COP28: Climate Summit in Closed Civic Space

Civil Society, Climate Action, Climate Change, Crime & Justice, Energy, Environment, Featured, Global, Headlines, Human Rights, Press Freedom, TerraViva United Nations

Opinion

Credit: Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for Bloomberg Philanthropies

LONDON, Nov 17 2023 (IPS) – The need to act on the climate crisis has never been clearer. In 2023, heat records have been shattered around the world. Seemingly every day brings news of extreme weather, imperilling lives. In July, UN Secretary-General António Guterres grimly announced that ‘the era of global boiling has arrived’.


In short, there’s a lot at stake as the world heads into its next climate summit.

But there’s a big problem: COP28, the latest in the annual series of conferences of parties (COP) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, will be held in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). This is a country with closed civic space, where dissent is criminalised and activists are routinely detained. It’s also a fossil fuel power bent on continuing extraction.

At multilateral summits where climate change decisions are made, it’s vital that civil society is able to mobilise to demand greater ambition, hold states and fossil fuel companies and financiers to account and ensure the views of people most affected by climate change are heard. But that can’t happen in conditions of closed civic space.

Concerning signs

In September, the UAE was added to the CIVICUS Monitor Watchlist, which highlights countries experiencing significant declines in respect for civic freedoms. Civic space in the UAE has long been closed: no dissent against the government or advocacy for human rights is allowed, and those who try to speak out risk criminalisation. In 2022, a Cybercrime Law introduced even stronger restrictions on online expression.

There’s widespread torture in jails and detention centres and at least 58 prisoners of conscience have been held in prison despite having completed their sentences. Many of them were part of a group known as the UAE 94, jailed for the crime of calling for democracy. Among the ranks of those incarcerated is Ahmed Mansoor, sentenced to 10 years in jail in 2018 for his work documenting the human rights situation, and held in solitary confinement for over five years and counting.

Ahead of COP28, civil society has worked to highlight the absurdity of holding such a vital summit in closed civic space conditions. Domestic civil society is unable to influence COP28 and its preparatory process, and it’s hard to see how civil society, both domestic and international, will be able to express itself freely during the summit.

Civil society is demanding that the UAE government demonstrate that it’s prepared to respect human rights, including by releasing political prisoners – something it’s so far failed to budge on.

An ominous sign came when the UAE hosted a climate and health summit in April. Participants were reportedly instructed not to criticise the government, corporations, individuals or Islam, and not to protest while in the UAE.

Civic space restrictions aren’t the only indication the UAE isn’t taking COP28 seriously. The president of the summit, Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, also happens to be head of the state’s fossil fuel corporation ADNOC, the world’s 11th-biggest oil and gas producer. It’s like putting an arms manufacturer in charge of peace talks. Multiple other ADNOC staff members have roles in the summit. ADNOC is currently talking up its investments in renewable energies, all while planning one of the biggest expansions of oil and gas extraction of any fossil fuel corporation.

Instead of real action, all the signs are that the regime is instrumentalising its hosting of COP28 to try to launder its reputation, as indicated by its hiring of expensive international lobbying firms. An array of fake social media accounts were created to praise the UAE as host and defend it from criticism. A leaked list of key COP28 talking points prepared by the host made no mention of fossil fuels.

A summit that should be about tackling the climate crisis – and quickly – is instead being used to greenwash the image of the host government – something easiest achieved if civil society is kept at arm’s length.

Fossil fuel lobby to the fore

With civil society excluded, the voices of those actively standing in the way of climate action will continue to dominate negotiations. That’s what happened at COP27, also held in the closed civic space of Egypt, where 636 fossil fuel lobbyists took part – and left happy. Like every summit before it, its final statement made no commitment to reduce oil and gas use.

The only way to change this is to open the doors to civil society. Civil society has consistently sounded the alarm and raised public awareness of the need for climate action. It’s the source of practical solutions to cut emissions and adapt to climate impacts. It urges more ambitious commitments and more funding, including for the loss and damage caused by climate change. It defends communities against environmentally destructive impacts, resists extraction and promotes sustainability. It pressures states and the private sector to stop approving and financing further extraction and to transition more urgently to more renewable energies and more sustainable practices. These are the voices that must be heard if the cycle of runaway climate change is to be stopped.

COPs should be held in countries that offer an enabling civic space that allows strong domestic mobilisation, and summit hosts should be expected to abide by high standards when it comes to domestic and international access and participation. That should be part of the deal hosts make in return for the global prestige that comes with hosting high-level events. Civil society’s exclusion mustn’t be allowed to happen again.

Andrew Firmin is CIVICUS Editor-in-Chief, co-director and writer for CIVICUS Lens and co-author of the State of Civil Society Report.

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Argentina: Unpalatable Choices in Election Plagued with Uncertainty

Civil Society, Economy & Trade, Featured, Financial Crisis, Gender, Gender Identity, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean, TerraViva United Nations

Opinion

Credit: Tomás Cuesta/Getty Images

MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay, Nov 3 2023 (IPS) – For many of Argentina’s voters the choice in the 19 November presidential runoff is between the lesser of two evils: Sergio Massa, economy minister of a government that’s presiding over a once-in-a-generation economic meltdown with a whopping 140-per cent inflation rate, or Javier Milei, a far-right libertarian who admires Donald Trump, wants to shut down the Central Bank and wields a chainsaw in public as a symbol of his willingness to slash the state. Many will rue that it ever came to this.


A peculiar outsider

A post-modern media celebrity, Milei’s performance style is a perfect fit for social media. He’s easily angered, reacts violently and insults copiously. He’s unapologetically sexist and mocks identity politics.

Milei bangs the drum for ‘anarcho-capitalism’, an ultra-individualistic ideology in which the market has absolute pre-eminence: earlier this year, he described the sale of human organs as ‘just another market’.

To expand his appeal beyond this extreme economic niche he forged an alliance with the culturally conservative right. His running mate, Victoria Villarruel, represents the backlash against abortion – legalised after decades of civil society campaigning in 2020 – and sexual diversity and gender equality policies, along with reappraisal of the murderous military dictatorship that ruled Argentina between 1976 and 1983.

In the run-up to primary elections in August, the two mainstream coalitions – the centre-left incumbent Union for the Homeland (UP) and the centre-right opposition Together for Change (JxC) – displayed a notable lack of leadership and indulged in internal squabbles that showed very little empathy for people’s daily struggles. All they had to offer in the face of widespread concerns about inflation and insecurity were the candidacies of the current minister of the economy and a former minister of security. They made it easy for Milei to hold them responsible for decades of corruption, ineffectiveness and failure.

In Milei’s discourse, the hardworking, productive majority is being bled dry by taxation to maintain the privileges of a parasitic and corrupt political ‘caste’. His proposal is deceptively simple: shrink the state to a minimum to destroy the caste that lives off it, clearing their way for individual progress.

Milei gained traction among young voters, particularly young men, via TikTok. He found fertile ground among a generation that no longer expect to be better off than their parents. While many of his followers concede that his ideas may be a little crazy, they appear to be willing to take the risk of embracing the unknown on the basis that the really crazy plan would be to allow those long in control to retain their power and expect things to turn out differently. Milei has capitalised on the despair, hopelessness and accumulated anger so many rightfully feel.

Surprise after surprise

The first surprise came on 13 August, when Milei won the most votes of any candidate in the primaries.

Milei only entered politics in 2021, when the 17 per cent vote he amassed in the capital, Buenos Aires, sent him and two other libertarians to the National Congress. In the 2023 primaries he went much further, winning 30 per cent of the vote. He placed ahead of JxC, whose two candidates received a joint 28 per cent, and UP, the current incarnation of the Peronist Party, which took 27 per cent. The bulk of the UP vote, 21 per cent, went to Massa. That Peronism, once the dominant force, came third was a historic first.

The second surprise came on 22 October. Following the primaries, all talk was of Milei winning the presidency. He trumpeted his intent to win the first round outright. Measured against these expectations, his second place looks like an underperformance. But the fact that a candidate who wasn’t on the radar before the primaries has made the runoff shows how quickly the political landscape can shift.

In the October vote Milei took almost the exact share he’d received in the primaries. Massa finished above him with almost 37 per cent, displacing JxC, which lost four points on its second-place performance in the primaries.

The fact that the economy minister was able to distance himself from the government he’s part of – one often described as the worst in 40 years – to come first was viewed as a notable victory, even though his share was just about the lowest Peronism has ever received.

One explanation for Massa’s improved performance was turnout, which increased by eight points to almost 78 per cent – still low for a country with compulsory voting, but enough to make a difference. Much of the increase could be credited to the political machinery that mobilised voters on election day, aided by the minister-candidate pulling as many levers as he could to improve his chances. This included putting lots of instant cash into voters’ pockets, including through tax breaks benefiting targeted groups of workers and consumers.

An unpalatable decision

There’s still much uncertainty ahead. Economic failure is Milei’s best propaganda, so much will depend on how the economy behaves over the next couple of weeks. Milei and the destruction he represents can’t be written off.

Neither those currently in power nor those in the mainstream opposition recognise the obvious: Milei is their fault. They’ve held power for the best part of the past 40 years without effectively tackling any of the issues that concern people the most.

Many voters now feel they face an unpalatable choice between a corrupt and failing government and a dangerous disruptor. They fear that if they choose to keep Milei out, their votes may be misinterpreted as a show of active support for a continuity they also reject. What’s at stake here is more than one election. If Milei is kept at bay, the political dynamics leading to the current economic dysfunction will still need to be addressed – or the far-right threat to democracy won’t end with Milei.

Inés M. Pousadela is CIVICUS Senior Research Specialist, co-director and writer for CIVICUS Lens and co-author of the State of Civil Society Report.

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Brazil: A Step Forward for Indigenous Peoples’ Rights

Civil Society, Climate Change, Environment, Featured, Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, TerraViva United Nations

Opinion

Credit: Evaristo Sa/AFP via Getty Images

MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay, Oct 24 2023 (IPS) – Brazil’s Supreme Court has delivered a long-awaited ruling upholding Brazilian Indigenous peoples’ claims to their traditional land. It did so by rejecting the ‘Temporal Framework’ principle, which only allowed for the demarcation and titling of lands physically occupied by the Indigenous groups who claimed them by 5 October 1988, when the current constitution was adopted. This excluded the numerous Indigenous communities who’d been violently expelled from their ancestral lands before then, including under military dictatorship between 1964 and 1985.


The case was brought in relation to a land dispute in the state of Santa Catarina, but the ruling applies to hundreds of similar situations throughout Brazil.

This was also good news for the climate. Brazil is home to 60 per cent of the Amazon rainforest, a key climate stabiliser due to the enormous amount of carbon it stores and the water it releases into the atmosphere. Most of Brazil’s roughly 800 Indigenous territories – over 300 of which are yet to be officially demarcated – are in the Amazon. And there are no better guardians of the rainforest than Indigenous peoples: when they fend off deforestation, they protect their livelihoods and ways of life. The best-preserved areas of the Amazon are those legally recognised and protected as Indigenous lands.

But there’s been a sting in the tale: politicians backed by the powerful agribusiness lobby have passed legislation to enshrine the Temporal Framework, blatantly ignoring the court ruling.

A tug of war

The Supreme Court victory came after a long struggle. Hundreds of Indigenous mobilisations over several years called for the rejection of the Temporal Framework.

Powerful agribusiness interests presented the Temporal Framework as the proper way of regulating article 231 of the constitution in a way that provides the legal security rural producers need to continue to operate. Indigenous rights groups denounced it as a clear attempt to make theft of Indigenous lands legal. Regional and international human rights mechanisms sided with them: the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous Peoples warned that the framework contradicted universal and Inter-American human rights standards.

In their 21 September decision, nine of the Supreme Court’s 11 members ruled the Temporal Framework to be unconstitutional. With a track record of agribusiness-friendly rulings, the two judges who backed it had been appointed by former far-right president Jair Bolsonaro, and one of them had also been Bolsonaro’s justice minister.

As the Supreme Court held its hearings and deliberations, political change took hold. Bolsonaro had vowed ‘not to cede one centimetre more of land’ to Indigenous peoples, and the process of land demarcation had remained stalled for years. But in April 2023, President Lula da Silva, in power since January, signed decrees recognising six new Indigenous territories and promised to approve all pending cases before the end of his term in 2026, a promise consistent with the commitment to achieve zero deforestation by 2030. The recognition of two additional reserves in September came alongside news that deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon had fallen by 66 per cent in August compared to the same month in 2022.

Agribusiness fights back

But the agribusiness lobby didn’t simply accept its fate. The powerful ruralist congressional caucus introduced a bill to enshrine the Temporal Framework principle into law, which the Chamber of Deputies quickly passed on 30 May. The vote was accompanied by protests, with Indigenous groups blocking a major highway. They faced the police with their ceremonial bows and arrows and were dispersed with water cannon and teargas.

The Temporal Framework bill continued its course through Congress even after the Supreme Court’s decision. On 27 September, with 43 votes for and 21 against, the Senate approved it as a matter of ‘urgency’, rejecting the substance of the Supreme Court ruling and claiming that in issuing it the court had ‘usurped’ legislative powers.

The Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil’s (APIB) assessment was that, as well as upholding the Temporal Framework, the bill sought to open the door to commodity production and infrastructure construction in Indigenous lands, among other serious violations of Indigenous rights. For these reasons, Indigenous groups called this the ‘Indigenous Genocide Bill’.

The struggle goes on

As the 20 October deadline for President Lula to either sign or veto the bill approached, a campaign led by Indigenous congresswoman Célia Xakriabá collected almost a million signatures backing her call for a total veto. Along with other civil society groups, APIB sent an urgent appeal to the UN requesting support to urge Lula to veto the bill.

On 19 October the Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office said Lula should veto the bill on the basis that it’s unconstitutional. On the same day, however, senior government sources informed that there wouldn’t be a total veto, but a ‘very large’ partial one. And indeed, the next day it was announced that Lula had partially vetoed the bill. According to a government spokesperson, all the clauses that constituted attacks on Indigenous rights and went against the Constitution were vetoed, while the ones that remained would serve to improve the land demarcation process, making it more transparent.

Even if the part of the bill that wasn’t vetoed doesn’t undermine the Supreme Court ruling, the issue is far from settled. The veto now needs to be analysed at a congressional session on a date yet to be determined. And the agribusiness lobby won’t back down easily. Many politicians own land overlapping Indigenous territories, and many more received campaigns funding from farmers who occupy Indigenous lands.

While further moves by the right-leaning Congress can’t be ruled out, the Supreme Court ruling also has some problems. The most blatant concerns the acknowledgment that there must be ‘fair compensation’ for non-Indigenous people occupying Indigenous lands they acquired ‘in good faith’ before the state considered them to be Indigenous territory. Indigenous groups contend that, while there might be a very small number of such cases, in a context of increasing violence against Indigenous communities, the compensation proposal would reward and further incentivise illegal invasions.

But beneath the surface of political squabbles, deeper changes are taking place that point to a movement that is growing stronger and better equipped to defend Indigenous peoples’ rights.

The 2022 census showed a 90-per-cent increase, from 896,917 to 1.69 million, in the number of Brazilians identifying as Indigenous compared to the census 12 years before. There was no demographic boom behind these numbers – just longstanding work by the Indigenous movement to increase visibility and respect for Indigenous identities. People who’d long ignored and denied their heritage to protect themselves from racism are now reclaiming their Indigenous identities. Not even the violent anti-Indigenous stance of the Bolsonaro administration could reverse this.

Today the Brazilian Indigenous movement is stronger than ever. President Lula owes his election to positioning himself as an alternative to his anti-rights, climate-denying predecessor. He now has the opportunity to reaffirm his commitment to respecting Indigenous peoples’ rights while tackling the climate crisis.

Inés M. Pousadela is CIVICUS Senior Research Specialist, co-director and writer for CIVICUS Lens and co-author of the State of Civil Society Report.

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Maldives Election: What Now for Civil Society?

Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Crime & Justice, Featured, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, LGBTQ, Press Freedom, TerraViva United Nations

Opinion

Credit: Mohamed Afrah/AFP via Getty Images

LONDON, Oct 12 2023 (IPS) – Ahead of the presidential election, Solih faced accusations of irregularities in his party’s primary vote, in which he defeated former president Mohamed Nasheed. The Electoral Commission was accused of making it harder for rival parties to stand, including the Democrats, a breakaway party Naheed formed after the primary vote. The ruling party also appeared to be instrumentalising public media and state resources in its favour. Solih’s political alliances with conservative religious parties were in the spotlight, including with the Adhaalath Party, which has taken an increasingly intolerant stance on women’s and LGBTQI+ rights.


Big beasts battle for influence

If the two candidates seemed similar in their attitudes towards civil society, they stood on opposite sides of a geopolitical divide. In recent years Maldives, a chain of small Indian Ocean islands with a population of around half a million, has become a major site of contestation in the battle for supremacy between China and India. The location is seen as strategic, not least for control of shipping routes, vital for the transport of oil from the Gulf to China.

Civic space under pressure

Solih quickly conceded defeat and thanked voters for playing their part in a democratic and peaceful process. It’s far from rare for incumbents to lose in Maldives: there’s been a change at every election since the first multiparty vote in 2008. But there are concerns that Muizzu will follow the same course as former president Abdulla Yameen, leader of his party, the People’s National Congress.

Yameen, in office from 2013 to 2018, wanted to run again, but the Supreme Court barred him because he’s serving an 11-year jail sentence for corruption and money-laundering. Critics question the extent to which Muizzu will be his own person or a proxy for Yameen. Perhaps there’s a clue in the fact that Yameen has already been moved from jail to house arrest on Muizzu’s request.

The question matters because the human rights situation sharply deteriorated under Yameen’s presidency. The 2018 election was preceded by the declaration of a state of emergency enabling a crackdown on civil society, the media, the judiciary and the political opposition. Judges and politicians were jailed. Protests were routinely banned and violently dispersed. Independent media websites were blocked and journalists subjected to physical attacks.

Ultimately, Yameen was roundly defeated by a united opposition who capitalised on widespread alarm at the state of human rights. Some positive developments followed, including repeal of a criminal defamation law. But many challenges for civil society remained and hopes of significant progress were largely disappointed.

A restrictive protest law stayed in effect and parliament rejected changing it in 2020. Police violence towards protesters continued, as did impunity. Civil society groups were still smeared and vilified if they criticised the government. Activists have been subjected to smears, harassment, threats and violence from hardline conservative religious groups. Women’s rights activists have been particularly targeted.

In 2019, a prominent civil society organisation, the Maldivian Democracy Group, was deregistered and had its funds seized following pressure from religious groups after it published a report on violent extremism. It now operates from exile.

Ahead of the presidential election, Solih faced accusations of irregularities in his party’s primary vote, in which he defeated former president Mohamed Nasheed. The Electoral Commission was accused of making it harder for rival parties to stand, including the Democrats, a breakaway party Naheed formed after the primary vote. The ruling party also appeared to be instrumentalising public media and state resources in its favour. Solih’s political alliances with conservative religious parties were in the spotlight, including with the Adhaalath Party, which has taken an increasingly intolerant stance on women’s and LGBTQI+ rights.

Big beasts battle for influence

If the two candidates seemed similar in their attitudes towards civil society, they stood on opposite sides of a geopolitical divide. In recent years Maldives, a chain of small Indian Ocean islands with a population of around half a million, has become a major site of contestation in the battle for supremacy between China and India. The location is seen as strategic, not least for control of shipping routes, vital for the transport of oil from the Gulf to China.

India has historically had close connections with Maldives, something strongly supported by Solih. But Muizzu, like his predecessor Yameen, seems firmly in the China camp. Under Yameen, Maldives was a recipient of Chinese support to develop infrastructure under its Belt and Road Initiative, epitomised in the 1.4 km China-Maldives Friendship Bridge.

India has come to be a big issue in Maldivian politics. Under Solih, India established a small military presence in Maldives, mostly involved in providing air support for medical evacuations from isolated islands. But the development of a new India-funded harbour prompted accusations that the government was secretly planning to give India’s military a permanent base.

This sparked opposition protests calling for the Indian military to be expelled. Protests faced heavy restriction, with many protesters arrested. In 2022, Solih issued a decree deeming the protests a threat to national security and ordering them to stop. This high-handed move only further legitimised protesters’ grievances.

Muizzu’s campaign sought to centre the debate on foreign interference and Maldives’ sovereignty. He used his victory rally to reiterate his promise that foreign soldiers will be expelled.

In practice, the new administration is likely to mean a change of emphasis rather than an absolute switch. Maldives will still need to trade with both much bigger economies and likely look to play them off against each other, while India will seek to maintain relations, hoping that the political pendulum will swing its way again.

Time to break with the past

International relations were far from the only issue. Economic strife and the high cost of living – a common issue in recent elections around the world – was a major concern. And some people likely switched votes out of unhappiness with Solih’s failure to fulfil his 2018 promises to challenge impunity for killings by extremists and make inroads on corruption, and to open up civic space.

Neither India, where civic freedoms are deteriorating, nor China, which stamps down on all forms of dissent, will have any interest in whether the Maldives government respects the space for civil society. But there’s surely an opportunity here for Muizzu to prove he’ll stand on his own feet by breaking with both the dismal human rights approach of Yameen and the increasingly compromised positions of Solih. He can carve out his own direction by committing to respecting and working with civil society, including by letting it scrutinise and give feedback on the big development decisions he may soon be taking in concert with China.

Andrew Firmin is CIVICUS Editor-in-Chief, co-director and writer for CIVICUS Lens and co-author of the State of Civil Society Report.

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Mexico on the Rights Path

Civil Society, Featured, Gender, Headlines, Health, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, TerraViva United Nations, Women’s Health

Opinion

Crerdit: Silvana Flores/AFP via Getty Images

MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay, Oct 10 2023 (IPS) – Mexico’s Supreme Court recently declared abortion bans unconstitutional, effectively decriminalising abortion throughout the vast federal country, so far characterised by a legislative patchwork.

The ruling came in response to a lawsuit filed by a civil society organisation, Information Group on Reproductive Choice. It forces the Federal Congress to repeal the Federal Penal Code articles that criminalise abortion. Effective immediately, those seeking abortions and those providing them can no longer be punished for doing so. The ruling also enshrines the right to access abortion procedures in all institutions of the federal health system network, even in states where the crime of abortion remains on the books.


Global trends

Mexico is part of a global, long-term trend of progress in sexual and reproductive rights. According to the Center for Reproductive Rights, the vast majority of countries that have changed their national abortion laws over the past couple of decades have made them less restrictive. Only four countries have gone the other way: El Salvador, Nicaragua, Poland and the USA.

Several Latin American countries have been swept by the ‘green tide’ that originated in Argentina, increasingly liberalising abortion laws. Before the 2010s, abortion was legal in only one Latin American country, Cuba. It was legalised in Uruguay in 2012, and eight years later in Argentina. Colombia decriminalised abortion in February 2022, and other countries, such as Chile and Ecuador, have since made it legal on limited grounds, notably when pregnancy is a result of rape – which women’s rights organisations see as a milestone on the road to full legalisation.

Globally, abortion is currently legal on request in 75 countries, often until 12 weeks into pregnancy. Around a dozen more allow it for broad socio-economic reasons. Many more permit it for specific reasons such as health grounds or to save a pregnant person’s life.

But abortion remains banned under any circumstances in 24 countries, and overall 40 per cent of women of reproductive age live under restrictive abortion laws. These restrictions have a significant impact on women: it’s estimated that unsafe abortions costs the lives of 39,000 women and girls every year.

A legislative patchwork

The trend towards decriminalisation in Mexico kicked off in 2007 in Mexico City, and it took 12 years for another state, Oaxaca, to follow its lead. Change accelerated in recent years, with Hidalgo and Veracruz legalising abortion in 2021.

In September 2021, the federal Supreme Court issued its first-ever decision on abortion rights, unanimously recognising a constitutional right to safe, legal and free abortion services within a ‘short period’ early in pregnancy, and on specific grounds later. The ruling came in response to a lawsuit against the state of Coahuila, which imposed prison terms of up to three years for voluntary abortion.

Although this ruling only applied to Coahuila, it had a wider impact: judges in other states were no longer able to sentence anyone for the crime of voluntary abortion in the early stages of pregnancy.

Two days after this judgment, the Supreme Court addressed another lawsuit concerning the state of Sinaloa, issuing a ruling that declared it unconstitutional for state laws to redefine the legal concept of personhood by protecting ‘human life from conception’. And soon after, it declared invalid the principle of conscientious objection for medical practitioners in the General Health Law. A couple of months earlier it had ruled unconstitutional the time limits set by some states for abortions in cases of rape.

By the time of the Coahuila ruling, only four federal entities allowed abortion on demand up to 12 weeks. But several have changed their laws since, and by the time of the latest Supreme Court ruling, abortion on demand was already legal in 12 of Mexico’s 32 states. All states also allowed abortions for pregnancies resulting from rape, most allowed abortion when necessary to save a pregnant person’s life, and several allowed it in cases of risks to a pregnant person’s health or severe congenital foetal abnormalities.

Regional experience however suggests that making abortion conditional on exceptional grounds that must be proven tends to result in denial of access. Additionally, in Mexico, access by particularly vulnerable women has often been restricted through resistance in bureaucracies and medical institutions, even in states where abortion is legal.

Now Congress has until the end of its current session, which runs until 15 December, to amend the Penal Code clauses that criminalise abortion. But even after this, abortion will continue to be a state-level crime in 20 states. This means that abortion complaints will continue to be filed in those states. In most cases judges will ultimately have to dismiss the charges – but women will continue to be subjected to unnecessary barriers and uncertainty. For this reason, the women’s rights movement is pushing locally for decriminalisation in every Mexican state.

Effective access the next struggle

Mexican women’s rights groups are getting ready for what promises to be a long battle for effective access. They feel confident, for now, that thanks to decades of hard work public opinion is on their side. But they know that, while there may be less up-front resistance than before, there are still powerful forces against change. Resistance manifests in the imposition of barriers to prevent effective access to what is now recognised as a right, particularly for people from the most excluded groups in society.

Denial of access can take many forms: long waiting times, the need for multiple doctors’ appointments and parental or marital consent, disinformation and the extension of conscientious objection from individual health personnel to entire institutions.

Sexual and reproductive health, including abortion procedures, is basic healthcare and should be easily accessible to all. Mexican feminists know this, and will continue fighting to change both policy and minds so nobody is denied access to their rights.

Inés M. Pousadela is CIVICUS Senior Research Specialist, co-director and writer for CIVICUS Lens and co-author of the State of Civil Society Report.

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Bahrain’s Political Prisoners: Resistance Against the Odds

Civil Society, Crime & Justice, Democracy, Featured, Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa, TerraViva United Nations

Opinion

Credit: Mohammed al-Shaikh/AFP via Getty Images

MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay, Sep 26 2023 (IPS) – Maryam al-Khawaja’s journey home ended before it had begun: British Airways staff stopped her boarding her flight at the request of Bahraini immigration authorities. Maryam was no regular passenger: her father is veteran human rights activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, in jail in Bahrain for 12 years and counting.


Abdulhadi was sentenced to life in prison on bogus terrorism charges for his role in 2011 democracy protests, part of the ‘Arab Spring’ regional wave of mobilisations. His health, weakened due to denial of medical care, has further declined as he joined other political prisoners in a hunger strike demanding improvements in prison conditions.

Emerging from the unlikeliest place – a prison designed to break wills and destroy the desire for freedom – this hunger strike has become the biggest organised protest Bahrain has seen in years.

Maryam has four judicial cases pending in Bahrain but was ready to spend years in prison if this was what it took to save her father’s life. This is far from Abdulhadi’s first hunger strike, but his family warns that his fragile health means it could be his last. In denying Maryam the chance to see her father, the Bahraini regime has reacted as those who rule by fear often do: in fear of those who aren’t afraid of them.

A prison state

The Bahraini cracked down severely on the 2011 protests, unleashing murderous security force violence to clear protest sites, arresting scores of protesters, activists and opposition leaders, subjecting them to mass trials and stripping hundreds of citizenship. It sentenced 51 people to death and has executed six, while 26 wait on death row having exhausted their appeals. Most were convicted on the basis of confessions obtained through torture.

Many of those arrested in the 2011 protests and subsequent crackdown remain behind bars. According to estimates from the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, over the past decade the government has arrested almost 15,000 people for their political views, and between 1,200 and 1,400 are still jailed, mostly in Jau prison in Manama, the capital. Abdulhadi is one of many.

On 7 August, Jau’s political prisoners went on hunger strike. Their demands include an end to solitary confinement, more time outside cells – currently they’re only allowed out for an hour a day, permission to hold prayers in congregation, amended visitation rules and access to adequate medical care and education. Over the following weeks the numbers taking part grew to more than 800. Their families took to the streets to demand their release.

On 31 August, the political prisoners extended their protest after rejecting the government’s offer of only minor improvements.

On 11 September, a two-week suspension of the strike was announced to allow the government to fulfil promises to improve conditions, including ending isolation for some prisoners. It seemed clear the government had shifted position to avoid embarrassment as Bahrain’s Crown Prince and Prime Minister Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa prepared to meet US President Joe Biden.

Abdulhadi, however, soon resumed his hunger strike after being denied access to a scheduled medical appointment, only to suspend it a few days later when he was promised improvements in conditions, including a cardiologist appointment. But the next day it became apparent that these were all lies, and he resumed his hunger strike. It felt, as Maryam put it, ‘like psychological warfare and an attempt to kill solidarity’.

International solidarity urgently needed

In her attempt to return to Bahrain, Maryam received strong international support. Several Bahraini, regional and international civil society groups backed a joint letter urging European Union authorities to call for the immediate and unconditional release of all Bahrain’s political prisoners. A similar letter was sent to the UK government.

In late 2022, backlash from human rights organisations forced Bahrain to withdraw its candidacy for a UN Human Rights Council seat. And earlier this year, during the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s global assembly in Bahrain, which the regime sought to use for whitewashing purposes, parliamentarians called on Bahrain to release Abdulhadi and send him to Denmark for medical treatment.

But while Bahrain’s political prisoners have many allies, some powerful voices aren’t among them.

Bahrain’s foreign allies include not only repressive autocracies such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates but also democratic states, notably the UK and the USA, which clearly value stability and security far more highly than democracy and human rights.

Following Bahrain’s independence in 1971, the UK has continued to back the institutions it established – and has pretended to see progress towards democratic reform. In July, Bahrain’s Crown Prince made an official visit to the UK, where he met Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and signed a ‘Strategic Investment and Collaboration Partnership’ between the two countries. This included a US$1 billion investment deal in the UK. Barely a month before the start of the hunger strike, Sunak welcomed ‘progress on domestic reforms in Bahrain, particularly in relation to the judiciary and legal process’.

For the USA, Bahrain has been a ‘major non-NATO ally‘ since 2002 and a ‘major security partner’ since 2021. Bahrain was the first state in the region to be accorded major non-NATO ally status, the first to host a major US military base and the first, in 2006, to sign a free trade agreement with the USA. The US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, one of seven around the world, is stationed there, and the country hosts the headquarters of the US Naval Forces Central Command.

On 13 September, the Crown Prince visited Washington DC and signed a ‘Comprehensive Security Integration and Prosperity Agreement’ meant to scale up military and economic cooperation with the USA.

Only in the last paragraph of its pages-long announcement, meticulously detailed in every other respect, did the White House briefly acknowledge that human rights were an item of discussion. Nothing was said about the content or outcome of those alleged conversations.

The USA has been repeatedly chastised for a ‘selective defence of democracy‘. President Biden promised a foreign policy centred around human rights, but that rings hollow in Bahrain. It’s high time the USA, the UK and other democratic states use the many levers at their disposal to urge the Bahraini government to free its thousands of political prisoners and move towards real democratic reform.

Inés M. Pousadela is CIVICUS Senior Research Specialist, co-director and writer for CIVICUS Lens and co-author of the State of Civil Society Report.

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