Hurricane Otis and the Indifference Toward the Children of Acapulco

Civil Society, Crime & Justice, Gender, Gender Violence, Headlines, Human Rights, Inequality, Labour, Latin America & the Caribbean, Poverty & SDGs, TerraViva United Nations


ACAPULCO, Mexico, Nov 2 2023 (IPS) – Acapulco is a paradise. A port of golden sunsets, toasted sand, and deep blue sea. Its dream beaches captivated the hearts of Elvis Presley and Elizabeth Taylor. US President John F. Kennedy chose its shores to spend his honeymoon with Jackie Kennedy. Its luxury hotels and the untamed sea made it the most famous tourist destination in Mexico.

Rosi Orozco

Today, Acapulco is devastated. A Category 5 hurricane—the deadliest possible rating—called “Otis” hit the beach on October 25 with incomparable force. No one anticipated it. Hours before it made landfall, it was just an inconvenient storm. Suddenly it became a deadly cyclone. Most of the hotels are destroyed, the sea swallowed people, houses were blown away, and dozens of people are dead.

In the last century, its beauty attracted the world’s most influential celebrities. Its tranquil mornings and lively nightlife attracted actresses, singers, politicians, aristocratic musicians, and families who wanted to spend their summers by the sea. I myself spent my youth at the family timeshare apartment in Acapulco, and it was there that I met my husband Alejandro, with whom I’ve been married for 40 years. My life is permanently connected to Acapulco.

Luxury businessmen, millionaire athletes, and Michelin-starred chefs arrived. Also drug dealers, money launderers, and men looking for girls and boys to rape in exchange for food or a few dollars for their parents who lived in the city’s poor areas.

Because there are two Acapulcos. They both share an airport and roads, so all roads lead to that pair of versions of the same city. There is a “diamond Acapulco” where the rich vacation with all the amenities at their disposal. And there is a “traditional Acapulco,” where the poor live who work for wealthy tourists.

The people who inhabit “diamond Acapulco” and “traditional Acapulco” do not usually cross paths. They live in the same city, but they are separated by golf courses and exclusive shopping malls. Only rich foreigners and wealthy nationals cross to the poor side when they feel a repugnant urge: to make their plans for child sex tourism a reality with girls and boys as young as 3 years old.

Acapulco is one of the most unequal tourist destinations in the world. In Mexico, it is the most unequal municipality of all: more than 60% of its 900,000 inhabitants live in extreme poverty, which means they do not know what they will eat today or tomorrow. They are the workers who serve plates of fresh seafood, who sweep marble floors, who fill the wine glasses of tourists.

For years, journalists and human rights organizations have told horrific stories that combine poverty, inequality, and sex tourism: a 6-year-old boy rented out to be photographed naked in exchange for milk and eggs; a 9-year-old girl sold to a Canadian tourist to be his wife for a month; homeless teenagers invited to sex parties on lavish yachts in exchange for food; parents and mothers waiting outside hotels for their children to be raped for a price paid in dollars per hour.

Those pedophiles and child molesters turned Acapulco into the country’s primary destination for child sexual tourism. They also led Mexico to the disgraceful second position in the production of child pornography, only surpassed by Thailand, according to data from the Mexican Chamber of Deputies and the United Nations Children’s Fund.

Today, Acapulco is a different place. Little remains of the port that enchanted singers Agustín Lara and Luis Miguel. There are thousands of poor families without homes, hundreds of workers who lost their jobs, and dozens of fishermen without boats to go out to sea to find sustenance. The destruction is so extensive that complete economic recovery is estimated to take decades, not years.

Under these conditions, childhood is at very high risk. Many families have lost so much that their bodies are the only currency they have left. And in the dirty business of forced prostitution, child bodies are the most sought after.

Amid this unprecedented crisis in Mexico, the Chamber of Deputies approved amendments to the general law against human trafficking. These changes aim to broaden the scope of the law enacted in 2012 and update it to address new technologies that traffickers and organized crime engaged in sexual exploitation can use. The wording has some issues that we are still analyzing, but it also includes positive aspects.

For example, it introduces new protections for individuals with injuries, intellectual disabilities, and Afro-Mexican towns and communities. The latter represent 6.5% of the total population in Guerrero and 4% of the residents in Acapulco, according to the National Population Council.

Civil society organizations are monitoring these changes and hope that the deputies will honor their commitment to protecting the victims.

Meanwhile, it is the responsibility of all, not just in Mexico, to help Acapulco back on its feet, a place that has given so much to both nationals and foreigners. It won’t be easy or quick, but every day we delay puts the vulnerable children at risk due to the magnitude of sexual tourism in that beautiful port.

After Hurricane Otis, Acapulco will be different. Its reconstruction is an opportunity to build a new city on the ruins of depravity, one with values and respect for human dignity. I long for the day to see it standing and for its coastline, beach, and air to remain a paradise, especially for children like me who grew up happily by the sea.

IPS UN Bureau


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


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


Transgender People Face Growing Violence, Discrimination in Pakistan

Transgender people often entertain at weddings and other events, but they increasingly face violent acts, especially since part of an Act ensuring their rights was recently struck down. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS

Transgender people often entertain at weddings and other events, but they increasingly face violent acts, especially since part of an Act ensuring their rights was recently struck down. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS

By Ashfaq Yusufzai
PESHAWAR, Jul 24 2023 (IPS)

“The problems transgender people face start from their homes as their parents, especially fathers and brothers, look them down upon and disrespect them,” says 20-year-old Pari Gul.

Gul, a resident of Charsadda district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), left her house at 16 when her mother asked her to or face being killed by her father.

“I was born as a boy, and my name was Abdul Wahid, but when I came to Peshawar and joined a transgender group, I got a female name, Pari Gul. Since then, I have been going to weddings and other festive ceremonies to dance,” she says. “Dance is my passion.”

However, she has often been the brunt of discrimination and violence.

“During my five-year career, people have beaten me more than 20 times. Each time the perpetrators went unpunished,” she told IPS in an interview.

Trans people are often targeted in KP, one of Pakistan’s four provinces.

On March 28, a man shot dead a transgender person in Peshawar. It was the third incident targeting transgender persons in the province in less than a week. Despite the violence, violent attacks on transgender people aren’t considered a major crime.

Khushi Khan, a senior transgender person, says lack of protection is the main problem.

“People have developed a disdain for us. They consider us non-Muslims because we dance at marriages and other ceremonies,” she says.

“We had lodged at least a dozen complaints with police in the past three months when our colleagues were robbed of money, molested and raped but to no avail,” Khan, 30, says.

Last month, clerics in the Khyber district decided they wouldn’t offer funerals to transgender persons and asked people to boycott them.

Rafiq Shah, a social worker, says that people attack the houses of transgender, kill, injure and rob them, but the police remain silent “spectators”.

“We have been protesting against violence frequently, but the situation remains unchanged,” Shah said.

Qamar Naseem, head of Blue Veins, a national NGO working to promote and protect transgender people, isn’t happy over the treatment meted out to the group.

“Security is the main issue of transgender persons. About 84 transgender persons have been killed in Pakistan since 2015 while another 2,000 have faced violence, but no one has been punished so far,” Naseem says.

The lack of action by the police has emboldened the people.

“Health, transportation, livelihoods and employment issues have hit the transgender (community) hard. Most of the time, they remained confined to their homes, located inside the city,” he says.

There are no data regarding the number of transgender in the country because the government doesn’t take them seriously, he says.

In May 2023, the Federal Shariat Court (FSC) dealt a severe blow when it suspended the implementation rules of the Protection of Transgender Persons Protection of Rights Act.

Farzana Jan, president of TransAction Alliance, says that FSC’s declaration that individuals cannot alter their gender at their own discretion, asserting that specific clauses within the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2018 contradict Islamic law, has disappointed us.

The FSC declared un-Islamic sections 3 and 7 and two sub-sections of Section 2 of the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2018, five years after the law was passed, the FSC rolled back key provisions granting rights to Pakistan’s transgender community.

Some right-wing political parties had previously voiced concerns over the bill as a promoter of “homosexuality,” leading to “new social problems”.

The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2018, is against the injunctions of Islam as laid down in the Holy Quran and Sunnah of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) and will cease to have any legal effect immediately, the verdict stated.

Amnesty International said the verdict was a blow to the rights of the already beleaguered group of transgender and gender-diverse people in Pakistan. It said some of the FSC’s observations were based on presumptive scenarios rather than empirical evidence. The denial of essential rights of transgender and gender-diverse persons should not be guided by assumptions rooted in prejudice, fear and discrimination, AI said.

“Any steps taken by the government of Pakistan to deny transgender and gender-diverse people the right to gender identity is in contravention of their obligations under international human rights law, namely the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) to which they are a state party,” it said.

The government should take immediate steps to stop the reversal of essential protections, without which transgender and gender-diverse people will be even more at risk of harassment, discrimination and violence, AI added.

On July 12, 2023, transgender representatives from all provinces held a press conference at Lahore Press Club, where they vehemently condemned the recent decision by the FSC against the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2018.

Arzoo Bibi, who was at a press conference, said it was time to stand united for justice and equality.

“Militants don’t threaten us, but our biggest concern is the attitude of the society and police,” said Arzoo.
IPS UN Bureau Report


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Women Suffer Harassment and Discrimination on Chile’s Public Transport

Perla Venegas is one of 1444 female bus drivers in the surface public transport network in Santiago, Chile, which aims at gender inclusion and offers job stability and shift flexibility compatible with family life. CREDIT: Orlando Milesi / IPS

Perla Venegas is one of 1444 female bus drivers in the surface public transport network in Santiago, Chile, which aims at gender inclusion and offers job stability and shift flexibility compatible with family life. CREDIT: Orlando Milesi / IPS

By Orlando Milesi
SANTIAGO, Jun 26 2023 (IPS)

Sexual harassment and discrimination are daily realities for women on public transport in Chile and also an obstacle for plans to expand mass transit in order to reduce pollution in several cities in this South American country.

Santiago, the capital, is the most polluted city based on fine air particulate matter among the large Latin American cities, according to the World Air Quality Report 2022, ahead of Lima and Mexico City, while five other Chilean cities are among the 10 most polluted in South America.

Sexual harassment is the most visible form of discrimination against women in Chilean public transportation, in addition to insecurity due to poorly lit bus stops, inadequate buses, and more frequent trips at times when women are less likely to travel.

Personal accounts gathered by IPS also mentioned problems such as the constant theft of cell phones and the impossibility for young women to wear shorts or low-cut tops when traveling on buses or the subway, the backbone of Santiago’s public transportation system.

To address these problems, the Chilean government and the Santiago city government adopted gender strategies: they put in place special telephones to report harassers and thieves, began installing “panic buttons” and alarms at bus stops, and incorporated more women in driving and security.

“When I was younger I suffered a lot of harassment because I didn’t have the character to stand up to the harassers. Now that I am older, I am able to confront an aggressor without fear, even when he is harassing another person, whether a man or a woman. When I confront them, they run away,” Bernardita Azócar, 34, told IPS.


Bernardita Azócar, in a subway station in Santiago, Chile, heads to her job in a collection agency. She says she suffered sexual harassment on public transport in the capital when she was younger, but now she is more alert to any aggression and feels empowered to help others who suffer the same bad experience. CREDIT: Orlando Milesi / IPS

Bernardita Azócar, in a subway station in Santiago, Chile, heads to her job in a collection agency. She says she suffered sexual harassment on public transport in the capital when she was younger, but now she is more alert to any aggression and feels empowered to help others who suffer the same bad experience. CREDIT: Orlando Milesi / IPS


“It happened to me a couple of times when I was younger. They want to grope you or try to touch another girl and now I confront them. I suffer less because I’m more aware and I try not to put myself at risk,” she added during a dialogue at the University of Chile subway station in Santiago.

Azócar, who works for a collection company, said the root cause of harassment lies in education and in Chilean society.

“If you wear a miniskirt or show cleavage, society points the finger at you, as if you were provoking men and it was your fault. And I don’t think that’s why it happens. It’s abuse to be harassed in the public system…or anywhere else,” she said.

Maite, a humanities student at the Catholic University, feels that women are at a disadvantage on public transportation.

“When a woman takes a bus, she tends to sit next to the aisle to have an easier way to flee from any threat. Or she sits next to another woman so as not to travel alone. There are many things that women do that are not explicit. They are behaviors we learn, to get by on public transportation,” said the young woman who, like her friends, preferred not to give her last name.

According to Maite, “women can’t wear shorts or backpacks on the bus, or openly use a cell phone. Every time you get on the bus you have to take a lot of measures.”

Maite and four other classmates told IPS that they take a combination of buses and the subway to go to school and that none of them have suffered harassment on the bus, but they know of several cases that happened to their friends.

“If someone tries to touch me or crowd me too closely I don’t feel so safe,” said Elena, a commercial engineering student.

“A friend of mine had her cell phone stolen. I have not been harassed, but I would never go on the bus or subway in shorts even if I were dying of heat. I wear long pants because wearing shorts is a risk,” added Emilia, a psychology student.


The five university students in this group lament the discrimination women suffer on Chilean public transport and recognize that they have a "code of conduct" that they personally follow to avoid problems, such as not wearing shorts or miniskirts or showing cleavage, even in summertime, although it sometimes restricts their personal freedom. CREDIT: Orlando Milesi / IPS

The five university students in this group lament the discrimination women suffer on Chilean public transport and recognize that they have a “code of conduct” that they personally follow to avoid problems, such as not wearing shorts or miniskirts or showing cleavage, even in summertime, although it sometimes restricts their personal freedom. CREDIT: Orlando Milesi / IPS


The joys and pitfalls of being a female bus driver

Getting more people to use buses and other public transport in Chile, a long narrow country with a population of 19.8 million, is difficult because 71 percent of households own at least one car.

The incorporation of more female bus drivers is aimed at a friendlier mass transit system.

Perla Venegas, 34, has been working as a bus driver in Santiago’s public transportation system for six years.

“I like my job and driving. The most complicated thing is dealing with cyclists, pedestrians and passengers, who are never satisfied,” she told IPS while parked waiting to pull out on the corner of Santa Rosa and Alameda, in the heart of downtown Santiago.

Her route connects downtown Santiago with the municipality of Maipú, in the western outskirts of the capital.

“I’m on a par with the male drivers, but I’m more cautious, not so aggressive and I’m a more defensive driver. I have been complimented several times, especially by elderly people,” said Venegas, who lives with her two daughters, aged 16 and 8.

“I have female colleagues who have been hit and beaten. I received a death threat from a passenger because when the route ended he wouldn’t get off. He was a homeless drug addict. It was 5:30 AM. In the end I found a carabineros (police) patrol car and I turned him in,” she said.

She added that she has had both pleasant and negative experiences and acknowledged that she is proud that her eldest daughter also wants to be a bus driver “although I would not like her to experience the hard parts.”


The Santiago subway is the backbone of the mass transit system in the Chilean capital. It makes it possible to reach 23 of the 32 municipalities that encompass the capital and allows passengers to combine with a bus network to reach any point of the metropolitan region. CREDIT: Orlando Milesi / IPS

The Santiago subway is the backbone of the mass transit system in the Chilean capital. It makes it possible to reach 23 of the 32 municipalities that encompass the capital and allows passengers to combine with a bus network to reach any point of the metropolitan region. CREDIT: Orlando Milesi / IPS


Staying alert in the subway, the main means of public transport

On the Santiago subway there are 2.3 million trips on working days. Its tracks cover 140 kilometers on six lines, with 136 stations in 23 of the 32 municipalities that comprise the metropolitan area. Greater Santiago is home to 7.1 million people.

An additional 2.1 million average daily trips are made on surface public transport.

According to official statistics, during the first five months of the year there were 21 pollution episodes in Santiago above the maximum standard level and eight environmental alerts for excess fine particulate matter, so increasing the use of public transport instead of private vehicles is considered a priority for the authorities.

Paulina del Campo, the subway’s sustainability manager, told IPS that gender issues are a strategic objective in this state-owned company.

“We have taken the issue of harassment very seriously. We do not have large numbers, but we do have moments like March 2022 when the issue was raised because of situations in the streets and in universities that included public transportation,” she said.

After meetings with authorities and student leaders, the subway increased the presence of female security guards at stations in the university district.

“One of the things they said is that in a situation of harassment it is much more comfortable to ask for help from a woman than from a man,” explained Del Campo.

The company thus hired a specific group of female guards to receive and respond to complaints.

“Qualified staff respond and are trained to provide support for the victims. We can quickly activate the protocols with the carabineros police. When it happens we can intercept the train and often arrest the people (aggressors) on the spot,” said Del Campo.

In another campaign, a standard methodology designed by international foundations with expertise in harassment was adapted to the situation in Chile.

At the same time, the subway increased its female staff and the number of women in leadership positions.

“Two years ago we had a female staff of around 20 percent and now, in May, 26.5 percent of the 4,400 subway workers are women. In the area of security guards we have a staff of approximately 700 and of these 110 are women,” explained the company’s Sustainability Manager.


These two women are security guards at the Plaza Egaña subway station, on line 6 in Chile's capital. The state-owned Metro company is increasing the number of women in its services as part of a gender policy that even includes the maintenance of trains. CREDIT: Orlando Milesi / IPS

These two women are security guards at the Plaza Egaña subway station, on line 6 in Chile’s capital. The state-owned Metro company is increasing the number of women in its services as part of a gender policy that even includes the maintenance of trains. CREDIT: Orlando Milesi / IPS


Gender policies in public transportation

The Metropolitan Public Transport Directorate (DTPM) informed IPS that it aims to reduce the male-female gap in public transport.

It also plans to increase the number of women bus drivers.

The Red system, with buses running throughout Santiago, currently employs 1,444 women – only 7.6 percent of all drivers.

“Many women who have entered this field come from highly precarious and unregulated jobs, so this opportunity has allowed them greater autonomy and, on many occasions, to leave violent environments and improve their self-confidence,” the DTPM stressed in response to questions from IPS.

“This has meant an effort to train and generate conditions to keep and promote women who are part of the system,” it added.

Origin-Destination Surveys reveal that women are the main users of public transport and 65 percent of trips for the purpose of caring for the home, children or other people are made by women. They are more likely to make multidirectional trips and in the so-called off-peak hours, with little traffic.

According to the DTPM, waiting for the bus is one of the most critical moments in every trip.

“This is why we installed the panic button at bus stops and real-time information on the arrival of buses to improve the perception of security,” it explained.

The information is available through an application on cell phones, while the panic buttons began as a women’s safety pilot plan in October 2022 at stops in one of the capital’s municipalities. The plan is to extend them to a large number of stops in Santiago.


Myanmar: Military Junta Gets a Free Pass

Cover photo by Reuters/Stringer via Gallo Images

By Andrew Firmin
LONDON, Jun 23 2023 (IPS)

The violence keeps coming in Myanmar, under military rule since February 2021. The junta stands accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity, with evidence of systematic use of killings, rape, torture and other gross human rights violations in its attempt to suppress forces demanding a return to democracy.

Even humanitarian aid is restricted. Recently the junta refused to allow in aid organisations trying to provide food, water and medicines to people left in desperate need by a devastating cyclone. It’s far from the first time it’s blocked aid.

Crises like this demand an international response. But largely standing on the sidelines while this happens is the regional intergovernmental body, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Its recent summit, held in Indonesia in May, failed to produce any progress.

ASEAN’s inaction

ASEAN’s response to the coup was to issue a text, the Five-Point Consensus (5PC), in April 2021. This called for the immediate cessation of violence and constructive dialogue between all parties. ASEAN agreed to provide humanitarian help, appoint a special envoy and visit Myanmar to meet with all parties.

Civil society criticised this agreement because it recognised the role of the junta and failed to make any mention of the need to restore democracy. And the unmitigated violence and human rights violations are the clearest possible sign that the 5PC isn’t working – but ASEAN sticks to it. At its May summit, ASEAN states reiterated their support for the plan.

A major challenge is that most ASEAN states have no interest in democracy. All 10 have heavily restricted civic space. As well as Myanmar, civic space is closed in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.

It wouldn’t suit such states to have a thriving democracy on their doorstep, which could only bring greater domestic and international pressure to follow suit. States that repress human rights at home typically carry the same approach into international organisations, working to limit their ability to uphold human rights commitments and scrutinise violations.

Continuing emphasis on the 5PC hasn’t masked divisions among ASEAN states. Some appear to think they can engage with the junta and at least persuade it to moderate its violence – although reality makes this increasingly untenable. But others, particularly Cambodia – a one-party state led by the same prime minister since 1998 – seem intent on legitimising the junta.

Variable pressure has come from ASEAN’s chair, which rotates annually and appoints the special envoy. Under the last two, Brunei Darussalam – a sultanate that last held an election in 1965 – and Cambodia, little happened. Brunei never visited the country after being refused permission to meet with democratic leaders, while Cambodia’s prime minister, Hun Sen, visited Myanmar last year. The first post-coup visit to Myanmar by a head of government, this could only be construed as conferring legitimacy.

Indonesia, the current chair, hasn’t appointed a special envoy, instead setting up an office headed by the foreign minister. So far it appears to be taking a soft approach of quiet diplomacy rather than public action.

Thailand, currently led by a pro-military government, is also evidently happy to engage with the junta. While junta representatives remain banned from ASEAN summits, Thailand has broken ranks and invited ASEAN foreign ministers, including from Myanmar, to hold talks about reintegrating the junta’s leaders. A government that itself came to power through a coup but should now step aside after an election where it was thoroughly defeated looks to be attempting to bolster the legitimacy of military rule.

ASEAN states seem unable to move beyond the 5PC even as they undermine it. But the fact that they’re formally sticking with it enables the wider international community to stand back, on the basis of respecting regional leadership and the 5PC.

The UN Security Council finally adopted a resolution on Myanmar in December 2022. This called for an immediate end to the violence, the release of all political prisoners and unhindered humanitarian access. But its language didn’t go far enough in condemning systematic human rights violations and continued to emphasise the 5PC. It failed to impose sanctions such as an arms embargo or to refer Myanmar to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Civil society in Myanmar and the region is urging ASEAN to go further. Many have joined together to develop a five-point agenda that goes beyond the 5PC. It calls for a strategy to end military violence through sanctions, an arms embargo and a referral of Myanmar to the ICC. It demands ASEAN engages beyond the junta, and particularly with democratic forces including the National Unity Government – the democratic government in exile. It urges a strengthening of the special envoy role and a pivoting of humanitarian aid to local responders rather than the junta. ASEAN needs to take this on board.

A fork in the road

ASEAN’s current plan is a recipe for continuing military violence, increasingly legitimised by its neighbours’ acceptance. Ceremonial elections could offer further fuel for this.

The junta once promised to hold elections by August, but in February, on the coup’s second anniversary, it extended the state of emergency for another six months. If and when those elections finally happen, there’s no hope of them being free or fair. In March, the junta dissolved some 40 political parties, including the ousted ruling party, the National League for Democracy.

The only purpose of any eventual fake election will be to give the junta a legitimising veneer to present as a sign of progress – and some ASEAN states may be prepared to buy this. This shouldn’t be allowed. ASEAN needs to listen to the voices of civil society calling for it to get its act together – and stick together – in holding the junta to account. If it doesn’t, it will keep failing not only Myanmar’s people, but all in the region who reasonably expect that fundamental human rights should be respected and those who kill, rape and torture should face justice.

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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Venezuela: The End of Civil Society as We Know It?

Civil Society, Crime & Justice, Featured, Gender Violence, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, TerraViva United Nations


MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay, Feb 16 2023 (IPS) – In late January, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, finished an official visit to Venezuela. He said he’d found a fragmented society in great need of bridging its divides and encouraged the government to take the lead in listening to civil society concerns and responding to victims of rights violations.

But Venezuelan civil society had hoped for more. Two days before his arrival, the National Assembly, Venezuela’s congress, had approved the first reading of a law aimed at further restricting and criminalising civil society work. International civil society urged the High Commissioner to call for the bill to be shelved. Many found the UN’s response disappointing.

Another turn of the screw

The bill imposes further restrictions on civil society organisations (CSOs). If it becomes law, CSOs will have to hand over lists of members, staff, assets and donors. They’ll be obliged to provide detailed data about their activities, funding sources and use of financial resources – the kind of information that has already been used to persecute and criminalise CSOs and activists. Similar legislation has been used in Nicaragua to shut down hundreds of CSOs and arrest opposition leaders, journalists and human rights defenders.

The law will ban CSOs from conducting ‘political activities’, an expression that lacks clear definition. It could easily be interpreted as prohibiting human rights work and scrutiny of the government. There’s every chance the law will be used against human rights organisations that cooperate with international human rights mechanisms. This would endanger civil society’s efforts to document the human rights situation, which produces vital inputs for the UN’s human rights system and the International Criminal Court, which has an ongoing case against Venezuela.

The law-making process has been shrouded in secrecy: the draft bill wasn’t made publicly available and wasn’t discussed at the National Assembly before being approved. The initiative was immediately denounced as a tool to control, restrict and potentially shut down CSOs and criminally prosecute their leaders and staff. If implemented, it could mean the end of civil society as we know it in Venezuela.

The UN and Venezuela

The previous High Commissioner, Michelle Bachelet, visited Venezuela in September 2019. She was criticised for taking a cautious approach. Moreover, most of the commitments in the agreement the government signed with her were never fulfilled.

Following that visit, the UN Human Rights Council established the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela (FFMV), tasked with investigating alleged human rights violations. In September 2022, the FFMV issued a report detailing the involvement of Venezuela’s intelligence agencies in repressing dissent, including by committing human rights violations such as torture and sexual violence.

But intimidation only grew as Türk’s visit approached, with some protest leaders put under surveillance, followed and detained.

Venezuelan CSOs called for a more energetic approach, but Türk followed his predecessor’s footsteps. His visit was characterised by secrecy and brevity, particularly in terms of the time dedicated to engaging with civil society.

Bachelet’s agreement with the government had included the presence of a two-person UN team to monitor the human rights situation and provide assistance and advice. This has now been extended for two years, but the details haven’t been made public.

Civil society activists have continued to work closely with the UN field office and wouldn’t want to risk its presence in the country, so to some extent they understand Türk’s caution in dealing with the Venezuelan government. But they also view his visit as a missed opportunity.

Türk’s statement to the media at the end of his visit was very much focused on the political and economic crises and healing divisions in society, with human rights ‘challenges’ occupying third place on his list of major concerns.

Alerta Venezuela, a Colombia-based human rights group, recognised the references Türk made to ‘new issues’ – such as the need for Venezuela to sign the Escazú Agreement on environmental rights and decriminalise abortion – alongside ongoing human rights violations such as extrajudicial executions, arbitrary arrests and torture. But it criticised crucial omissions and the UN’s apparent willingness to take government data at face value.

On the anti-NGO bill, the High Commissioner said he’d asked the government to take into account his comments but didn’t provide any information about their content, so it isn’t clear whether he advocated for amendments to a law that can only remain deeply flawed or for it to be shelved – which is what civil society wanted him to do.

The Venezuelan government has all along paid only lip service to cooperation with the UN and hasn’t kept its promises. Repression is only going to intensify in the run-up to the presidential election scheduled for 2024. Any strategy that involves trusting the government and hoping it will change its position seems doomed to failure.

High-level human rights advocacy needed

More energetic criticism came from the independent and less politically constrained FFMV, which expressed ‘deep concerns’ about the potential implications of the draft NGO law for civic and democratic space.

That is the stance civil society would like the High Commissioner for Human Rights to have taken. They want the office holder to be a human rights champion standing independent of states and unafraid of causing a stir.

Türk is only five months into his four-year term. Civil society will keep doing its best to engage, in the hope that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights can become the human rights advocate the world – and Venezuela – need.

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.