Working together to enable and defend spaces for civic action
by Michel Forst, Lysa John
IPS, CIVICUS, OHCHR, agencies
Human Rights Defenders need to be Defended as much as they Defend our Rights, writes Michel Forst - United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of Human Rights Defenders
They are ordinary people – mothers, fathers, sisters, sons, daughters, brothers, friends. But for me they are extraordinary people – the ones who have the courage to stand up for everyone else’s rights. They are the human rights defenders.
Last year, according to reliable sources, 321 of them were killed, in 27 countries. Their murders were directly caused by the work they do to ensure the rest of us enjoy the rights we claim as purely because we are human.
Countless others were tortured, raped and threatened, also for the work they do protecting their, and others’ human rights.
In fact, 2018 was deadliest year for human rights defenders since the UN began monitoring the challenges they face through the establishment of a mandate for a Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders. It shouldn’t be like this.
Last year we marked 70 years since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and 20 since the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. The latter Declaration provides for the practical support and protection of human rights defenders as they go about their work.
It is addressed not just to states and to human rights defenders, but to everyone. It tells us that we all have a role to fulfil as human rights defenders and emphasises that there is a global human rights movement that involves us all. This is a task we are not performing well.
Human rights should not need defenders, and human rights defenders should not need protection from the might of oppressive governments, corrupt multinationals and crooked legal systems. But this is an imperfect, human world.
Since 2000, when we UN Special Rapporteurs on the situation of human rights defenders began our monitoring work, much progress has been made. There has been extensive discussion on how these courageous people should be protected, and there is a Protection Mechanism for Human Rights Defenders and Journalists in a limited number of countries. Sadly, it is often not properly implemented, or funded.
It is impossible to canvass each defender’s particular treatment or mistreatment by the authorities they face, or even that of communities of defenders. There are, however, trends.
On 23 October last year, Julián Carrillo, an indigenous rights defender from Mexico’s state of Chihuahua told a friend by phone that he believed he was being watched and that he was going into hiding. On the evening of 25 October, his body was found. He had been shot several times.
On 22 August last year, Annaliza Dinopol Gallardo, a Filipina land rights defender known to her community as “Ate Liza”, was shot dead outside Sultan Kudarat State University in Tacurong City. She had four children.
Mr Carillo’s murder is indicative of the largest trend. More than two-thirds – a full 77% – of the total number of defenders killed were defending land, environmental or indigenous peoples’ rights, often in the context of extractive industries and state-aligned mega-projects.
Ms Gallardo’s murder represents another trend – the number of attacks on women and girls who are defenders is increasing. In the recent report that I have presented to the UN Human Rights Council I have highlighted that, in addition to the threats experienced by their male colleagues, women human rights defenders face gendered and sexualised attacks from both state and non-state actors, as well as from within their own human rights movements.
This includes smear campaigns questioning their commitment to their families; sexual assault and rape; militarised violence; and the harassment and targeting of their children.
Changing all this is our task for the future. Protection Mechanisms for Human Rights Defenders and Journalists need to be properly implemented and funded, at national level.
We need to empower defenders and increase the abilities of those who are responsible for their protection to keep them safe. We also need to improve the accountability mechanisms these officials operate under.
To properly defend the defenders, we also need to recognise their diversity, and that each one of them faces challenges particular to their individual circumstances. There is no one-size-fits-all answer to ensuring each defender is able to do their work unfettered.
We need to acknowledge that defenders, just like all of us, live in this modern, interconnected world.
Protecting them means covering all aspects of their safety: physical, psychological and digital. It means doing so with flexibility. It also means that our protection needs to extend to their families, and the groups and organisations they belong to. We need to speak to them about what they need to feel safe.
In recent years the world has taken a worrying turn away from respect for human rights. Increasingly, groups are becoming inward-looking, and nations nationalistic. We need human rights defenders now more than ever. They also need us.
Grassroots Organising points the way in fight against rising Repression, writes Lysa John, CIVICUS Secretary General
“I never thought it would get so big and I think it is amazing.” The words of a 16-year-old Swedish teenager who skipped school to protest outside parliament her government’s inaction on climate change. Greta Thunberg is marvelling at how, in just a few short months, her solitary protests outside Sweden’s parliament, have inspired and united hundreds of thousands of young people and others across the globe into a powerful, growing grassroots movement for climate change action. And growing.
Thunberg’s school climate strike has inspired more than 1,500 climate strike events in more than 100 countries across the globe, from Argentina to New Zealand.
For those of us fighting what can often feel like a losing battle against a rising tide of rights repression, Thunberg’s words should offer a profoundly insightful message – a lightbulb moment – about the way forward for our struggle for a just, inclusive and sustainable world. About mobilizing for amazing results.
It is fair to say that the traditional civil society sector is at a crossroads. Aid organisations and NGOs are confronted by dwindling resources and ever rising needs. We are confronted by feelings of frustration with a lack of real structural societal change in spite of our efforts. The old approaches of working with governments, who are failing to serve their people’s interests, to effect real change is not working anymore.
This watershed moment for organized civil society comes amid a serious, global crisis in democracy. A staggering 7 billion people live in countries where fundamental freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly are not properly respected, according to The CIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that tracks threats to civic freedoms worldwide.
In this environment, citizen action is increasingly being organized into grassroots, social movements – mass-based, non-hierarchical groupings driven by people power, that are starting to prove successful in the fight for human rights and social justice.
The global #MeToo gender rights movement and the March for Our Lives American gun reform movement led by high school students – both still growing campaigns – provide encouraging lessons for the Climate School Strike movement on the power of this dynamic approach to activism.
So, how does civil society engage social movements in a way to harness the power of dynamic, new ways to tackling the world’s most pressing challenges?
That’s a key question that more than 700 civil society leaders, activists and international organization representatives will be trying to answer when they meet for the global International Civil Society Week (ICSW) gathering in Belgrade next week, from April 8-12.
Hosted by CIVICUS, a global alliance of civil society organisations in partnership with Civic Initiatives, a Serbian association of NGOs, the conference’s theme, “The Power of Togetherness”, explores how people and organisations around the world can, and are, working together to enable and defend spaces for civic action in a world where global transformations are reshaping how civil society functions.
In order to build stronger, more resilient and effective civil society we need to re-connect with citizens. Across the world, we are seeing the emergence of diverse civic movements aimed at calling out injustices or achieving improvements in governance in local and national contexts.
Many of these are spontaneous, self-organised expressions of change – led by ordinary people who feel strongly about universal values of justice, integrity and solidarity. For formal civil society organisations (CSOs), there could not be a better time to lean into and strengthen approaches to community leadership for ‘glo-cal’ change.
We have the passion and intellect to connect the action on the streets with the spaces where decisions must be taken; and to channel the local energies for change into strategies for long-term, globally-connected transformation.
At the International Civil Society Week (ICSW), a primary goal is for delegates to work together to understand and connect with people’s movements on the streets around the world, to build bridges that strengthen alliances and create solidarity and to identify steps to build and sustain collective impact.
On every continent, forces seek to undo the advances made in our societies and communities. But around the world, brave citizens continue to risk their lives to stand up against repression and persecution.
The ICSW is all the more significant this year as civil society leaders, activists and innovators are gathering in a country in which a growing social movement has been demonstrating some of these very goals.
For weeks now, there have been ongoing mass protests in the capital, Belgrade, calling for democratic reforms under the banner of a campaign known as “#OneinFiveMillion. The campaign is a live example of how civil society plays an instrumental role in fighting to protect and expand civic freedoms and democratic values in the Balkans and globally. The toppling of Macedonia’s government in 2017 by unprecedented civic action is another example of that fight back.
Serbian civil society played a crucial role in the country’s transition to democracy. But not all parts of the country’s society are equally protected, with women human rights defenders and gay-rights activists, in particular, targets of attacks and threats.
By hosting ICSW 2019 in Serbia, we will shine a spotlight on the region’s communities, help address their challenges and find ways to support them.
We will also examine the opportunities we have to forge new alliances and increase our collective impact by coming together to fight for common issues. Across the past year, we in civil society have been working at getting better at transferring strategies and lessons for change across countries. http://www.civicus.org/icsw/
27 Mar. 2019
The World is facing a global compassion deficit. (CIVICUS)
Civil society organisations providing humanitarian assistance are being targeted as the world faces a crisis of global compassion. This alarming trend is one of the findings of the State of Civil Society Report 2019, an annual report by global civil society alliance CIVICUS, which looks at events and trends that impacted on civil society in the past year.
In one cited example, the Italian government prevented a boat operated by international medical NGO Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) from docking in Italy, leaving it stranded at sea for a week with more than 700 passengers, including unaccompanied minors. In the USA, organisations were prevented from leaving life-saving water supplies for people making the hazardous journey across the desert from Mexico.
“Civil society, acting on humanitarian impulses, confronts a rising tide of global mean-spiritedness, challenging humanitarian values in a way unparalleled since the Second World War,” said Lysa John, CIVICUS Secretary General.
“We need a new campaign, at both global and domestic levels, to reinforce humanitarian values and the rights of progressive civil society groups to act,” added John.
According to the report, in Europe, the USA and beyond - from Brazil to India - right wing populists, nationalists and extremist groups are mobilising dominant populations to attack the most vulnerable.
This has led to an attack on the values behind humanitarian response as people are being encouraged to blame minorities and vulnerable groups for their concerns about insecurity, inequality, economic hardship and isolation from power. This means that civil society organisations that stand up for such issues as labour rights, the rights of excluded populations, women''s rights, the LGBT community are being attacked.
As narrow notions of national sovereignty are being asserted, the international system is being rewritten by powerful states, such as China, Russia and the USA, that refuse to play by the rules.
Borders and walls are being reinforced by rogue leaders who are bringing their styles of personal rule into international affairs by ignoring existing institutions, agreements and norms.
The report also points to a startling spike in protests relating to economic exclusion, inequality and poverty, which are often met with violent repression, and highlights a series of flawed and fake elections held in countries around the world in the last year.
“Democratic values are under strain around the globe from unaccountable strong men attacking civil society and the media in unprecedented - and often brutal ways,” says Andrew Firmin the report’s lead author.
But the past year was also one in which committed civil society activists fought back against the rising repression of rights.
From the successes of the global #MeToo women’s rights movement to the March for Our Lives gun reform movement led by high school students in the USA to the growing school strike climate change movement, collective action gained ground to claim breakthroughs.
“Despite the negative trends, active citizens and civil society organisations have been able to achieve change in Armenia, where a new political dispensation is in place, and in Ethiopia, where scores of prisoners of conscience have been released,” said John.
The report makes several recommendations for civil society and citizen action. The report calls for new strategies to argue against right-wing populism while urging progressive civil society to engage citizens towards better, more positive alternatives.
These include developing and promoting new ideas on economic democracy for fairer economies that put people and rights at their centre. Notably, the report calls for reinforcing the spirit of internationalism, shared humanity and the central importance of compassion in everything we say and do.
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More than 70 Organizations oppose proposed cuts to Foreign Assistance in Central America
by InterAction, agencies
InterAction and over 70 member organizations issued the below statement in response to announcements by the Trump Administration that it is ending foreign assistance programs in the Central American countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras:
By cutting off poverty-alleviating and violence-reducing assistance to the people and civil society organizations of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, the Trump Administration is taking a step that undermines its own policy goals and runs counter to American values and interests.
For years, leaders from both parties have supported U.S. development and humanitarian aid to Central America. That is because these relatively small investments address the grinding poverty, instability and human rights concerns at the root of displacement.
The current levels of violence and suffering in the Northern Triangle of Central America risk severe further deterioration if development and humanitarian assistance is withdrawn.
Sadly, the unpredictability and volatility that stem from such chaotic policy decisions can erode the effectiveness of foreign assistance. The Administration frequently views U.S. foreign assistance only in transactional terms and not as part of a long-term strategy.
In response to this short-sighted and irresponsible decision, we urge Congress to demonstrate strong bipartisan support for aid to Central America. http://bit.ly/2FUjqT1
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