Reflections on the state of civil society in Bahrain – UNHRC 24th Session

by Joshua Chivanga, Intern, CIVICUS Geneva Office

Growing up in Zimbabwe I always had a dream. I envisaged sitting on the board of directors of a multilateral organisation, I dreamt of making it to the upper echelons of the United Nations; oh yes that was the nature of my dreams. I always dreamt BIG. I pictured my name enshrined in the hall of fame with clusters of people literally stampeding just to catch a glimpse of me.

Such was the power of my imagination at a tender age. Since then, days have slowly turned into weeks, weeks into months and the months into years and today I am a young man still chasing those dreams, albeit with some degree of success.

Today I am privileged to attend the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) 24th Session, not as President of the Council but as a young determined activist under the CIVICUS UN Learning Exchange Programme. Continue reading

Stop! Mind the gender gap in development discourses

At a time when the United Nations, governments, development partners and civil society are vigorously having consultations on a post-2015 development framework, the issue of gender equality seems to have lost its resonance in discourses on development especially within the African continent. Lessons from experiences in implementing the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) show that countries can experience different levels of economic growth but still suffer from massive social and economic inequalities.

I recently attended a gender forum organised by the African Development Bank (AfDB) in Tunis, Tunisia which brought together government ministers, representatives from civil society, international organisations, the private sector and development practitioners. The aim of the forum was to bring together key stakeholders from the continent to map out strategies needed to redress the challenge of gender inequality in Africa. The theme of the meeting was “changing the state of gender equality in Africa.”

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The Human Rights Council: From Bangladesh to Geneva

I recently represented CIVICUS recently on a trip to Geneva to participate in Universal Periodic Review (UPR) sessions at the UN Human Rights Council. CIVICUS had made UPR submissions for Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Colombia, Russia, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, all of which were being examined at the 16th session in April this year. Of particular interest was the session on Bangladesh for CIVICUS has been very active in its advocacy on that country in recent months. Trips to Dhaka, press releases on the NGO law and now a side-event at the HRC with FORUM-ASIA entitled ‘Bangladesh: Towards a conducive environment for Human Rights Defenders’ on 25 April 2013 have made us busy indeed.

The Bangladeshi activists that flew in from Dhaka for the event were clearly being watched carefully by officials from the Bangladeshi Mission. The Mission did not make much of a secret of it. They were there for all to see in the Serpentine Bar at the United Nations Palais des Nations in Geneva, their camera phones held up taking pictures of the activists. I also saw them recording what the activists said at the CIVICUS and FORUM-ASIA side-event. Although it is welcome that the Bangladeshi Mission attended, their attentions, which felt akin to surveillance at times, did not make for an altogether pleasant interaction with the activists. Particularly when it is noted that one of the NGO’s – Odhikar, had experienced surveillance coupled with the threatening and harassment of its staff back in Bangladesh in recent years. What is more surprising though is that these intimidating attentions were occurring in the serene environs of Geneva, amidst a faux-convivial air of polite handshakes and back slapping between the activists and the Bangladeshi delegation. Continue reading

United Nations advocacy: a battle won?

By Olivia Tchamba

The 16th session of the Universal Periodic Review Working Group took place with 14 states being reviewed by their peers. Faithful to its UPR full commitment, CIVICUS has targeted countries for special advocacy and lobby. A first and major step in this UPR advocacy mechanism is done by the Policy and Advocacy Unit in collaboration with the Geneva Office and CIVICUS’ ground partners. Indeed, written submission on countries’ situations are delivered and are later on integrated in the stakeholder compilation paper, one of the three documents on which the review, the Interactive Dialogue of States with the State under Review (SuR,) is based. Continue reading

Africa’s liberators should embrace civil society as an ally

Governments across Africa are clamping down on dissent, hiding their secrets and attacking the funding base of their critics. And it seems that those who fought hardest for freedom, are now those least convinced by the virtue of freedom of expression, association and assembly.

Despite numerous international commitments to protect civic space, evidence from around the world suggests that conditions are getting worse for civil society. Our annual stocktake, The State of Civil Society 2013, published by CIVICUS,catalogues a litany of threats to civil society: from outright violence against civic leaders, to legal restrictions on civil society organisations and dramatic funding cuts.

The situation in many African countries is particularly acute, especially where political movements that once fought for freedom and prosperity, having assumed power are now undermining both aims by trying to clampdown on civil society. What they ignore at their peril is that, while solidarity and unity are crucial during liberation struggles, debate and dissent are vital to promote both vibrant democracies and economic prosperity. Continue reading

From subjects to citizens – accountability in the post-2015 development agenda

This week I have the privilege of being in Bali for meetings around the 4th High Level Panel of Eminent Persons on Post-2015 Development Agenda. From individual youth activists to parliamentarians to multilateral institutions there is a common call for people’s participation and accountability to citizens in the next global development framework.

Today at the CSO Outreach Day, I was happy to hear democratic governance and accountability given prominence in the discussions between civil society and HLP members. As the HLP representative from the United States put it “accountability is listening to people and their aspirations.”

This demand-driven approach to development is a welcome change, as current development goals and indicators are largely considered an arbitrary and imposed framework. Because the current development agenda was developed without the participation and ownership of those who were most affected there was never a groundswell of support for citizen participation in monitoring and engaging in the MDG’s implementation. Continue reading

Post 2015, ou l’occasion d’une réforme

Jean-François Lyotard, philosophe français disparu en 1998, a ouvert ses « Moralités post-modernes » par la formule suivante : « Qu’il nous arrive quelque chose… Nous n’attendons finalement que cela : qu’il nous arrive quelque chose ». Nous qui nous rendons cette semaine à Bonn pour la conférence mondiale des Organisations de la société civile (OSC) sur l’agenda Post 2015 («Faire Avancer l’Agenda Post-2015 de Développement Durable »), nous avons cela en tête : qu’arrive enfin ce moment de dialogue et de rencontre entre tous ceux qui, du point de vue de la société civile, travaillent sur la nouvelle génération des objectifs du millénaire pour le développement, après 2015. Nous nous disons également que ces objectifs pourraient être l’occasion qu’il « arrive » quelque chose au système des Nations Unies, et qu’il trouve dans ce processus la volonté et les moyens de réformer son fonctionnement et ses prises de décision. La définition de ces nouveaux objectifs de développement devrait en effet être l’occasion d’intégrer fermement les différents acteurs de développement, nommément les organisations de la société civile, le secteur privé, les autorités locales et autres acteurs non-étatiques.

Las… nous n’en sommes pas là, avons-nous constaté la semaine dernière à Sao Paulo, au Brésil lors du Forum 2013 du Forum pour une Gouvernance Mondiale Démocratique (FIM) , portant sur les relations entre l’ONU et la société civile. Depuis trente ans, la substance même de la politique s’est mondialisée : le commerce, les finances, le changement climatique, le VIH-SIDA, le terrorisme. Les acteurs de la société civile ont su construire des processus mondiaux pour attirer l’attention des Etats, notamment sur les questions d’environnement, du commerce des armes, des mines anti-personnel, de la corruption, etc. Cependant, les processus de la politique conventionnelle résistent à la mondialisation. Ses principales institutions – élections, partis politiques et parlements -, demeurent enracinées au niveau national et la gouvernance mondiale n’est donc autre que la rencontre des intérêts divergents voire conflictuels des Etats-Nations. Continue reading

Dispatches from Geneva: 1st Week of the Human Rights Council (25th February 2013-1st March 2013)

By Aisha Onsando, CIVICUS Intern, Geneva

The 22nd Session of the Human Rights Council opened with a high level panel commemorating the 20th Anniversary of the adoption of the Vienna Declaration and plan of action. The panel consisted of more than 70 dignitaries. Many speakers expressed concern for country situation’s already on the Council’s agenda such as Syria, Mali, Sri Lanka, DPRK and Bahrain. There was a general call for greater involvement by the Human Rights Council and the Commissioner of Human rights with a particular call for the extension of the mandate of the special rapporteur on Syria.

The High level panel also focused on the legacy of the Vienna Declaration and plan of action. Article 5 of the Vienna Declaration stresses that all human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent and interrelated, that the international community must treat human rights globally in a fair and equal manner, on the same footing, and with the same emphasis. While the significance of national and regional particularities and various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds must be borne in mind, it is the duty of States, regardless of their political, economic and cultural systems, to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms.

This was the main focus of the majority of the high level panelists on the real contribution that the Vienna Conference contributed to the human right’s discourse. No right is more important than any other. No group of rights can be given primacy over the other. No right is fully achieved until they all are. Continue reading

Measure What You Treasure: Reflections from the Post-2015 Governance Consultation Meeting (1)

As a part of THE WORLD WE WANT, the post-2015 global thematic consultation on governance held in Johannesburg on 28 February – 1 March, I communicated my message for civil society strategies in 4 words, “Bring your measuring stick!”

If you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist

You might not agree to the theorem, “If you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist.” However, we need to recognise that this is the dominant mode of operation – and increasingly so these days – in policy-making circles at global, regional, national and local levels. So what we need to do, in light of the formation of the post-MDGs goals and indicators on the horizon, is to “measure what you treasure,” instead of “treasure what you can measure,” as succinctly put forward in the video message by High Commissioner Navi Pillay during the consultation meeting.

As civil society actors, we all need to clearly formulate what we “treasure” in this opportune time and try to develop their respective yardstick (ie., measurement framework) so that we increases our chances of having what we “treasure” incorporated into the new set of globally-agreed targets and indicators post 2015. This is particularly true in the governance domain, where its key ingredients might be amorphous and abstract. Thus my message, “bring your measuring stick.” Continue reading

Sri Lanka’s litmus test

As the 22nd session of the United Nations Human Rights Council opens in Geneva, the situation in Sri Lanka is once again in the spotlight. It’s been almost 4 years since the end of the civil war there and conditions for local civil society – from human rights defenders to journalists – seem to be getting worse. While accountability for alleged war crimes and human rights violations is critical in the immediate term, the long-term litmus test of Sri Lanka’s ability to build an effective and peaceful democracy will be whether it can nurture a vibrant and independent civil society.

As CIVICUS argued in our submission to the Universal Periodic Review on Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council last year, we are very concerned about abductions and other acts of intimidation against human rights defenders and journalists, human rights violations committed by Sri Lankan security forces, restrictions on freedom of expression and information, and a complex and obstructive registration processes for NGOs, especially those wanting to work in the Northeast of the island. CIVICUS is also concerned about the Sri Lankan Government’s rejection of so many recommendations from member states that came out of the UPR process. Continue reading