Special Report: Exposing Afghanistan’s Pervasive, Methodical System of Gender Oppression

Civil Society, Development & Aid, Editors’ Choice, Education, Featured, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, Humanitarian Emergencies, Middle East & North Africa, Sustainable Development Goals, TerraViva United Nations

Education Cannot Wait. Future of Education is here

Richard Bennett during his oral statement at the Human Rights Council on June 18, 2024. Credit: Anne-Marie Colombet/Human Rights Council

Richard Bennett during his oral statement at the Human Rights Council on June 18, 2024. Credit: Anne-Marie Colombet/Human Rights Council

NAIROBI , Jul 1 2024 (IPS) – The UN Special Rapporteur’s annual report on human rights in Afghanistan lays bare the alarming phenomenon of an institutionalized system of discrimination, segregation, disrespect for human dignity and exclusion of women and girls.

In the new report, Richard Bennett, the UN’s Special Rapporteur, provides an intersectional analysis of the establishment and enforcement of this institutionalized system of unparalleled gender oppression. It paints a picture of a worsening situation for women and girls.


“The situation is that the de facto authorities, who control the country but are not yet recognized as a government, are not just failing to implement their obligations to human rights under the human rights treaties that they’ve signed. They are deliberately implementing policies and practices that flout those policies to create a society where women are permanently inferior to men,” says Bennett in an exclusive interview with IPS.

Education Cannot Wait’s #AfghanGirlsVoices global campaign highlights real-life testimonies of hope, courage and resilience by Afghan girls denied their right to education. Credit: ECW

Education Cannot Wait’s #AfghanGirlsVoices global campaign highlights real-life testimonies of hope, courage and resilience by Afghan girls denied their right to education. Credit: ECW

“Of course, there is sexism in every country, some worse than others, but this is very different from any other country.”

Bennett is referring to the distressing pattern of large-scale systematic violations and subjugation of women’s and girls’ fundamental rights that is unfolding, abetted by the Taliban’s discriminatory and misogynist policies and harsh enforcement methods such as gender apartheid and persecution.

“Only in Afghanistan has a government shut schools for girls above the age of 13, above the sixth grade, and does not allow women to go to universities. And this, combined with segregation, means that women are really suffering. For example, women can only get treatment from doctors who are women and the same applies to teaching. It is a very segregated society as a whole. Just today, a businesswoman told me that she could only do business with female customers. This is affecting not just the current situation and the current generation, but the future as well.”

The Special Rapporteur finds that the Taliban’s institutionalized system of discrimination is most visible through its relentless issuance and enforcement of edicts, decrees, declarations and orders that in and of themselves constitute severe deprivations of human rights and violations of international law.

Between June 2023 and March 2024, they issued an estimated 52 edicts. These include banning foreign non-governmental organizations from providing educational programmes, including community-based education. The Taliban banned women from participating in radio and television shows alongside male presenters.

In July 2023, female beauty salons were forced to close. In August 2023, women were prohibited from entering Band-e Amir National Park. In October 2023, women were excluded from holding directorships within non-governmental organizations. In February 2024, women on television were required to wear a black hijab, with their faces covered, leaving only their eyes visible.

“We are concerned about intergenerational issues, but also intersectional issues. There is discrimination against women and girls who are of an ethnic or religious or linguistic marginalized groups,  or persons with disabilities, or a woman heading a household. Travel requires accompaniment by a close male relative and some women do not have such a person available. All of this is extremely restrictive and will also affect future generations as it will lead to a lack of education and professions,” Bennett says.

The report finds that “women and girls are being maneuvered into increasingly narrow roles where the deep-rooted patriarchy, bolstered and legitimized by Taliban ideology, deems them to belong: as bearers and rearers of children, and as objects available for exploitation, including debt bondage, domestic servitude, sexual exploitation and other forms of unremunerated or poorly remunerated labor.”

The UN Special Rapporteur stresses that there was progress in Afghanistan before the return of the Taliban.

“It was not perfect, but for 20 years there was notable progress. As a result, there are very many professional women in Afghanistan, and women who head households as the main income earners—the main breadwinners for their families. The restrictions are having very serious negative effects.”

Richard Bennett, UN Special Rapporteur Afghanistan, advocates for the rights of every girl to education in Afghanistan. Credit: ECW

Richard Bennett, UN Special Rapporteur for Afghanistan, advocates for the rights of every girl to education in Afghanistan. Credit: ECW

Bennett is among the prominent supporters of the global #AfghanGirlsVoices campaign launched by Education Cannot Wait (ECW), the global fund for education in emergencies and protracted crises within the United Nations. Now in its second phase, the campaign aims to ensure unrestricted access to education for Afghan girls and young women.

After seizing power in 2021, the Taliban swiftly imposed a ban on secondary education for girls, subsequently expanding this restriction to encompass universities and, more recently, private learning centers. Young women have also been prevented from leaving Afghanistan to pursue tertiary education.

“There has never been universal education in Afghanistan, even in the 20 years preceding the return of the Taliban. However, the education system gradually improved, although not as much in remote or rural areas. Part of this was due to a lack of resources, as well as an ongoing internal conflict. So, it was insecure and difficult to maintain schools. But once the Taliban came back into power after August 2021, an education system built over two decades was quickly unraveling,” he says.

In addition to the school closures, he speaks of concerns about the quality of education from two perspectives. One is the alarm over an ongoing brain drain in Afghanistan since the Taliban took over. Many teachers and university lecturers have left the country.

The other concerns are changes to the curriculum and especially a notable increase in madrasa education. Madrasa education has always been a feature of life in Afghanistan. “But now there seems to be at least anecdotal information that the teaching is much more religious-based than a broad education. Girls can go to madrasas,” he says. 

On recommendations and urgent solutions moving forward, Bennett stresses that “no country should ban schools. We therefore continue to call for the reversal of this policy and the reopening of schools with a good quality education. My recommendations are what I call an all-tools approach, as only one approach or any one tool will not work.”

Overall, he says the report calls for justice and accountability, incorporating human rights and women’s voices in political processes and diplomatic engagement. Emphasizing that bolstering documentation of human rights abuses and violations is critical, as is reinforcing protection and solidarity for Afghan women, girls and human rights defenders.

Bennett has a direct message to the current rulers in Afghanistan, the Taliban, to reverse their policies and to comply with human rights. The second message is to the international community, urging them not to normalize or recognize Afghanistan’s unacceptable and worsening human rights situation.

Further stressing that the global community should strongly resist normalizing diplomatic relations or accepting the Taliban into the UN unless and until they meet concrete, measurable, verifiable benchmarks on human rights and the rights of women and girls.

IPS UN Bureau Report

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Right Here, Right Now: ECW’s USD 150 Million Climate Appeal to Save Children at Risk

Civil Society, Climate Change, Climate Change Justice, COP28, Development & Aid, Editors’ Choice, Education, Environment, Featured, Humanitarian Emergencies, Poverty & SDGs, Sustainable Development Goals

Education Cannot Wait. Future of Education is here

Teacher Maria Alberto in her classroom, 3500 classrooms were destroyed by Cyclone Idai in Mozambique. Credit: Manan Kotak/ECW

Teacher Maria Alberto in her classroom, 3500 classrooms were destroyed by Cyclone Idai in Mozambique. Credit: Manan Kotak/ECW

NAIROBI, Nov 28 2023 (IPS) – A catastrophic surge in the frequency, intensity, and severity of extreme weather events has placed children on the frontlines of climate emergencies. Nearly half of the world’s children, or one billion, live in countries at extremely high risk from the effects of the climate crisis. Most of these children face multiple vulnerabilities.


An estimated 80 percent of countries categorized as extremely high-risk are also categorized as Least Developed Countries (LDCs). More than 62 million children—nearly one-third of the 224 million crisis-affected children worldwide in need of educational support—face the repercussions of climate-related events like floods, storms, droughts, and cyclones, which are further intensified by climate change. 

Against this backdrop and in advance of the Conference of the Parties (COP28) in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, the United Nations global fund for education in emergencies and protracted crises, Education Cannot Wait (ECW), issued today an urgent appeal for USD 150 million in new funding to respond to the climate crisis.

“The very future of humanity is at stake. Rising seas, spiking temperatures, and ever-more-severe droughts, floods, and natural hazards are derailing development gains and ripping our world apart. As we’ve seen with the floods in Pakistan and the drought in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel, climate change is triggering concerning jumps in forced displacement, violence, food insecurity, and economic uncertainty the world over,” said Yasmine Sherif, Executive Director of Education Cannot Wait.

The new appeal underscores the urgent need to connect education action with climate action. New ECW data indicates that 62 million children and adolescents affected by climate shocks have been in desperate need of education support since 2020. This appeal was prepared in November 2023 by the ECW Secretariat based on estimates provided in the organization’s background study, “Futures at Risk: Climate-Induced Shocks and Their Toll on Education for Crisis-Affected Children.

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The study draws on the latest ECW global update’s findings and methodology, as well as the latest research, and endeavors to bridge critical knowledge gaps with regard to the extent to which climate change, environmental degradation, and biodiversity loss impact and displace school-aged children globally and influence access to education.

Study findings show that over the last five years, more than 91 million school-aged children impacted by crises have faced climate shocks amplified by climate change. The effects have been particularly pronounced in Sub-Saharan Africa, affecting 42 million children, and in South Asia, impacting 31 million children. Among the various climate hazards assessed, droughts emerge as the most severe and persistent, disproportionately affecting children in Sub-Saharan Africa.

“The climate crisis is robbing millions of vulnerable girls and boys of their right to learn, their right to play, and their right to feel safe and secure. In the eye of the storm, we urge new and existing public and private sector donors to stand with them. We appeal to you to act right here, right now, to address the climate and education crisis,” said Gordon Brown, UN Special Envoy for Global Education and Chair of the ECW High-Level Steering Group.

Additionally, the Futures at Risk study stresses that children affected by climate hazards are at risk of educational disruptions due to forced displacement. In the 27 crisis-affected countries where 62 million children have been exposed to climate shocks since 2020, there were 13 million forced movements of school-aged children due to floods, droughts, and storms.

Young girls and boys after receiving UNICEF bags, books, and copies attending their first-class in a UNICEF-supported temporary learning centre next to the flood water in village Allah Dina Channa, district Lasbela, Baluchistan province, Pakistan. The primary school was badly damaged during a heavy monsoon rain in 2022. Credit: UNICEF

Young girls and boys, after receiving UNICEF bags and books, attended their first class in a UNICEF-supported temporary learning centre in Allah Dina Channa village, district Lasbela, Baluchistan province, Pakistan. The primary school was badly damaged during a heavy monsoon rain in 2022. Credit: UNICEF

The 224 million school-aged children globally effected by crises need diverse forms of educational support. Of these, 31 million children are in countries ill-prepared to handle the impacts of severe climate-related crises. Droughts, closely followed by floods, are the most frequently encountered climate-related shocks, which often intertwine and exacerbate one another.

“Education is an essential component in delivering on the promises and commitments outlined in the Paris Agreement, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, and the Sustainable Development Goals. As all eyes turn toward this year’s Climate Talks (COP28) and the Global Refugee Forum, world leaders must connect climate action with education action,” Sherif emphasizes.

The number of disasters driven, in part, by climate change has increased fivefold in the past 50 years. By 2050, climate impacts could cost the world economy USD 7.9 trillion and could force up to 216 million people to move within their own countries, according to the World Bank. This poses a real and present threat to global security, economic prosperity, and efforts to address the life-threatening impacts of the climate crisis.

Unmitigated, the study shows that the future of millions of children is at risk. Children who are already at risk of dropping out face an even higher risk when exposed to crises worsened by climate change and environmental degradation. In Sub-Saharan Africa, where climate-related crises are prevalent, internally displaced children are 1.7 times more likely to be out of primary school compared to their non-displaced peers.

The study emphasizes that climate change impacts are not gender-neutral. Women and girls are disproportionally affected due to preexisting gender norms. Climate change exacerbates the risks of gender-based violence, school dropouts, food insecurity, and child marriage.

The new appeal outlines a strategic value proposition that connects donors, the private sector, governments, and other key stakeholders to create a coordinated approach to scaling up education funding in response to the climate crisis. The new funding aims to ensure learning continuity by providing mental health and psychosocial support, school rehabilitation and resilience, child protection, gender-based violence prevention and risk mitigation, water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH), disaster risk reduction, and anticipatory and early action measures.

ECW has championed the right to education for children affected by the global climate crisis. In the aftermath of devasting floods, Libya, Mozambique and Pakistan and spikes in hunger, forced displacement, and violence across the Horn of Africa and the Sahel, the ECW has issued emergency grants to get children and adolescents back to the safety and opportunity that quality education provides.

Within existing programmes in crisis-impacted countries like Bangladesh, Chad, Nigeria, South Sudan and Syria, ECW investments are supporting climate-resilient infrastructure, disaster risk reduction, and school meals, offering hope and opportunity in the most challenging circumstances.

IPS UN Bureau Report

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Two Years after the Taliban Took over, More Should Be Done to Rescue Afghanistan

Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Crime & Justice, Education, Education Cannot Wait. Future of Education is here, Gender, Gender Violence, Headlines, Human Rights, Press Freedom, TerraViva United Nations

Opinion

A young girl in school uniform and covered in veil walks alone in the empty corridor of Tajrobawai girls primary and secondary school seen on September 16, 2021 in Herat, Afghanistan. The Taliban has forbidden girls at high school level to attend schools throughout Afghanistan. Credit: Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Images

KUALA LUMPUR / JOHANNESBURG, Aug 28 2023 (IPS) – His name is Matiullah Wesa, a girls education campaigner who now symbolises the “war” waged by the Taliban against the education and empowerment of women and girls. Exactly two years since the Taliban took over, Afghanistan is on a downward trajectory and unfortunately, global attention that was drawn by families chasing planes to flee a few days after the Taliban assumed control of the government has waned over the last two years.


Any improvements made in advancing human rights, especially the rights of women and access to education have been quickly reversed and replaced with severe restrictions that have almost completely wiped away the rights of women in almost all sectors and spheres of life. In a brazen move that provided a clear indication to the international community that the Taliban had an anti-human rights agenda, human rights defenders and members of their families have been harassed, detained and attacked in their homes while Afghanistan’s independent human rights commission was dissolved and its premises confiscated. In the absence of any internal human rights mechanism, the Taliban are only accountable to themselves and act with utmost impunity.

Matiullah was arrested in March 2023 for his dedication to provide education to girls particularly in rural areas. Through his organisation – PenPath which he founded in 2009, he campaigned for the right to education for girls, working with tribal leaders to provide mobile libraries to ensure girls have access to education. Penpath has successfully reopened 100 schools (including those closed for more than a decade due to war and the Taliban’s restrictions on education) in 16 provinces.

Matiullah Wesa, Afghan educational activist, reads to students in Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of Matiullah Wesa/PenPath

In an interview with CIVICUS, a year before he was arbitrarily arrested, Matiullah pointed out that they had provided education facilities for about 110000 children, about 60% were girls and distributed 1.5 million stationary and collected 34000 books through its book donation campaigns. His continued detention means, at best this much needed support provided to communities has been scaled back substantively and at worse has almost completely stopped. Yet, Matiullah is just one among hundreds who have worked tirelessly to improve the lives of Afghans over the years and are unable to do so either because they are in detention, have fled the country to avoid reprisals or have been forced to self censor.

The de facto Taliban regime has over the last two years institutionalised restrictions against women, dismissed women in public service, prevented girls from attending school and university and in December 2022, banned women from working with NGOs and aid agencies. It followed this decision exactly four months later by banning women from working for the UN in Afghanistan – as they had been exempted from the previous ban.

Through the Directorate for Intelligence, the regime monitors and targets women activists on social media and those identified as protest leaders. Others who participate in protests are identified through pictures posted on social media and through interrogations and arrested. On 11 February 2023, women’s rights activist and founder of the social movement – the Takhar Women’s Protest Movement – Parisa Mobarez, was arrested together with her brother in Takhar province and physically assaulted before they were released.

Matiullah Wesa, Afghan educational activist, reads to students in Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of Matiullah Wesa/PenPath

A day after, activist Nargis Sadat was arrested for protesting against the restrictions on women’s right to work and education and released after two months. In response to an announcement by the Taliban regime that it would close beauty salons, women protesters converged at the Shar-e Naw district in Kabul on 19 July, displaying protest signs with calls for ‘bread,’ ‘work’ and ‘justice.’ The women protesters were rounded up as security forces fired shots into the air and physically assaulted some of the women using electric stun guns.

The above restrictions are happening in a context of an ever increasing humanitarian crises exacerbated by growing social and economic challenges. Human rights groups report that the number of people living in poverty has increased to 97%, an increase of about 47% over the last three years and that more than half of the population – about 28 million people urgently need humanitarian assistance. The restrictions placed on women in government ministries and the ban on women from working for NGOs have a devastating impact on the families of these women and communities including women and children who have benefited from services provided. In addition, most women have literally been confined to their homes as they are banned from gyms, swimming pools and public parks.

Afghan women are fighting back

Despite the reprisals from the Taliban and threats of violence and arrests, Afghan women continue to mobilise to keep the face they face on the agenda of the international community. The resilience of these brave Afghan women and their sustained protests continue to shed light on the state of human rights in Afghanistan, especially at a time when the international community seems to have moved on to other crises. As women protesters, journalists and human rights defenders and families face increased attacks, protests have been moved indoors and online. Some of the protesters continue to cover their faces to avoid reprisals while others remain unveiled to encourage others.

Photo courtesy of PenPath

What can be done?

The current situation is especially tricky for many international actors and though the Taliban craves for international recognition to boast its legitimacy, members of the international community including the European Union, United Kingdom and India who engage with the Taliban as well as humanitarian organisations and civil society groups should respect the wishes of Afghans and not provide any form of formal recognition to the de facto regime. They should also support Afghan women rights activists in exile.

Millions of Afghans will continue to need humanitarian assistance for the foreseeable future and ongoing and future dialogues to negotiate for space and access through humanitarian corridors should be premised on respect for human rights and lifting of current restrictions on women and girls.

At the level of the United Nations, the UN Security Council Resolution on Afghanistan which accused the Taliban of violating human rights and the appointment of a Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan are important steps in the right direction but nearly not enough. The Security Council should continue to prioritise Afghanistan and push for accountability mechanisms inside of Afghanistan which would serve as some kind of a deterrent and a check on impunity. Lastly, there is a need for an intra-Afghan dialogue that is inclusive and should be led by a neutral party.

Josef Benedict is a researcher covering the Asia Pacific region for the CIVICUS Monitor. Malaysia. David Kode is the advocacy and campaigns lead for CIVICUS. South Africa

IPS UN Bureau

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Financing Biggest Hurdle to Providing Children with Quality Education in Crisis Situations – ECW

ECW’s Yasmine Sherif and Graham Lang walk with UNHCR partners through Borota, where thousands of new refugees, most of them women, and children, have arrived after fleeing the conflict in Sudan. Credit: ECW

ECW’s Yasmine Sherif and Graham Lang walk with UNHCR partners through Borota, where thousands of new refugees, most of them women, and children, have arrived after fleeing the conflict in Sudan. Credit: ECW

By Naureen Hossain
UNITED NATIONS, Jul 20 2023 (IPS)

If you want lasting peace, the best investment you can make is in education, said Education Cannot Wait’s Executive Director Yasmine Sherif in an exclusive interview with IPS.


“(This will) make children and adolescents literate, learn critical thinking, address trauma and psycho-social challenges from being victims of a conflict or crisis, develop their potential, and become financially independent,” Sherif said, adding that these were critical skills to participate in good governance of their countries in the future.

She was speaking to IPS ahead of her participation in the ECOSOC High-Level Political Forum side event “Ensuring Education Continuity: The Roles of Education in Emergencies, Protracted Crises and Building Peace” at the UN Headquarters in New York.

Education is the answer to breaking the vicious circle of violence, conflict, and crisis – while this often is associated with war and conflict, the same applies to climate change.

“If the next generation that is today suffering from climate-induced disasters are not educated, do not understand or have an awareness of how to treat mother earth, and do not have the knowledge or skills to mitigate or prevent risks in the future, the negative impact of climate-induced disasters will only escalate.”

Unfortunately, conflicts and climate risks increasingly combine to multiply vulnerability, she said – and instead of declining, the number of children who need urgent support is increasing.

“Today, 224 million crisis-affected children do not receive a quality, continuous education. More than half of these children – 127 million – may have access to something that resembles a classroom, but they are not learning anything. They are not achieving the minimum proficiencies outlined in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG4).”

Sherif stressed the crucial linkage between education and protection for children in crisis-affected countries and explained how protection is a core component of the holistic package of education ECW is supporting together with its partners.

“On the legal side, we advocate for the respect of the international humanitarian law, national human rights law, and the National Refugee Law, and for an end to impunity for those who violate these,” said Sherif. “We also call for additional countries to adopt the Safe Schools Declaration, and actively support its implementation at the national level.”

To prevent violence around and in schools, practical measures are included to ensure the children are safe.

“It’s important to ensure safe transport to and from the school. And that would, of course, bring a sense of safety to the parents, who may not be willing to send the girls to school because of that. You ensure the infrastructure of the school provides protection. You may need wards around the school so that nobody can walk into the school and abduct a girl.”

ECW funding also includes protections to prevent sexual and psychological violence.

“All the funding that we invest requires giving protection a priority. And that is essential wherever you operate or invest funding in a country of affected by armed conflict; you need to ensure protection is prioritized.”

Sherif said that in countries like Afghanistan, where the Taliban have banned girls from attending secondary school and upwards, ECW works with local partners to support non-formal education.

“There is a lot of work at the community level, with local authorities allowing ECW’s investments in civil society and UN agencies to continue to operate. So community-based schooling is pretty much (being) run now, where we are investing at the community level,” she said, and while it may not be ideal, it does work.

Likewise, non-formal learning centers have been set up in Cox’s Bazar, where the Rohingya refugees live after fleeing violence, discrimination, and persecution in Myanmar.

“Our aim is for every child to be able to access national education systems, but sometimes it is not possible politically or physically due to the dangers of the conflict. So we also support our partners to establish non-formal learning centers until another more sustainable solution can be found.”

During the Covid-19 pandemic, ECW’s partners were innovative in ensuring education continued – with remote learning programmes such as radio and TV-based education, where IT connections were available through phones and WhatsApp with learning kits and tools.

“Home-based, going from door-to-door, that was how it was done during COVID. There was some creativity and innovation. It is possible. It is not ideal, but it is possible.”

Sherif said ECW had developed a proven model to bring quality education to every child – even in the most challenging crisis-affected contexts of war and conflicts – but that the biggest hindrance is the financing.

“If we had the financing, we could reach the 224 million (children) immediately. So financing is the big hindrance today. While peace is the number one (solution), if peace is not possible, education cannot wait.”

“If financing for education is provided in crisis and climate disasters, ECW can reach 20 million children and adolescents in the coming four years. And that requires about another USD700 million for Education Cannot Wait between today and 2026. Just USD 700 million is a small amount when you consider the return on investment you get when you invest in human potential.”

IPS UN Bureau Report

 


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UN Cybercrime Convention: Could the Cure Be Worse than the Disease?

Civil Society, Crime & Justice, Featured, Global, Headlines, Human Rights, TerraViva United Nations

Opinion

Credit: CIVICUS

MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay, Jun 16 2023 (IPS) – If you’ve never heard of the Cybercrime Convention, you’re not alone. And if you’re wondering whether an international treaty to tackle cybercrime is a good idea, you’re in good company too.


Negotiations have been underway for more than three years: the latest negotiating session was held in April, and a multi-stakeholder consultation has just concluded. A sixth session is scheduled to take place in August, with a draft text expected to be approved by February 2024, to be put to a vote at the UN General Assembly (UNGA) later next year. But civil society sees some big pitfalls ahead.

Controversial beginnings

In December 2019, the UNGA voted to start negotiating a cybercrime treaty. The resolution was sponsored by Russia and co-sponsored by several of the world’s most repressive regimes, which already had national cybercrime laws they use to stifle legitimate dissent under the pretence of combatting a variety of vaguely defined online crimes such as insulting the authorities, spreading ‘fake news’ and extremism.

Tackling cybercrime certainly requires some kind of international cooperation. But this doesn’t necessarily need a new treaty. Experts have pointed out that the real problem may be the lack of enforcement of current international agreements, particularly the 2001 Council of Europe’s Budapest Convention.

When Russia’s resolution was put to a vote, the European Union, many states and human rights organisations urged the UNGA to reject it. But once the resolution passed, they engaged with the process, trying to prevent the worst possible outcome – a treaty lacking human rights safeguards that could be used as a repressive tool.

The December 2019 resolution set up an ad hoc committee (AHC), open to the participation of all UN member states plus observers, including civil society. At its first meeting to set procedural rules in mid-2021, Brazil’s proposal that a two-thirds majority vote be needed for decision-making – when consensus can’t be achieved – was accepted, instead of the simple majority favoured by Russia. A list of stakeholders was approved, including civil society organisations (CSOs), academic institutions and private sector representatives.

Another key procedural decision was made in February 2022: intersessional consultations were to be held between negotiating sessions to solicit input from stakeholders, including human rights CSOs. These consultations have given CSOs the chance to make presentations and participate in discussions with states.

Human rights concerns

Several CSOs are trying to use the space to influence the treaty process, including as part of broader coalitions. Given what’s at stake, in advance of the first negotiating session, around 130 CSOs and experts urged the AHC to embed human rights safeguards in the treaty.

One of the challenges it that, as early as the first negotiating session, it became apparent there wasn’t a clear definition of what constitutes a cybercrime and which cybercrimes should be regulated by the treaty. There’s still no clarity.

The UN identifies two main types of cybercrimes: cyber-dependent crimes such as network intrusion and malware distribution, which can only be committed through the use of information and communications technologies (ICTs), and cyber-enabled crimes, which can be facilitated by ICTs but can be committed without them, such as drug trafficking and the illegal distribution of counterfeit goods.

Throughout the negotiation process there’s been disagreement about whether the treaty should focus on a limited set of cyber-dependent crimes, or address a variety of cyber-enabled crimes. These, human rights groups warn, include various content-related offences that could be invoked to repress freedom of expression.

These concerns have been highlighted by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, which has emphasised that the treaty shouldn’t include offences related to the content of online expression and should clearly and explicitly reference binding international human rights agreements to ensure it’s applied in line with universal human rights principles.

A second major disagreement concerns the scope and conditions for international cooperation. If not clearly defined, cooperation arrangements could result in violations of privacy and data protection provisions. In the absence of the principle of dual criminality – where extradition can only apply to an action that constitutes a crime in both the country making an extradition request and the one receiving it – state authorities could be made to investigate activities that aren’t crimes in their own countries. They could effectively become enforcers of repression.

Civil society has pushed for recognition of a set of principles on the application of human rights to communications surveillance. According to these, dual criminality should prevail, and where laws differ, the one with the higher level of rights protections should be applied. It must be ensured that states don’t use mutual assistance agreements and foreign cooperation requests to circumvent domestic legal restrictions.

An uncertain future

Following the third multistakeholder consultation held in November 2022, the AHC released a negotiating draft. In the fourth negotiating session in January 2023, civil society’s major concerns focused on the long and growing number of criminal offences listed in the draft, many of them content-related.

It’s unclear how the AHC intends to bridge current deep divides to produce the ‘zero draft’ it’s expected to share in the next few weeks. If it complies with the deadline by leaving contentious issues undecided, the next session, scheduled for August, may bring a shift from consensus-building to voting – unless states decide to give themselves some extra time.

As of today, the process could still conclude on time, or with a limited extension, following a forced vote on a harmful treaty that lacks consensus and therefore fails to enter into effect, or does so for a limited number of states. Or it could be repeatedly postponed and fade away. Civil society engaged in the process may well think such a development wouldn’t be so bad: better no agreement than one that gives repressive states stronger tools to stifle dissent.

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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The Privilege of Making a Choice

By Yasmine Sherif
NEW YORK, May 8 2023 (IPS)

A civilian student named Saber was caught in the crossfire in Khartoum. He had two choices: either flee and lose everything; or die. But within a moment his option to choose was violently denied: he died.


As a result of the brutal internal armed conflict in Sudan right now, UNHCR projects that 860,000 people will flee across the borders as refugees and returnees into the Central African Republic, Chad, Egypt, Ethiopia, Eritrea and South Sudan. About 50% will be children and adolescents below 18.

Will they arrive alive? They can’t choose. They can only hope.

Making it worse, none of the neighboring countries has the financial and structural capacity to manage such influx, and yet they too, have no choice.

Indeed, an enormous international response will be required to support the Refugee Response Plan developed by 134 partners, including UN agencies, national and international NGOs and civil society groups, and launched on 4 May 2023.

Fleeing children and adolescents will need immediate psycho-social support and mental health care to cope with the stress and trauma of the conflict and perilous escape. They will need school meals. They will need water and sanitation. They will need protection. In the deep despair of their young lives, they will need a sense of normalcy and hope for their future. They need it now and a rapid response to establishing education can meet these needs.

Or to paraphrase ECW’s new Global Champion, the world-renowned journalist, Folly Bah Thibault – who reaffirms the need for speed and quality: the humanitarian-development nexus in action – in her high-level interview in this month’s ECW Newsletter, “We need to deliver with humanitarian speed and development depth.”

The choice is ours.

ECW is now traveling to the region to support host-governments, UN and civil society colleagues who jointly produced the Refugee Response Plan and who are on the ground working day and night in difficult circumstances. ECW will provide support both through an initial First Emergency Response investment and through our global advocacy.

We all have a choice to act now. Our choice is not between losing everything or die. Our choice is between action or inaction. Between humanity and indifference.

Prior to the breakout of the internal armed conflict in Sudan, Samiya*, a 17-year-old refugee student, wrote in her recent Postcard From the Edge: “Education is our future dream. Education is one of the most important factors to progress in life. Through education, people can thrive in their lives; they can also develop their skills and improve their life quality.”

We can help make Samya’s dream come true at the hardest, darkest moment of her life. Samiya does not have that choice. Only, we have that choice. Let us recognize it for what it is: as a privilege or blessing of choosing responsibility and humanity.

Yasmine Sherif is Director of Education Cannot Wait.

IPS UN Bureau

 


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