Climate Summit Kicks Off, Caught Between Realism and Hope

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Climate Change

Family photo at the opening of the 25th Conference of the Parties (COP25) on climate change, taking place in Madrid Dec. 2 to 13. Credit: UNFCCC

Family photo at the opening of the 25th Conference of the Parties (COP25) on climate change, taking place in Madrid Dec. 2 to 13. Credit: UNFCCC

MADRID, Dec 2 2019 (IPS) – Tens of thousands of delegates from state parties began working Monday Dec. 2 in the Spanish capital to pave the way to comply with the Paris Agreement on climate change, while at a parallel summit, representatives of civil society demanded that the international community go further.

Calls to combat the climate emergency marked the opening of the 25th Conference of the Parties (COP25) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), in light of the most recent scientific data showing the severity of the crisis, as reflected by more intense storms, rising temperatures and sea levels, and polar melting.

Pedro Sánchez, acting prime minister of Spain – selected as the emergency host country after the political crisis in Chile forced the relocation of the summit – called during the opening ceremony for Europe to lead the decarbonisation of the economy and move faster to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2), the greenhouse gas generated by human activities.

“Today, fortunately, only a handful of fanatics deny the evidence” about the climate emergency, Sánchez said at the opening of the COP, held under the motto “Time to act” at the Feria de Madrid Institute (IFEMA) fairgrounds.

COP25 is the third consecutive climate conference held in Europe. The agenda focuses on issues such as financing for national climate policies and the rules for emission reduction markets – outlined without specifics in the Paris Agreement, which was agreed four years ago and is to enter into force in 2020.

It will also address the preparation of the update of emissions reductions and funding of the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage, designed to assist regions particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change.

In the 1,000 square metres where COP25 is being held, 29,000 people – according to estimates by the organisers – including some 50 heads of state and government, representatives of the 196 official delegations and civil society organisations, as well as 1,500 accredited journalists, will gather until Dec. 13.

But the notable absence of U.S. President Donald Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson does not give cause for optimism.

These include the leaders of the countries that produce the most greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, making their lack of interest in strengthening the Paris Agreement more serious.

On Nov. 4, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he submitted a formal notice to the United Nations to begin the process of pulling out of the climate accord.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said during the opening ceremony that “The latest, just-released data from the World Meteorological Organisation show that levels of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have reached another new record high.

“Do we really want to be remembered as the generation that buried its head in the sand, that fiddled while the planet burned?”

In its Emissions Gap Report 2019, the U.N. Environment Programme warned on the eve of the opening of COP25 of the need to cut emissions by 7.6 percent a year between 2020 and 2030 in order to stay within the 1.5 degree Celsius cap on temperature rise proposed in the Paris Agreement.

Many delegations admitted that the world is off track to achieving the proposed 45 percent reduction in GHG by 2030 and to becoming carbon neutral by 2050.

In fact, delegates pointed out on Monday, emissions reached an alarming 55.3 billion tons in 2018, including deforestation.

One of the hopes is that more countries, cities, companies and investment funds will join the Climate Ambition Alliance, launched by Chile, the country that still holds the presidency of the COP, and endorsed by at least 66 nations, 10 regions, 102 cities, 93 corporations and 12 large private investors.

More than 70 countries and 100 cities so far have committed to reaching zero net emissions by 2050.

Social summit

Parallel to the official meeting, organisations from around the world are gathered at the Social Summit for Climate under the slogan “Beyond COP25: People for Climate”, which in its statement to the conference criticises the economic model based on the extraction of natural resources and mass consumption, blaming it for the climate crisis, and complaining about the lack of results in the UNFCCC meetings.

“The scientific diagnosis is clear regarding the seriousness and urgency of the moment. Economic growth happens at the expense of the most vulnerable people,” says the statement, which defends climate justice “as the backbone of the social fights of our time” and “the broadest umbrella that exists to protect all the diversity of struggles for another possible world.”

The first week of the COP is expected to see the arrival of Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, who has unleashed youth mobilisation against the climate crisis around the world.

In terms of how well countries are complying, only Gabon and Nepal have met their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), the mitigation and adaptation measures voluntarily adopted, within the Paris Agreement, to keep the temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

But these two countries have practically no responsibility for the climate emergency.

The plans of Bhutan, Costa Rica, Ethiopia and the Philippines involve an increase of up to 2.0 degrees, while the measures of the rest of the countries range from “insufficient” to “critically insufficient”.

Latin America “has to be more ambitious: although progress has been made, the measures are insufficient. We need a multilateral response to the emergency. We have only 11 years to correct the course and thus reach carbon neutrality in 2050 and meet the goal of keeping the temperature rise to 1.5 degrees,” said Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, global head of Climate and Energy at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

The Marshall Islands already submitted their NDCs 2020, while 41 nations have declared their intention to update their voluntary measures and 68 nations – including those of the European Union – have stated that they plan to further cut emissions.

In its position regarding the COP25, consulted by IPS, Mexico outlined 10 priorities, including voluntary cooperation, adaptation, climate financing, gender and climate change, local communities and indigenous peoples.


Shining a Spotlight on the Strengths & Challenges of Civil Society in the Balkans

Armed Conflicts, Civil Society, Development & Aid, Europe, Headlines, Human Rights, Population, Press Freedom, TerraViva United Nations


This article is part of a series on the current state of civil society organisations (CSOs), which is the focus of International Civil Society Week (ICSW), sponsored by CIVICUS, and scheduled to conclude in Belgrade, April 12.

Lysa John, Secretary-General of CIVICUS, in her opening address to the International Civil Society Week (ICSW)


BELGRADE, Apr 11 2019 (IPS) – It is an incredible privilege to welcome you all to the ‘International Civil Society Week’. I am going to remind us of the reasons that make it so important for us to be here in Belgrade this week.

This is our 16th global convening of civil leaders and 4th edition of the International Civil Society Week in particular – following on from events held in South Africa, Colombia and Fiji.

Our first World Assembly, as it was known then, was held in Hungary in 1997, and this time we have gathered in the Balkans – and we are very grateful to our peers in Serbia for hosting us.

Serbia currently features on the CIVICUS Monitor’s “Watch List” which draws attention to countries where there are serious and ongoing threats to civic space.

By hosting ICSW 2019 in Serbia, we hope to shine a spotlight on the strengths and challenges of civil society in this region, and find ways to amplify and support their efforts.

Civic freedoms are currently under attack in 111 countries. In other words, over six billion people face serious challenges in the exercise of freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly which are essential to an empowered and enabled civil society.

There is a continuing crisis facing civil society organisations and activists across the world – a global civic space emergency. Our job is to find ways to ensure this does not become the ‘new normal’.

We cannot be the generation that lost the fight to protect civic freedoms and democratic values. We owe the citizens, civic leaders and communities of the future a significantly stronger basis to organise for and achieve their rights.

There aren’t many people in the world who can genuinely claim to wake up every morning thinking about how to make the world a more just, more honest and more compassionate place. And yet, we have close to 1,000 people in this very room who do just that.

With over 900 delegates from 100+ countries gathered here, you can safely expect to meet every major form of civil society that works to defend and promote human rights worldwide – ranging from community groups, social entrepreneurs, academic organizations, campaigning networks, think tanks and foundations — in one place over the next few days.

We have the opportunity to connect lessons and inspirations while we are together here. Yet it is the changes that we will test and activate when we return to our personal and professional spaces that make being here worthwhile.

This could be refreshed strategies to challenge discrimination and exclusion or new ways to demonstrate innovation and accountability as a sector.

Our deliberations must reflect the urgency and intent required to make the changes we need to see in the real world – and in this gathering right here we have exactly the kind of determination and optimism needed to see this through. Thank you for being here – we wish you a truly inspired week!

I cannot end without thanking again our hosts in Serbia, Civic Initiatives and the Balkans Civil Society Network, for their warm and generous hospitality without which we wouldn’t be here.

A special mention is also due to the hosts of the previous ICSW held in Fiji – the Pacific Island NGO Forum – who are also here. Thank you for the lessons and achievements of our last gathering, which has enabled us to be more prepared and more ambitious this year.


Attacks on Media in the Balkans Sound Alarm Bells for Democracy

Armed Conflicts, Civil Society, Development & Aid, Europe, Featured, Headlines, Human Rights, Population, Press Freedom, TerraViva United Nations


This article is part of a series on the current state of civil society organisations (CSOs), which is the focus of International Civil Society Week (ICSW), sponsored by CIVICUS, and scheduled to conclude in Belgrade, April 12.

Susan Wilding is the head of the Geneva office at CIVICUS, a global alliance of civil society organisations.

GENEVA, Apr 11 2019 (IPS) – Anti-government protesters invading Serbia’s state-owned television station, demanding that their voices be heard. Journalism bodies writing to the Albanian prime minister over plans to censor online media outlets. A Belgrade corruption-busting reporter forced to flee his house that had been torched; a Montenegrin investigative journalist shot in the leg outside her home.

These are just some of the violations emerging from the western Balkans as a clampdown on media freedom – and civil liberties – undermines Serbia’s and Montenegro’s bids to join the European Union.

It’s little wonder that Serbia tumbled 10 spots to rank 76th on the 2018 Reporters without Borders Press Freedom Index, which states bluntly: “Serbia has become a country where it is unsafe to be a journalist.” Its neighbours fare little better: Albania is in 75th place, Kosovo is ranked 78th and Montenegro is a dismal 103rd.

Smear campaigns against courageous journalists; impunity for those assaulting media players; collusion between politicians and brown-envelope reporters; high levels of concentration of media ownership in a few hands; threats of cripplingly expensive litigation; the chilling effect of self-censorship on reportage. The list of media abuses in the Balkans goes on and on.

Belgrade, Serbia is playing host to International Civil Society Week, running thro Friday April 12, bringing together over 900 delegates to debate solutions to some of the world’s most pressing challenges. Some of the questions on the agenda will be: What more can we, as civil society, do to ease this stranglehold on free expression? How can we raise our voices to protect individual and media liberties?

Such restrictions on the media are incompatible with participatory democracy, which depends on three fundamental human rights – freedom of peaceful assembly, freedom of association and freedom of expression – which are also protected under international law. Any government that claims to have free and fair elections, and claims to be a democracy, cannot deny its citizens access to information and the right to be heard.

According to findings by the CIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that tracks threats to civil society in 196 countries, states are generally using two types of tactics to restrict civic freedoms, and the crack down on media freedoms is no exception.

The first is legal: imposing or enforcing laws that restrict democratic freedoms and criminalise free speech. For example, this includes bringing trumped-up judicial charges against journalists or media houses, thereby diverting energy and resources from watchdog journalism.

The second type comes in the form of extrajudicial means and are even more contemptible: including intimidating the media into submission through carefully coordinated smear campaigns and public vilification, and sometimes through physical intimidation and outright repression.

While such states may make an elaborate show of using (or abusing) the laws of the land to rein in the media, such censorship is clearly a perverse parody of democracy – an expression of a growing trend in which the ‘rule by law’ replaces the rule of law.

Sometimes these attacks on media are coming from “strongmen” leaders with the ambition of concentrating power and eliminating any checks and balances. In other instances, we see these kinds of restrictions imposed by governments that feel threatened and see media clampdowns as another way to hold onto power.

A weakened state or leaders who came to power through dubious means or with a small majority are likely to mute the civic space to cling to power. It may therefore, not be surprising that it’s happening in the Balkans, given the area’s fraught political history.

When popular dissent swells against unpopular policies and actions, a vulnerable state’s first target is the media, because of their potential role in unseating power. It is also something we see as a classic copy-and-paste tactic: questionable leaders see their regional neighbours getting away with it, with few if any repercussions, and follow suit.

Even the online space – the ultimate democratic arena of the 21st century, where the gladiatorial thrust and parry of views is essential to robust debate – is not being spared in this battle to seize ideological control of the marketplace of ideas.

Some countries have already shown that it’s entirely possible to shut down or control social media platforms, denying citizens their fundamental right to participate in debate and in policymaking.

The reasons that States give for silencing media vary but often include similar statements such as journalists are writing “defamatory” articles or disseminating “fake news”. Often, they maintain, the reportage is “unpatriotic”, “goes against our culture or values” or “does not advance our nationalist agenda”.

With the restrictions on media freedoms increasing in the Balkans, we should be highlighting the situation and sharing tried and tested strategies for pushing back and opening the space for a free and independent media.

We should be concerned that the world so easily shifted its attention away from the region after the terrible conflict that claimed so many lives 20 years ago. Why did we not linger a while to monitor the aftermath? Do we turn a blind eye to human rights abuses, as is the case in China and elsewhere, as long as there is peace, development and economic prosperity?


Smears, Laws, Lack of Cooperation: Tools Against Activists

Active Citizens, Civil Society, Conferences, Europe, Featured, Global, Headlines, Human Rights, IPS UN: Inside the Glasshouse, Population, Regional Categories, TerraViva United Nations

Civil Society

This article is part of a series on the current state of civil society organisations (CSOs), which will be the focus of International Civil Society Week (ICSW), sponsored by CIVICUS, and scheduled to take place in Belgrade, April 8-12.

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

BELGRADE, Apr 10 2019 (IPS) – 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?