Civil Society, Once the “World’s New Superpower,” is Battling Against Heavy Odds

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Apr 10 2019 – A former UN Secretary-General, the late Kofi Annan, once described civil society organizations (CSOs), as “the world’s new superpower” – perhaps ranking behind the US and the former Soviet Union.

But that political glory has continued to diminish over the years– and more so — against the current backdrop of repressive regimes, hard right nationalist governments and far right extremist groups.

Perhaps the most virulent attacks on the civic space of CSOs—also known as non-governmental organizations (NGOs) — are largely on their attempts to provide protection and security to migrants and refugees in the “dangerous crossings,” from North Africa across the Mediterranean Sea and the Mexico/US border.

“There are now serious restrictions in civic space on every continent,” says the annual State of Civil Society Report 2019, released last week by the Johannesburg-based CIVICUS.

And it singles out the Italian government’s decision to impose a hefty fine on one of the world’s best-known humanitarian organisations, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), while also freezing their assets, impounding their rescue vessel and investigating their staff for human trafficking…in retaliation for their efforts to save refugees from drowning in the Mediterranean Sea.

There were also instances of civil society activists being charged, tried and convicted in the United States for providing water supplies for migrants crossing the deadly Sonoran desert on the US/Mexico border.

As these attacks continue, international institutions are “struggling” to help shore up these NGOs because these institutions, including the United Nations, are “hamstrung by the interests and alliances of powerful states.”

The report points out these institutions did little to respond to the great challenges of the day– failing to fight overwhelming inequality and also were largely silent on human rights abuses of states such as Saudi Arabia and Sudan while letting down the people of Syria and the Rohingyas of Myanmar, among many others.

Still, both the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet and the Geneva based Human Rights Council (and its 38 human rights experts – officially called Special Rapporteurs) – have taken the lead in singling out abuses worldwide.

In early March, Bachelet expressed concern about the possible approval by the Guatemalan Congress of a bill amending the Law on Non-Governmental Organizations for Development—a move aimed at limiting the work of human rights defenders and civil society in general.

The draft bill included requirements and administrative controls for national and international NGOs that in practice could be applied in a discretionary or arbitrary manner to limit the exercise of CSOs.

“I regret that Congress has continued with the process of approving this amendment despite its inconsistencies with international human rights standards, and despite the technical advice provided by my Office, and serious concerns expressed by UN independent experts and civil society,” Bachelet said.

The draft bill narrows the definition of NGOs, limiting their scope in a way that may constrain the rights to freedom of assembly, association and expression.

To obtain authorizations, NGOs would need to go through a complex registration process with several different state institutions, and the criteria for granting, rejecting or revoking those authorizations are not specified in the bill, according to the office of the High Commissioner.

Asked if there is a role either for the United Nations or its member states to protect CSOs under attack, Mandeep Tiwana, Chief Programmes Officer at CIVICUS,told IPS the UN is making some efforts to put the issues of attacks on CSOs and activists in the spotlight.

In December last year, he said, the President of the UN General Assembly, in a symbolic event, awarded the UN human rights prize to three civil society activists and an organisation dedicated to the protection of human rights defenders.

Recently, on March 21, the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) adopted a first-of-its- kind resolution on the protection of environmental human rights defenders, said Tiwana.

The UN Secretary General has a designated senior official to lead efforts within the UN system to address intimidation and reprisals against those cooperating with the UN system.

And, he said, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and UN Women regularly champion the work of CSOs and women human rights defenders respectively.

“However, in light of the growing restrictions on civic space, around the world, and even at the UN itself, these efforts are often not enough,” complained Tiwana.

This is in part because the UN itself is also under pressure from (undemocratic) governments that restrict civil society at home, and wish to do so at the UN as well.

He said the CIVICUS Monitor, a participatory platform that measures civic freedoms finds that only 4% of the world’s population live in countries where the freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly are adequately protected.

These are necessary for a healthy and enabled civil society and enshrined in international law.

“Our 2019 State of Civil Society Report points out, that the UN is hamstrung by the actions of powerful states that refuse to play by the rules including the US, China and Russia”.

Tiwana said a number of rights repressing states are joining international bodies.

In 2018, for example, Bahrain, Bangladesh and Eritrea, joined the UN Human Rights Council.

And over 60% of the UNHRC members are states with serious civic space restrictions that don’t respect civil society rights. In doing so, they are making decisive action less likely.

Second, states are withdrawing from international institutions and agreements, with the US withdrawing from the Paris Agreement on Climate and undermining UN resolutions on Palestine and the Occupied Territories.

Philippines has pulled out of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in a bid to avoid international accountability for widespread human rights violations including attacks on civil society.

In 2018, the new Global Compact for Migration also saw a string of states with hardline migration policies pull out between the agreement of the deal and its signing.

Third, rogue leaders are bringing their styles of personal rule into international affairs, ignoring existing institutions, agreements and norms, acting as unilateral strongmen or striking bilateral deals with other hardmen, undermining multilateralism and making it harder to scrutinise their actions, Tiwana noted.

Potentially everything seems up for negotiation and nothing can be assured at the international level, even the 70-year-old international human rights norms that underpin civil society action, he warned.

The writer can be contacted at

Fridays for Future – Following Greta Thunberg!


By Heike Kuhn
BERLIN, Apr 10 2019 – What happens worldwide on Fridays, a regular working day and consequently, a school day? We are all witnessing that students do not attend their classes: during the week of March 15, 2019, according to fridaysforfuture, there were at least 1.6 million striking students in more than 125 countries on all continents.

Students ask their governments and parents: “Why should I be studying for a future that soon may exist no more, if no one does anything to save that future?” And they pledge: “Dear adults, use your power!” The youngsters gather in front of their town halls, exposing signs and pictures #Fridaysforfuture or #Climatestrike.

How did this global movement start? It all began with the activism of one person, a girl from Sweden. Who is that girl? Greta Thunberg is a Swedish student, aged 15 in 2018. Due to the hot summer in 2018, causing severe fires in large forests in Sweden, she decided on August 20 to boycott school lessons until the general elections in her country on September 9 would have taken place. And she did. Her motivation: To advocate for the obligations voluntarily taken over by the Swedish government to reduce carbon emissions as foreseen by the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

But even when the elections had taken place, she continued to boycott school lessons on Fridays. As a climate activist she has become a role model for thousands of students all over the world. In the following months, students followed her, in December 2018 there were more than 20.000 students in about 270 cities “on strike”, in Japan, Finland, USA, Australia and Germany. And these demonstrations do continue – every Friday, having now reached the impressive number of 1.6 million participants.

You can listen to Greta Thunberg’s impressive speech addressing political leaders at the climate conference in Katowice (COP 24).   What is her message to all these leaders and politicians? She argues that the adults in charge only speak about green growth because they are too scared to take measures which could be unpopular.

From her point of view, the wrong decisions taken in the last decades are the cause for the mess we are in today. And she explains to the powerful leaders that they are not mature enough to take responsible decisions, even this burden is left to the children. Whereas in industrialized countries people can enjoy wealth, people in developping countries, especially children, suffer and are threatened with regard to their future.

This is a powerful statement. In the meantime, Greta has celebrated her 16th birthday. She has the Asperger syndrome, a mild form of autism. However, she is capable to come up with a clear view and responsible position with regard to the future and the action needed.

Her view is much clearer than the one of adults, among them politicians, entrepreneurs or each of us. With strong impetus she explains that she does not understand why governments and citizens would not act, as climate change is threatening all of us.

We all know that climate change is a reality, only very few persons still deny the facts and the evidence behind it. Climate is changing rapidly, deepening the abyss between those who can adapt and protect their lives – the rich – and those who are directly exposed to it, many poor people in Africa, Asia or Latin America.

They are threatened by floods, avalanches, tsunamis or simply because of drought. Climate change is the reason for people to leave their villages thus becoming refugees. Climate change makes childhood much harder for so many girls and boys worldwide or even destroys childhood at all. Far too often there is no education which is the most important way out of poverty and which creates perspectives for families.

At the same time, everyone is talking about sustainable life styles, but what is really happening? As citizens and as customers we see and feel our share. When taking the car or air plane even for short trips, we know we could easily walk or take the train. When consuming too much meat, we know we could eat less. Furthermore, we still use too much fossil fuel or witness the ongoing deforestation of tropical rainforests.

However, we are perfectly aware that giving up some of these climate threatening habits would be very easy for us – so why are there so many obstacles?

Coming back to Swedish activist Thunberg and her recent presence in the media: Greta was invited to the World Economic Forum in Davos/Switzerland in January 2019 and there she talked to the powerful leaders of our governments. How did she get there? By train, of course, which meant she was travelling for 32 hours from Stockholm to the Alps.

Once again, she delivered a most impressive speech, claiming that our house is on fire: A short summary of her key note: In Davos, where the focus is on economy, finance and growth, these seem to be the main global problems. As to Greta a turnaround is urgently needed, since financial success comes with an unthinkable price tag.

Citing the scientific findings of the IPCC, she refers to the short deadline for homo sapiens to stop the emissions of green house gas. And she clearly states that this change will be uncomfortable to many of us. She urges leaders to take influence on political decisions and reminds them that the bigger their platform is, the bigger their responsibility is, too.

Who listens to Greta? Which politicians and leaders take action after the global movement fridaysforfuture? In my country, Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel has complimented Greta on her activism and expressed sympathy for the global movement (a slight irritation after a comment of Chancellor Merkel during the Munich Security Conference in March 2019 has been discarded). But where is the action needed?

Let us remember that global leaders voluntarily agreed on two major texts in 2015: the 2030 Agenda for sustainable development and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. Whereas SDG 13 asks for taking urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts, showcasing the political will of all the subscribing 192 countries, the legal character of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change is a binding one.

What action have leaders taken since then in order to fulfil their ambition and legal obligations? In 2015, Greta was 13 years old, in 2018, when analysing the global climate situation, she started her activism. In between, on the occasion of the International Women’s Day on March 8, Greta Thunberg was proclaimed the most important woman of the year in Sweden in 2019. On March 31, she received the German Special Climate Protection award (Goldene Kamera). And three Norwegian MPs have nominated her as a candidate to receive this year’s Nobel Prize for Peace.

From my point of view, the most important consequences of Greta’s wake-up call are the fact that it brings about a global discussion for the change needed.

Furthermore, it causes incentives for real leaders and reasonable politicians to act today. I personally hope that Greta will be right in her analysis of the IPPC’s report that there is still a short deadline left for homo sapiens to stop the emissions of greenhouse gas and safe our planet.

And, hopefully, that Yuval Noah Harari, the author of the famous bestseller “Sapiens” may revise his conclusion at the end of his book, that in the course of seventy thousand years homo sapiens has become the master of the entire planet and, at the same time, has become the terror of the ecosystem.

Smears, Laws, Lack of Cooperation: Tools Against Activists

Michel Forst, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders next report will focus on impunity, as only about 5 percent of attacks on rights defenders have been investigated and the perpetrators “brought to justice”. Credit: AD McKenzie/IPS

By A. D. McKenzie
BELGRADE, Apr 10 2019 – The murder of Brazilian politician and human rights activist Marielle Franco just over a year ago and attacks on other rights activists around the world have galvanised civil society organisations, with the United Nations heightening its own strategy to protect rights defenders.
However, some countries aren’t interested in cooperating with civil society or international governmental bodies and even actively engage in smear campaigns against rights advocates.

“An increasing number of states have now refused to cooperate with the UN,” said Michel Forst, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, in the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

“They don’t want to invite any more special rapporteurs to visit the countries or to produce reports,” he told journalists at a press briefing during International Civil Society Week (ICSW 2019), an annual gathering of civil society leaders, activists and citizens taking place in the Serbian capital this week, Apr. 8-12.

The meeting – co-hosted by the Johannesburg-based global civil society alliance CIVICUS – has brought together more than 850 delegates who are focusing on issues ranging from “the crackdown on media freedom to emergency assistance for NGOs under attack”. It is also addressing the “power” of solidarity alongside greater accountability.

Forst said he was attending the event to learn from the participants. His next report, to be presented during the UN General Assembly in the fall, will focus on impunity, as only about 5 percent of attacks on rights defenders have been investigated and the perpetrators “brought to justice”, he told journalists.

A growing problem in protecting rights defenders is the way in which some states try to defame activists, Forst said. In regions from Europe to Latin America, there are on-going campaigns to discredit rights advocates, and public opinion can be influenced by the derogatory terminology.
“These campaigns are dangerous for defenders,” he said. “They are called ‘enemies of the state’, they are called ‘promoters of western values’, they are (said to be) ‘against development’.”

In some countries, activists are also accused of having links to terrorism and of opposing progress when they try to block projects that are disastrous for the environment or for indigenous peoples.

“What is also a matter of concern for me is that these campaigns are led by politicians, by political actors, prime ministers, ministers of foreign affairs, ministers of defence,” Forst added.

He said the Belgrade ICSW meeting was important for activists to see that what is happening in their home country or region may also be taking place elsewhere, so that they can try to build bridges and strengthen links.

The meeting has in fact highlighted similarities in methods of repression around the world – methods that include not only physical attacks, but surveillance, travel bans, on-line harassment and the use of government structures and legislation to try to suppress freedoms.

Even as the ICSW meeting takes place, rights organisations elsewhere have been issuing alarms about breaches of civic and media rights. Separately from the event in Belgrade, rights organisation PEN America on Apr. 9 warned that the “Trump administration’s targeting of journalists has reached a new level”.

The group pointed to reports from the U.S.-Mexico border (and leaked documents from a Department of Homeland Security whistle-blower) indicating that “U.S. government agencies have been tracking and monitoring over 50 individuals, mostly journalists and immigration advocates, as they report on the humanitarian situation” at the U.S. southern border.

Government entities have reportedly participated in the “tracking and monitoring of these journalists, including the creation of a U.S. government database containing sensitive personal information”, PEN America said. The group called the database “a shocking and unwarranted violation of journalists’ First Amendment rights” and “an appalling violation of press freedom”.

In France, meanwhile, the national branch of Amnesty International criticised a French “anti-riot” law that could threaten freedom of assembly and expression. The law, adopted by parliament, would allow police to systematically search protestors, and, despite certain assurances, it “remains a serious infringement on public freedom and the balance of power”, Amnesty France stated Apr. 9.

The law comes as France’s Gilets Jaunes (or Yellow Vests) continue their protests, with thousands marching on Apr. 6 in Paris and other cities for the 21st weekend in a row. Certain lawmakers say the legislation is necessary to prevent further destruction of property and life-threatening fires started by protestors during some of the demonstrations.

But France also uses other legislation “to target those defenders who are trying to help and rescue migrants coming to Europe via the Mediterranean sea,” said Forst, who is French.
“We’re seeing more and more the criminalisation of (rights) defenders”, through the use of the law, he said.

In Serbia, anti-government demonstrators are set to intensify their actions Apr. 13 — the day after ICSW 2019 ends — with what promises to be the biggest gathering since protests began last December.

Protestors are calling for free and fair elections and greater media freedom. (Last month some forced their way into the offices of Serbia’s state-run television network, to show dissatisfaction with what they called one-sided reporting.)

At the opening ceremony of ICSW, Serbian activists slammed President Aleksandar Vučić for repressive policies, often without naming him, and some called for protection of the media.

“We will stand up for freedom of journalists… the freedom not to be threatened in any way,” said Maja Stojanovic, of Serbian organisation Civic Initiatives, a co-host of the meeting.

Ahead of ICSW, Serbia was added to a watchlist of “nations where civic freedoms are under serious threat”. The watchlist – released by the CIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that tracks threats to civil society across the globe – said Serbian authorities have “orchestrated a smear campaign against demonstrators, labelling government opponents as ‘paid’ activists working against Serbian interests”.

The confused and disquieting developments in many countries further highlight the need to find cross-border solutions and to create links between rights defenders, Forst said.

The European Union, for instance, has guidelines for embassies of member states abroad on “how to protect rights defenders”, and funding is available for embassies to relocate individuals at risk, Forst told reporters. In addition, a network of shelter cities exists (the number of these is growing with continued attacks).

But it is difficult to relocate at-risk female activists who may have children, and here, too, there is often lack of cooperation or agreement on asylum requests.

While some countries can effectively help rights defenders in far-off regions, they seem powerless when it comes to their own neighbours.

Still, defenders are becoming “more efficient” in forming local, national and international networks, Forst said. “It is a battle … solidarity is important.”

He said the good news is that some countries that were “blocked in the past” are now granting access to international bodies to help protect defenders and to end impunity.

In contrast to states like the Philippines that are dangerous for rights defenders and don’t wish to “do anything to solve the problem”, other countries “like Mexico, Colombia, Honduras, Brazil now – maybe – do recognise, because of the number of killings … that they need to solve the problem,” Forst added.

In Brazil, meanwhile, activists and others are still asking: who killed Marielle Franco?

Staying Cool is Creating a Vicious Cycle on our Warming Planet

A refrigerator being transported by cart.

By Joyce Msuya
NAIROBI, Kenya, Apr 10 2019 – Our planet is heating up. 2018 was the fourth-warmest year on record, with peak temperatures engulfing the planet – from 43°C in Baku, Azerbaijan, to the low 30s across Scandinavia. The last four years have been the hottest since records began in 1880.

It is no surprise, then, that demand for cooling is growing. In just one part of the cooling sector, the number of air conditioners in use is expected to rise from 1.2 billion today to 4.5 billion by 2050 – boosted by the growing spending power of the global middle class.

We should not stop this growth in cooling. Almost one third of the world’s population faces dangerous temperatures for over 20 days a year, while heatwaves cause 12,000 deaths annually.

We need to provide equitable access to a technology that protects against extreme heat, keeps food fresh and vaccines stable, and so much more.

But we are stuck in a vicious cycle. As the planet warms, we need more cooling. More cooling means more power: energy demand for space cooling is projected to at least triple by 2050 – consuming the same amount of electricity as China and India today.

This means more planet-warming emissions – predicted to rise 90 per cent over 2017 levels by 2050. And back to the start of the cycle we go.

There is, however, a way out. A swift and targeted move to clean and efficient cooling can limit climate change, allow us to safely increase access to cooling for those who need it most and, according to the International Energy Agency, save up to USD 2.9 trillion globally through 2050 by using less electricity.

To accelerate the transition to clean and efficient cooling, we need a unified effort. As of last week, we have this effort, in the shape of the Cool Coalition – a new global effort led by UN Environment, the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, the Kigali Cooling Efficiency Program, and Sustainable Energy for All (SE4ALL).

We formed this coalition now because we have an unparalleled opportunity with the Kigali Amendment, which began its work on the first day of 2019.

This amendment is an add-on to the Montreal Protocol, the global treaty that saved the ozone layer. Under it, nations have agreed to phase down the use of refrigerants that are thousands of times more potent greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide.

Cutting down on these gases, known as HFCs, can deliver up to 0.4°C of avoided warming by the end of this century. This is a great result on its own.

However, a strategy that takes advantage of the refit and redesign of cooling equipment to increase its energy efficiency may double the climate benefits. There are also opportunities in “smart” buildings, designed for efficiency and natural cooling. We should look at shifting power for cooling to renewable sources – although without the efficiency measures, cooling would consume all of the world’s projected renewables capacity by 2050.

Coalition members are already acting. UN Environment is promoting clean and efficient cooling through its District Energy in Cities initiative. Rwanda has put in place a national cooling plan that includes standards and labels for refrigerators and air conditioning.

Danish engineering firm Danfoss is rolling out cooling solutions that are more energy efficient and climate friendly. But we need help.

We need national and local governments, businesses and civil society to make concrete pledges to help achieve this transition. The Coalition’s champions are seeking to secure such commitments ahead of the 2019 Climate Action Summit, called by the UN Secretary-General. Join us and help keep ourselves, and the planet, cool.