de 2030 los combustibles fósiles importados por energías renovables, y así descarbonizar la economía. Pero desde que llegó al poder en 2013, el gobierno de Danilo Medina ha hecho todo lo contrario, con acuerdos muy redituables para establecer nuevas plantas eléctricas de carbón.

  1. ¿Por qué el gobierno dominicano optó por el carbón en vez de energías renovables? ¿A qué intereses representa?

La opción por el carbón, así como la elección de la empresa Odebrecht, que encabeza el consorcio que construye Punta Catalina, fue una decisión de financiamiento político. El gobierno de Danilo Medina necesitaba reelegirse, y la reelección estaba prohibida, de modo que tuvo que financiar primero la reforma electoral y luego la campaña para la reelección. Ese financiamiento lo facilitó la planta de carbón construida junto con Odebrecht. Está plenamente documentado que la licitación fue amañada: Odebrecht compró ese contrato, tal como lo confesó en diciembre de 2016 en Nueva York. En tanto que forma de financiamiento político corrupto, la obra incluyó desde el principio una sobrevaluación de mil millones de dólares. De los 2945 millones de dólares que iba a costar la obra, mil eran sobreprecios. Esto lo denunciamos, pero no hubo forma de que se abriera un proceso de investigación serio, porque nuestro Poder Judicial es extremadamente dependiente del Ejecutivo.

De hecho, esas plantas van a terminar costando mucho más caras, porque recientemente se develó que hay un sobrecosto de 708 millones más, ya que no se habían hecho los estudios correspondientes y para hacerlos le están pasando la factura al gobierno. Además, una de las socias de Odebrecht en la construcción de la planta ha hecho una reclamación por 720 millones por montos adeudados a proveedores y por la reposición de un generador dañado por la empresa estatal cuando quiso montar a toda velocidad la primera unidad para hacer una demostración. Nosotros denunciamos que la planta no estaba lista, y efectivamente tiene una enorme demora, pero para demostrar que no era así el gobierno se apuró y dañó un generador. En cuanto a los pagos adeudados, los retrasos se deben a la campaña que hicimos con el apoyo de aliados europeos para que los bancos europeos que estaban financiando las obras detuvieran el desembolso por razones de corrupción.

  1. ¿Cómo reaccionó la ciudadanía dominicana a medida que se develaron estos hechos de megacorrupción?

Desde el 22 de enero de 2017 ha habido todos los meses manifestaciones multitudinarias inéditas en nuestra historia, en reclamo del fin de la corrupción y la impunidad. Y el corazón de esa demanda es Punta Catalina, que es realmente la prueba del delito. Estos reclamos expresados en las calles obligaron al gobierno a montar una ópera cómica: al fin y al cabo procesó a todo el mundo menos a los principales culpables. Odebrecht ha comprado contratos desde 2001 hasta 2015, y el gobierno procesó a gran parte de los presuntos implicados hasta 2012, pero a ninguno desde 2012 para acá. Es decir, no rozó siquiera a los involucrados en Punta Catalina, entre ellos el propio Presidente de la República. Además, ni uno solo de los procesados está en prisión.

El país no solo está indignado: está frustrado y harto, y se siente violentado. Para contener posibles reacciones ciudadanas, el Ministerio Público apeló la liberación de dos de los imputados: el empresario Ángel Rondón, intermediario a cargo del reparto del dinero de los sobornos y las ganancias ilícitas, y Víctor Díaz Rúa, ministro de Obras Públicas del gobierno anterior. Sin embargo, la Suprema Corte mantuvo la libertad de ambos. Esto realmente no sorprendió a nadie.

El pueblo dominicano hizo uso del medio más democrático que tenía a su disposición: la manifestación callejera. El gobierno se mantuvo indiferente y apostó al desgaste del movimiento: lo dejó gritar y patalear hasta cansarse. Pero ya hay una parte importante de la población que piensa que este gobierno es el principal obstáculo para impartir justicia y acabar con la impunidad, y que hay que terminar con él. Hace poco se comprobó que en las elecciones de 2016, en las que fue reelecto el presidente Danilo Medina, la empresa que proveyó los escáneres también programó el conteo de los votos. La ciudadanía lo tomó con calma, porque de hecho ya lo sabía, pero desde entonces se está buscando alguna forma de acortar esta presidencia.

El 16 de julio de 2017 el movimiento anticorrupción Marcha Verde hizo la manifestación más grande en la historia del país, y allí se lanzó la idea de procesar al presidente. El pueblo dominicano ha hecho todo lo que ha estado a su alcance para encontrar una salida, y hasta ahora no la ha encontrado porque el Poder Ejecutivo tiene secuestrada a toda la institucionalidad democrática. Ni el Legislativo ni el Judicial son poderes independientes, de modo que ¿quién va a procesar al presidente?

Más recientemente, sectores de la Marcha Verde y diversas agrupaciones políticas están haciendo el planteo de que el año próximo se busque un gran acuerdo de todos los sectores para ponerle fin al mandato presidencial y buscar una solución institucional mediante una Constituyente que establezca un Poder Judicial y un Poder Legislativo realmente independientes y provea garantías de pulcritud electoral, de modo de preparar las condiciones para la elección de un nuevo gobierno en 2020.

  1. ¿Hay alguna chance de que nuevas elecciones lleven al poder a alguien que represente intereses más amplios, y que esté en condiciones de enfrentar seriamente el problema del cambio climático?

No perdemos las esperanzas de que así sea. El pueblo dominicano nunca se ha cansado de luchar por una auténtica democracia. El 22 de enero de 2017, un pueblo al que muchos creíamos derrotado se levantó con fuerza en rechazo de la corrupción. No lo hizo por aumentos de salarios ni por rebajas en los precios de los alimentos, ambas causas legítimas, sino por simple indignación en relación con las implicaciones que las confesiones de Odebrecht tenían para nuestro país.

El Estado dominicano está atravesado de punta a punta por la corrupción y la impunidad, y ello limita fuertemente su capacidad para luchar contra el cambio climático. Hoy por hoy, a las autoridades no les importa en lo más mínimo mentirle a la comunidad internacional, prometiendo una cosa que saben que no van a cumplir.

Nosotros abogamos por que una parte del Fondo Verde establecido por la Convención Marco de las Naciones Unidas sobre el Cambio Climático se utilice para mitigar los daños que sufre la República Dominicana a causa del calentamiento global. Es decir, que una parte de esos 100 mil millones de dólares anuales que los países desarrollados, los mayores emisores de gases causantes del cambio climático, aportarán para materializar acciones de mitigación y adaptación en las naciones en desarrollo, financie la adaptación tecnológica, cultural y productiva de nuestro país. Para mitigar desastres y volver a reconstruir se necesita mucho dinero: por ejemplo, el huracán Georges, que en 1998 nos pegó de lleno, provocó en República Dominicana pérdidas que representaron el 14% del PIB (de 1997). La lluvia de finales de 2016 nos costó 9478 millones. Con el huracán María, nuevamente, hemos tenido entre 9 mil y 10 mil millones de dólares en pérdidas, pese a que no nos pegó directamente sino que solamente pasó cerca.

El problema es que si ese dinero llega hasta aquí, corre el riesgo de perderse, ya que los desastres y la posterior reconstrucción son ocasiones perfectas para la corrupción. Así, por ejemplo, los fondos destinados a la mitigación de los efectos de las lluvias de 2016 nunca llegaron a los territorios. La gente de Marcha Verde en las regiones más afectadas reclamó una y otra vez que el dinero no había llegado. De modo que enfrentamos un dilema muy duro: al mismo tiempo que reclamamos a la comunidad internacional apoyo para enfrentar las consecuencias y combatir las causas del cambio climático, nos sometemos a la rapacidad de nuestros propios gobiernos. Evitar que ese dinero se pierda y lograr que llegue a su destino es un problema que compartimos con otros países de la región. Solo un gobierno auténticamente democrático, que represente los intereses de la mayoría de la ciudadanía en vez de los intereses concentrados de los empresarios y los políticos aunados por la corrupción, podrá enfrentar seriamente el problema del cambio climático.

  • El espacio cívico en República Dominicana recibe la calificación de ‘obstruido’ en el CIVICUS Monitor, lo cual indica la existencia de restricciones serias de las libertades cívicas.
  • Visite el perfil de Facebook del CNLCC o siga en Twitter a @CNLCC2016

 

 

 

México: En una democracia, no es posible que desaparezcan 43 estudiantes y todo siga igual

English

CIVICUS conversa con Ana Cristina Ruelas, Directora de la oficina de ARTICLE 19 para México y Centroamérica. ARTICLE 19 es una organización de la sociedad civil independiente y apartidista que defiende los derechos a la libertad de expresión y al acceso a la información de acuerdo con los más elevados estándares internacionales. Para ello, promueve el derecho a la difusión de información y opiniones en todos los medios, investiga tendencias y amenazas a la libertad de expresión, proporciona acompañamiento a las personas cuyos derechos han sido violados, y busca contribuir al diseño de políticas públicas. 

  1. Según informes recientes, México es el país con mayor cantidad de asesinatos de periodistas en América Latina, y uno de los peor clasificados del mundo. ¿Cuáles son las causas de este fenómeno?

Desde Artículo 19 consideramos que los tres niveles de gobierno y las instituciones del Estado tienen una política muy bien articulada para reducir los flujos de información efectiva para la ciudadanía, principalmente la relacionada con hechos de inseguridad y de corrupción. La violencia contra la prensa abarca una serie de mecanismos orientados a ese objetivo, el más sutil de los cuales es la asignación de la pauta oficial para dictar las líneas informativas de los medios de comunicación. En México, particularmente a nivel estadual, los gobiernos cubren hasta el 60 o 70% de los ingresos de los medios de comunicación, y es muy difícil hablar de pluralismo y objetividad de la información si los medios dependen a tal punto del dinero público. Al mismo tiempo, el hecho de que la asignación de la pauta es discrecional y opaca genera una altísima precariedad laboral para los periodistas. Los periodistas no cuentan con seguros de gastos médicos, si les roban una cámara mientras hacen cobertura su medio no se las paga… realmente falta una corresponsabilidad real por parte de las casas de medios para con sus periodistas.

Respecto de esta forma de violencia económica, no se identifican grandes diferencias a lo largo del territorio; es una forma de control político de los medios que utilizan todos los gobiernos, incluidos los municipales. A fin de cuentas, lo que nosotros hemos observado es que normalmente las agresiones físicas son precedidas por el chantaje económico, que tiene que ver en gran medida con la publicidad oficial.

  1. ¿Los asesinatos de periodistas vendrían a ser tan solo la punta del iceberg?

Exactamente. Es el fenómeno más grave, pero por detrás hay una serie de políticas y violencias mucho más ampliamente difundidas y muy bien articuladas, que empiezan desde lo económico y continúan por la criminalización. En más de la mitad de los estados de la República todavía están tipificados los delitos contra el honor: calumnias, difamación, injurias. Todavía existen los delitos de ultraje e incluso, por absurdo que parezca, hay seis estados que criminalizan el uso de memes. En esos casos, el uso de memes es clasificado como la manipulación de la imagen para perjudicar a funcionarios públicos e instituciones del Estado. Por otra parte, en varios estados donde se ha logrado la eliminación de los delitos contra el honor, hemos observado un aumento de la violencia institucional, bajo la forma de demandas civiles contra periodistas por daño moral. Estos procesos terminan impactando de manera directa sobre el patrimonio de los periodistas.

  1. ¿Hasta dónde tendríamos que remontarnos para rastrear la genealogía de la situación actual? ¿Ha habido algún cambio, para mejor o para peor, en los últimos tiempos?

El tema de la publicidad oficial viene de los años 60 y 70; hay una frase muy famosa de un presidente de esa época, José López Portillo (1976-82), que ante los cuestionamientos de un medio le dijo al periodista: “no te pago para que me pegues”. Esta situación es histórica; lo que en los últimos tiempos ha empeorado es la violencia directa, que se ha vuelto más cínica y más desinhibida. Desde el inicio de la guerra contra el narco se han incrementado de manera constante las agresiones contra periodistas, incluidos los asesinatos. Artículo 19 documentó 397 agresiones en 2015, 426 en 2016, y 276 tan solo en el primer semestre de 2017 –un aumento de 23% en relación con el primer semestre del año anterior. Asimismo, en 2015 hubo siete asesinatos, en 2016 once, y este año han sido once hasta el mes de octubre. Cada 15,7 horas un periodista es atacado en el país. La situación se ha vuelto más tensa que nunca, porque ahora tú sabes que cualquier amenaza en tu contra puede significarte la muerte o la desaparición. Actualmente hay 23 periodistas desaparecidos.

Si bien los casos de extrema violencia se concentran desproporcionadamente en ciertas zonas, en particular en los estados de Veracruz, Oaxaca, Guerrero y Chihuahua, ello no significa que en el resto del país haya más libertad. De hecho, en muchos estados donde se registran menos agresiones físicas también hay más censura indirecta, ejecutada mediante el uso de la publicidad oficial. Nosotros tenemos un mapa de restricciones a la libertad de expresión donde se observa claramente el entramado de estos fenómenos, desde leyes restrictivas y nivel de conectividad a internet, pasando por calificaciones en materia de transparencia, hasta agresiones físicas y asesinatos.

  1. ¿Quiénes son los perpetradores de estas agresiones? ¿Qué responsabilidad le cabe al Estado, que por lo general las adjudica a acciones de actores no estatales?

Nosotros tenemos cifras que desmienten esas afirmaciones de los funcionarios del Estado: en el 53% de los casos de agresiones documentadas en 2016 el actor perpetrador fue un agente del Estado, en primer lugar en el nivel estadual, seguidamente en el nivel municipal, y finalmente agentes federales. Desde 2007, por lo menos, cada año más de la mitad de las agresiones documentadas proceden del Estado.

Una forma fundamental de violencia del Estado es precisamente la falta de reconocimiento de que son agentes del Estado quienes están cometiendo buena parte de estas agresiones, lo cual conlleva una impunidad casi absoluta. El Estado insiste en que la responsabilidad es del crimen organizado, aunque las estadísticas de la Fiscalía Especial para la Atención de Delitos Cometidos contra la Libertad de Expresión y del Mecanismo de Protección para Defensores de Derechos Humanos y Periodistas, que son públicas, dicen que el principal perpetrador es el Estado. Con todo, en una sola ocasión escuchamos a un funcionario del Mecanismo de Protección reconocer públicamente y en esas palabras que el Estado es el principal perpetrador de agresiones contra la prensa.

Esto incide directamente sobre la impunidad. Si bien es cierto que en México hay un nivel de impunidad general de aproximadamente 98,5%, en el caso de las agresiones contra periodistas la impunidad se incrementa hasta el 99,7%. Y ello se debe a que el Estado se niega a investigarse a sí mismo. El hecho de que la Procuración de Justicia depende directamente del Ejecutivo no ayuda en lo más mínimo.

  1. La mayoría de los países que presentan estos niveles de violencia contra periodistas no son democracias, mientras que México cumple con los requisitos mínimos de una democracia electoral. ¿Es México una anomalía? ¿Qué está fallando a nivel del sistema político mexicano?

México no es realmente una democracia. México ha construido sus cimientos institucionales de manera autoritaria. El Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) permaneció setenta años en el poder y dejó estructuras institucionales muy enraizadas, que permiten por ejemplo que todo siga en pie como si nada hubiera sucedido tras la desaparición de 43 estudiantes [Nota del editor: se trata de los llamados “43 de Ayotzinapa”, estudiantes normalistas que desaparecieron el 26 de septiembre de 2014 cuando iban en camino a una  protesta en el estado de Guerrero, y a quienes se sospecha víctimas de una red de complicidades entre autoridades locales, fuerzas de seguridad y actores no estatales. El caso, aún no resuelto, se ha convertido en emblemático del fenómeno masivo de las desapariciones forzadas en México]. Quienes dominan el Estado no quieren reconocer las restricciones de la libertad de expresión porque la reducción de los flujos de información les resulta muy redituable, ya que les permite penetrar y generar narrativas propias que impactan en la sociedad y les permite mantener el poder.

México tiene altísimos niveles de desigualdad y pobreza. Donde los niveles de pobreza son mayores, es precisamente donde solamente llegan los medios más vinculados con el Estado. En las zonas con mayores niveles de marginalidad, que en muchos casos tienen una alta proporción de población indígena, no existe ninguna pluralidad informativa. La población recibe la información que el gobierno quiere que reciba. Junto con medios que replican la narrativa gubernamental, estas localidades reciben programas sociales que funcionan como un mecanismo de control y de abuso de poder sobre las comunidades, y que en última instancia son una fuente importante de votos. La falta de transparencia y acceso a la información tiene efectos reales sobre el funcionamiento de la democracia, ya que la población desconoce absolutamente las reglas que rigen los programas sociales y es manipulada de modo que las prestaciones sociales se transforman en contrapartidas del voto. Los efectos de esta situación son amplificados por el simple hecho de que el Programa Prospera atiende a más de 6 millones de familias que se encuentran en extrema pobreza, que han crecido con este programa, y que junto con los beneficios sociales reciben también una narrativa que les dice que las cosas no van tan mal para ellos. Con controles tan efectivos de la información no hay posibilidad de una sociedad capaz de tomar autónomamente decisiones distintas.

  1. ¿Qué está haciendo la sociedad civil para enfrentar estas restricciones?

En México, la imposibilidad de la sociedad para comunicarse con las instituciones hace de la protesta una forma corriente de diálogo a la fuerza. Pero cada vez más, particularmente en los estados, se utiliza la fuerza para limitar las protestas. Desde Artículo 19 buscamos que no se cierre el espacio de la protesta e intentamos generar redes de observación para monitorear el uso de la fuerza en manifestaciones.

La sociedad civil organizada también ha tratado de influir sobre las políticas públicas de manera de garantizar la libertad de expresión y el acceso a la información. En los inicios del gobierno del Presidente Peña Nieto se hicieron muchos esfuerzos para, por ejemplo, dar más poderes y otorgar autonomía constitucional al Instituto Nacional de Transparencia, Acceso a la Información y Protección de Datos Personales (INAI) y para producir una ley más robusta para eliminar las trabas al acceso a la información.

Pero una de las cosas que aprendimos desde la sociedad civil es que si bien es importante tener en el papel instituciones más sólidas y robustas, también es importante poner atención a los procesos de designación de funcionarios, ya que si al frente de una institución como el INAI se coloca a personas que son cómplices del poder, se vuelve a retroceder en todo lo avanzado. Así, hemos denunciado que en su conformación actual, la mayoría de los comisionados del INAI se resisten a la transparencia, en particular en lo que se refiere a casos de violaciones graves de los derechos humanos. Por eso hemos estado impulsando procesos de designación transparentes y abiertos. Hemos logrado articular una coalición de sociedad civil empeñada en la promoción de instituciones más transparentes, robustas y efectivas. La gran batalla que tenemos delante es contra la corrupción y la impunidad, y creemos que solo lograremos avanzar mediante la creación de una fiscalía general de la nación realmente independiente. Hoy por hoy hay muchos obstáculos para que eso suceda, porque la pérdida del manto de impunidad es una posibilidad muy poco atractiva para la mayoría de los políticos.

Respecto del tema más específico de la protección de periodistas, existen numerosas iniciativas de la sociedad civil, tales como los talleres de seguridad integral que dicta Artículo 19 y que cubren temas tales como identificación de riesgos, protocolos de seguridad, derechos digitales, ética y buenas prácticas, defensa legal y primeros auxilios; y diversas iniciativas impulsadas por coaliciones de sociedad civil de las cuales nosotros participamos tales como #AgendaDePeriodistas, orientada a la formación de una agenda permanente y la definición de un modelo organizacional para representar los intereses de los periodistas; y #RompeElMiedo, una red de monitoreo de la protesta y la cobertura electoral que se activó en las elecciones del 4 de junio de 2017 en varios estados del país con el objeto de minimizar las agresiones que sufre la prensa en contextos electorales.

Pero todavía falta mucha articulación real y efectiva de la sociedad civil mexicana, de manera que las organizaciones podamos relegar nuestras propias agendas para impulsar conjuntamente agendas estructurales que produzcan cambios reales.

  1. ¿Qué acciones concretas debería adoptar de inmediato el gobierno de México para salvaguardar el espacio cívico, y más concretamente la libertad de expresión?

Para combatir un problema de Estado se necesita una política de Estado. En lo que se refiere al marco normativo relativo a la libertad de expresión, ante todo deben eliminarse de los códigos penales todos los delitos de expresión. Adicionalmente, reclamamos que se reformen los procedimientos civiles relativos a las demandas de daño moral para que haya un análisis previo que permita determinar los méritos del caso y descartar aquellos en los cuales la demanda busque inhibir la libertad de expresión.

Se necesita también una ley general de archivos que permita a los periodistas hacer investigaciones reales a través de los mecanismos de acceso a la investigación. Actualmente la gestión archivística no está regulada, de manera que los gobiernos generan la información solamente cuando es solicitada, lo cual da lugar a muchos errores. Adicionalmente, y lo que es aún más grave, hay una política deliberada de ocultamiento y revisionismo histórico: los archivos históricos son censurados, de modo que los periodistas que están investigando por ejemplo violaciones graves de derechos humanos durante la llamada guerra sucia de 1960-1980 ya no tienen acceso a los archivos. [Nota del editor: la entrevistada refiere al conflicto interno que tuvo lugar durante la Guerra Fría, durante el cual el gobierno mexicano respaldado, por Estados Unidos, buscó disolver por la fuerza los movimientos políticos de estudiantes y las guerrillas de izquierda, contra los cuales las fuerzas de seguridad utilizaron tortura sistemática, ejecuciones extrajudiciales y desapariciones forzadas, estimadas estas últimas en aproximadamente 1200].

Además, deberían imponerse controles judiciales sobre la vigilancia y el acceso a metadatos, que actualmente no existen. Debe hacerse también una reforma estructural de la Fiscalía General de la República que le confiera autonomía real. Debe garantizarse la independencia de los servicios forenses existentes, que actualmente dependen de la Procuraduría, la cual a su vez depende del Ejecutivo. Es un círculo vicioso, de modo tal que las pericias terminan diciendo lo que el poder quiere que digan.

Respecto de la regulación de la publicidad oficial, a mediados de noviembre de 2017 la Corte Suprema de Justicia ordenó al Congreso aprobar antes de fines de abril de 2018 una ley que reglamente el párrafo octavo del Artículo 134 de la Constitución. Entretanto, seguimos demandando al Ejecutivo la publicación de las cifras desglosadas del gasto en publicidad oficial.

En lo que se refiere al Mecanismo de Protección, desde Artículo 19 insistimos en que no es necesario que existan mecanismos de protección a nivel local, sino más bien enlaces que permitan articular y coordinar de manera efectiva las medidas de protección para periodistas en todo el territorio. Al mismo tiempo, consideramos que el Mecanismo de Protección tiene que abarcar el combate a la impunidad, es decir, que tiene que articularse efectivamente con la Fiscalía Especial para la Atención de Delitos Cometidos contra la Libertad de Expresión, ya que no se puede hablar de protección mientras no haya un combate decidido a la impunidad. Caso contrario, nos llenaremos de periodistas protegidos pero las agresiones no disminuirán, porque no se está enviando a los perpetradores el mensaje de que atacar o matar a un periodista trae consecuencias.

Respecto del derecho de protesta, finalmente, luego de las agresiones que sufrieron muchos periodistas cuando cubrían las protestas frente a la inauguración presidencial del presidente Peña Nieto, en 2012, conformamos junto con el gobierno y la comisión de derechos humanos de la Ciudad de México un grupo de trabajo para generar protocolos contra el uso de la fuerza y protocolos de concertación en el marco de las protestas. Su implementación en la Ciudad de México redujo significativamente el número de agresiones no solamente contra la prensa sino también contra manifestantes en general, cosa que no ocurrió en otros estados de la República. De modo que exigimos que se apliquen estos protocolos en los estados. Y por supuesto, ante todo deben eliminarse todas las leyes estaduales que permiten el uso de la fuerza en protestas.

  1. ¿Cuán conectada está la sociedad civil mexicana con sus contrapartes en otras partes del mundo? ¿De qué modo podrían los actores externos apoyar a los activistas y a las organizaciones de la sociedad civil en México?

Hay muchas organizaciones que forman parte de redes internacionales, pero éstas no han sido efectivas para elevar sustancialmente el costo político internacional que las violaciones de derechos le generan al gobierno mexicano. Ha habido, sí, cambios positivos en los últimos años, en el sentido de que la sociedad civil se ha empezado a articular de manera más efectiva con otros sectores en torno de ciertos temas: por ejemplo, el colectivo que impulsa la nueva Fiscalía General incluye no solo a grupos de derechos humanos sino también a grupos de empresarios, y ha echado mano de las redes internacionales, en especial latinoamericanas, para identificar lecciones aprendidas en otros países y aplicarlas en nuestro país.

Pero se necesitan mayores esfuerzos para generar costos de reputación al gobierno de México por su descuido de los derechos humanos. En ese sentido, es muy simbólico el caso de la Alianza para el Gobierno Abierto (AGA), de la cual México es miembro fundador. Desde la sociedad civil estamos exigiendo a la AGA que saque a México de su Comité Directivo, porque ¿cómo puede nuestro país estar liderando esta iniciativa internacional cuando tiene internamente este panorama que venimos describiendo? Es de un cinismo descarado, y está faltando presión internacional para que esto tenga algún costo.

  • El espacio cívico en México es clasificado por el CIVICUS Monitor en la categoría ‘represivo’, indicativa de la existencia de serias restricciones sobre las libertades de expresión, asociación y reunión pacífica.
  • Visite la página web o el perfil de Facebook de ARTICLE 19 México, o siga en Twitter a @article19mex y a @anaruelas.Ana Ruelas

 

‘It is for civil society to step in and fill the void on human rights and good governance issues’

Ahead of the publication of the 2018 State of Civil Society Report on the theme of ‘reimagining democracy’, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their work to promote democratic governance, and the challenges they encounter in doing so. CIVICUS speaks to Dr Fred Sekindi, Director of Research, Advocacy and Lobbying at the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative (FHRI) based in Kampala, Uganda. Established in 1991, FHRI is an independent, non-governmental, non-partisan and not-for-profit human rights organisation seeking to remove impediments to democratic development and the meaningful enjoyment of fundamental freedoms through research, monitoring, legislative advocacy, strategic partnerships and the dissemination of information and best practices through training and education.

  1. How would you describe the state of democracy in Uganda? Has the practice of democracy in the country changed over the past couple of years?

In the past few years, the incumbent government has demonstrated its resolve to hold on to power at all cost. In this quest to hold to power, ideals of democracy have increasingly been under threat. President Yoweri Museveni has been in power for over 30 years and has been declared triumphant in the six presidential elections that have been conducted since the 1995 Constitution was promulgated, amidst widespread discontent with electoral laws. Elections by themselves are not a symbol of democracy, particularly if electoral laws are not able to translate the will of the people into true democratic choice. A recently introduced and very unpopular proposal to amend the 1995 Constitution to remove age restrictions on the presidency, and the brutal force employed by state security forces against dissenters, also illustrate the state of democratic decay of Uganda. Civil society organisations (CSOs) that have criticised the proposal to amend the Constitution have had their accounts frozen and some have been threatened with closure. The government has resorted to draconian laws such as the 2013 Public Management Order Act, which prohibits public gatherings without the approval of the Inspector General of Police, to prevent public gatherings and demonstrations against the proposed constitutional amendments. Over the past few years, Uganda has also witnessed an escalation in the harassment and unlawful detention of political opponents of the government and political and human rights activists.

  1. In this context, is civil society able to contribute to democratic governance in Uganda?

CSOs working in the area of service delivery continue to operate without any notable hindrances from the government, while those working on land rights, democracy, governance, anti-corruption and transparency continue to face an uphill task.

The controversial Non-Government Organisations Act, enacted in 2016, has increased government supervision and control over CSOs. The Act creates an obligation for CSOs not to engage in any act that is prejudicial to the security and laws of Uganda and that is not in the interest of Ugandans. It further establishes an NGO Bureau with powers to revoke the licences of offending CSOs. Any CSO that engages in such loosely defined acts is liable to deregistration. Augmented by the Public Order Management Act, the Non-Government Organisation Act further restricts civic space - the space for civil society - for CSOs working in the areas of democracy, good governance, anti-corruption and transparency. This has come during a period of increasing impunity of state officials and when the government has embarked on unpopular constitutional amendments.

CSOs, especially those engaged in the fields of democracy and governance, are perceived by the government as political and partisan, and as agents of western governments, since their roles include monitoring government policies and actions and holding government officials accountable to the public.

In October 2017, the police raided a number of CSO offices and seized their computers and documents. The central bank froze these CSOs’ bank accounts, as well as the personal accounts of their directors. These raids were soon followed by orders from the NGO Bureau for CSOs to submit their bank account statements for the past 10 years. The police claimed that they were investigating allegations of money laundering.

Thus CSOs in Uganda continue to struggle to contribute to democratic governance in a very hostile environment shaped by a draconian regulatory framework and systematic practices of intimidation and self-censorship.

As a result of the government’s failure to ensure the fundamental rights of the people, CSOs have stepped in to fill this gap. The increasing popularity of CSOs among the populace, more so in a time of political upheaval when Ugandans need a sense of direction and strong leadership, lays a fertile ground for antagonism between the government on one hand, and CSOs and the citizenry on the other.

  1. What impact are the restrictions imposed on the exercise of fundamental freedoms having on civil society activities?

A Private Members’ Bill introduced by a ruling party parliamentarian to remove age restrictions on the presidency was tabled in Parliament in September 2017. This bill seeks to allow the incumbent President Museveni to run for additional terms in office.

Coincidentally, the police raided the offices of ActionAid and the Great Lakes Initiative for Strategic Studies in Kampala, and Solidarity Uganda in the Northern city of Lira, on 21 September 2017, as part of its campaign to clamp down on CSOs that, in their opinion, are working against the removal of the age limit.

As a result of the recent wave of government intimidations and restrictive legal framework, CSOs are operating in a very uncertain environment. To continue working in this hostile environment, some CSOs have resorted to self-censorship, in order to avoid deregistration. This, however, poses the risk of these CSOs becoming irrelevant, as they are not engaging with the issues that concern the citizenry the most. The other challenge is that, in an environment in which the observance of fundamental freedoms is increasingly neglected by the government, restrictions imposed on the exercise of fundamental rights are likely to carry on unabated.

The police raids have also had another two-pronged effect on CSOs: on one hand, the police seeks to deter the organisations from carrying out any activities that could prevent the incumbent president from achieving his ambition of a life presidency, by portraying them as working against the ‘public interest’ or the ‘security of the state’; on the other, it aims at tarnishing CSOs’ reputation and dissuading their donors from continuing to financially support their work.

The police has continued to use the Police Act and the Public Order Management Order Act to stifle the freedoms of peaceful assembly, expression and association, and to arrest and detain persons unlawfully. The Police Act authorises the use of ‘preventive detention’ for the protection of the detainee and to starve off the spread of communicable disease. This power has been misused to arrest human rights activists and political opponents arbitrarily and to prevent political activities and demonstrations from taking place. In turn, the Public Order Management Act requires the organiser of a public procession to submit a ‘notice of intention to carry out a public meeting’ to the police. Spontaneous meetings are exempted from the notice. However, the police has repeatedly dispersed spontaneous meetings, prevented meetings arranged by opposition parties, CSOs and political activists, and arrested demonstrators.

In sum, the government continues to employ bully tactics to harass dissenters. CSOs, opposition political activists and journalists are the main victims of these attacks.

  1. What support or solidarity can international civil society offer to you in these times?

Uganda is at a crossroads. The quest by the incumbent to hold on to power poses a risk to the relative peace the country has witnessed over the past 30 years and renders the country vulnerable to a return to the old unviable struggles for political power. The determination to hold on to power at all costs has coincided with an increase in state abuses of fundamental rights. It is within this environment that CSOs in Uganda operate. To fill the void in the promotion and protection of human rights, and to provide a sense of direction and leadership to the populace, CSOs must situate their work within the current political and human rights context.

Thus, technical and financial support from international civil society to CSOs in Uganda will be crucial in steering Uganda towards democratic governance. International partners may also lobby the Ugandan government on issues of good governance and human rights as another method of exerting influence. International CSOs could also create a fund for protecting and evacuating human rights defenders in emergency cases.

Most importantly, international CSOs have a role in supporting local CSOs in their work to build civic competences among the citizenry as well as to safeguard fundamental rights.  In times when the government’s priority is the incumbent’s survival in power, issues of good governance and observance of fundamental rights have been neglected. It is for CSOs to step in and fill this void. This task would be impossible to achieve without the support of international partners.

  • Civic space in Uganda is rated as ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
  • Get in touch with the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative through their website, or follow @FHRI2 on Twitter.

 

‘Dutch citizens feel a major disconnect from politics’

The special theme of the 2018 State of Civil Society Report will be ‘reimagining democracy’. The report will explore how citizens and civil society organisations are working to build more participatory forms of democracy, and how civil society is responding to the citizen anger and sense of disconnection that is driving more extremist and polarised politics in many countries. Ahead of publication, we’ll be interviewing civil society activists and leaders in countries experiencing these trends. Here, CIVICUS speaks to René Rouwette, Director of Kompass, a civil rights organisation in the Netherlands. Kompass seeks to make human rights accessible to all and strives for ordinary people to exercise as much influence on laws and policies as large companies. It brings people together around projects on racism, refugees and ethnic profiling, among other issues.

  1. How would you describe the state of democracy in the Netherlands?

The Netherlands scores very high on the international Democracy Index. Still, I am concerned about specific developments affecting democracy in the Netherlands. Many Dutch people do not feel represented in Dutch politics. Citizens feel a major disconnect from politics, especially towards the European Union as well as at the national level. Political parties are losing members and are increasingly unable to recruit new ones, and many people who are still involved are actively seeking a political job rather than trying to challenge their parties, and change their country or the world. As local newspapers are disappearing, there is hardly any awareness about local politics either.

Many unhappy voters have turned to the right and the extreme right. And at least one such extreme right-wing party, the Freedom Party, is highly undemocratic. Its leader, Geert Wilders, is actually the party’s only formal member, which means he is the only one who can make decisions regarding the topics the political organisation will tackle and the positions it will take. This is a true anomaly among Dutch political parties.

The political landscape is polarising.  After years of consensus politics, the left and right in the Netherlands are increasingly apart. People are locked up in echo chambers, so they resist any information that does not conform to their beliefs and show very little interest in finding common ground. Parties at the centre of the political spectrum are struggling, and are increasingly accommodating language from the extremes, and especially from the extreme right. The landscape is highly fragmented. A record number of 81 contenders, many of them single-issue parties, registered to compete in the national elections that took place in March 2017. Thirteen of those parties made it to Parliament, making it very hard to reach consensus.

A major issue of current democratic tension in the Netherlands is focused on referendums. Over the past few years, referendums were introduced at the local and national levels. Almost all votes so far have resulted in wins for anti-establishment forces. In the first national referendum that took place the Netherlands, in April 2016, two-thirds of voters rejected the European Union accession treaty with Ukraine. As a result, the ruling coalition decided to put an end to referendum opportunities at the national level. People are now angry about the government’s unwillingness to follow up on the referendum results as well as about the decision to suspend referendums.   

  1. Has the practice of democracy in the country changed (for better or worse) over the past few years?

More than with democracy, I think that the problem in the Netherlands is with human rights. 

When talking about human rights in our country, you always have to start by saying that the Netherlands is not China, and that we are doing better than Rwanda and Uganda. There is a general feeling that human rights are something for other countries to be concerned with and it all comes down to issues of such as the death penalty and torture. But that is not what Eleanor Roosevelt and her colleagues meant when they drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Human rights are about many other things as well, including housing, schooling, education - a minimum standard for basic rights, in every country. 

The Dutch mind-set towards human rights is actually very contradictory, as Dutch people also tend to be pioneers and innovators. I think it is very un-Dutch to consider the human rights status quo as good enough, and to settle for an increasing mediocrity. While holding firm to the feeling that human rights are an issue for other countries, it is worth noting that Rwanda is now scoring better in terms of women’s equality and Uganda now scores better in terms of human rights education than the Netherlands. While the Netherlands is actively involved in bringing human rights to other countries, Dutch school kids score very low in terms of their knowledge of human rights.

At the same time, human rights have increasingly become an issue of political contestation. Political parties right and centre have openly criticised human rights and human rights treaties. They have even fought the Dutch constitution on this. The new government, established after the latest elections, is now investigating how to get rid of refugee treaties. A coalition of Dutch civil society organisations (CSOs) has recently concluded that in the past five years the human rights situation in the Netherlands has deteriorated. The victims of this deterioration have been not only refugees and Muslims living in the Netherlands, but also ordinary Dutch citizens. Human rights are about rights for all; the power of human rights is that they are all important. There are no left-wing human rights and right-wing human rights. Let us stick to that.   

  1. In which ways have the recent elections altered the political and ideological landscape? Has the political conversation deteriorated as a result of the challenge posed by Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party?

There is a major international misconception that the extreme right lost the Dutch elections. This is wishful thinking. In reality, Geert Wilders’ party increased its presence in the Dutch Parliament, from 12 to 20 seats. Moreover, a new extreme right-wing party, the Eurosceptic and nationalistic Forum for Democracy, also won two seats in the Dutch Parliament. Leftist parties have become very small in comparison to their past selves.

At the same time, parties at the centre have increasingly accommodated language from the extreme right, so the public conversation has definitely changed for the worse. Even in the left, among social democrats, there are voices calling for ignoring refugees’ basic rights. The Christian-Democratic Party is obsessed with winning back political power, and references to exclusion have therefore become vital to their political strategy. It is going to be hard – not to say impossible – for these parties to return to their traditional positions and, in fact, to their core ideologies. But of course that there are still some good people with a heart for human rights within those parties, and we should work with them to make things better.

  1. What is progressive civil society doing, and what should it do, to resist the rise of authoritarian, isolationist populism?

The major current challenge for Dutch civil society is to bridge differences and to start working together. In the past, many CSOs have focused on competition rather than cooperation, and on their own cause rather than the general cause. I have a feeling that this is changing, and that is for the best. CSOs can all contribute to a cause from their own experience and skills, as long as we share an agenda. An interesting trend in Dutch civil society, as well as at the international level, is that new CSOs tend not to focus exclusively on themes anymore, but rather on specific skills and assets. As a civil rights organisation, for instance, Kompass focuses on using lobbying experience and techniques to advance human rights. There is another new organisation in our country that focuses on litigation. We need to cut internal discussions short, and start working on outreach. 

It is important to note that CSOs are setting the agenda again: that civil society is being able to frame issues rather than just respond to issues put forward by other actors. We have some things to learn from the (extreme) right, who have managed to communicate a clear message through their own media, as well as through the mainstream media. It is important for us to take a position, and not appear as indifferent.

At the same time, it is important to avoid taking a high moral ground. Actively seeking polarisation will bring us nowhere. The election result was clear, and the fact that so many people abandoned progressive and left-wing parties needs serious consideration. Parties that criticise human rights treaties like the Geneva Conventions and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights now have a majority in Parliament; it is important to take stock of this. Polarisation might be useful to bring together very leftist or progressive groups, but it will alienate many others, even those in the centre. It is important to find a common ground: to persuade rather than accommodate or win discussions.

What we can learn from commercial lobbying is how to build political support among parties that do not necessarily agree. In the past, some CSOs were of the opinion that they had a role in raising problems, but that it was politicians’ job to come up with a solution. That approach just does not work in the current political setting and climate. We do not need to create moral upheavals, but to propose concrete solutions and actions. The reason why companies are spending such enormous amounts of money on lobbying is that it works. We need to learn from what they are doing.

  • Civic space in the Netherlands was recently downgraded from ‘open’ to ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that rates the conditions for civil society in every country in the world. This downgrade was influenced by increasing infringements of protest and expression rights and a rise in hate-inducing and harmful speech during the election.
  • Get in touch with Kompass through their website or Facebook page, or follow @KompassNL on Twitter

 

Nobody has made any attempt to shield Yemeni civil society organisations from impact of armed conflict

CIVICUS speaks to Radhya Almutawakel, chairperson of Mwatana Organization for Human Rights, an independent Yemeni human rights organisation. Mwatana is engaged with a number of issues, including extrajudicial killings, torture, enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests, women’s rights and the criminalisation of human rights defenders. It uses a variety of tools, including data collection through field visits and monitoring compliance with domestic legislation and international standards; advocacy and lobbying with domestic institutions and in international forums; legal support for victims; training of human rights activists; research and dissemination; and campaigning for public awareness.

  1. What have been the main recent impacts of the conflict on Yemen and Yemeni civil society?

Since the Ansar Allah armed group (Houthis) and their ally, former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, took control of the capital, Sana'a, on 21 September 2014, Yemen has entered a new phase of armed conflicts that escalated rapidly. On 26 March 2015, a Saudi Arabia-led Arab Coalition of nine countries launched a military campaign against Houthis and Saleh forces, to support the government of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, with the United States providing intelligence and logistical support.

Mwatana Organization has documented grave rights violations by the Saudi and Emirates-led coalition resulting in the killing of thousands of civilians, mostly women and children. This coalition has struck residential compounds, public markets, cultural and heritage sites, hospitals, schools, bridges and factories.

We have also documented extensive violations by the Ansar Allah armed group (Houthis) and their ally Saleh, especially in Taiz, including the use of landmines in different areas of the country. Furthermore, we have documented violations including extrajudicial executions by the forces of president Hadi and allied parties and armed groups.

Both parties share responsibility in the indiscriminate shelling of civilians and civilian facilities, child recruitment and denial of humanitarian access, in addition to arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances, tortures, violations against the freedom of speech and the disappearance of a free press, harassment of minorities and other grave violations. Civil society had only recently started to develop in Yemen, and all the progress that had been achieved was set back in the current inhospitable environment, characterised by high political instability and a lot of violence.

Before 2011, civil society in Yemen had become fairly strong in the face of a number of violations committed by the Saleh regime. At that point the Saleh regime was the main violator of human rights, and organisations of different affiliations were able to unify against the abuses. But after the 2011 revolution and the ascent of the opposition, which became a partner in government, and because of the multiplicity of violators as well as the increasing political polarisation, the voice of these organisations was significantly diminished and they were not able to form any more alliances or even initiate any kind of joint work. It was clear that human rights organisations lacked minimal independence.

In September 2014, when they forcefully seized the capital, Sana’a, and expanded into the neighbouring provinces, Houthi armed groups and their ally, former president Saleh, tightened their grip on President Hadi and his government. President Hadi then escaped to Riyadh, the Saudi capital, and in March 2015 a Saudi-led coalition including other neighbouring countries launched a military operation in Yemen, and established armed groups to support President Hadi in the fight against the Houthis. All these political developments weakened Yemeni civil society to unprecedented levels. Rights violations against organisations and their staff increased exponentially and the scope of the work they were allowed to do dramatically decreased. Many human rights, humanitarian and development organisations were forced to reduce their activities and staff or close down altogether.

  1. How have the various forces involved in the conflict impacted on civil society?

The first weapon wielded by conflicting parties against independent civil society organisations, and especially against human rights organisations, has been the orchestration of extensive incitement and smear campaigns through social media as well as their own private networks. By defaming independent human rights organisations, all conflicting parties have prejudiced the public against the work of such organisations and their employees. Mwatana Organization and its staff have been the victims of many of these campaigns launched by either Houthi- Saleh armed groups or by Saudi Arabia and the Hadi Government and their allies in Yemen.

Many activists, including members of the Mwatana team, have been threatened and detained by all conflicting parties, because of their work. Countless restrictions have been placed on human rights, humanitarian and development-related activities in the field, to the extent that long procedures and several official permits are now required to carry out a single training activity – with a good chance that even after going through all the hassle the activity might end up not being authorised at all. The same is the case with a wide variety of studies and research. Many restrictions have also been imposed by all parties on traveling to and from Yemen.

In addition, there are a number of dangers that stem from the armed conflict itself. Yemen is now ruled by a number of armed groups – the Houthi-Saleh armed groups, on one hand, and the Hadi government and the armed groups loyal to it, on the other. Armed conflict is taking place on many fronts, with an intensive airstrike campaign by the US-backed coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Nobody has made any attempt whatsoever to shield civil society organisations or their staff from the impact of the armed conflict; in fact, many of them have been endangered while carrying out their duties.

Violations of the freedom of expression are commonplace, and media diversity is lacking. In fact, civil society organisations lost an independent media outlet that had previously helped make their voice heard. As a result, social media have become the key outlet for many human rights and humanitarian organisations. However, conflicting parties are now trying to disable this platform as well, by using an army of trolls to defame any independent civil society work.

As for human rights work more specifically, all parties are seeking to corrupt civil society by establishing their own biased organisations and deploying funds to deform civil society work and justify various human rights violations. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has made considerable efforts to prevent the United Nations’ Human Rights Council from passing a resolution to establish an international mechanism to investigate violations by all warring parties in Yemen. After three years of sustained efforts by international and local human rights organisations and allied governments, however, the process came to a successful conclusion in September 2017, when a resolution was passed and an independent international group of experts was mandated to investigate abuses.

  1. What role is being played by outside forces, and what motivates these forces to be involved in the conflict?

Unfortunately, outside forces have played a destructive role in Yemen, either through direct military intervention, as in the case of Saudi Arabia and its allies, or by supporting one of the warring forces, as has been the case of the United States, the United Kingdom and France, which have supported Saudi Arabia, and of Iran, which has backed the Houthis. The declared goal of the military operation launched by Saudi Arabia was “to reinstate President Hadi” but it has destroyed the country in the process. They have indiscriminately bombarded people, homes, schools, hospitals and monuments. Although it managed to expel Houthis from the southern governorates, the state is not yet functionally back in charge of these governorates. No state institutions, including a judiciary, have been activated, and no national army has been established. In comparison, the promotion of armed groups has not ceased, and worryingly, some of these are extremist and fundamentalist religious groups.

Instead of promoting peace in Yemen, powerful nations like the United States, the United Kingdom and France have aligned to support Saudi Arabia either through considerable arms deals or through multi-faceted political support. One of the worst results of this was their lobbying against the establishment of an international mechanism for investigating violations committed by warring parties in Yemen.

As for Iranian support of the Houthis, their intervention resembles a situation in which there is a mouse running around a residential building, and the building gets destroyed when searching for the mouse, and in the end neither is the building saved nor is the mouse ever found.

After two years of war in Yemen, I can confidentially say that none of the internal or external warring parties have a clear vision of what to do next. The only undisputable fact of this war is that Yemen has become a humanitarian man-made catastrophe.

  1. What activities is Yemeni civil society still able to carry out? Does this vary by region?

Despite all the obstacles facing civil society in Yemen, there are a number of human rights and humanitarian organisations that still struggle on the ground to play a variety of roles. A number of humanitarian organisations are working to deliver humanitarian aid and services to affected populations; human rights organisations keep working to document human rights violations; and development organisations are carrying on their educational and training programmes in territories ruled both by Saleh and Houthi armed groups and by Hadi and the armed groups that are loyal to him.

  1. What would it take to build peace in Yemen, and what roles could civil society play in this?

To achieve peace in Yemen, all the warring parties would need to take steps to reduce pressure on civilians and build confidence. This includes ceasing human rights violations, releasing detainees, giving more space to humanitarian, human rights and media organisations to do their work, agreeing on a mechanism to pay salaries, re-activating the Hodeidah seaport, re-opening Sana’a airport, and fulfilling a variety of urgent humanitarian requirements.

At the international level, arms deals with the warring parties must be stopped, and the priority of human rights issues must be established. Yemen also needs a new peace process with the international community playing an independent and stable role. Dialogue must bring in all parties on the ground, with no exclusions.

  1. What support does Yemeni civil society need, including from international civil society and the intergovernmental system, now that a UN resolution establishing a commission of inquiry has been passed?

Civil society needs to build capacities in every aspect of their competence; it needs to ‘professionalise’ and reinforce its resource base with long-term projects. There is need of support for the construction of Yemen’s institutions, and capacity needs to be built so that institutions are able to respond to the deteriorating situation.

  • As a result of increasing restrictions on civil society, Yemen’s civic space rating was recently downgraded to the lowest category, closed, by the CIVICUS Monitor.
  • Get in touch with Mwatana Organization for Human Rights through their website or Facebook page, or follow @mwatanaen and @RAlmutawakel on Twitter.

 

Closure of civic space constitutes an existential threat to independent civil society in Bahrain

Michael Payne

Sam Jones


CIVICUS speaks to
Michael Payne (left), Director of Advocacy, and Sam Jones (right), a researcher at Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB). ADHRB is an international civil society organisation of Americans and Bahrainis seeking to expand the kingdom’s rapidly closing civil society space through dialogue and reform.

1. What are the main tactics used to restrict civic space in Bahrain? What have been the most serious recent violations of civil society rights in the country?

In recent weeks and months, Bahrain’s human rights situation has dramatically deteriorated, with civil society space now all but completely restricted. Since January 2017, the Government of Bahrain has taken several unprecedented repressive measures, including allowing military courts to try civilians; re-empowering the National Security Agency, the country’s intelligence body, with domestic arrest authority; ending a de facto moratorium on the death penalty by executing three torture victims; launching two lethal raids on peaceful demonstrations in the town of Diraz, killing at least six protesters; dissolving the last major political opposition group, Wa’ad (also known as the National Democracy Action Society); closing the only independent media outlet, Al-Wasat; torturing and intimidating activists and their families, including human rights defender Ebtisam al-Saegh; and sentencing Nabeel Rajab, the president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), to two years in prison on charges related solely to free expression.

In many respects, the current level of repression is worse even than in 2011, when the government declared a state of emergency and violently crushed the country’s pro-democracy protest movement. Many of the current restrictions on civil society space have been legislated or implemented under ‘normal’ circumstances – rather than under a state of emergency as in 2011 – leading some activists to describe the present situation as one of “de facto martial law.” Specifically, the expansion of the military courts’ jurisdiction and the restoration of the NSA’s arrest authority may, together, constitute the foundation of a parallel legal system for individuals deemed to jeopardise national security, whereby ‘enemies of the state’ like civil society activists can be more rapidly and quietly disappeared, tortured, imprisoned, or even executed by the authorities. This is a very serious threat to the re-emergence of a functioning, independent civil society in Bahrain, as well as to any prospect of sustainable political reconciliation and stability for the kingdom.

2. Why is the state restricting Bahraini civil society so severely? What are its motivations and what is at stake?

Given the opacity of a state like Bahrain – with all key positions of power occupied by members of the same Al Khalifa royal family – it is not entirely clear what is primarily motivating its current assault on civil society. Notably, at the height of the unrest in 2011, so-called ‘reformists’ in the monarchy – generally understood to be led by the king’s son, Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad – purportedly urged restraint and sought to secure a sustainable political resolution through dialogue with the opposition. Simultaneously, ‘hardliners’ like Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman and the Khawalid – a branch of the royal family distinct from that of the king and which is infamous for anti-Shia prejudice – pushed to securitise the unrest and crush it with force, at least implicitly working to undermine the dialogue approach. If there is a single motivation running through both camps, it is primarily the survival of the monarchy in either a constitutional or absolute form, respectively.

Throughout 2011, the king appeared to vacillate between both approaches, following the historical precedent of interchanging nominal reforms or attempted co-optation of civil society activism with brute force. These paradoxical approaches culminated in the violent destruction of the Pearl Roundabout protest encampment, on one hand, and the establishment of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), on the other.

Yet, despite the government’s acceptance of the BICI’s 26 recommendations to open civil society space and redress human rights violations, its disingenuous efforts to implement these reforms suggest that the hard-line approach has ultimately come to dominate the monarchy’s strategy. For this camp, and increasingly the monarchy as a whole, the goal appears to be simple maintenance of power, animated by a royal/familial or even sectarian chauvinism aimed at marginalising the non-royal/Shia majority. Though the monarchy is not monolithic, this securitised, anti-Shia strategy dovetails with the entire system’s more pragmatic interest in ensuring another broad-based, cross-sectarian civil society movement does not re-emerge to credibly demand basic freedoms and an end to royal kleptocracy or corruption. Notably, the hard-line leadership also effectively controls the security establishment, and it has used institutions like the Ministry of Interior, the National Security Agency, and the Ministry of Justice to frame the opposition – and even independent civil society at large – as a sectarian security problem to be dealt with through selective law enforcement or sheer violence.

As the government largely coalesced around this core strategy over the last several years, it became a bit easier to see the motivation behind the severity of the current restrictions on civil society. Bahrain’s history of vibrant, independent civil society movements and institutions is unique to the Gulf region, and any government strategy to fully eliminate or dominate this landscape therefore requires significant force. The government’s embrace of a wholly hard-line position on independent civil society necessarily entails the steady escalation in violence and repression that we have been witnessing recently.

Lastly, perhaps the most proximate motivator is the upcoming elections for the lower house of Bahrain’s parliament, the National Assembly’s Council of Representatives, expected in late 2018. The National Assembly, as a whole, is legislatively hamstrung and the upper house remains royally appointed, so it is largely unable or unwilling to act as an effective check on the executive. However, the government likely sees the elections as a symbolic opportunity to persuade the world it has made democratic progress while simultaneously engineering a pliant lower house with a false claim to international legitimacy. To be sure the monarchy’s core supporters – sometimes referred to as “tribal independents,”or members of families with traditional patronage ties to the Al Khalifa that remain unaligned with any organised political group – secure a large proportion of the vote, the government has been actively clearing the stage of any licensed opposition in advance of the election. Formal political parties remain illegal in Bahrain, but the authorities have dissolved all major opposition societies, which act as de facto parties, since the events of 2011: Amal in 2012, Al-Wefaq in 2016; and Wa’ad in 2017. Leading members of all three of these groups – as well as smaller opposition organisations like Al-Wahdawi – are either currently imprisoned, facing charges, or have been subjected to some other form of judicial harassment or intimidation. Moreover, the government has continued to engage in targeted gerrymandering to undermine the constituencies of not just these opposition groups but also societies traditionally allied with the monarchy, such as the Al-Minbar Muslim Brotherhood affiliate and the Al-Asala Salafi organisation. All these trends suggest that the government may intend to seize the opportunity presented by the 2018 elections to dispense with organised political groupings and establish new, reliable patronage networks of non-aligned ‘independents’ loyal to the royal family. If the government can succeed at restricting independent media coverage of the elections, as well as any effective local monitoring, it may think that it will be able to present self-serving political consolidation as evidence of genuine democratisation – at the expense of the actual opposition.

3. What roles are being played by outside government in the repression of Bahraini civil society?

Bahrain is a very small country with growing economic problems, chief among them the virtual depletion of oil. Both strategically and financially, it is extremely dependent on external allies like Saudi Arabia, the United States, and the former colonial power, the United Kingdom. The governments of all three have had a significant impact on the evolution of repression since 2011.

Saudi Arabia has played the most visible role, leading a contingent of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)’s Peninsula Shield Force into Bahrain to support the kingdom’s final push to clear the 2011 Pearl Roundabout protests. While it is unclear if these troops have directly committed any human rights violations – the BICI found that they predominantly guarded infrastructure, freeing up additional Bahraini security forces to attack the demonstrations, but some form of the Peninsula Shield Force remains stationed in Bahrain and has faced sporadic allegations of abuse – the deployment either forced or confirmed the government’s turn towards a securitised, hard-line approach to the unrest. It is speculated that the Saudi leadership, which has rarely abided any semblance of independent civil and political society, long disapproved of Bahraini government concessions or reforms, urging it to forcefully quell all dissent. Similarly, the Saudi government, competing with Iran over regional dominance, has historically propagated or at least tolerated anti-Shia hate speech and a narrative of sectarian conflict that casts Arab Shia people as a disloyal fifth column. In recent years it has dealt violently with uprisings in its own predominantly Shia Eastern Province and has reportedly funded Bahrain’s largely pro-government Al-Asala Salafi political society (foreign funding is illegal in Bahrain, but the offence is typically alleged selectively against independent civil society or opposition groups). Altogether, Saudi influence has fallen squarely behind the hard-line approach in Bahrain, entrenching a toxic sectarian narrative and driving a securitised response to dissent.

The US, meanwhile, has taken a complex and often contradictory position on Bahrain in recent years, with the consequent impact dependent on the administration or even branch of government in question. Bahraini-American relations are most strongly centred on the defence partnership, which is oriented around the US naval facility in Manama – one of the most important US military bases in the region and home to the US Fifth Fleet. In 2011 and its aftermath, the US largely sought to moderate the Bahraini government’s response, urging reform and restricting security assistance over human rights concerns. Privately, it appears the US failed to bring all possible pressure to bear – such as threatening to move the Fifth Fleet, something which truly rattles the Bahraini government – allowing the GCC to do what it would with Bahrain in exchange for its support for the NATO intervention in Libya. In the ensuing years, under the Obama administration, the US mostly played a rhetorically positive role, while lifting some restrictions on arms holds. The Trump administration, however, has walked remaining Obama-era restrictions back even further, approving old and new arms transfers devoid of human rights conditions. President Trump’s decision to make Saudi Arabia the destination of his first trip abroad and to meet with Bahrain’s King Hamad – promising a relationship without “strain” – cannot be separated from the kingdom’s move, just days later, to violently raid a peaceful sit-in, killing five protesters and injuring hundreds. It is not a coincidence that Bahrain’s bloodiest day since before 2011 occurred only months into the Trump administration; in fact, the current acting secretary-general of Bahrain’s fatally flawed National Institute for Human Rights – which endorsed the executions that ended Bahrain’s de facto moratorium on the death penalty – summed up the general sentiment among government officials when he tweeted hopefully after the US election: “With @realDonaldTrump as president, the curse of the Arab Spring is officially over.”

While the US influence has been mixed, the UK has more consistently and quietly played a very negative role. Having initially created many of Bahrain’s security institutions, the British government has continued to advise the authorities in their purported attempts to conduct human rights training programmes and establish human rights oversight mechanisms. These initiatives have been decided failures, if they were ever undertaken in good faith at all. While core abuses like torture, enforced disappearance, excessive force, and arbitrary detention have continued apace and, in some cases, increased, the UK has continued to help institutions like the Ministry of Interior Police Ombudsman obscure or even cover up government malfeasance. Though ostensibly created with good intentions, these oversight mechanisms are stymied by flawed mandates and a lack of political will to hold officials accountable. So many years on, rather than restrict support or forcefully rebuke the Bahraini government, the UK still backs these institutions – ultimately allowing the Bahraini authorities to pretend they are implementing reforms while the security forces continue with their primary function: violently suppressing dissent.

Lastly, though the BICI found no evidence of Iranian involvement in the country’s pro-democracy movement, Iranian posturing and its geopolitical competition with the Saudi-led GCC have had a negative impact on Bahraini civil society in a broader sense. The Government of Bahrain has strategically calibrated sectarian rhetoric and policy initiatives to frame independent civil society as solely Shia and Iranian-backed - a narrative that plays well in the GCC and in the US and the UK - and opportunistic Iranian statements often lend rhetorical credence to the otherwise baseless claims of Bahraini authorities.

4. What roles do private sector interests play in these processes?

Private sector interests have unfortunately played a negative role in many cases as well. In 2011, the domestic private sector had a directly negative influence on civil society engagement by cooperating with the government and dismissing thousands of employees on suspicion of participating in protests. The International Trade Union Confederation described the campaign as “an economic massacre following the deplorable human massacre.” Though most of these individuals were ultimately reinstated, ADHRB has received credible reports from local labour activists that many remain dismissed from their positions, and that others have been deprived full compensation and benefits as afforded to them under the government’s agreements with the International Labour Organization. Notably, due to the extreme sectarian hiring bias exhibited in the Bahraini public sector, members of Bahrain’s Shia majority community predominantly find employment in the private sector, and many employees – Shia or otherwise – remain wary of expressing controversial political views for fear of reprisal.

Another form of private sector involvement in Bahrain’s current human rights crisis comes during major international events like the Bahrain Formula One (F1) Grand Prix. For years, the government would increase its violent suppression of protests and gatherings near the Bahrain International Circuit in the weeks leading up to, and throughout, the annual Bahrain Grand Prix race. In response to this, ADHRB filed a complaint with F1 through the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) complaint mechanism. This complaint ultimately led to arbitration, and the ultimate adoption of a human rights due diligence policy by F1.

Further evidence of detrimental roles of international business interests is found in the security sector. While arms manufacturers are not typically sympathetic when individuals are killed using the weapons they produce, Bahrain has caused controversy in the arms industry regarding their lethal misuse of non-lethal crowd control weapons. For example, Bahraini security forces have on many occasions fired long-range teargas canisters at individual protestors at close range, thus using these gas canisters as projectiles themselves. Ministry of Interior forces also often fire birdshot shotgun blasts at protesters at close range, as happened in the lethal Diraz raid in May 2017 where five protesters were killed. Industry experts have commented that the extent of Bahrain’s violation of end use agreements and abuse of teargas and other crowd control weapons was “unprecedented.” As a result, a number of countries including the US and South Korea have ceased all teargas and light arms sales to Bahrain.

5. How has Bahraini civil society responded to these restrictions?

It has been extremely difficult for Bahraini civil society to respond. The current restrictions effectively constitute an existential threat to independent civil society. Since 2011, we have consistently expressed grave concern that civil and political society space is closing – since 2016 that space has virtually closed. As reflected by the CIVICUS Monitor rating for Bahrain, nearly every independent civil society activist or organisation in the country has faced some form of attack, from judicial harassment to outright forced dissolution. Labour unions, trade associations, religious organisations, political societies and human rights groups have all come under assault. Many activists and organisations are simply unable to keep up the same pace of work, occupied instead with legal battles or avoiding reprisal. Others have left the country seeking asylum, hoping to continue their work from abroad.

Equally troubling is the consequent risk of increased violence following such complete closure of peaceful avenues for mobilisation and dissent. Fortunately, as noted by the US State Department, last year actually saw a decline in terror attacks in Bahrain; however, it is a constant concern that the government tactic of falsely equating all peaceful activism with terrorism is a self-fulfilling prophecy that will ultimately generate heightened violence and instability.

Q: What would it take to build democratic institutions in Bahrain, and what roles could civil society play in it?

As has been observed of Iraq, the Ba’athist regime and American invasion together devastated what had once been a robust civil society, leaving those that survived the war and occupation with a vastly diminished civil society infrastructure to draw on in rebuilding the country. This left a void that all manner of negative actors could exploit for their own ends, distorting and forestalling the development of strong democratic institutions.

Bahrain is not yet at a stage that compares to post-war Iraq, but it is not difficult to imagine a scenario in which such total repression or violence similarly undermines the country’s traditionally vigorous and extensive civil society networks. Fortunately, Bahrain’s mainstream civil society and opposition movements have remained steadfastly committed to nonviolent activism and international engagement, and if they can endure the government’s intensifying restrictions they will play the key role in building sustainable democratic institutions.

For this to happen, however, will require a near total reversal of the government’s current approach, and a re-empowerment of whatever ‘reformist’ strands still exist within the monarchy. The government would need to be willing to offer at least some genuine democratic reforms upfront to demonstrate that any ensuing dialogue or reconciliation process was being undertaken in good faith, rather than a stunt. Unlike countries like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain does have the basic parliamentary infrastructure to build on as well, so a critical, viable first concession the government could make would be to reform the National Assembly to make it a fully representative, bicameral parliament. Allowing this parliament to then select a new Prime Minister to replace Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, who has held the post for more than 40 years, would represent a major step toward ensuring accountability and oversight for the cabinet, in addition to symbolically indicating a new era for the country.

6. What support does Bahraini civil society need from international civil society and the intergovernmental system?

Bahraini civil society has long sought the support of the international community, including international institutions and mechanisms, and from international civil society organisations.

We have worked extensively with a range of Bahraini civil society actors to empower their engagement in forums like the UN Human Rights Council, and helped to facilitate bringing their on-the-ground documentation of human rights abuses to the attention of the UN Special Procedures. Since this programme began in 2013, we have worked with our partners to document and report on hundreds of human rights violations in Bahrain. This has helped to create a growing body of documentation and reporting issued by UN human rights experts, and endorsed by the UN system.

Further advocacy campaigns with coalitions of Bahraini civil society groups, UN, European Union and other international actors have resulted in a number of victories and success stories over the years. In response to diverse international pressure, the Bahraini government has, at times, released various political prisoners or human rights defenders like Nabeel Rajab, Maryam al-Khawaja, Zeinab al-Khawaja and Ebrahim Sharif. Several years ago, Bahraini civil society, with the support and protection of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), was able to carry out a series of technical missions in Bahrain, which included conferences, training seminars and consultative visits. While this level of cooperation and access has declined in recent years, Bahrain’s civil society remains very committed to international cooperation and support.

Bahrain has also enjoyed a significant amount of attention in international political forums such as the UN Human Rights Council and the European Parliament. Since 2011, there have been a series of five successive, multilateral, and cross-regional joint statements issued in the Human Rights Council on the human rights situation in Bahrain. With as many as 48 governments raising collective concern over on-going abuses in the kingdom, these statements have served as a valuable tool for maintaining important scrutiny on Bahrain’s human rights record, and provide validation and protection for the work of domestic human rights actors. In the European Union too, Bahrain has received repeated scrutiny from members of the European Parliament through repeated human rights resolutions that have addressed cases of human rights defenders, political prisoners and executions, among other systematic abuses.

Given today’s increasingly closed domestic civil society space, Bahraini human rights defenders and activists rely more and more on external protected spaces for furthering their human rights work. Access remains a key problem, both for international actors to enter Bahrain to carry out human rights work, and for Bahraini civil society to travel freely outside Bahrain without fear of arbitrary travel bans, or violent reprisals upon return. However, civil society still works to organise conferences, events and training programmes within their region and further abroad, and has relied increasingly on exiled Bahraini communities to further their work from outside the country.

ADHRB, and our Bahraini and international partners, will continue to work to support Bahrain’s human rights defenders and civil society activists in furthering their struggle for human rights, accountability, transparency and redress in Bahrain and in international forums.

 

‘All governments agree – at least nominally - that a world without nuclear weapons is a desirable goal; it’s time to hold them to their words’

CIVICUS speaks to Daniel Högsta, Network Coordinator with the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), a broad, inclusive campaign focused on mobilising civil society around the world to promote the negotiation of a global nuclear weapon ban treaty. In October 2017 ICAN was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of its role in achieving the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, adopted by 122 nations in July 2017. 

1. Can you tell us more about the work of ICAN?

The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) is a coalition of non-governmental organisations in one hundred countries advocating for a strong and effective treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons.

ICAN was inspired by the tremendous success of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, which a decade earlier had played an instrumental role in the negotiation of the anti-personnel mine ban treaty.

Since our founding, we have worked to build a powerful global groundswell of public support for the abolition of nuclear weapons. By engaging diverse groups and working alongside the Red Cross and like-minded governments, we have reframed the debate on nuclear weapons and generated momentum for the start of treaty negotiations.

At a review of the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2010, all nations expressed their deep concern at the “catastrophic humanitarian consequences” of any use of nuclear weapons – a collective statement that led to the convening of three major conferences in 2013 and 2014 focusing on the humanitarian impact of nuclear detonations. ICAN served as the civil society coordinator for these meetings, which brought together most of the world’s governments, along with international organisations and academic institutions. In 2015 we helped garner the support of 127 nations for a diplomatic pledge “to fill the legal gap” in the existing regime governing nuclear weapons.

In 2016, our campaign lobbied successfully for the UN General Assembly to establish a UN working group to examine specific proposals for advancing nuclear disarmament and then to adopt the resolution in December 2016 to launch negotiations on “a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons”.

The negotiations took place over four weeks in 2017 and culminated in the adoption by 122 States of a treaty that prohibits nuclear weapons. It opened for signature on 20 September 2017 and already has 53 signatories.

The importance of this initiative and our strategy looking forward was cited by the Norwegian Nobel Committee in awarding ICAN the Nobel Peace Prize for 2017.

2. What strengths do you think you gained from working as a coalition, and what strategies have you used to do so successfully?

In the field of disarmament and arms control, coalitions have achieved remarkable successes. The International Campaign to Ban Landmines was key to the achievement of the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, the Cluster Munitions Coalition saw the agreement of the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions and Control Arms provided momentum for the adoption of the international Arms Trade Treaty. With the successful adoption by 122 governments of the first prohibition treaty on nuclear weapons, ICAN has followed in a strong tradition of humanitarian disarmament coalitions.

All issues and coalitions are unique and we shouldn’t just simply copy past approaches expecting them to work again, but there is much evidence to suggest that working together makes us much stronger as civil society organisations.

First we’ve tried to set the terms of the debate. Too often the conversation about nuclear weapons returns to the same topics over and again, without evolving or challenging what we see as the central question about nuclear weapons: Is the catastrophic humanitarian harm that nuclear weapons pose acceptable or not? If not, then all discussions need to proceed from that starting point. Arguments that nuclear weapons confer any security benefits or that there is value in “nuclear deterrence” no longer stand up to logic, nor correspond to modern ethical and humanitarian values.

It is not always necessary to win an argument you are presented with; it can be better to reframe the problem in a way that gives you the upper hand. Legal and technical arguments can be important, but they can also be ways by which the unacceptability of the status quo gets obscured or lost sight of. The burden of proof needs to be pushed onto those that claim reform is not needed or should only be limited and piecemeal.

Secondly, and this obviously is related to the first point, we have maintained a constant focus on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons. A key part of reframing the debate is to move beyond the common legal framing of balancing humanitarian and military considerations and to focus on the human suffering as unacceptable.

Third, and also related, we have sourced leadership from communities that have been directly affected by nuclear weapons. The voices of the Hibakusha (the surviving victims of the 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki) and of nuclear test survivors has been invaluable in bringing the issue of nuclear weapons back to what it should be about – people. It also provides many more campaigning opportunities as it broadens the spectrum of those who can speak to the issue. There is such a broad range of concerns related to nuclear weapons, we cannot simply leave the conversation to supposed military or geopolitical experts.

Finally, while ICAN is itself a group of partner organisations, by working together ICAN as a whole can also make strategic working relationships with other larger organisations or movements, including the Red Cross and the Red Crescent Movement. This has served to amplify our voice and relevance as an actor in the field of disarmament.

3. What are the key challenges your campaign has faced?

Unsurprisingly perhaps, a major challenge has been public apathy around nuclear weapons and the fact that the media attention has centred on the same issues in the same way and has tended to reinforce the narrative that “nothing is possible”.

We, along with many, many advocacy-oriented organisations in the field of disarmament at large, have also struggled with funding. In the push for the ban treaty and beyond we need to consider the fact that civil society has been continuing to work to drive this initiative forward in spite of an alarming shrinking of resources devoted to advocacy in disarmament. Governments and foundations are quite keen to contribute to research, meetings, etc., but there is a much smaller pool that are interested in (or able to due to their internal technical regulations or traditions) funding civil society initiatives. There needs to be more of an institutional (among governments and also within the United Nations) recognition of the indispensable role played by civil society and that it is simply not possible without resources. If we simply rely on the generosity of the governments with resources to fund civil society initiatives, would we get the progressive outcomes we need?

Another challenge has been the active opposition of the most powerful states in the diplomatic sphere, in particular the “P5” states (that is, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council): the US, the UK, France, Russia and China. It seems the only thing those five states can agree on is that they are against pursuing the prohibition of nuclear weapons. Fortunately, our strategy and the power of the prohibition Treaty never relied on the participation of the nuclear weapon states – indeed it was borne out of acknowledging that the nuclear weapon states and their allies are blocking progress and that waiting for them is not an option. But they are powerful opponents, capable of wielding significant behind-the-scenes diplomatic pressure that has proved to be too much to resist for several governments. Fortunately, it wasn’t enough to thwart the process.

4. What are your thoughts on the fact that your work was recognized with the Nobel Peace Prize? Will this make any difference to your campaign?

We are both humbled and excited to receive this award. We are humbled because we know the breadth of actors that have been involved in making the ban treaty happen — from states to civil society to the international Red Cross and the Red Crescent movement to academics and researchers. We are excited because of the opportunities this presents us as campaigners to work for universalization of the Treaty and to work in nuclear weapon and nuclear umbrella states to change their policies related to nuclear weapons. We hope it will also allow us to further change the narrative around nuclear weapons.

Fortunately, all governments agree – at least nominally –that a world without nuclear weapons is a desirable goal. It’s time to hold them to their words and force them to pursue this goal. With the achievement of the new Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and of course the recognition afforded us by the Nobel Peace Prize we hope there can be a new dawn for disarmament and the beginning of the end for nuclear weapons.

Get in touch with ICAN through their website or Facebook page, or follow @nuclearban or @dhogsta on Twitter.

 

‘The government is in fact listening to civil society, just not to the progressive side of it’

CIVICUS speaks to Horace Levy, the director of Jamaicans for Justice, a non-profit, non-partisan, non-violent citizens’ rights action organisation that advocates for good governance and improvements in state accountability and transparency.

1. What led to the formation of Jamaicans for Justice, and what does the organisation do?

In April 1999, the government announced new taxes, including a special fuel tax and a 30% hike in the cost of licensing vehicles. This prompted widespread protests, both peaceful and violent, including roadblocks and barricades, which lasted for several days. There was one group, in the St. Andrew’s section of Kingston, that included some lower class people, but was mostly middle class, and had gathered to block a road in protest. The poorer people were on one side of the road and the middle class people were on the other, but after a couple of days they came together. Some people from that middle-class group met afterwards to discuss the causes of the protests – the general state of injustice, the oppression of poor people. Out of a series of meetings, held along with a Roman Catholic priest, Monsignor Richard Albert, who offered his church as a venue, was born Jamaicans for Justice (JFJ). By July the group had formed, in August it registered as a limited liability company, and on 15 October 1999, six months after the riots, it officially became a registered NGO.

The very first case JFJ took on involved the ill treatment of inner city poor youth by the police. The police had detained 52 poor youths, put them behind bars — then they released some but they kept others. From the beginning, then, ill treatment by police became a major issue for JFJ. As a result of several presentations we made before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), the government eventually set up a Special Coroners’ Court, because the Coroner’s Court was totally inadequate to deal with this. The Special Coroners’ Court deals specifically with police abuse, and killings in particular.

Another broad area of our work involves children in the care of the state. JFJ monitors the situation of wards of the state in children’s homes, places of safety, police lock-ups, remand and correctional facilities. We gather data, provide reports and lobby for the protection of this particularly vulnerable group.

We are also involved in a wide range of other things: we deliver human rights education in schools, we provide human rights training to police recruits, we bring legal advice to inner-city communities through legal advice sessions and workshops, we give testimony in front of parliamentary committees, we promote citizen awareness of the right to access public information, and we develop media campaigns, among other things. Right now some of us are working very hard on an identification process the government is putting in place, which involves elements of respect for privacy and other rights. But we keep focusing on one of our core issues: the conditions of detention.

One achievement we contributed to was the establishment by the government of an independent Commission of Enquiry to clarify the events that took place during the State of Emergency declared in May 2010, which left almost 70 civilians dead. A lot of progress was done in prosecuting the police for extra-judicial killings, which helped reduce the number of killings. In order to prevent this from happening again, we keep pushing for radical change in the way the security forces operate.

2. Organisations defending basic civil rights against actions by the security forces are often accused of “protecting criminals”. How do you get public opinion to take your side on divisive issues such as police brutality?

I don’t think we have entirely escaped that accusation. But we try in various ways: for instance, when a police officer is killed in the line of duty we issue a press release offering our sympathy to his family and condemning the act. Most of the times the papers don’t print that, but we issue it anyway. Secondly, we work on other issues as well, such as the welfare of children, which shows we are not fixated on police abuses. There was a period when we also did a lot of work on socio-economic rights: education, housing, employment and the development of rural communities. And of course, we also try to explain that the reason why we are concerned with police brutality is that the police are supposed to be protecting human rights. So a criminal killing somebody and a police officer killing somebody are two completely different things. But people seem to overlook that. Criminals are what they are, and they are not going to be moved by our condemning them. But by addressing actions by the state that should not happen, we have a chance to change them.

3. How would you describe the environment for civil society in Jamaica? Are civic freedoms enjoyed by all Jamaicans equally, or are there restrictions that affect specific groups disproportionately?

Civic space is quite good in Jamaica. The freedom of the press is perhaps the most unrestricted in the hemisphere. The freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly are respected and protected. The state does not attack these freedoms; to the contrary, for instance, the state has facilitated the freedom of expression by passing laws governing the establishment of fresh media outlets.

About four years ago, we were stigmatised in public comments by the previous government’s Minister of Youth, who accused us of grooming children in state-run homes to be homosexuals, while we were in fact delivering a sexual education programme in about seven children’s homes. But this was an exception rather than a rule, and it was just an individual reaction from a public official that we had criticised. We had only had another situation like that in the past, when we had just started as an organisation and were perceived as hostile to the party that was in power at the time. But as time passed, and both parties spent some time in power, it became apparent that we criticised them both, that we were not partisan in any way, and that we were constructive rather than over-critical, so our position became accepted.

Along with a quite healthy civic space, we have had free elections since 1945, and elections have been overall free and fair ever since. We never had a party in power that was not legally and legitimately elected. At the same time, slightly more than half the population is currently not voting, which means that each party has the support of about 23% or 24% of the electorate. Although democracy is firmly rooted not just in the political sphere but also among business, civil society and religious groups, recent polls have witnessed an increase in the number of citizens that would favour a military takeover (which is highly unlikely to happen) in reaction to the perceived corruption of politics.

There are also lot of structural but subtle ways in which democracy is hurt. As a legacy of slavery and colonialism, our country has a hierarchical social structure that has stayed in place even after independence. It is a pyramid on top of which are white people, followed by brown people in the middle, and black people (who account for 85% of the population) at the bottom. Of course it’s not clear-cut: we have black politicians and top public officials, for example. But there is a sharp distinction between the brown and the black. The middle class is largely brown, although there are blacks among them as well. This distinction reflects in education: we have a two-tier education system, with the brown and upper class in private, proprietary and secondary schools, and the large mass of the mostly black population receiving and inferior education. Fortunately, this is changing, and formerly weak schools are now beginning to compete with privileged schools thanks to state funding. As for police abuses, they are directed against the black majority in poor communities: you don’t see upper class and white people being beaten by the police.

In other words, democracy is in many ways corrupted by overlapping race and class injustices. The system is not corrupt in the sense that officials massively take bribes, but it is indeed damaged by this racial and class hierarchy that, according to public opinion polls, is unfortunately accepted by the vast majority of the people. Interestingly, this is not reflected in the way Jamaicans individually behave: we don’t see ourselves as less than anybody else, and when overseas we are often regarded as aggressive. We have a strong sense of our rights, but at the same time there is a broad segment of black people bleaching their skin in an attempt to climb up the social ladder.

4. Do you think representative democracy in Jamaica is participatory enough? Do regular citizens and organised civil society have a say in how public affairs are run?

Our democracy is not participatory enough, which is part of our struggle. Recent events have enhanced the prospects for civil society participation, however. In the latest election, in early 2016, the government won by a very tight majority, which made it more open to civil society. So as to gather as much support as they could, they gave continuity to an institution called Partnership for a Prosperous Jamaica (PPJ, formerly known as Partnership for Jamaica).

The PPJ includes representatives of the state (both from the government and the opposition), the private sector, trade unions and civil society organisations. It was in fact as a result of civil society efforts that we got representation for five distinct civil society groups: a faith-based group, a rights advocacy group, a youth group, a women’s group and an environmental CSO. The Prime Minister, who chairs the Partnership, agreed to our proposal to have three sub-committees: on women and children; on violence and the rule of law; and on the environment. The chairpersons of all three sub-committees are civil society people.

The chairwoman of the environment sub-committee, in particular, is a civil society representative who is highly respected by both major political parties and who had resigned to her position in the previous Partnership because she was disgusted by the fact that there was all talk and no real action. She just led a petition to the Prime Minister to protect Jamaica’s Cockpit Country against bauxite mining. According to a recently established mechanism, if you gather 15 000 signatures in 40 days, the government will review the petition, and if it complies with certain standards the Office of the Prime Minister will issue an official response. This petition surpassed the target by far, so we are now waiting to see whether we won this battle or not.

So, there is an element of participation, but making it count is a permanent struggle. Additionally, there is a section of civil society that is mobilised around conservative or even reactionary causes, which means that not all forms of participation are helping advance a progressive agenda. For instance, an area in which we are struggling very strongly is LGBTQ rights. We have long been pushing for the revocation of buggery or sodomy laws, old pieces of legislation that criminalise male same-sex sexual activity. Under these statutes, loosely defined “unnatural offences” and “outrages on decency” can be punished with up to ten years of imprisonment and hard labour. But there is a wide section of society, led by conservative churches such as evangelists and Seventh-Day Adventists, which strongly oppose the repeal of these laws. The majority of the population belong to these churches, while more liberal churches are a small minority.

Politicians are afraid of conservative religious people, so the government has proposed to submit the issue to a referendum. So the government is in fact listening to civil society, just not to the progressive side of it. Now, why would the majority go against itself, its own social norms and its own privilege? We just had an international conference with leading Anglicans and human rights activists, including Anthony Gifford, explaining why this is not the kind of issue to be decided by a popular vote. It doesn't make any sense to ask the majority whether they would like to respect the rights of a minority they are oppressing. Sodomy laws were repealed in Britain 50 years ago, but in Jamaica we are not likely to have them revoked anytime soon. On this issue, a section of civil society is fighting another section of civil society.

5. What support, including from international actors, does progressive Jamaican civil society need to play a full role in building a fairer society and a more participatory democracy?

We get international support, for example in the form of the conference I just mentioned, with highly-respected figures putting forward a cogent argument that will hopefully help shape public debate. UNDP has also collaborated in a similar way.

Financial support, on the other hand, is not that good. That’s where organisations like JFJ are struggling. We get some funding locally, but it is very little. For instance, we have one donor who gives us nearly 2.5 million Jamaicans, but that’s just a few hundred US dollars. We have an annual fundraising art auction, which is quite unusual for an organisation like ours, but that’s because we have some middle- to upper-class donors, and this brings in a couple million Jamaican dollars a year. And it takes months of efforts.

So most of our funding comes from international sources. We had funding from the UN Democracy Fund (UNDEF), but it expired last December. We just got UNICEF funding for our work with children, which is set to last for at least two years. We also have some funding from the European Union, but it ends in about five months, and we are finding it hard to replace it. We have been trying to get funding from the Open Society Foundations but have not yet succeeded. We are approaching the Inter-American Development Bank, and we might get something from them.

In short, we are struggling with funding. Until 2013 we had a Legal Department but we had to close it. We still employ one of the lawyers from our former Legal Department, but we need more lawyers because a lot of our work with pre-trial detainees is of a legal nature. For instance, we have a case now going to the Privy Council and we are struggling to get the money to send people there. Even though we have some pro bono lawyers in England, it still costs us money: we need to send them 3 000 pounds that we can ill afford.

When we get our Legal Department going, we will be able to use it to earn some money. In the past, we stupidly thought that, as a charity, we shouldn’t. But in fact, even as a charity we can earn some money by imposing retainer fees to those who can pay them, while working for free for those who cannot afford them. We are set to do that, but we have made that decision quite recently, so we won’t be earning any money from it for a few months yet.

  • Jamaicans for Justice (JFJ) was founded in 1999 and primarily works with victims whose rights have been breached by members of the security forces. In the upcoming period of sessions of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights) in Montevideo, Uruguay, JFJ will take part in a hearing on extrajudicial executions and the excessive use of preventive detention against Afro-descendants in Jamaica.
  • Civic space in Jamaica is rated as “narrowed” by the CIVICUS Monitor.
  • Get in touch with Jamaicans for Justice through their website or Facebook page, or follow @JAForJustice on Twitter.

 

Kenya’s fresh election lights up Africa with hope

On 26 October 2017, Kenya returns to the polls after the Supreme Court declared the election held on 8 August 2017 null and void. CIVICUS speaks to governance specialist Paul Okumu on the coming election re-run, the announcement by the main opposition that it will not contest the poll and what this means for Kenya’s democracy

Q: What is the mood in the country after the Supreme Court judgement ordering for a fresh election to be held this October?

On the whole, this has been the most exciting moment for Kenyans — both here at home and abroad.

But beyond Kenya, we have received several messages of solidarity and excitement from across Africa, with many African citizens and civil society telling us that this is a victory for the continent and not just for Kenya.

Never in their existence have the courts overruled the executive in the manner that the Kenya judiciary did. The judiciary has always shied away from challenging orders seen or perceived to touch the executive, and this ruling was totally unexpected, considering that the incumbent President is for all purposes the final appointing authority of members of the judiciary (based on recommendations from the Judiciary Service Commission and Parliamentary approval).

But the most ecstatic part is that citizens, as well as all arms of government, respected the judiciary and agreed to follow the orders. It has given citizens a renewed breath of fresh air and confidence in the judiciary.

It also reaffirmed the supremacy of the Constitution and the power of citizens, something that is seen as new in Kenya, considering that the Constitution is less than ten years old.

There is however some slight apprehension that being the first time, perhaps the excitement is temporary and it is not clear if indeed this is a reflection of a new activist and accountability nature of the judiciary, or this is limited just to the Supreme Court. Many of you may have also heard that the ruling party is using its new majority in both house of Parliament to push through two new laws that will dramatically weaken the Supreme Court and the electoral oversight body, Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC).

One must recall, however, that the groundwork that led to the nullification of this case was in fact another ruling by a lower court. In May this year, human rights activist Maina Kiai, who is the former Special UN Rapporteur on the Rights to Peaceful Assembly, went with others to court to challenge the Elections Act. He asked that the law be changed to ensure that the counting of votes is done at the polling station so that they cannot not be altered by the electoral body.The court ruled in his favour and the electoral body took the matter to the Court of Appeal, where the ruling was upheld.

At least 70% of the ruling by the Supreme Court was based on the ruling made in favour of Maina Kiai.

 Q: There are concerns that there are many issues that the Electoral body must first rectify and will not be able to do this in the given time before the election. What are your views on this?

This is Kenya's greatest fear, and right now the opposition is already holding demonstrations to demand that some of these matters be rectified as conditions for participating in the fresh election. But the hands of the Supreme Court were tied here. The Constitution allows for only the electoral body, (Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), to conduct elections. The Constitution also requires for those elections to be held within 60 days of the nullification of a previous one.

The concerns are  therefore justified when one considers that the electoral body has decided to retain the three companies accused by the opposition of complicity in delivering a result that was not the will of the people — Al Ghurai, a Dubai based Company, Safaricom, Kenya’s largest Mobile company, and OT Morpho, a French company. Part of this is the lengthy procurement rules.

Kenyans are waiting with bated breath to see how the electoral body will address what the Supreme Court described as "systemic" and "institutional" failures within the IEBC. These failures were not just a failure of equipment, but a failure of oversight and accountability.

But remember that the main thrust of the judgement was not the manner in which the elections was conducted. The majority ruling of the Supreme Court accused the IEBC of redefining democracy and ignoring that democracy is a process that ends with elections. It rejected the view that democracy begins with elections.

In doing so the IEBC was accused of not following the entire democratic process that leads to elections — from public confidence-building to ensuring transparency in the entire process in the period leading to and the period after the elections.

So the challenges facing the IEBC are much bigger and it’s not clear if they will address these systemic and institutional challenges in the few days remaining to elections.

Q: The President has said he is disappointed by the Supreme Court Ruling. Why is this and what may it mean for the independence of the judiciary?

The President’s disappointment is understandable, and to an extent it appears justified since one of the dissenting judges insists that he had won the last election by 54%.

But unlike 2013 where the Supreme Court based its judgement on numbers, this time the court departed from this and refused to be drawn into recounting of votes. In their view, the court argued that if the process was flawed, and if there is proof that the Constitution was violated in the process leading to and after the elections, then the numbers do not matter.

This was a departure, not just from previous rulings, but other rulings within the Commonwealth jurisdiction and even the United States of America. But it is this kind of ruling that set the Supreme Court of Kenya apart from other courts.

While the judiciary around the world has refrained from helping advance society in its democratic agenda, the Kenya Supreme Court decided that Kenya should move forward and define democracy in a much broader way than just elections.

This is a game changer for other Supreme Courts around the world. For Africa, the judiciary has stamped its authority as the guardian of democracy, not just an arbiter in electoral disputes.

It means that Kenya's Supreme Court is not just asserting its role as pace-setters for society, but it is exercising its independence and the right to disagree with broader society. For a long time many Kenyans have had a very narrow definition of democracy. The Supreme Court offered a more superior definition.

Q: The opposition has just pulled out of the elections, claiming that the electoral body has refused to meet its demands and the demands required by the Supreme Court ruling. What does this mean for the credibility of the election?

The Supreme Court termed this a FRESH election, not a repeat poll. Under Kenya's Constitution, if there is only one candidate in a fresh election, the election is cancelled and the candidate is declared the winner. It is silent on what to do if a party boycotts. But the same Constitution states that fresh elections needs to be preceded by party nominations, which obviously cannot be done under the short period of 60 days allowed by law.

In pulling out of the elections, the main opposition cited a statement by the Supreme Court in the 2013 electoral dispute where the Court considered what options are left if a candidate pulls out. The court at that time interpreted the scenario to mean a candidate had died and so fresh nominations must be held and another election held within 90 days. It’s not clear because there are arguments that the court was merely discussing scenarios and was in no way giving directions.

In my opinion, this is the kind of crisis that hits societies that want to lead themselves purely by law. Laws alone cannot legislate morality, and in fact there is nowhere where society is managed by laws alone. An element of trust and compromise among its members is always needed - - which is what a proper social contract achieves in society.

Kenya has opted to let laws define its democracy, and hence its social contract.

There is a price to pay for that, and right now there will certainly be a price to pay because the law did not envisage the situation that we are in. The IEBC wanted to rectify that by bringing on board previous presidential candidates to run in this elections, but they quickly realised that that the law is not clear on this either.

Since the political players have chosen the path of legality rather than political compromise, my fear is that over the next few days we are going to see Kenya’s elections not as a democracy, but a battle between the judiciary and the executive.

It is never a good battle, and often one side ends up losing – its known who is the weaker of the two.

Q: One of the IEBC Commissioners resigned on 18 October 2017, citing threats over her life. In an interview in the media she admitted that the electoral body is not prepared and that the body has been hijacked by a section of its members aligned to the ruling government. What does this mean for the elections and for the credibility of the elections?

The situation is actually more delicate than that. You may be aware that on 12 October 2017, both Houses (Senate and Parliament) rushed through a new law that takes away considerable powers from the head of the IEBC and makes it difficult for the commission to reach decisions by compromise. The proposed law also seeks to return the country back to the manual system which was the cause of the problems in past elections, and which is blamed for the violence witnessed in 2007/2008. There are concerns that her resignation, added to the new proposed law, which by the way is only awaiting Presidential signature to become effective, may have dealt a big credibility blow to the electoral body, and in effect it short circuits the reforms that had been demanded by the Supreme Court. It certainly will have a huge impact on turnout because there is perception that the laws and the resignation have not just taken away the remaining teeth of the electoral body, but has effectively taken it back to the state it was that led to the crisis in the first place.

But once again the issue must be seen from a broader perspective, and here are the lessons that those of us who promote democracy should know. It is impossible to have democracy without a proper social contract. Democracy is about managing diversity within society to deliver on a collective aspirations using the resources at the disposal of that society. Instead we have made democracy about power plays and about the strongest or the richest or the largest ruling over everybody else. You can see where it has led the United States. We must realise that unless we work with society to learn how to negotiate, manage its diversity and develop a culture of regular compromise, anything we do in the name of democracy is merely buying time. Kenya’s crisis is very simple to manage, but we appear to have resorted to using the law, rather than the friendships, to manage it. It will not end well.

Q:   What role can civil society play now before the fresh election?

There are three roles that civil society can play now and in the few days to come.

First is to celebrate the power of activism —  whether in courts as did the Supreme Court, in each other as did Maina Kiai when he took the electoral body to court, or in other civil society who stood with the opposition and in fact provided the bulk of evidence that was used in court.

Secondly civil society needs to use this opportunity to connect more with citizens and explain to them what the Supreme Court just did.Never in the history of democracy anywhere in the world has the judiciary come out to teach the society what constitutes democracy! If civil society can use this case to educate citizens on why the court opted to define elections as a process and NOT an event, they will have advanced democracy in ways they would never do with all the donor money used in governance programmes.

Finally civil society need to come together. Currently there is great polarisation based on the ruling. A section of civil society, under the Elections Observer Group, had actually endorsed the elections and agreed with donors and observers that it was a free, transparent and fair election. They even agreed with the reported win of 54%, insisting it was based on their own scientific polling. They were left looking very foolish and seen as agents of donors and the government. They have not come out to explain themselves fully. The result is that they are now not seen as part of a neutral civil society.

But the rest of civil society, especially those engaged in human rights, are not seen in good light either. This was the second time in as many elections that they were directly challenging the elections alongside the opposition. And so they are also seen as partisan, even though they were vindicated this time by the Supreme Court ruling.

In a fractured and polarised society, civil society is not just about being on the right side or the legally correct path. It’s about understanding the dynamics of society and taking positions that rebuild that society. It is important that these two groups, whether they see their positions as superior or not, to come together and agree on how best to shepherd the nation and citizens at this time. Kenya is at a point where it does not need right or wrong, but truth. And that truth will only be found in taking a position that allows the society to build trust in a civil society that is removed from the emotions of politics, yet engaged in the ideals of democracy that leads to well understood social contract.

Q:       Any other additional analysis you would like to share?

The elections in Kenya have shown just how perceptions vary between Africa and Europe.

In many of the European countries, the ruling by the Supreme Court has been treated with apprehension, fear and doom! They feel that Kenya is headed for another chaos and that the ruling should have at least balanced what they call "nascent democracy" and avoided a hard landing that this appears to be. Many of our colleagues that I have met and spoken to begin their conversation with: "So are you going to have war again?"

On the contrary there has been jubilation and excitement across all of Africa and most of Asia. Citizens as far as Liberia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Botswana and South Africa, and even India, have come out to rally behind Kenya. They see this as a renewed hope for a continent that has been defined by the West as unable to manage its democracy. For many of these citizens, this is a point of triumph and victory-on our terms as Africa. And the fact that it embarrassed the international community who had all but endorsed the elections, has given many Africans even more pride.

Both sides may be right, and democracy is always muddy. But we need to be careful that we do not push a sliding car down the valley simply because that is what we have been conditioned to think and believe about Africa. It’s much harder to get people out of negativity than it is to encourage them on the positive progress they are making.

Africa needs more messages of hope, not doom and constant suspicion. The negative descriptions we give to the continent — fragile, conflict-affected, war-torn, corrupt — appear to be what is keeping the citizens disillusioned.

One act of hope and the entire continent lights up!

  • Civic space in Kenya is rated as ‘Obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
  • Follow Paul Okumi on Twitter @paulokumu3. Read two other analytical articles he wrote on the ruling of the Supreme Court here and here.

 

 

‘La sociedad civil trabaja por una democracia no solo más representativa sino también más participativa’

English

CIVICUS conversa con Ramiro Orias, abogado y defensor de derechos humanos boliviano. Orias es Oficial de Programas de la Fundación para el Debido Proceso (DPLF) e integrante y ex director de la Fundación Construir, una OSC boliviana establecida con la finalidad de impulsar procesos de participación ciudadana para fortalecer la democracia y el acceso igualitario a una justicia plural, equitativa, transparente e independiente.

Hace unos días se produjo en Bolivia una protesta nacional contra la posible re-reelección presidencial. ¿Observa en el intento del presidente Evo Morales de volver a reelegirse una degradación democrática?

El intento del presidente de volver a buscar la reelección forma parte de un proceso más amplio de erosión del espacio cívico democrático por efecto de la concentración de poder.

La búsqueda de una nueva reelección presidencial requiere de una reforma de la Constitución de 2009 (que fue promulgada por el propio presidente Evo Morales). Algunas de las disposiciones introducidas entonces en el texto constitucional fueron muy progresistas; hubo un importante avance en materia de derechos y garantías. Al mismo tiempo, se incluyeron reformas políticas destinadas a consagrar un proyecto de poder. Por ejemplo, hubo un cambio en la composición y en los equilibrios políticos de la Asamblea Legislativa destinado a sobre-representar a la mayoría; se destituyó anticipadamente a las principales autoridades del Poder Judicial (los miembros de la Corte Suprema y el Tribunal Constitucional fueron enjuiciados y obligados a renunciar) y se instauró un sistema de elección mediante el voto, sin una fase previa de calificación de méritos. Las instituciones árbitro, como la fiscalía, el Órgano Electoral o el Defensor del Pueblo, también fueron cooptadas en diversa medida por el Ejecutivo.

En relación con el Ejecutivo, la principal reforma constitucional consistió en habilitar la reelección, pero por una sola vez, es decir para un máximo de dos mandatos consecutivos. El primer mandato de Evo Morales (2006-10) hubiera debido contar, porque así lo establecía una cláusula transitoria de la nueva Constitución; sin embargo el gobierno luego argumentó que ese primer mandato no contaba porque se había producido bajo la vieja Constitución (la cual lo inhabilitaba a una nueva elección consecutiva). De modo que el presidente fue reelecto dos veces, en 2010 y en 2015. Es decir, ha cumplido tres mandatos consecutivos, uno más de los que permite la nueva Constitución, y ahora está buscando alguna vía constitucional para habilitar un cuarto mandato.

A principios de 2016 el gobierno convocó a un referéndum para consultar a la ciudadanía sobre una posible reforma de la Constitución para que Evo Morales pudiera competir nuevamente por la presidencia en 2019. Por un ajustado margen, el gobierno perdió ese referéndum; por eso acaba de presentar ante el Tribunal Constitucional una demanda de inconstitucionalidad, que el tribunal aceptó considerar.

Según el presidente, la prohibición de volver a competir afecta el principio de igualdad y discrimina contra los actuales representantes electos, por lo cual sería contraria al Pacto de San José de Costa Rica (la Convención Americana de Derechos Humanos). Es el mismo argumento que utilizó en Nicaragua el presidente Daniel Ortega, quien logró que la Corte Constitucional declarara inconstitucional su propia Constitución y le permitiera reelegirse. Es un argumento bastante forzado, porque los derechos invocados no son absolutos, sino que admiten regulaciones en función del bien común y el interés general (de hecho, el derecho a competir por la presidencia incluye restricciones de nacionalidad y edad, por ejemplo) así como limitaciones en función de valores superiores de una sociedad democrática – por ejemplo, el de la alternancia y el fortalecimiento de las instituciones democráticas.

El 10 de octubre pasado, precisamente cuando se cumplían 35 años de la restauración de la democracia en Bolivia, se realizó una manifestación nacional contra la reelección indefinida y en defensa de la voluntad expresada por la ciudadanía en el referéndum del año pasado. Esta protesta fue convocada por diversas organizaciones cívicas, plataformas ciudadanas y partidos políticos de oposición. Fue una expresión callejera masiva, con las mayores concentraciones en las ciudades de La Paz y Santa Cruz y otras menores en Cochabamba, Potosí y Oruro. Afortunadamente el derecho de reunión pacífica fue respetado, en el sentido de que no hubo violencia ni intentos de suprimir las protestas. Sin embargo, el gobierno reconoció que la división de Inteligencia de la Policía siguió y vigiló de cerca de las marchas y a los propios dirigentes opositores, al punto que recabó al detalle las conversaciones que mantuvieron ese día. Lo cual es inadmisible en una sociedad democrática, ya que el uso de una policía política es propio de los gobiernos autoritarios.

¿Piensa que la lucha por la reelección se dará en los tribunales o acabará saldándose en las calles? ¿Convocará el gobierno movilizaciones a favor de la reelección?

Creo que la demanda de inconstitucionalidad es un artificio jurídico; no estamos ante un problema de derecho constitucional, y menos aún ante una cuestión de derechos humanos de los que detentan el poder. El proceso judicial es una táctica más en una estrategia de lucha política en pos de la concentración del poder y la permanencia en el gobierno. La solución de esta controversia se dará en el terreno político. Una característica de la ética política de este régimen es que cuando un tema está en discusión, la aceptación de un arreglo o acuerdo no necesariamente es el punto final.

¿Diría que la sociedad civil está dividida en función del apoyo o el rechazo al gobierno?

La sociedad civil está dividida. Como en todo proceso de cambio político, hay sectores ganadores, que han recibido beneficios importantes y apoyan la continuidad. Por ejemplo, algunos grupos sindicales, como la Confederación Sindical de Colonizadores de Bolivia (CSCB). Al mismo tiempo, hay sectores que en principio se sentían representados por el MAS pero acabaron perdiendo. El gobierno boliviano ha perdido apoyos, sobre todo en su base social indígena, debido a algunas medidas que supusieron retrocesos en la agenda indígena – por ejemplo, la decisión de construir una carretera a través del área protegida del TIPNIS (Territorio Indígena y Parque Nacional Isiboro-Secure), sin respetar el proceso de consulta previa, libre e informada de los pueblos indígenas titulares de ese territorio. El gobierno también autorizó la explotación de hidrocarburos en áreas protegidas. Esto resultó en cierto alejamiento de la base social que le había dado una amplia mayoría en los inicios de su gobierno.

La llegada de Evo Morales Ayma a la presidencia y las reformas que se plasmaron en la nueva Constitución implicaron una transformación política, social y cultural enorme, sobre todo en términos de inclusión. Sin embargo, la falta de institucionalización, que se expresa en la ausencia de nuevos liderazgos, ha hecho que el proceso se agote y ya no represente un abanico tan amplio de la sociedad boliviana. Hoy es más difícil para el gobierno erigirse en representante de los movimientos sociales en sentido amplio. Muchos sectores de la sociedad civil que en algún momento vieron con simpatía el proceso de cambio liderado por Evo Morales, hoy lo ven con preocupación porque se ha convertido en un proceso de acumulación de poder político que no ofrece garantías para que puedan realizar libremente su trabajo.

El resquebrajamiento de sus apoyos llevó al gobierno a imponer regulaciones dirigidas a desmovilizar a la sociedad civil que no adhiere en forma militante al proyecto gubernamental. Esto está afectando seriamente la capacidad de trabajo de muchas OSC. La situación se ha vuelto bastante difícil para los defensores de derechos humanos, y en particular para los defensores de pueblos indígenas y del medio ambiente, que han recibido diversos embates y presiones a su labor.

También ha habido cambios importantes en la regulación de las OSC nacionales. El principal cambio normativo, que dejó a las OSC en una posición de gran vulnerabilidad, fue la ley No. 351 de Otorgación de Personalidades Jurídicas (2013). Esta ley exige el alineamiento de los objetivos y acciones de las OSC con las políticas gubernamentales y reemplaza el principio de reconocimiento de la existencia legal de una organización, que se deriva de un acto constitutivo de derecho civil, por el otorgamiento de la personería jurídica por parte del Estado, un acto administrativo que concede amplia discrecionalidad a las autoridades centrales. La personería jurídica puede ser revocada mediante un procedimiento administrativo, sin ninguna garantía del debido proceso. Al mismo tiempo, las OSC no alineadas con el gobierno son estigmatizadas públicamente.

¿Qué se requeriría hoy para lograr la concreción de esa promesa democrática que en su momento expresó Evo Morales?

Al revés de la tendencia dominante de entregar más poder a una sola persona, uno de los principales temas pendientes en la agenda democrática boliviana es el reencauzamiento de la representación política a través de un sistema de partidos plural, institucionalizado, con prácticas internas democráticas. Si el tema de la reelección presidencial está en la agenda, es precisamente porque falta institucionalización: la fuerza en el gobierno no tiene un liderazgo de recambio. Más que un partido político, en el gobierno hay una coalición de diversos intereses que solo el presidente Morales logró amalgamar.

La democracia representativa, sostenida en instituciones, es un sistema que permite ciertas certidumbres en la vida política, con reglas que se cumplen con regularidad y actores que se someten a ellas de buena fe. Lo que estamos viendo actualmente es que el gobierno usa los mecanismos democráticos cuando le sirven, y cuando no le sirven se aparta de ellos y trata de modificarlos en beneficio propio.

En el marco de un sistema de partidos políticos débil, la sociedad civil cobra un relieve particular. Cumple un rol de preservación de las libertades de asociación, expresión y manifestación pacífica gracias a las cuales puede promover sus ideas de cambio social. La sociedad civil trabaja por una democracia no solo más representativa sino también más participativa.

¿Qué apoyos necesita la sociedad civil boliviana para superar los obstáculos y avanzar en dirección de una democracia más participativa?

Lo más importante que necesita la sociedad civil en sus labores de promoción y defensa de los derechos humanos es un sistema de justicia independiente. Ha habido un proceso de debilitamiento de las instituciones judiciales por parte del Ejecutivo, que difícilmente podremos revertir en el corto plazo sin la cooperación de otros actores, nacionales e internacionales.

Necesitamos, entonces, solidaridad internacional. De hecho, hay un diálogo político intenso con los embajadores acreditados en Bolivia, que reconocen la necesidad de crear un ambiente habilitante para la sociedad civil, así como valoran la urgencia de promover un sistema de justicia independiente. También necesitamos apoyo para que las OSC se empoderen, mejoren sus propios procesos internos de rendición de cuentas y aseguren la transparencia de su propia gestión institucional. Pero lo cierto es que mientras no haya una justicia independiente capaz de tutelar derechos fundamentales, la situación de la sociedad civil seguirá siendo de extrema indefensión.

  • El espacio cívico en Bolivia es clasificado en el CIVICUS Monitor como “estrecho”.

Contáctese con Fundación Construir a través de su sitio web o perfil de Facebook, o siga en Twitter a @fconstruir.

 

South African NGO scores legal victory in limiting the influence of ‘big money’ on democracy

A South African NGO My Vote Counts recently won a court case in which it asked that political parties must be compelled to publicly reveal their sources of funds. CIVICUS speaks to Elizabeth Biney, a researcher with My Vote Counts on why they had taken this case and why this is an important victory for South Africa’s democracy

Q: Why is it important for political parties to reveal sources of private funding?

My Vote Counts believe that access to the private funding information of political parties is important and reasonably required for the effective exercise of political rights enshrined in the South African Constitution — namely, the right to vote and to make political choices. Political parties in South Africa occupy a unique and influential role in our constitutional democracy. Under our current electoral system, that is, a list system of proportional representation, only political parties determine which persons become members of the legislature as well as the national and provincial executives. These people then go on to shape public policies and the laws of the country. Given their pivotal role in the democratic functioning of the country, we cannot disassociate their activities from their funding sources.

There is also the argument to be made in advocating for the disclosure of private funding information as a deterrent to corrupt activities. Transparency in the funding of political parties is good for our democracy, broadly speaking.

Mandatory disclosures of private funding also allow us to detect and prevent possible cases of corruption and to control the influence of money in our politics. It is reasonable to anticipate that private political contributions can influence the manner in which political parties function. For instance, a political party may take a particular policy position in order to satisfy the expectations of substantial donors, at the expense of the majority that voted for it in an election. Secret funding of political parties creates the scope for and facilitates corruption.

Therefore, the disclosure of this kind of information is not only necessary to preempt future likely behavior of parties, it gives more depth and value to the right to vote. Having all the correct information available to the citizenry before they make a political choice means people are making informed choices — a voter is knowingly choosing a party and its principles and programmes. Having ratified three anti-corruption international agreements, including the United Nations Convention against Corruption, the South African government already acknowledges the relationship between political donations and corruption. The obvious next step is to put appropriate preventative mechanisms in place to guard against political corruption. One such measure is to have formal legislation or regulation that compels parties to publicly and proactively disclose their private funding information.

Q: What are the arguments by those parties who are against revealing funding sources?

Under the South African Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA), access to information can be refused for a number of reasons, all of which seemingly pivot on the “right to privacy”. For example, a request for information can be refused if the information contains financial, commercial or technical information of a third party. Another problem with PAIA is when the disclosure of the information “would constitute an action for breach of a duty of confidence owed to a third party in terms of an agreement”. This is particularly concerning because it essentially allows parties to enter into confidential agreements with donors in order to avoid disclosing private funding information. In any case, political parties may rely on any of these provisions to deny access to their private funding information.

Some reasonable arguments have been advanced by smaller parties that warrant consideration. Most smaller parties are concerned about the possible intimidation of their funders and subsequently the loss of financial support to compete effectively with the ruling party.

Undoubtedly the effects of funders withdrawing donations to opposition parties for fear of reprisals from a governing party may be a reasonable concern. However, this should be addressed through existing appropriate legislation. In any case, parties cannot sustain this argument since the potential threat is criminal in nature and would warrant legal action.

However, the prevailing contention (mostly by the major opposition party) is that of the right to privacy versus disclosures.  For them, a disclosure regime will not only limit the rights of donors to privacy and to express their political support in secret; it limits the privacy of political parties themselves. We find this elevation of the right to privacy over the right of access to information very problematic. Privacy, like any right in the Bill of Rights, is not absolute and therefore can be reasonably attenuated. Our Constitutional Court has said as much when it affirmed that the right to privacy exists on a continuum — so the more public the space, the more it can be justifiably limited. The two rights are equally important so they need to be weighted carefully to ensure our democratic processes are responsive, accountable and transparent.

Q: What are the next steps now that you have won the court case?
The judgment will be referred to the Constitutional Court for confirmation, we will await that decision. In the meantime, we continue with our lobbying for legislative reform. The judgment was handed down after a parliamentary process had been initiated to review the current political financing landscape, with the intention of reforming it. So, there is now a parliamentary Ad Hoc Committee on the Funding of Political Parties investigating the challenges in our party financing regime. We have been engaging with them on some critical issues as well as monitoring the entire process.

The Committee has produced a draft political party Bill and is accepting public comments on the Bill. We are in the process of making written and likely oral submissions on this draft Bill with the hope of improving it to meet both international best practices and constitutional standards.

Q: In your opinion, what is the state of democracy in South Africa?
This is never an easy question to answer and besides it can yield such diverse responses given its subjective nature. Personally, I think our democracy is under threat. The level of political impunity and sheer disregard for ethics and good governance, both politically and administratively is alarming. You only need to track the number of issues that civil society has taken the government and Parliament to court on to see that the protection of South Africans and our liberties are in the hands of civil society and the media.

Despite the slippery slope that we find ourselves in, South Africa’s democracy will not fail just yet. We have a constitutional democracy which means that despite political and administrative attempts to circumvent our democratic rights, the Constitution is paramount and the role the judiciary in this regard cannot be under estimated. Also, South Africa has a vibrant civil society sector constantly fighting for change and we will need to work together for the broader constitutional goal of a free and democratic society.

Q: What role can civil society play in South Africa to strengthen democracy?
I think civil society is doing what it is intended to and all it can do at the present moment. We are constantly asking the difficult questions that the ordinary citizen may be too scared to ask. We are demanding accountability of our leaders and private businesses.

Although government is trying to close down the dissenting spaces that we operate in, we are putting up a fight. Our democracy can only flourish if there are oversight bodies like civil society. You cannot underplay the significant role that public watchdogs play in ensuring accountability, fairness and transparency in democratic governance.

For us specifically, our role is to ensure that a few financial backers do not corrupt our political system. We want to see our democracy be as participatory as possible, and so we need to limit the influence of big money.

 

Les manifestants se transforment en milliers de personnes qui battent la fermeture d'Internet

Read the interview in English 

CIVICUS parle avec KEPOMEY Koffi Dela Franck de l'organisation non gouvernementale Concertation Nationale de la Société Civile au Togo des récentes manifestations dans le pays sur les limites du mandat présidentiel.

Q : L’accès à l’internet et aux réseaux sociaux était restreint au Togo entre le 5 et 12 Septembre. Est-ce que vous pourriez donner plus d’information sur les raisons de cette action ?

Effectivement l'accès à internet et aux réseaux sociaux a été restreint au Togo à cette période. La raison évoquée par le parti au pouvoir est une panne technique. Ce qui n'est pas vrai. La restriction est faite juste pour que l'opposition et les citoyens ne puissent pas utiliser les réseaux sociaux pour informer l'opinion internationale de la situation au Togo (grande manifestation de l'opposition et répression des forces de sécurité à partir de 22 heures). Sources proches du parti au pouvoir indiquent qu’ils l’ont fait pour prévenir que les gens diffusent des images qui incitent à la violence.

Cette décision viole l'article10 de la résolution NA/HCR/RES/32/13 du 1 juillet 2016 adopté par le conseil des droits humains des nations unies sur la promotion, la protection et l'exercice des droits humains sur internet.

Q. Quel était l’impact de cette restriction ?

Cette restriction n'a pas été sans impacts négatifs sur l'économie et la vie sociale du pays. Les activités de plusieurs opérateurs économiques sont restreintes et aussi la population est privée d'information.

Q. Le samedi 19 août 2017 des manifestants ont été tuées lors d’une manifestation menée par l’opposition. Est-ce que vous pourriez donner plus d’information de ce qui s’est passé ce jour?

Le samedi 19 août 2017, le Parti National Panafricain, PNP, a organisé à Lome et dans certaines localités du pays (Anié, Sokodé, Bafilo, Kara) une marche pour dénoncer le retour à la constitution de 1992 et réclamer le droit de vote de la population de la diaspora.

Au cours de cette manifestation il y’a eu plusieurs morts (2 selon des sources officielles et 7 selon les organisateurs) et de nombreux blessés. En même temps 66 personnes ont été arrêtées.

Q. Savez-vous pourquoi la police a réagi avec cette violence contre les manifestants?

Les organisateurs et le pouvoir n’ont pas pu s’entendre sur les itinéraires de la manifestation. Le jeudi 17 août 2017, les ministres de l’administration territoriale et de la sécurité ont déclaré, dans une conférence de presse, qu’aucun rassemblement ne sera toléré le 19 aout 2017 sur toute l’étendue du territoire et que les manifestations seront dispersées à leur point de départ.

Il s’agit d’une manifestation pacifique qui aurait dû être fait sous la direction des forces de police (gendarmerie et police) selon la loi n° 2011-010 du 16 mai relative aux conditions de manifestations publiques.

Malheureusement on a retrouvé sur les lieux de manifestation des militaires qui dispersaient les protestations. Ce qui peut expliquer l’agressivité des manifestants.

Q. Comment la société civile togolaise a-t-elle réagi à la brutalité de la police et aux meurtres?

La Concertation Nationale de la Société Civile au Togo (CNSC-Togo) a publié une déclaration publique de condamnation de la violence sous toutes ses formes au lendemain des tueries et a appelé le gouvernement à prendre d'urgence des mesures pour apaiser le climat social, y compris la libération des détenus. En outre, CNSC-Togo a appelé les partis politiques à améliorer le mentorat de leurs activistes/membres, entre d’autres.

Les Collectifs des associations contre l'impunité au Togo (CACIT) ont également condamné la répression de l'assemblée. Le 24 août 2017, un groupe de 32 associations et réseaux a publié une déclaration appelant le gouvernement et les autres acteurs publics à assurer l'exercice de la liberté de réunion afin d'assurer le professionnalisme des forces de sécurité dans le cadre des réunions et appelle les membres/partis politiques à respecter les biens publics et les infrastructures.

Q. Comment décririez-vous l’état de la liberté de réunion pacifique au Togo?
La liberté de réunion et d’association pacifique au Togo dépend de la tendance politique de ceux qui organisent la manifestation. Les militants et sympathisants du parti au pouvoir organisent des manifestations en toute quiétude même les jours ouvrables. Ce qui n’est toujours pas le cas des partis de l’opposition. Ils font souvent face à des restrictions sur les itinéraires et les points de départ des manifestations. Cela signifie que les réunions pacifiques peuvent facilement dégénérer en raison des exigences des forces de sécurité.

Q. Comment décririez-vous l’état de la démocratie au Togo?

La démocratie au Togo a traversé des moments difficiles depuis que les partis d'opposition sont revenus sur la mise en œuvre de réformes institutionnelles et constitutionnelles suite aux recommandations de la Commission Vérité, Justice et Réconciliation (CVJR) que le gouvernement prend du temps pour compléter. Les partis d'opposition soupçonnent que le gouvernement retarde la prise de décision pour éviter de traduire les réformes en réalité.

Le lundi 30 juin 2014, le projet de réforme constitutionnelle présenté par le gouvernement au Parlement après le dialogue connu sous le nom de Togotélécom II de mai 2014 a été rejeté, car les membres du parlement du parti au pouvoir ont voté contre le projet de loi.

Depuis, des voix discordantes se sont multipliées et la pression s'est accrue, même au sein des organisations de la société civile œuvrant dans le domaine de la promotion de la démocratie et de l'état de droit. Il y a souvent des pressions sur les partenaires financiers pour priver les organisations de ressources qui leur permettent d'être autonomes dans leurs actions.

Q. Quel type de soutien peuvent offrir les groupes régionaux et internationaux à la CNSC-Togo et aux autres organisations de la société civile du pays dans la situation actuelle?

En effet, le CCSN-Togo a des difficultés à réunir des fonds et est satisfait de certains microprojets et de l'allocation de fonds provenants des donateurs/partenaires gouvernementaux traditionnels, en particulier de l'Union européenne, et du PNUD à l’approche des élections. Ces partenaires reçoivent d'abord une autorisation gouvernementale avant d'accorder les ressources. Ce qui conduit souvent à l'autocensure dans nos déclarations et réunions publiques.

Nous devons entrer en contact avec d'autres partenaires / donateurs qui peuvent nous fournir un soutien financier durable.

• L'espace civique au Togo est considéré comme «obstrué» par le CIVICUS Monitor, un outil en direct qui retrace l'espace civique autour du monde.

• Suivez la Concertation Nationale de la Société Civile au Togo à: http://www.cnsctogo.org/

 

The Political Parties Bill is ‘poison for Zambia’s ailing democracy’

CIVICUS speaks to Zambian human rights defender McDonald Chipenzi. The Threatened State of Emergency invoked by the President on 5 July 2017 is due to expire on 13 October 2017 with no clear indication if the President will invoke a fresh Threatened State of Emergency. The country’s parliament is also considering a new Political Parties Bill. We ask Chipenzi what the Bill is about and what is the state of Zambia’s democracy.

1. In your opinion, is there a governance crisis in Zambia?

A writer called James Bovard (1999) once observed that: “Voting has changed from the process by which the citizens control the government to a process that consecrates the government’s control of the people.” Zambia has slipped into a governance crisis. It is on the verge of falling into an undemocratic cliff. All signs are pointing to the fact that freedom of expression, association and demonstrations or protests in Zambia have been curtailed even when citizens follow the procedure as prescribed by the law governing public assemblies. The civic, political and the general democratic spaces in the country have shrunk. There is much evidence to show that these spaces have been curtailed and citizens are now either living in fear or indeed have taken a docile and passive position in participating in national affairs.

The declaration of the Threatened State of Public Emergency on 5 July 2017 by President Edgar Chagwa Lungu after invoking Article 31 of the Constitution over suspiciously stage-managed spates of fires believed by some to have been sponsored by the party in power has left devastating effects on people’s rights and freedoms. This meant the enforcement of the Preservation of Public Security Act Cap 112 of the laws of Zambia which gives sweeping powers to the police to search, arrest and detain suspects for longer than the constitutional requirement of 48hrs for a detained suspect to be brought before court. The Act also automatically derogates citizens’ freedoms of assembly, expression, movement and of the media.

To buttress this suspicion, to date, the same government that emotionally attributed the acts of arson to opposition political parties’ sympathisers has failed to produce any report or evidence incriminating anybody for the arson. Religious freedoms too have not been spared and are steadily declining. For instance, the police in August 2017 sealed off the Cathedral of the Holy Cross where worshippers where supposed to conduct their Thanksgiving Prayers on account that they did not notify the police. The largest opposition party has also suffered denial to carry out their public political activities on account that the invocation of Article 31 was still in force.

On 29 September, 2017, six civil society and opposition leaders, musicians and other activists like Laura Miti and Lewis Mwape (civil activists), Sean Enock Tembo (politician), Chama Fumba, aka Pilato (musician) and others were arrested at the entrance of the Parliament building where they had picketed the National Assembly during the presentation of the 2018 National Budget demanding accountability in the procurement processes following the controversial purchase of 42 firefighters engines at a cost of US$1-million each. They were only released at midnight after spending half a day in police detention and on paying K2 000 (US$220) each as police bond. On 2 October, 2017, the police formally charged the six with two counts of “An unlawful assembly” and “Disobeying lawful orders” They will appear in court on 27 October 2017.

This Threatened State of Public Emergency will only come to end on 13 October, 2017.

The country’s leadership is engulfed in alleged acts of serious national plunder, looting and misuse of public resources, corruption, bribery and other misgovernance and yet there seems to be no one to provide leadership as the President has developed the propensity of globetrotting, locally known as Kamweendo munjila. Some people estimates that since taking office in January 2015, the President has allegedly made 49 trips across the globe. This has created a leadership vacuum and consequently a governance crisis the country is now faced with. The rule of law and constitutionalism is no longer a hallmark of country’s democracy. Law enforcers have sacrificed declining professionalism, ethical conduct and integrity levels. They have become vulnerable to political patronages. The judiciary especially the Constitutional Court faces public contempt, so is the office of the Director of Public Prosecution due to an “outbreak” of Nolle Prosequi (abandoned court cases by prosecutors) which is unprecedented in the history of the country. Most of these favour the interests of the executive. Zambia has, indeed, slid into the rule of men and has assumed characteristics of a banana republic.

The state of the country’s democracy is deplorable. The ruling elites hold a myopic view that democracy is the ballot or elections and that since they are not going to be held until 2021, the country is on the right path as far as democracy is concerned. They feel elections are the means and an end in themselves. Freedom of the media is under constant threat and self-censorship by government-owned media has become a norm. Opposition and divergent views are never entertained in government-owned media despite all citizens contributing a monthly levy to its management. Civic and political spaces continue to shrink on a daily basis. Poverty is growing in the neighborhoods of ordinary people while the opposite is different at State House and for ruling political party elites and their relatives and associates.

There is a dictatorship and an emerging authoritarian leadership in Zambia. The religious, political, civic and media spaces are shrinking daily. Opposition, musicians and civil society members are arrested and detained on trumped-up charges. This has become the order of the day. Court orders are disregarded with impunity by law enforcement agencies at the perceived instruction by the executive. In other words, the executive has taken over all arms of government. Public confidence in public institutions such as the judiciary, police, National Assembly, electoral body among others is at its lowest. Corruption, abuse of public resources are taking their tow while the Anti-Corruption Commission remains tight-lipped if not defending corruption itself. The Zambian society has been divided on tribal lines and elections are perceived from the same angle.

In essence, the democratic outlook in Zambia is very gloomy. What surprises us, however, is that the Southern Africa Development Community still believes in the Zambian leadership to an extent of allowing it to assume the position of deputy chair of the Organ on Security and Peace when it is a country at war with itself. This is so because, for the first time in 26 years, the country is living under a Threatened State of Public Emergency and citizens’ rights such as assembly, expression and protests are constantly denied or threatened. People have been arrested for expressing themselves on Facebook, others on TV or radio and detained for days or for months only to be released without any changes. This has prompted the church, the Commonwealth and other concerned regional and international dignitaries to intervene in the Zambian situation while SADC pursues it suspicious quiet diplomacy.

2. Please tell us more about the Political Parties Bill

The current debate on the need to develop a political parties’ law in Zambia has been triggered by the existing law. Article 60 of the Constitution of Zambia (Amendment) Act No. 2 of 2016 demands that there be a prescription of how the article on political parties would be operationalised which essentially means coming up with an Act of parliament. To this end, the government produced a draft Political Parties Bill which it later consulted stakeholders. Political parties under the umbrella of Zambia Centre for Interparty Dialogue  participated in the validation processes of the Bill which is yet to be tabled before the National Assembly for enactment. The Minister of Justice has already indicated a desire to table the Bill for enactment before the end of 2017. However, there are mixed reactions to the Bill: some commentators have described the Bill as unconstitutional while others have welcomed it. My view is that in its current form, the Bill is a recipe for stifling political parties’ existence and effectiveness.

The proposed Political parties’ Act is about the provision of the registration and regulation of political parties services in the country. It is about the establishment of the Board of Political Parties to oversee the registration and operations of political parties and to provide mechanisms for the establishment and management of a Political Parties Fund. It will also inquire on and regulate the sources of funds for political parties and any matters connected with, or incidental, to the foregoing. This is as per objects of the draft Political Parties Bill (2017) signed off by the Attorney General, Likando Kalaluka. In other words, the pending Bill is trying to regulate, monitor and supervise political parties which consequently is likely to shrink and stifle political space in the country. In its current draft form, the suggested Political Parties Bill is draconian, unconstitutional and undemocratic.

3. Does Zambia have other legal frameworks that govern political parties?

Zambia has had no specific legal framework to regulate, monitor and supervise the conduct and administration of political parties in the country since independence. The draft Political Parties’ Bill, if passed into law, would be the first law specifically on political parties. However, all political parties, just like civil society and churches, are considered for registration under the Societies Act Cap 119 of the Laws of Zambia enacted in the 1960s. This is the Act which gave birth to all political parties and operationalised Articles 20 and 21 of the Constitution which entitles citizens the right to expression and association respectively. The Act is administered by the Department of Registrar of Societies hosted by the Ministry of Home Affairs. Under the current set up, political parties are required, at least to have 10 members to be registered who also undergo thorough security checks. After registration, the concerned party is issued with a certificate and holds it in perpetuity until deregistered by the Registrar or winds down on its own. In 2012, the former ruling party, the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) was deregistered for not paying annual returns for the party’s branches in the provinces and districts as per law requirement and only saved by the courts. A number of churches during the same period suffered threats of deregistration from the registrar.

4. What do you think has triggered the current proposed Political Parties Bill?

There have been concerns from various stakeholders including within the political parties’ circles that political parties must be funded because they are the soul and lifeblood of the multiparty democracy in Zambia. The other school of thought has been that funding political parties would make them more accountable and transparent in the manner they raise and use funds either from government and/or other well-wishers. Others feared that having no mechanisms on how to monitor political parties’ source of income would be putting the country on an “auction sale advert” because political parties would be promising or baiting with money lenders and other unknown people and this could endanger the country especially during electoral campaign periods without citizens knowing. To this end, submissions were made during the previous constitutional reviews to include a political party clause in the Constitution. Therefore, the 2016 amended Constitution upheld this view and included a clause that defines a political party, prescribes dos and don’ts for a political party and introduces funding of political parties with representation in the National Assembly.

5. What are the advantages and disadvantage of the Bill for Zambia’s democracy?

Although the proposed political parties law has some positive aspects in it which are basically meant to bait for stakeholders’ buy-ins, its disadvantages outweigh the advantages. Some of the mischiefs it intends to treat include political parties limited accountability and transparency levels, lack of intra-and interparty democracies and proposes to emphasise on political parties’ need to hold regular internal elections and also the spirit of co-existence through the formation of political parties’ alliances, mergers and coalitions respectively. These aspects are not part of the legal framework today. The proposed law also awards rights to all registered political parties such as the right to hold and address political meetings anywhere in the country without interference, the right to police protection and assistance, and equitable access to the State-owned media.  It proposes funding to parties with representation though small parties have described the provision as promoting bigger parties at the expense of smaller ones.

However, there are fatal disadvantages in the proposed Bill for instance sections 23(1) of the draft Bill states: “The Minister shall prescribe the matters to be included in the constitution or rules of a political party.” How does a minister who is also a political functionary of another political party dictate what another party should include in its constitution? Is this not stifling competitive political ideas and space? The proposed Act also does not include political parties’ representation on the political party Registration Board, instead, it only incorporates the church and government ministries. The Board also is appointed by and reports to the President, who is also party president of a political party. This will be problematic and would raise suspicions in the operations and decisions of the board. The disclosure aspect of the Act has also been received with caution especially that it may cause local businessmen and women to away shy from helping the opposition for fear of being victimised by losing business or denied business contracts with the government.

The proposed Act further gives immunity to board members and officers working at the Political Party Board Secretariat from their omissions and commissions during their duties. For instance, section 16 of the proposed Act states: “An action or other proceeding shall not lie or be instituted against a member of the Board or a member of staff for or in respect of an act or thing done or omitted to be done in good faith in the exercise or performance, or purported exercise or performance, of any of the powers, functions or duties conferred under this Act.” The Acts, once enacted into law, would demand a full disclosure of political parties’ source of funds and penalises whichever political party conceals such information.

6. What advocacy has been carried out concerning the Bill?

There has been no serious advocacy around the formulation of the proposed Act. The government through the Ministry of Justice just announced of its drafting and invited stakeholders’ submissions on the same. Political parties and few civil society organisations did their submissions. However, the government quickly organised a national conference on the draft Bill to consolidate stakeholder’s submissions. The results of this convention are yet to be officially shared with the rest of the nation. Some political parties like the Party for Economic Progress walked out of the convention citing unproductive debates.

7. What role can civil society play in building a more participatory society in Zambia?

To curtail the exercise of power by the government, citizens must not adopt the role of victims but victors and become effective participants in the governance processes. This is currently lacking in the Zambian situation. There is a lot of fear of being arrested and thereafter fail to have resources to hire legal representation. There is need to enhance solidarity efforts among citizens and discard the spirit of the fear of government and its leadership that has engulfed many citizens. Civil society must bring to a stop the increasingly rise of statism in Zambia which has consequently put people’s rights and freedoms in perpetual chains and slavery. Zambia’s civil society movement needs to push and advocate for a more competent, more trustworthy, more tolerant, more democratic and more benevolent government and leadership in the country and reject by confronting the any emergency of oppressive, corrupt and intolerant regime.

Therefore, one cannot be far from the truth in stating that Zambia’s democratic space and credentials have declined in the last six years of the Patriotic Front’s reign. The human rights and governance records are crumbling very fast on the watch of its citizens and the region at large. One wonders what has happened to a country that was a citadel of stability, unity and peace not too long ago and why it is now seemingly crumbling and its citizens living under forced peace and stability. There is no critical moment since the fall of the one party system in Zambian in 1991 than now that citizens have seen the scary emergence of a strong state that has put so much power in itself and coerced the opponents and critical voices, breaking their wills and compelling them into submission. The church, civil society, trade and students’ union movements have not been spared from the fear of the executive, if not divided on tribal and partisan lines. These movements, like majority citizens, have adopted the “watch and see” approach and the “wait for the 2021 elections” notion to sanction the political culprits. Perhaps, it is time that civil society in Zambia rediscover itself and stop leaving a “burning pot” unattended. Therefore, Zambian civil society and the citizens at large must not leave this battle to a few.

8. Any other additional analysis?

In Zambia currently, there is a growing imbalance between the citizen’s power to bind the government and the government’s power to bind the citizens. Theoretically, Zambian leaders still claim to be democratic, respecters of human rights and practitioners of good governance but in reality their practices speak to the contrary.

Public policy today in Zambia is a vast maze of payoffs and kickbacks, tangling everything that the state touches in political intrigue. For instance, elections have become a futile exercise to reveal comparative popular contempt for competing professional politicians.

Justice has become whatever serves the political needs of those in power. This is what has led to the emergence of the governance crisis in Zambia which has exhibited itself through declining or suppression of religious, civic, political and other liberties. It has also manifested itself in allegations of rampant corruption and abuse of public resources. The stronger the government grows, the more irrelevant the individual voter becomes to the leaders.

  • Civic space in Zambia is rated as “Obstructed” by the CIVICUS Monitor

 

NGO soldiers on giving holistic care to rape survivors in DRC

CIVICUS speaks to Julienne Lusenge, director of SOFEPADI (Solidarite Feminine pour la Paix et le Development Integral), an NGO based in the Democratic Republic of Congo which supports and empowers women and girls who are rape and domestic violence survivors.

 

Liberian rural communities face ‘David vs Goliath’ battle with multinationals

CIVICUS speaks to a Liberian activist about the invasions by multinational companies into community and indigenous lands. Rural communities are at the receiving end of human rights violations perpetuated against these companies and the police while the state appears to be turning a blind eye to their plight. The activist prefers to remain anonymous to protect their identity.

1. Can you describe the state of land rights, resource rights and indigenous rights in Liberia?
Communities and land rights activists in Liberia struggle to protect land and natural resources from multinational companies who are given access to land and natural resources by the government without taking into consideration the needs and views of Liberians. In exploiting land and natural resources, these multinational corporations violate the rights of communities, exploit children and their actions have an adverse effect on the environment. Recently, the Liberian government discussed land ownership and rights through a land authority and land rights Act and promised to include more local voices such as those of women and children. However, the laws remain unenforced even though resources that are being taken by big companies are supposed to empower all communities in Liberia. A major challenge is that these multinationals have agreements with the government without taking into account the views and concerns of communities whose livelihood will be affected by the exploitation of these resources. 

2. What do you view as the core issues related to Golden Veroleum’s work in Liberia?
The survival and livelihood of Liberia’s rural communities is attributed to their access to the rainforests and to land for cultivation. Upon the arrival in 2010 of Golden Veroleum Liberia (GVL), a oil palm developer, rural farmers’ lands have been taken from them, often times by force. GVL has continued their expansion and let nothing get in their way; not farmers, not virgin rainforests teeming with wildlife, not even their promises made to help the local communities and assist them in developing education and other necessities. GVL has continued their operations but has returned nothing to the Liberian communities from whom they took the land.

Many of the communities and farmers have disagreed with GVL but have been met with threats and bribery by officials in positions of power. When the members of the communities chose to take a stand and express concerns over the actions of GVL, they have been arrested and beaten. GVL has employed a heavily armed and armored police unit called the Police Support Unit which they have invited to indefinitely stay to protect GVL’s interests and plantations. The workers that work for GVL are underpaid – in most cases US$10 a day and a rice supply which GVL’s forces have been confiscating in village raids. GVL has forced communities out of their land and some members of communities have gone into hiding to avoid reprisals.

3.  How are communities of rural farmers affected by GVL’s palm oil production?
The land of these rural farmers has been confiscated, oftentimes by force, and has been poisoned with the chemicals used inside of palm plantations. GVL supposedly assumes that all local farmers will be obliged to work for them, facing underpayment and no access to the land on which they used to live. Some farmers have refused and simply left to live in the rainforest, yet GVL’s continued expansion threatens the delicate balance of the rainforest in which they live. Others have been beaten and imprisoned and remain there with no hope of ever leaving due to the corruption of GVL’s employed police unit.

4. In addition to concerns by farmers, can you expand on what your concerns are about the palm oil expansion by GVL?
My concerns are that the pleas of these farmers have remained unheard and overlooked by the Liberian government because of the economic benefit the government is receiving for this development. The conditions into which they force these communities, along with the ruthless means used to place them in such peril is very worrying and speaks a lot about the corruption that remains unexposed within the palm oil industry. I am concerned at what the future will bring, with little advancement in development for the communities. Farmers are detained and several are unaccounted for and GVL colludes with the government to gain access to land without consent of local communities.

5. In your opinion, why is this issue not being covered in the mainstream media?
Much of the story has been covered up or kept quiet by corrupt local officials and GVL. However, we hope that as civil society continues to highlight these issues, the matter will get the attention it deserves. Palm oil is used widely for domestic and industrial purposes — from cleaning products to culinary purposes and manufacturing — yet the methods of producing palm oil are not made public. Even major brand names using this oil have not spoken about which companies they source it from and by what means. If this was publicised by the mainstream media there would be a breach of trust between consumers and providers.

6. How has the government of Liberia responded to opposition to the oil plantation and why has it responded in this manner?
In the aftermath of Liberia’s war, the government expected investors to boost the economy and were quick to accept companies that produce palm oil. Liberians were initially happy about the arrival of multinational companies as they promised to create jobs and build schools. However, when the multinationals started violating the rights of communities, the government did not respond. In fact, we know that GVL has been bribing government officials who now ignore the actions of GVL and silence the voices of communities.

7. What can international civil society do to provide support and solidarity to activists in Liberia on this matter?
I would suggest we call on the UN Human Rights Council and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to include Liberia consistently on their agenda. It would also be important for international human rights institutions and mechanisms to work with the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, a voluntary association of the palm oil industry, to ensure GVL stops its operations until it has fulfilled promises made to communities. Finally, we hope local and international media outlets can do more to highlight the human rights violations, human-trafficking, child slavery and illegal deforestation which are common in the palm oil industry. This will persuade customers to demand that their providers ensure that products are produced in line with ethical and human rights standards. Providers unwilling to meet these demands should be exposed to prevent further damage to communities and their lands, in countries such as Liberia. 

• Liberia is rated as “Repressed” by the CIVICUS Monitor.

 

Dire situation for journalists and civil society in Turkey

CIVICUS speaks to Huseyin Hurmali, President of the Journalists and Writers Foundation about the difficult environment for journalists in Turkey. Worldwide, Turkey has the highest number of imprisoned journalists. He also speaks about the future of democracy in Turkey after the President’s move to consolidate power following a tightly-contested referendum.

1. How would you describe the situation in Turkey for journalists and writers?
Depressing: More than half the journalists who are in prison around the world are in Turkey. Turkey currently has the highest number of journalists in jail worldwide. Concrete information, confirmed by the international press and human rights organisations, indicates that Turkey is not a free country in terms of freedom of the press.

According to a report released by the Journalists Association of Turkey, 839 journalists appeared in court simply for reporting news in 2016. These numbers are a clear indication that the problematic situation of freedom of the press in Turkey is far worse than many people think. It should be noted that this number may rise at any moment due to ongoing police raids and detentions. After the 15 July 2016 coup, 85% of the journalists and media workers were taken into custody and arrested. The journalists are charged with various charges among them “espionage”, “membership of a terrorist organisation”, “spreading terrorist propaganda” and “attempting to overthrow the current government”. As is mentioned in the report of the Stockholm Center for Freedom, the practices of silencing journalists through the abuse of the criminal justice system and expanding the scope of the definition of terrorism to use it against defendants are among the human rights violations frequently cited in human rights reports as well as in documents from the European Union, the United Nations, the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

In addition to the jailed journalists and writers, there is a significant number of those for whom detention warrants were issued or were forced to flee the country due to the fear of unfair trial. These journalists and writers have to live in exile enduring financial hardships, intimidation of their families back in Turkey, denial of consular services at Turkish embassies and consulates, uncertain legal status in their respective countries, and having to hide their identities in their countries of asylum due to continuous death threats on social media from supporters of President Recep Erdogan.

There are a few remaining independent and critical media organisations in Turkey, and their staff are working under constant threat of arrest, violence, hate speech, discrimination, profiling, censorship and even death. The court is now the most frequent place of visitation for critical journalists who face criminal cases against them, if they have not been jailed yet. The seizure and closure of 189 media organisations by the government indicates that not only the freedom of media is lost, but also a huge number of employees in this sector including the editorial, administrative and technical staff who have to face unemployment. More than 30% of journalists alone in the media sector have lost their jobs and were denied the right of carrying out their profession in any other institution, due to being blacklisted by the government. Furthermore, some of the journalists and writers who are in jail or in exile have lost all their assets by seizure orders from non-independent courts. Thereby, the victimisation of journalists and writers in Turkey reaches out to their close and extended families, inside and outside of the country.

2. Please elaborate on some of the persecution tactics being used by the Turkish state against those who don’t agree with what’s going in the country at present.
President Erdogan and the Turkish government are waging a war against dissent under the disguise of a war on terror, using the coup attempt on July 15, 2016 as a tool. The Turkish state’s persecution of dissenters was already taking place at a gradual speed since the mass protests in June 2013. The violent crushing down of the peaceful protests became a routine after that, until a point where people are afraid to exercise their right of peaceful gathering and mass protests. The government’s use of the police force to suppress dissent became more explicit when a corruption probe was revealed in December 2013, which included the close circle of Erdogan as prime suspects. Erdogan turned this case into a test of loyalty to himself within the security and the judiciary branch, jailing, discharging, or displacing the police officers and the judiciary members who were involved in the corruption probe against his government members (and himself). He became increasingly interventionist on the judiciary system by declaring his opponents as terrorists and criminals without any evidence.

The redesigning of the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors in 2014 gave way to the total instrumentalisation of legal system for the intimidation and persecution of dissenters. They reinterpreted the trusteeship concept in property law which was meant to prevent a private enterprise from bankruptcy, and appointed trustees as a way of seizing the private media, business, and educational institutions that were owned by the targeted individuals or groups. The ending of the peace process with the Kurdish movement in June 2015 was followed by a collective punishment of the Kurds by a military attack that tore down the Kurdish-majority cities in the southeast of Turkey. Legal actions were taken against peaceful supporters of the Kurdish case in order to silence opposition, as seen in the case of more than 1,000 academics who signed a petition for peace, and had to suffer administrative and legal investigation for criticising the state. People who belonged to the Gulen-inspired Hizmet movement, which became Erdogan’s number one target after the corruption probe in 2013, began to be detained and arrested for being a member of an “armed terror organisation” which was a term that was coined for the movement, in addition to “the parallel state structure” without any trial or a court decision. Critics from all sections were subjected to arbitrary legal harassment, by facing charges such as “insulting the President” “defaming state institutions” or “aiding a terror organisation” when they stood against the wrongful acts of the state; therefore people were forced to exert self-censorship in their social media posts and public conversations. Legal actions were taken against absurdly small incidents, such as liking an anti-Erdogan cartoon on Facebook, as a way of demonstrating the power of authority and the extent of its reach.

The State of Emergency declared in the aftermath of the failed coup attempt in July 2016 gave total impunity to the state’s ongoing persecution tactics as well as enabling it to launch a total crackdown against civil society and civil servants. The coup attempt gave the government the pretext to declare the Hizmet movement as an “armed terror organization” by blaming Gulen and his followers for the putsch, and to round up anyone who is even remotely connected to the network as a “coup supporter” and “member of an armed terror organisation.” It is a serious offense in Turkish criminal law, and entails harsh imprisonment conditions. The state of emergency decrees are immune to parliamentary or judicial control, allowing the dismissal of over 138,000 civil servants without any right to appeal, the closure of 149 media outlets, 2 099 schools, dormitories and universities. Under the state of emergency over 50 000 have been arrested (including 13 MPs from pro-Kurdish HDP) and 102 000 detained. Again, the Kurdish opposition and the Hizmet movement became the main target of the executive decrees, while the state is careful to include all sorts of dissidents to create fear among loyalists and opponents alike. The state also uses its embassies and consulates around the world to harass opponents by denying them of regular services, canceling their passports, and threatening to revoke their citizenship status if they are charged with a crime in Turkey and reject to return to the country after three months of notice.

Turkey’s persecution of dissidents through illegal means has also reached beyond its national borders. Tactics employed include threats, denial of consular services, profiling and abductions. The recent abductions of Turkish nationals from Malaysia in total violation of international law is a case in point. Since October 2016, five Turkish nationals have been illegally detained by Malaysian operatives and handed over to Turkish authorities. These individuals are currently jailed in Turkey, raising serious fear of torture and inhuman treatment. The systematic nature of their abduction leaves little doubt about cooperation between the Turkish and Malaysian governments. There is growing concern that such a pattern could be repeated in other parts of the world where corrupt regimes or clandestine structures would be willing to cooperate with Turkey in order to kidnap Hizmet Movement sympathisers.

3. Please elaborate on how your organisation was deprived of its status at the UN following pressure from the Turkish government.
As an international civil society organization dedicated to a culture of peace, human rights and sustainable development, the Journalists and Writers Foundation (JWF) promotes diversity and inclusion by creating forums for intellectual and social engagement, generates and shares knowledge with stakeholders, builds partnerships worldwide and develops policy recommendations for positive social change.

JWF received ECOSOC general consultative status in 2012, becoming the first and only NGO from Turkey to hold this status. Having this important status made the United Nations’ Global Agenda 2030 a priority area for JWF, particularly in terms of implementing the Sustainable Development Goals. Following the numerous violations of the freedom of speech in Turkey and as a result of the groundless claim of the Permanent Mission of Turkey to the UN – namely, that JWF no longer exists, despite the fact that JWF is an NGO registered in New York State – JWF‘s general consultative status with ECOSOC was revoked on 19 April 2017 during the UN ECOSOC meeting. The Turkish government´s dictation for the withdrawal of JWF’s consultative status with ECOSOC was based on the fact that JWF’s operations were ended in Turkey by a post-coup emergency decree on 22 July 2016, which was issued due to its alleged associations with a fictitious terror organisation. We must point out that JWF is a 501(c) non-governmental organisation registered in New York State and has had its headquarters in New York since 2014.

The Turkish government exploited procedural flaws in the rules and misused its membership status at the relevant UN bodies to extend its massive crackdown on civil society in Turkey to the United Nations platform. The ensuing decision to revoke JWF’s consultative status clearly contradicts the UN’s promotion of active civil society participation in the 2030 Agenda. Apart from Turkey’s increasing tendency towards dictatorship, there is also a growing concern about the intimidation of and reprisals against individuals and organisations that cooperate with the UN system. The withdrawal of JWF’s status clearly violates Article 56 of Resolution 1996/31, which indicates that the NGO concerned “shall be given written reasons for that decision and shall have an opportunity to present its response for appropriate consideration by the Committee”. JWF was neither informed in writing about this arbitrary action, nor was it given a platform to defend its twenty-three years of dedication to peace and the protection of human rights. JWF’s dedication to peace, human rights and sustainable development has been proven by the many activities and projects that have been implemented ever since JWF received general consultative status with ECOSOC in July 2012. JWF’s quadrennial report submitted to the Committee on NGOs in June 2016 is more than enough to indicate that this decision is not fair, given JWF’s activities and performance. The decision is clearly politically driven and secured by the privileged position of member states against NGOs in the ECOSOC system.

4. Given the total clampdown on freedom of expression in the country how is democratic dissent being expressed? Are any creative methods being used?
The “No” campaign during the 2017 Turkish constitutional referendum can be seen as a very creative expression of democratic dissent. Especially, young people’s creative political activism against the referendum shows that free expression will be hard to stamp out in the country.

Without a doubt, speaking out against Erdogan comes with risks: “No” campaigners have faced alleged government-backed coercion and suppression. In March 2017, the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) unveiled a 78-point report regarding irregularities and suppression of 'No' campaigners.

But still, protesters have plastered photos of jailed artists and politicians who oppose the measure at select transport hubs. Videos of police questioning women who spoke out against the referendum on a ferry have gone viral in social media. Officials have banned a Kurdish song encouraging a “no” vote. (The subtitle to this song reads, "Playing this song in Turkey will land you in jail.") Young women in colorful masks shouting “No!” and university students beating drums and singing songs about freedom were among the thousands who marched on Istiklal Street, a popular thoroughfare in Istanbul, to campaign against boosting President Erdogan’s powers in a constitutional referendum. Erdogan’s crackdown on dissent is nothing new, but the creativity of the young people especially is still giving hope.

5. What can international civil society do to support freedom of expression in Turkey?
As the civil society and free and independent media in Turkey have been greatly impaired by the ongoing purge, international delegations of civil society and media organisations visiting Turkey must show solidarity with all victims of state oppression and be their voice indiscriminately. The wide range of civil servants, professionals, in addition many journalists and intellectuals who had to flee Turkey after the coup must be supported in their struggle to find safety and legal protection. The exiled journalists who launched initiatives to report on human rights abuses in Turkey need the help of international civil society in carrying out this high-risk, and mostly high-cost task. The remaining voices of dissent, which have most recently surfaced itself with the 49% (and possibly more) of the referendum voters in Turkey can only be kept alive as long as they feel the support of the international civil society through social media campaigns, as the social media is the major platform where alternative voices can be heard. Where Turkish citizens are silenced with fear, the international community must speak for them.

6. How do you see the future of democracy in Turkey.
The constitutional referendum last month unfortunately nailed the coffin of democracy and separation of powers in Turkey, allowing President Erdogan to combine the executive, legislative and judiciary powers. While this has already been the de facto system in Turkey for the last couple of years as Erdogan captured more and more elements of the state, the proposed Constitution will make it permanent as the de jure system. Yet there is still hope, as we have seen that even in an unfair and possibly rigged election, half of the voters stood against this proposal, and denied Erdogan a decisive victory. First and foremost of all, the State of Emergency rule must end as soon as possible, and the Turkish government has to stop the repression of its people and establish the fundamental rights of individuals.

• Turkey is rated as “repressed” by the CIVICUS Monitor.

 

Cultural barriers are lifting but legal and political obstacles still hinder gender equality in Chile

Spanish

CIVICUS speaks to Natalia Muñoz Castillo, director of International Affairs at the Observatory Against Street Harassment (OCAC), a Chilean civil society organisation that works to make public spaces safe and egalitarian, making them accessible to the most vulnerable, and specifically to women, children, adolescents and LGBTI people.

1.Why an organisation dedicated to the issue of street harassment? Why is this an important issue in terms of women’s rights?
While there are indeed other outstanding issues in which women’s lives and health are directly at stake, street sexual harassment is also a real problem in Chile. And it is an issue that is difficult to address because it is supposedly attached to our culture. For a long time it was considered to be part of our Latin American culture and upheld as “the way Chilean men are”, and therefore it was believed that there was nothing you could do to guarantee your safety in the street. We believe it is unfair for women to be second-rate persons and to be forced to use the public space in fear. What we try to do at OCAC is challenge preconceptions, take ownership of public space and promote change so that we can feel safe without being constantly on guard against the possibility of sexual assault. In Chile, giving a woman a “compliment” in the street is widely accepted, it is considered normal and natural; however, it actually violates the right of women to walk around safely. This practice has endured for many years, and in that sense it is “traditional”, but that does not make it acceptable. If it causes you fear and insecurity, and limits your prospects for the only reason that you are a woman – it makes you avoid certain routes, restrict your schedule, change the way you dress or move – then it amounts to gender-based violence.

2. In which ways does the use of public space – that is, the restrictions linked to the understanding of the place that each is meant to occupy – relate to the broader problem of gender inequality?
The female gender is generally associated with the private sphere. The privileged participation of males in the public sphere translates into better salaries, greater security in the streets and sexual freedom. When women dare to cross these barriers of patriarchy, societal norms immediately set the limits. If I, a woman, leave the private space and try to move freely in the public space, I become a target for violence. And society will blame me for whatever happens to me: it was my fault because I was in a place where I should not have been, because I was dressed in a way I shouldn’t have, or because I was out at a time when I should have been home. So gender inequality is visible both inside and outside the home. The Observatory focuses on what goes on outside, while other organisations focus on, for instance, sexual violence within the home, dating violence and other violations of rights that occur in the sphere of private or intimate relationships. In sum, OCAC focuses its efforts on addressing sexual violence taking place in the streets, and occurring when women seek to occupy a public space that traditionally, according to societal norms, does not belong to them.

3. You have probably been told a thousand times: “Chile has a female president, what else do you want?
That’s exactly right. And we reply: The fact that Chile has a female president [Michelle Bachelet, president in 2006-10 and re-elected in 2014] is no guarantee that all women in our society are being treated equally. In fact, the president herself is portrayed in the media in an extremely sexist fashion. Congress representatives such as former student leaders Camila Vallejo and Karol Cariola also receive sexist press coverage and public opinion also reflects these views. People refer to the president in demeaning ways by focusing on her weight or her body, which has never happened to male presidents. Even when they reach prominent positions in national politics, women are still subjected to violence linked to traits that have nothing to do with their ability to do their jobs. They are permanently questioned and assessed in terms of their “feminine” attributes and for their bodies above anything else.

4. As feminist activists, have you and your colleagues faced similar stereotypes?
I am also a teacher, and when I talk to my students about gender issues they often react by saying “but prof, you don’t look like a feminist!” It’s just that I don’t fit into their stereotypes. They say “but you are married”, meaning I am not a lesbian, or they point out that I have long hair, or that I wear makeup, or that I don’t mistreat male students but instead treat them all equally. This surprises them because their point of departure is the characterisation of a feminist as a very angry woman who rejects everything feminine and wants to vent her anger against men – in short, a “feminazi”.

This conversation helps my students feel that gender issues are much closer to them and gives them a different point of entrance into feminism – by watching my actions, and particularly my emphasis on equal treatment. As representatives of a feminist organisation, we are subjected to public scrutiny, so we need to be careful of, for instance, the ways we refer to men and women. And we strongly insist that the current situation is not the fault of individual men, but of the patriarchal structure within which all of us, both men and women, have been raised.

In fact, although there are many women in our organisation, and our directors are all female (for reasons of experience with these issues as well as trajectory within the organisation), ours is not strictly a women’s organisation, since many males also work in it.

5. On its website, the Observatory does not define itself as a feminist organisation. Is that label still too much weight to carry?
This was a discussion that we did have in the beginning. When the organisation was founded, in 2013, there was still some fear of the connotations the label could carry. Still then, being a feminist was not “cool” in Latin America, it was not in fashion, so the label was not all that desirable. But after a while we realised that what we were doing was grounded in feminism, and that we needed to claim the label and see what happened – and if it was not well received, then bad luck. So we started presenting ourselves as feminists, as we do on Twitter and Facebook.

As our work began to take hold – our posters were there in the metro, our memes circulated on social media – we noticed feminism was becoming more popular among younger generations. Among young women, today it is almost unconceivable not to be a feminist. I may have a biased perspective, because I am talking about the people I interact with in my surroundings, but nowadays my students are very aware of what harassment is, they recognise gender differences and inequalities, they know that respect requires and understand what things should not be done… I am not sure I would say feminism is now fashionable, but at least it is more normal: you can say you are a feminist and you will not be attacked from all flanks. It is possible to have a meaningful conversation, and even to quote feminist organisations to support your argument… this may have something to do with access to information, which is much more open today. Internet access has educated the public on these issues.

6. What strategies – advocacy, campaigning, mobilisation – does OCAC use?
As an organisation we work in various fields, and we work in teams of professionals specialised in law, sociology and political science, communications and design, and psychology, pedagogy and social work, depending on the case. The International Networks team, which I lead, works alongside “sister” organisations in several Latin American countries: Bolivia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Uruguay. In some of these countries, and particularly in Guatemala and Nicaragua, the situation is much more difficult than in Chile. Here in Chile, street sexual harassment usually takes less-than-drastic forms: you feel insecure and limited in your freedom, but phenomena such as gang rapes are rare, while they are fairly common in other countries.

So we collaborate with our counterparts in these countries by producing joint campaigns at the regional level and supporting the communications work of our weaker nodes. For those countries where violence against women and girls is more serious, such as Guatemala, we have devised stronger awareness-raising campaigns. The demands we put forward for our governments to address are not the same everywhere: in those cases, for instance, rather than a law against street harassment more basic security measures are required, including protection against femicide. We try to be a source of support for these organisations, because they also feel much more abandoned by the law than we do. After all, civil society organisations mostly have one another for support.

In turn, the Legal Advisory team provides legal support to victims of street sexual harassment, and it was also the one that drafted and promoted the Law of Street Respect (Ley de Respeto Callejero) that is currently under discussion in the Chilean Senate Human Rights Commission. The Communications team works in sharing experiences, making public denunciations and generating content for campaigns. We also have a Studies team whose research feeds into public debate, outreach efforts and campaigns; an Interventions team that works with communities, schools and public opinion to educate the public about street harassment, and also accompanies victims; and a Management and Projects team that develops alliances, seeks donations and guarantees funding for our initiatives.

It is important to note that while we emerged as an organisation with a focus on street sexual harassment, which is therefore at the core of our work, we embrace the feminist demand in its entirety. We therefore have a clear-cut position on femicide and we support the #NiUnaMenos (“not one less”) campaign and the legalisation of abortion. However, street mobilisation does not rank high among our strategies: although we regularly join in mobilisations summoned by other organisations, OCAC itself rarely calls for mobilisation. Rather than massively taking to the streets, we focus on using to our favour a variety of platforms – social media, traditional media, institutional spaces, communications with elected officials – that are available for citizens to make themselves heard. We consider ourselves to be neither street feminists nor academic feminists, but we rather try to spread our message throughout society. So we try to be present in the media, in schools and universities as well as in streets, marketplaces and public squares.

A recent campaign we took out there was #Notedavergüenza (“Aren’t you ashamed”). We addressed it to men, whom we invited to reflect on consent in order to understand that, in the absence of explicit consent, many behaviours that are relatively common in fact constitute sexual violence. Besides spreading it on social media, we took the campaign to street markets in order to talk to people about it. Our goal is to establish a dialogue, introduce our organisation to people and have them commit to making a change and spreading it.

6. Have you faced any obstacles, cultural or otherwise, when doing this work?
Cultural obstacles are there, but mostly among older generations. Chile was the last country in the region to legalise divorce, and is among those that still ban abortion under any circumstances. However, this is a legacy of the dictatorship (1973-1990) rather than a deeply rooted cultural trait. In fact, until the late 1960s Chilean women had access to therapeutic abortion, under lax conditions that made it relatively accessible. It was under the Pinochet regime that legislation went back to unmitigated prohibition, and this remained untouched as democracy was restored, among other reasons because the coalition that came to power and ruled for many years was either led by or prominently included the Christian Democratic Party. Thus the law remained aligned with Christian doctrine.

While the law remained frozen in time, citizens’ mentality changed. And in some areas, and to some extent, this had repercussions on the law, which began to give way. This was the case of Law No. 20830, passed in 2015, which regulated civil unions for same-sex couples. This happened because the younger generation is more open on these issues than their predecessors. My parents’ generation grew up under the dictatorship, so they grew up in fear, and change does not come easy to them.

In this sense, today’s obstacles are legal and political rather than cultural. Chile’s majority is nominally Catholic, that is, Catholic by tradition rather than out of actual conviction or regular religious practice. The majority of the population takes stances that are more open and tolerant than those of the Church, but the political class is more conservative than public opinion. The Catholic Church continues to wield power and its views are taken into account when decisions are made. That is why, for us, the Catholic Church remains a wall in our way.

Civic space in Chile is rated as “narrowed” in the CIVICUS Monitor.
• Get in touch with OCAC through their website, visit their Facebook page, or follow @ocacchile on Twitter. You can also sign to support the campaign against street harassment at www.respetocallejero.cl

 

Hungary new Bill aims to silence civil society that criticises the state

CIVICUS speaks to Anita Koncsik of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU) on the recent Bill on transparency of organisations receiving foreign funding. Anita also speaks on the recent massive protests in the country and the general operating environment for civil society. For over two decades, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union has been active in protecting the rights of citizens against undue interference by those in position of public power.

1. What are the main concerns of civil society over the draft bill “on transparency of organisations receiving foreign funding” that was presented to the Hungarian Parliament on 7 April?

First and foremost, the Bill is not necessary at all. NGOs are complying with already existing comprehensive transparency requirements. Act CLXXV of 2011 on the Freedom of Association, on the Non-profit Status and on the Operation and Support of Civil Organizations also known as the Civil Act already regulates which financial statements have to be presented for meeting transparency standards. For example ourselves as the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union we have to create 4 annual reports - including one focusing on donations. While we believe that accountability in both the governmental and non-governmental sphere is important, the new regulation clearly serves other interests. That is the reason why it is embedded into the smear campaign of the government that was initiated 4 years ago against NGOs that dare to take a critical stance against its measures. The very existence of the Bill is an attempt to silence or threaten critical voices. It therefore violates freedom of expression, good reputations and it serves to stigmatise NGOs (therefore is discriminative) and infringes on the privacy of donors as well.

2. The government says the law is necessary to guard against money laundering and terrorism. How is civil society responding to these concerns and what accountability mechanisms are in place?

This is a hypocritical argument coming from a government that has allowed several grey zones for financial maneuvers, like stability savings account (which is explicitly state supported money laundering) or the concept of settlement bonds (invented by a minister of the government who himself is known to channel public resources to unidentified offshore brokers without any legitimate reason at all). But apart from the government’s deflective argumentations, there are already accountability mechanisms in place anchored in the aforementioned Civil Act. NGOs that do not receive Hungarian public funds (like HCLU) have to publish an annual financial report, a non-profit report (as an annex to the report deposited at the registering court), and a report on donations.

Anti-money laundering measures affect mostly the private financial sector in Hungary and these measures are usually the subject of criticism from both of Hungarian and international experts for lacking proper risk assessment of sufficient depth with regard to potential threats, vulnerabilities and their consequences in general. According to the expert group MONEYVAL of Council of Europe, Hungary should conduct a formal review of the entire non-profit organisation (NPO) sector in order to identify NPOs that could potentially pose a higher risk of financing terrorism. But this recommendation puts emphasis on a substantiated review of the sector and if the government concludes that the existing frameworks and measures are not good enough to protect the sector, the newly adopted laws/measures must be proportionate and targeted (but not tailored to target NGOs that criticise government). We are not aware of the occurrence of any such review. The new Bill clearly does not serve anti-money laundering purposes. In addition, if the regulation enters into force, MONEYVAL still can consider the aforementioned recommendation unfulfilled - based on overregulation and discrimination - alongside with other recommendations that the government is not so eager to address such as rectifying shortcomings of the mechanism for verifying the information on beneficial owners of financial institutions. Therefore meeting international standards is not the motive behind the legislation.

3. What other motivations does civil society believe lie behind the government’s actions?

This proposal clearly fits into the hostile anti-NGO campaign that was initiated 4 years ago, during which Prime Minister Viktor Orbán denounced human rights NGOs as agents of foreign political interests, endorsed the idea of “illiberal state” and rhetorical attacks were accompanied by a series of administrative checks and criminal investigations. Eventually, all investigations were dropped and none yielded any finding of wrongdoing or irregularities, but - in 2016, after a two and a half year long legal procedure - HCLU shed light on the fact that the government control investigations were ordered by the Prime Minister himself which proves the pure political nature of the audits.

In the meantime, government propaganda started to portray NGOs that criticise it as a national security risk. MP Szilárd Németh, vice president of the Fidesz and of the Parliament’s National Security Committee announced in September of 2016 in an interview that he requested the national security services to inspect organisations “cooperating with the Soros-network”. The MP stated that he had identified 22 such organisations, and claimed that these organisations openly violate Hungarian and European laws, and participate in politics unlawfully with “black money”. It must be noted that in Hungary secret services can gather information without a judicial warrant when it is related to national security risks, therefore safeguards and independent oversight of the covert information-gathering is missing, which contradicts international law of course.

After a short break, in December 2016, Prime Minister Orbán announced that in 2017, states would aim to “drive out” from their countries George Soros and also the organisations he supports.

A month later, Fidesz Vice President Szilárd Németh, one of the MP’s who is currently submitting the Bill, said: “The Soros empire’s fake civil organisations are maintained so that global capital and the world of political correctness can be imposed on national governments. These organisations have to be rolled back with all available tools, and I think they have to be swept out of here.”

These statements reveal the true aim of the illiberal Hungarian government: the Bill is the latest attempt to stigmatise and silence those who voice critical opinions about public affairs.

4. Can you tell us about recent mass protests that occurred over the possibility of the closure of the Central European University.

The adopted and promulgated Bill aimed clearly at undermining operation of Central European University (CEU) in Hungary. The proposal was amending the Act CCIV of 2011 on National Higher Education enacting new requirements for domestic operation that extend beyond already existing accreditation criteria (and the recognition of foreign accreditation). The purpose of the amendment was to enable politics to intrude into education, making the operation of universities subject to these regulations (currently that covers exclusively CEU) depending on political will. Opponents were protesting against unconstitutional restriction on educational and academic freedom and freedom of research, joined by thousands of Hungarians outraged over the latest anti-EU government propaganda campaign in the form of another “national consultation,” (calling on Hungarians to “stop Brussels”). It also has to be noted that as a reaction to the first protests, the government only accelerated the legislative procedure aiming at prohibiting real political discussion about the amendment. During the mass protest other buzzwords emerged, like protest against the illicit closure of the left-wing broadsheet Népszabadság, restrictions on freedom of expression and fighting propaganda of the FIDESZ media empire (including public television channels) and against social exclusion and xenophobia fueled by the government, etc.


5. Can you describe the overall environment for CSOs in Hungary? Do different CSOs experience different attitudes from the state?

Yes, they do experience different treatment depending on which financial resources they have access to and how critical they dare to be of the government. Besides the blacklisted Soros-network NGOs, there are Hungarian GONGOs, like the Civil Cooperation Forum [Civil Összefogás Fórum (CÖF)] that is the organiser of pro-government “peace rallies” and participated very actively in the electoral campaign of 2014 on the side of the governing parties. CÖF claims to finance the organisation’s operations exclusively through private donations. It is not clear from their reports, though, who these donors are and CÖF has a proven connection to a FIDESZ party Foundation from which it has received tens of millions of forints. Transparency of such organisation, however, is not an issue according to the government.

Besides, government propaganda created a (false) link between human rights defense and terrorism, since according to the governmental narrative, the refugee phenomenon is the radix malorum of terrorism and there is a vocal group of human rights NGOs that still devote attention to refugee rights and try to help in spite of the current hostile circumstances. These NGOs therefore are face charges of supporting terrorism by increasing the terror threat level of the country.

6. Given the government’s attitude towards civil society, what support can international and regional groups offer to civil society organisations in the country?

Opposing the Bill and the threats to fundamental freedoms and CSOs in Hungary, is crucial right now on both an international and a domestic level. We ask our partner organisations to express their views, and also call on their government representatives to convey these concerns to the representatives of the Hungarian government. Besides moral support and creating a pressure on the government, it is equally important to maintain financial security and independence of these organisations, therefore helping with widening the scope of international fundraising is also appreciated. The international community can be the biggest listed donor of these organisations that could be used against government pro bill arguments.


• The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union monitors legislation, pursues strategic litigation, conducts public education and launches awareness raising media campaigns. It stands by citizens unable to defend themselves, assisting them in protecting their basic rights. Our lawyers provide free legal aid service in about 2 000 cases per year and this number is increasing.

Visit the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union Facebook page here or here or on Twitter account @HCLU or @tasz_hu 

Hungary is rated as obstructed by the CIVICUS Monitor

 

Advocating for women’s sexual and reproductive rights in Peru, a risky fight against powerful enemies

Spanish

CIVICUS speaks to María Ysabel Cedano, Director of DEMUS –Study for the Defense of Women’s Rights, a Peruvian feminist organisation that since 1987 defends human rights, and particularly women’s sexual and reproductive rights, by promoting their free exercise and questioning the hegemonic cultural paradigm on women and their sexuality. DEMUS carries out public opinion campaigns and advocacy work with the three branches of government; it conducts strategic litigation and promotes mobilisation on issues related to the promotion of equality and non-discrimination, a life free from gender-based violence, access to justice, and sexual and reproductive rights.

1. How would you describe the context for the exercise of feminist activism in Peru?
Generally speaking, conditions for activism greatly depend on the ideology, programme and nature of the organisation and movement in question - on its stance regarding the state and the incumbent government, and on its relationship with political forces and the powers that be.

Due to our agenda, we feminists are antagonists of Fujimorism, the political movement founded by Alberto Fujimori, who ruled Peru between 1990 and 2000. Our organisation has criticised and opposed them since the 1990s, as we have fought for justice and reparations for the thousands of victims of the Fujimori administration’s policy of systematic forced sterilisation. Its victims were mostly peasant, indigenous and poor women who underwent irreversible surgical contraception without being able to give their free and informed consent, in a context of widespread violence.

On this issue, in 2003 we reached a Friendly Settlement Agreement (FSA) in the Mamérita Mestanza case. As a result, the Peruvian state acknowledged its responsibility for human rights violations in the context of the forced sterilisation policy and committed to providing justice and reparation to victims. We also obtained favourable statements by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that have boosted our work to defend the right to access justice and to promote a policy of integral reparations. That made us a target of Fujimorist attacks, in the form of defamation in the national media as well as in social media. We have in fact sued former congressman Alejandro Aguinaga, under investigation in the preliminary examination of forced sterilisations as a crime against humanity and other serious violations of human rights, which the Public Ministry opened in 2004 in compliance with the already mentioned FSA. The case still remains in its preliminary stages due to political interference, which we have publically denounced. For more than fourteen years, the Public Ministry has failed to accuse former President Fujimori and his former Health Ministers, including Aguinaga, and no prosecution has taken place. In the meantime, Fujimorism has not undergone any renovation whatsoever: it still does not believe in human rights and cannot fathom the right of women to decide on their own. In fact they all remain very convinced that it is the state that has to decide for them.

The other antagonists we have as a result of our feminist agenda are the Catholic and Evangelical ecclesial hierarchies, as well as other conservative and fundamentalist religious groups such as Opus Dei, Sodalitium and Bethel. These are the leaders of an anti- sexual and reproductive rights agenda and seek to legislate and implement public policies to strengthen the institutions that guarantee their political, economic, social and cultural dominance, thereby ignoring the secular character of the state that the authorities in turn fail to enforce. For decades they have run a strong campaign against what they call “gender ideology”, not just in Peru but throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and beyond. These are multimillion-dollar campaigns that maintain that “gender ideology” attacks life, marriage and family. The funding they poured into the fear campaign against the peace accords in Colombia is a good example of this. They have also promoted a campaign called "Don't mess with my children" in several countries in the region.

While these actors have questioned the scientific and legal validity of the gender perspective, the concept of gender has been adopted in the Beijing Platform for Action (1995) and in standards such as CEDAW, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and the Convention of Belém do Pará. In Peru it was included into several laws, public policies and institutions, as a result of which conservative sectors are currently trying, for instance, to eliminate the gender perspective from the school curriculum, including all allusions to sexual orientation and gender identity. They have done so by means of both street actions and lawsuits. These however have not yielded the desired results: the overwhelming response from the Ministry of Justice’s Attorney General even covered them in ridicule. As a result, they had no alternative left other than using their power in Congress, where there are currently two bills that have been submitted by Fujimorism towards that aim.

Lastly, in addition to harassing us through their press, as they have always done, these sectors now also attack us for our funding sources. They say we are the instruments of great powers seeking to impose Western models of family and sexuality in our country.

Thanks to a journalistic investigation that then became a criminal investigation, we currently know of child sexual abuse perpetrated by members of the Sodalitium, one of the most conservative and powerful groups within the Catholic Church. The scandal contributed to weakening the attacks coming from the ecclesial hierarchy. We are also beginning to know about the unholy business the Church does with education, health and even cemeteries within the framework of the Concordat between the Peruvian state and the Vatican. The very same priests who have spent years fighting us on the decriminalisation of abortion for rape cases, and who have said the worst things about us because they consider themselves to be the “defenders of life”, have allegedly covered for rapists of children and adolescents in their congregations and communities. This has helped people overcome their fear of denouncing the Catholic Church’s hypocrisy and double standards, and has limited the church’s ability to demand the government implement specific policies. For instance, the government has recently obeyed a court order to resume the distribution of emergency oral contraception despite pressures from Cardinal Cipriani.

Given that our struggles for transitional justice have led us to seek justice and integral reparations for the victims of sexual violence during the internal armed conflict (1980-2000), we face not only Fujimorism but also APRA, a traditional party that ruled during a part of this period. They both seek to divide Peruvians between terrorists and non-terrorists and associate the left and human rights with terrorism. They never get tired of asserting that those who attack the military are terrorists - or ungrateful to say the least, for persecuting those who freed us from terrorism. If we strive for the legalisation of abortion we are abortionists, and if we defend human rights we are terrorists.

2. How does DEMUS work to overcome these obstacles?
We combine organisational and mobilisation strategies to strengthen the feminist and women’s diversity movement, public and political advocacy for legislation, public policies and access to justice measures, and strategic litigation. Among the latter were for instance the Manta y Vilca trial on rape during the internal armed conflict, which established that this was a crime against humanity; the case of forced sterilisations during the Fujimori administration; and other cases that have allowed us to move forward in terms of the recognition and guarantee of the human right to therapeutic abortion, among other sexual and reproductive rights.

Ours is not just a lawyers’ struggle: we work in multidisciplinary teams and in alliances and within networks including other feminist, women’s, LGBTIQ and human rights NGOs, groups and platforms. Experience has taught us that it is not enough to obtain jurisprudence, standards, laws and public policies if there are no social movements and citizens defending them, that is, if there is no social base accompanying and empathising with the victims. Strategic litigation, legal defence and psycho-legal and therapeutic help are therefore always to be accompanied with mobilisation and campaigning.

3. Is the Peruvian women’s movement integrated into regional or global networks, so as to face an adversary that is?
There are indeed very important global and regional networks. In Latin America, the level of articulation reached by indigenous, peasant and environmental women human rights defenders is astonishing in contrast with the weakening of some feminist networks. New technologies have revolutionised communications, and we now have various alternative means to organise ourselves in networks.

We must think about how to strengthen our thematic networks, for instance in the field of sexual and reproductive rights, in order to resist together. This is facilitated by a number of conceptual convergences, but complicated by the scarcity of resources reaching Latin America, competition around which affects alliances and articulations. Neoliberalism has also had an impact on inter-subjective relations: conflicts and rivalries arise due to scarce funding. It is impossible to understand the degree of difficulties we face without analysing the changes in and the new rules of international cooperation and funding mechanisms.
On the other hand, we must not forget that Peru’s is a post-conflict society, with open wounds and an abundance of distrust, which has not yet learned to resolve differences without violence. We need to be aware of these limitations, so as not to reproduce what we criticise. But we are certainly still very strong: with much greater organisation and resources than we have, Catholics and evangelicals have not yet managed to create enough pressure in the streets and on public opinion to remove sex education from the school curriculum. Their only hope is now placed on authoritarian conservative forces in Congress.

4. What progress or setbacks do you perceive in the struggle for women’s rights in Peru?
Taking stock of the forty years of contemporary feminism in Peru, there has been net progress in terms of the legal-institutional framework. Advances have been the result of constant struggle and permanent dispute, and are neither ideal nor stable: they need to be continuously defended and perfected.

For instance, in late 2015 a substantial amendment to Law No. 26260 (1993) on domestic violence was finally passed. The new legislation, Law No. 30394, is a law against gender-based violence. Shortly after, in July 2016, the Third National Plan against Gender Violence (2016-2021) was passed. In both cases there was a dispute over the diversity of the women to be protected. There was much resistance against the possibility that legislation would also protect lesbian, bisexual and transgender women. In fact, recognition of the variety of forms that gender violence can take was not as resisted as the extension and recognition of the objects of protection. The women’s movement succeeded in getting some previously unacknowledged forms of gender violence recognised as such, including gender-based violence in the context of social conflicts. We wanted the new law to protect women human rights defenders of land, the environment, and natural resources, that is, indigenous and peasant women who are currently criminalised and on whom conflicts have a differential impact on the basis of gender. This we achieved. We had also proposed that the violation of sexual and reproductive rights be recognised as gender violence. And while we achieved recognition of forced sterilisation, rape in the context of internal armed conflict, violence due to sexual orientation, and obstetric violence as forms of gender-based violence, such recognition was not expressed in the language of sexual and reproductive rights. In additional, sexual orientation-based violence was recognised but gender identity-based violence was not.

Fifteen years after the First National Plan was launched, and more than twenty after the first law against then-called “domestic” or “intra-family” violence was passed, tension between women’s rights and family protection persists. Although Law No. 30364 has in many respects aligned legislation with the Belém do Pará Convention, violence based on gender identity discrimination has not yet been recognised. Public debate continues to focus on nature as a determinant of sexuality, reproduction and family.

Why is it that feminists and LGBT people perceive “family protection” as contrary to our rights? First, because not all families are protected. Family rights of the LGBT population are not recognised. Secondly, because why protect the existing family – a traditional, hierarchical, violent family based on sexual division of labour and the exclusive recognition of heterosexual sexuality? A family organisation free of discrimination and gender-based violence should be promoted instead. In other words, measures should be taken to dismantle the patriarchal family, which functions as the very first place of normalisation and control, particularly for women and LGBT persons. The family has become a space in which physical, psychological and sexual violence remain unpunished: in fact, Peru has the second highest rate of denunciation of sexual offences against girls and adolescents in the region, and these are in many cases perpetrated by family members. Finally, a person’s (and in this case a woman’s) rights can never be subordinated, conditioned or reduced to a by-product of family welfare, in the same way as the rights of an actual person cannot be subordinated to the rights of being yet to be born.

In sum, in historical perspective there has been progress in the recognition and guarantee of rights, but these have been the product of constant struggle. We face strong resistance, and if we had not permanently defended our conquests, we would certainly have seen them retreat long ago.

5. In this context, how has DEMUS’ agenda changed since its beginnings in 1987?
DEMUS is an organisation well known for its work for the right to a life free of gender-based violence. We specialise in prevention, care, denunciation, therapeutic and psycho-legal accompaniment, litigation, advocacy with legislative, policymaking and justice administration bodies, and campaigning and mobilisation on gender-based violence. For instance, we developed the “Not one more death” campaign, which placed femicide on the public agenda, and the “A man doesn't rape” campaign, which contributed to call attention on the problem of sexual violence, impunity and the culture of rape.

In the beginning we had to dispute about the very concept of what was then called “intra-family violence”, which we designated as “violence against women” and today we call “gender-based violence”. We saw violence against women as a problem of power inequality, sexual discrimination and impunity, so we advocated for equality and access to justice. However, as years passed and the first laws and policies on the issue were passed, we realised that we were not obtaining the results we expected.

The fight against violence against women had gained consensus as part of the state agenda and had occupied a space in the institutional structure of the state (commissions, ministries, etc.), and even ultraconservatives had begun to accept equal opportunities between men and women (which was enshrined in Law No. 28983 of 2007) all the while resisting the recognition of other sexual orientations and gender identities. So we began a conceptual revision and concluded that if we wanted to combat gender-based violence, our central strategic battle had to revolve around women’s autonomy and self-determination in the field of sexuality and reproduction, the recognition of and the provision of guarantees for sexual and reproductive rights understood as fundamental human rights, and access to justice in cases where these were violated. The perspective of sexual and reproductive rights came to enrich the equality and non-discrimination approach in addressing the problems of gender-based violence and impunity.

Thus, although the defence of LGBT rights and the legalisation of abortion were already in DEMUS’ agenda, they have since become more central to it. And our strategies became richer in the process, because besides strategic litigation and therapeutic and psycho-legal accompaniment we started to focus as well on organisation and mobilisation, public advocacy and communication. We have used the whole toolbox in our search for justice and reparations for the victims of forced sterilisations, and also in our campaigns for emergency oral contraception and the legalisation of abortion (first of all for reasons of rape, foetal malformations incompatible with extra-uterine life, and unconsented artificial insemination and egg transfers, and eventually on the basis of women’s dignity and right to decide).

Most recently, in our work to defend victims of sexual violence and impunity, we have learned from the indigenous and peasant women defenders of land and water that women human rights defenders are being differently affected by the extractivist economy due to their gender, and are being specifically criminalised by corporations such as the Yanacocha mining company and by the state itself. In their struggle to defend lakes and resist mining projects such as Conga, women are having a hard time, since gender-based violence is being used against them. In the actions of the police and the Armed Forces we are currently seeing a criminalisation of social protest, threats and violations of women’s rights echoing those that took place during armed conflict. In order to avoid the repetition of serious violations of human rights and crimes against humanity, we are using the new legislation, which now enables it, to denounce Yanacocha and make it clear that there is gender-based violence behind situations of harassment like that suffered by women human rights defenders such as Máxima Acuña.

The other agenda that we increasingly adopted as central is the defence against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, in order to achieve recognition of and guarantees for the right to gender identity and lesbians’ right to maternity. We choose the issues we fight for on the basis of several criteria. One of them is that of revolutionising whatever the system resists the most, so that if we win, we will not only have obtained a law, public policy or jurisprudence, but we will also have conquered people’s common sense. And what the system most resists today is transgender identity and the right of LGBT persons to love and family. The system condemns us to civil death, poverty, marginalisation, murder, harassment and rape.

6. In Peru, there have recently been major mobilisations with the motto #NiUnaMenos. How was the issue placed on the public agenda in such a way that mobilisation turned out to be so massive? What roles did regional networks play in the process?

The marches in Argentina, Mexico and other countries inspired many of us: we wanted to do something similarly massive in our own country. But mobilisation did not occur in Peru as a response to a regional call, or as a result of prior coordination within a regional network.

A year prior to this mobilisation there was a high profile case in Peru, in which a woman was savagely attacked in a hotel in Ayacucho, dragged by the hair and almost raped and murdered. The episode had been recorded on video, and everyone followed the case in the media and expected the attacker to be convicted. The ruling came out a few months before the demonstration, and it acquitted the accused. It denied that an attempted rape and femicide had taken place, and it even ruled that the injuries on the victim had been minor. This generated a social phenomenon of indignation that spread throughout the national territory and in social media. Women who were in the ideological and social antipodes from one another agreed that something had to be done, and feminists started talking about a mobilisation meant to make it clear that “if they touch one of us, they are touching us all”. The #NiUnaMenos (#NotOneLess) slogan was adopted out of the belief that the time had finally come and that this would be a mobilisation of a magnitude similar to those that had taken place in other countries.

In Peru, the idea persists that if you do not obtain justice it is because you cannot prove what has happened to you. You only have your word and that is not enough for justice administrators. Now, if even in a case where there is a video like that, the aggressor is eventually absolved, what kind of security and justice is left for the rest of us? This created an unprecedented feeling of helplessness. Fear quickly turned into indignation, and this in turn into mobilisation. I was invited to join a Facebook chat a few hours after the video was made public. There were ten of us to start with, and a little while later we were over sixty, and the next day we were meeting at a comrade’s place. Within a few hours, the closed group formed in Facebook went from a few women testifying to the various forms of violence in their daily lives to 20 thousand, 40 thousand women reporting on their own stories of violence: at home, in the streets, at work, in school. Terrible stories, and everybody was telling them and keeping each other company.

Thus, in Peru citizens went out into the streets to reject impunity and defend the right to justice. People began to wonder why violence against women persists despite all the laws and policies to combat it. The media started talking about patriarchy and machismo as its causes. There was some recognition of the importance of the feminist struggle, at least in that particular context. Much of the leadership and organisational work towards mobilisation was done by various organised and unorganised female citizens, leaders of feminist groups in neighbourhoods, universities, trade unions, NGOs. Women of a wide diversity of movements, colours, desires, education, professions and talents, in alliance and dialogue with the survivors whose emblematic cases united diverse sectors of society. Conservative sectors have still not managed to obtain similar success in defence of their agenda.

7. Did the mobilisation have any positive effect in terms of public policy?
The mobilisation resulted in some concrete measures, although these were too narrowly focused and involved little public investment. A Circle of Protection program was created, thereby extending attention to 24/7 in five out of over 200 Emergency Women’s Centres (EWC). Coverage of the emergency line Línea 600 was extended to all days of the week. This contributed to an increase in addressed complaints. Also, cases of femicide and rape were subsequently included into the rewards programme to stop offenders.

Additionally, there were announcements regarding the expansion of temporary shelters, the provision of gender training to justice operators, and in particular to the National Police, and the creation of at least 50 new EWCs in various police stations across the country. The Public Ministry adapted its guidelines to Law No. 30364 and announced the creation of prosecution offices specialised in femicide. The Judiciary established a National Gender Commission.

Nonetheless, femicidal violence persists as a savage daily occurrence; there is in fact a patriarchal and male chauvinist counteroffensive underway. They continue to kill us and rape us, and the femicide and rape culture keeps blaming us for it. And the measures adopted by the state in defence of the gender approach and gender equality fall short: they are basically reactions and responses to public pressure. We women do the reporting and monitoring job that the state should be doing. The state and the government always give in when it comes to the sexual and reproductive rights of women and LGBTIQ people. Which makes it clear that unless it becomes feminist, public policy will yield no results. If public policy priorities do not change, women will continue to die.

The most important changes have occurred in the realms of common sense. #NiUnaMenos has shown that there is widespread rejection of violence against women, and that women have become empowered to talk about sexual violence in the same way that we first learned to talk about partner and domestic violence. There is no longer shame in having been a victim: it is clear that the other party is the one at fault. Women now know that there are things that are not right, and that if they happen to them it is not their fault, or God’s will, or the work of nature: it is a violation of rights and a matter of justice, and those responsible have to be punished.

Civic space in Peru is rated as ‘obstructed’ in the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with DEMUS through their website, visit their Facebook page, or follow ‪@DEMUS_f‬ and ‪@MYCfeminista‬ on Twitter.‬‬‬‬

Image ©Peru21

 

Omani human rights activist silenced and pushed into exile

CIVICUS interviews Habiba Al Hinai a human rights defender from Oman who had to leave the country for her own safety. She also elaborates the situation for human rights defenders in the country. She is currently living in Germany with her son after she felt that had become difficult for her to live in her home country due to her human rights activities.

1. What are the restrictions you and other human rights defenders in Oman have faced after being active in the uprising in 2011?
In 2011, and like in many suppressed Arab countries, Oman witnessed wide spread human rights demonstrations that triggered an extremely violent government reaction attempting to suppress such unusual public actions. Demands of Omani demonstrators were not something new to the authorities, especially with rampant corruption, unemployment, poverty, limited education, suppression of press freedom and freedom of expression, ignoring women and children's rights, conducting of false elections and enforced restrictions and monitoring of civic society associations. The protests resulted in the death of two innocent civilians, in addition to tens wounded by rubber bullets and hundreds detained from different parts of the country.

As expected, the government responded with an iron fist to human rights movements such as teachers, doctors and workers strikes by imprisoning demonstration organisers along with many human rights defenders, activists, writers, bloggers and the educated elite. As a result of this oppression, many activists had to run away to other countries such as the United Kingdom, Spain and Australia and ask for political asylum, as it has been made impossible for them, facing all kinds of threats of detention and imprisonment, to conduct human rights activities within Oman.

In 2012, I was arrested along with two of my colleagues during our coverage of a strike by more than 4 000 workers in the desert oilfield. In 2016. I had to pay a fine as I was convicted of two charges for “insulting the Omani people” and “disturbing the general order set by the government”. These charges arose over a post I wrote on my Facebook page. Because of this statement, I had to sign a statement written by the top security service stating that I will not continue with my human rights activities or otherwise I would be sent to prison. Our organisation’s website, Facebook account and Twitter account were hacked and I was kicked out of the Facebook group so that I cannot edit it anymore. The account is still running and all that’s being said on the site is that we are very happy and have no human rights complaints anymore. For this reason, it would not be safe to start another website, Facebook or Twitter account without having high levels of digital security as it can be hacked again.

A lot of human rights activists in Oman have been sent to courts and faced long and costly trials over fake accusations. Many have served prison sentences of one to three years in prison for “defaming the Sultan” following Facebook and Twitter posts that criticised Sultan Qabos bin Sa’eed Al Sa’eed. This is part of a punishment method for activists who refuse to stop their work. The security services are using different kinds of tools as punishment, including judicial, religious or social pressure. Sadly many activists end up in prison, unable to work or are banned from travelling. Luckily, I was able to leave Oman before I could have been banned from travelling. The political situation in Oman is dire now since the Sultan is of advanced age and is quite sick, which has led to all the different political factions fighting over who will take over power. Unfortunately, the government is using this time to punish activists through prison sentences and other restrictions.

2. What is the situation in general for civil society in Oman?
The situation is that all independent civil society organisations (CSOs) are banned from carrying out their activities and CSO workers have been threatened to not even work online or even form WhatsApp groups. Making calls on Skype, Signal, Messenger and WhatsApp is also banned. All independent magazines and newspaper have been closed down and reports indicate that three journalists from the Al Zaman newspaper have been sentenced to three years in prison for publishing articles critical of the state. Six activists have fled to the United Kingdom where they have been granted asylum, which is a new phenomenon for us. Many of those human rights defenders who are not in prison right now in Oman are waiting for their cases to be finalised by the courts.

The result of this is fear of doing any human rights work. We don’t know who will rule Oman after the Sultan and many people in Oman are in general very afraid because they don’t know what will happen in the future. Additionally there is a lot of corruption and the unemployment rate is very high. 70% of the population are youth under the age of 30, meaning youth unemployment is very high. Omanis feel that the Sultan cannot solve these problems because of his age and illness and are unsure as to who will rule the country in the future.

The crackdown on civil society has resulted in very little reporting on the human rights situation in Oman and most human rights defenders have completely stopped making posts online. The state security has managed to control and push the society back and to make civil society afraid. This has resulted in nobody recording the human rights violations publicly from inside Oman and only space left is for Omani human rights defenders who are abroad to publicly report about the situation.

3. What specific restrictions have you faced as a woman human rights defender?
In general, the environment for women human rights defenders in Oman is very unhealthy. The government uses its political power and pressures religious entities and our families to pressure us with the aim of breaking us down. Methods used to shame women human rights defenders include defamation and spreading bad news about women activists. This has resulted in many women human rights defenders being silenced.

Almost all the women human rights defenders in Oman stopped their activism because they couldn’t take the pressure. The government has contacted over and over the families of women activists to pressure them to stop their female family member from activism. This and the other restrictions became too much for most women human rights defenders to handle. I worked on women’s rights, children’s rights and other human rights issues in Oman and I was punished for it. Besides the detention and paying a fine, I also underwent interrogations by the security forces and was told by the government that I didn’t have a permit to do any work on women and children’s rights.

In my situation, the government sent my own family members to break me down. The government used them and some of our personal differences to come and detain me when I attended a protest in 2011. This creates terrible cracks in the family and I suffered a lot. Now some of my family members chose to abandon me or don’t talk to me. If they even support me financially, they will face a backlash from the government. The restrictions I faced are still causing me great problems. After I was imprisoned in the middle of the dessert in temperatures that could sometimes reach 50 degrees with my hands ties and with no air conditioning, I have a phobia of indoor spaces and this is still very stressful for me today. Currently I am seeing a psychiatrist in Germany for a treatment.

4. What support is needed from international civil society and international actors?
The international community must be aware of the human rights situation in Oman. Many people and governments around the world don’t think there is an issue with human rights in Oman including the European Union. This has a lot to do with us not being able to report on the situation from Oman. The government in Oman managed to scare us quickly before the international community knew what was happening.

It is important to pressure the embassies of Oman around the world. Just recently, I saw that the Omani embassy in London had invited a big INGO for an event at the embassy. This is a sign of how good the Omani government is at networking and putting on a certain face to the outside world including human rights organisations worldwide. It is important that international human rights organisations do not accept invitations to events by the Omani embassies. If they do attend, they must pressure the government officials while at the events.

The United States of America had previously started a Female Genital Mutilation campaign in Oman but when the US-Iran deal came into place with Oman being a key actor in the deal the US started being friendlier to the Omani government. In the United Nations Universal Periodic Review of Oman in March 2015, the United States was very gentle concerning the human rights situation in Oman. But the international community can do a lot through diplomacy. When UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to association and assembly, Maina Kiai, came to Oman, he met with activists. Luckily, international organisations supported Maina Kiai’s critical reports but this report must be collected and used as part of diplomacy at an international level. Unfortunately, the Omani government does very good diplomacy so governments need to be persistent.

• Follow Habiba Al Hinai on Twitter @HabibaAlHinai
• Oman is rated as ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor

 

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