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

Civil Society in crisis: Civil Society funding and the way forward (23 May)

Many CSOs report declining funding, volatility and changing donor priorities, and in response are giving more attention to fundraising and diversification of funding sources. Financing for development and reforming the existing architecture of international aid are key issues on the global agenda for CSOs. Organised in conjunction with CIVICUS’ donors, this webinar hopes to explore techniques to weather these turbulent times.

Is international commitment to end the Syrian crisis credible in the face of ongoing violence?

As long as the international community, whether through the UN or other international organisations, remains divided over the Syrian crisis, the commitment of its main protagonists to act will seem weak. Stopping violence in Syria requires credible commitment, thorough consensus and stronger political will from the international community as a whole, because as the main peace broker it holds the responsibility to make sure that Assad’s regime abides by its obligations and feels isolated and therefore pressured enough to take the threat of further international action seriously. Without such ingredients, peace remains a long way off for the Syrian people. Continue reading

Strengthening civil society voices at the UN Human Rights Council

CIVICUS’ Civil Society Watch project was able to increase our level of engagement, and importantly that of CIVICUS alliance members, at the 19th Session of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) held recently in Geneva, due to funding secured from Irish Aid.

Over the next three years with this new support CIVICUS is seeking to strengthen the voices of African civil society at the HRC and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights to bring more informed decision-making and improved accountability of governments to their citizens.

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Adoption of Zimbabwe’s report at the Human Rights Council won’t improve civil society rights to exist, express and engage

The final adoption of the Zimbabwean government report under the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) will be held on 16 March 2012.

Of the 81 recommendations accepted by the government at the 12th UPR session, only four can be said to reflect a commitment to improving the freedoms to assemble, express and associate. Similarly, none of the 31 recommendations to which the government will confirm its response during the current 19th UNHRC session focuses on any of these freedoms, while of the 65 rejected, nine recommendations relate to the three freedoms. Continue reading

Making Rio+20 count for rural women – Meeting report

There is a need in the current debates over sustainable development to make sure that the voices of the most marginalised people, such as rural women and girls in developing countries, are heard. CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation was therefore one of the partners in an event held in the wings of the 2012 UN Commission on the Status of Women. The event, Civil Society Participation in the Sustainable Development Debate: Making Rio+20 Count for Rural Women, was co-hosted with World YWCA and Women’s Environment and Development Organisation, and took place in New York on 1 March 2012. The panel focused on the roles rural women play in sustainable development and poverty eradication, and women’s participation in global decision-making in general and in shaping and implementing the anticipated outcomes of the forthcoming Rio+20 sustainable development summit in particular.

Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda, General Secretary of World YWCA and CIVICUS Board Member, made five key points in leading the debate:

  1. Making sure rural women count in the Rio+20 debates. There is a need to go back and look again at the issues that were first put on the table at the 1992 conference. Issues of water, land, globalisation, the role of women in decision-making, environmental protection and collective responsibility all remain relevant and all need to be at the centre today.
  2. Being mindful of the context in which rural women live. The influences of current challenges on rural women today also need to be understood. Nyaradzayi stated, “We are currently dealing with the ‘three Fs’: the financial crisis, the fuel crisis and the food crisis…we must carry this discussion from the perspectives of rural women.”
  3. Filling the holes in the Green Climate Fund. Governments and partners need to resource this fund, created to help poorer countries to mitigate and adapt to climate change, to help it grow and become more accessible to women.
  4. Focusing on the conversation around Rio+20 and the post-MDG agenda. The discussion at and outcomes of Rio will be fundamental in shaping the post-MDG agenda. The international community needs to place issues around rural women in sustainable development at the centre of the post-MDG agenda.
  5. Taking inter-generational approaches. Young people must be leaders in today’s decisions around carbon, nuclear energy and deforestation that will in the future hold implications for women of all ages, and society as a whole.

Food insecurity was an important point raised by Dr Jennifer Clifford of the Center for Rebuilding Sustainable Communities after Disasters, University of Massachusetts, USA. She stated that the world’s poorest countries spend almost one hundred percent of their incomes on food. With the possibility of the world’s population doubling in the next 35 years, food insecurity will affect women and their families more. Solutions to this problem include the control of population growth, reducing over-consumption, prioritising education for women, increasing literacy and improving access to family planning.

Caroline Daly of the YWCA-YMCA of Sweden raised the important point that women of all kinds must be at the table during policy-making decisions, especially those that are young. They must advocate for what is needed and be included in the discussion. She went on to stress that inclusion promotes sustainability. When climate change makes it more difficult for women and girls to get water and food to cook for their families, this increases the cost, and directly takes away from a young girl’s education. It must be recognised that climate change and sustainable development are women’s rights issues, because women and girls are almost always disproportionately affected, due to their place in patriarchal systems. Listening to those who are most affected is the only way to make real change.

Nonhlanhla Sibanda of People Opposing Women Abuse, South Africa, discussed violence against women as a challenge to sustainable development. Women must participate fully at all levels of sustainable development, and violence against women prevents this occurring. She stated that sustainability could not be a realistic goal if prejudices exist at the social level. An important statistic shows that violence against women can take away one in every five years of life from a healthy woman between the ages of 15 and 44, and causes more deaths and disabilities than cancer, malaria, traffic accidents and war. Threat and fear affect women’s rights and well-being around the world, and do not allow for sustainable development.

Sabina Anokye Mensah of Voices of African Mothers, USA and Ghana, spoke of how women must also be encouraged to learn about green initiatives, and learn how different forms of energy use impact on women and men differently. She stated that because women and girls are mainly responsible for productive tasks like getting water, taking care of the home and cooking, dependency on domestic energy has negative consequences for their well-being. Boundaries must be removed between energy that is being used for domestic purposes and that which is being used for enterprises. For example, most households in Ghana are not using grid power for economic empowerment. Only one percent uses it for something other than lighting. Women being more effective in grid development activities would allow them to be freer to own land, receive training, raise finance and acquire relevant technology.

Education of women and girls around new technologies, food insecurities and their rights, protection from violence, and having a seat at the policy table were important points stressed by the panel on the question of rural women’s roles in sustainable development. In many countries, women have limited access to rights, yet are directly affected by environmental issues. Women must be involved at the local and international level to help secure their rights and work towards a sustainable future. If those making the policies are not listening to the needs of women and girls, and women are not fully involved in their discussions, sustainability and poverty eradication will not be achieved.

Erin Caragol, CIVICUS United Nations Intern and Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service

About the event

Civil Society Participation in the Sustainable Development Debate: Making Rio+20 Count for Rural Women, was hosted by CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation, World YWCA and Women’s Environment and Development Organisation, and was moderated by Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda, General Secretary of World YWCA and Board Member of CIVICUS. The panel included Nonhlanhla Sibanda from People Opposing Women Abuse, South Africa, Caroline Daly from YWCA-YMCA, Sweden, Dr Jennifer Clifford from the Center for Rebuilding Sustainable Communities after Disasters, University of Massachusetts, USA and Sabina Anokye Mensah, Voices of African Mothers, USA and Ghana. The debate was closed by Deborah Thomas-Austin from World YWCA.

Unresolved concerns on freedoms of assembly, association and expression as Uganda’s human rights report is adopted in Geneva

The UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) Working Group will be adopting Uganda’s report at its 19th UPR session on 16 March 2012. Uganda will be required to confirm its stance on the recommendations pending its response and to give an update on how far they have gone to implement those they accepted. As part of this, peer states are called upon to urge the government of Uganda to genuinely improve freedoms of assembly, association and expression, and the rights of sexual minority groups in Uganda.

CIVICUS was reliably informed that the Inter-Ministerial Steering Committee held on 23 February 2012 in Kampala, Uganda maintained support to 110 recommendations. It however accepted only 22 of the 42 recommendations for which response is still pending and rejected 20. These added to the 19 that the government earlier rejected outright, the majority of which focused on gay rights, the withdrawal of the Public Order Management Bill, simplifying the heavy burden on NGO registration and removing security agencies from the NGO Board.

Various submissions by CSOs during the 12th UPR session in 2011 raised concerns regarding the heavy burden created by the current registration, approval, renewal and governance provisions of the NGO Registration Act 1989 and the subsequent NGO Registration Amendment Act of 2006. In 2011, the government initiated a process of amending the NGO law to align it with the NGO Policy 2008. Although a public call was made to contribute views to this process, the draft law has not been made public. CIVICUS understands from CSOs that their involvement has been very limited. The government should guarantee CSOs in Uganda a more transparent and participatory process in the amendment of the NGO Law that would be in line with the recommendation made by France in the UPR and accepted by Uganda on “assuring full respect of freedom of association”.

The Public Order Management Bill, 2011, which restricts the holding of public meetings without advance permission from a senior police officer, requires fulfilment of varied legal obligations and gives discretionary powers to police officers to limit or deny particular meetings, was also a concern in the submissions. Further, currently CSOs wishing to carry out activities in rural areas are required to seek permission from authority. The Bill is currently pending.

Although the government readily accepted all recommendations related to upholding the freedom of assembly and expression by peer states including Austria, Chile, France, Ireland, Slovakia, Sweden, Switzerland, and the USA, experiences since the review indicate otherwise. Incidents of the government preventing or forcefully dispersing peaceful assembly have been recorded. For instance, on 19 January 2012 members of the CSO Action for Change were arrested for holding a peaceful rally against corruption and economic hardships. On 14 February the Minister of Ethics and Integrity entered a capacity building workshop organised by a gay rights organisation and illegally closed it.

Concerns about sexual minority rights in Uganda and the harassment by security officers of human rights defenders of gay rights, raised in the review, received a cold shoulder from the government, as most of these recommendations were rejected. The few that received government support, such as one made by the Netherlands on investigation of intimidation and attacks on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people, and one made by the Czech Republic on ending discrimination and assaults on LGBTI people, have already suffered a blow. The Anti-Homosexuality Bill was recently reintroduced to parliament. Its debate and potential passing is likely to increase homophobia towards the LGBTI community and harassment of gay rights defenders. Despite the government distancing itself from the Bill by issuing a statement on 9 February signed by the Minister of Ethics and Integrity, the actions of this same minister noted above demonstrate a prevailing government response of repression towards sexual minorities.

As Uganda’s report is being adopted, peer states are called upon to urge Uganda to:

  • reconsider its position on the rights of sexual minority groups and end all forms of harassment and intimidation;
  • genuinely implement recommendations on freedom of assembly and expression;
  • take advantage of the current NGO Law amendment process to simplify registration and renewal processes of CSOs and allow CSOs to freely carry out their activities anywhere in the country without unnecessary hindrance.

Agnes Kabajuni, Policy and Advocacy Officer, CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation

Voices of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan civil society heard at the UN

Limited information and awareness of the notorious violations of human rights in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan reaches the international community. To combat this, CIVICUS recently helped to support local civil society representatives to visit the UN in Geneva and get their voices heard.

Both Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are notorious violators of human rights — in particular, the rights of citizens to freely represent their views, the rights of religious people to conduct religious instruction and to bear religious materials, and the rights of reporters to go about their jobs. The result of speaking out against the regimes of both countries is often long prison sentences in which torture is a daily reality. Continue reading