Slovakia PM Assassination Attempt Sparks Journalists’ Safety Fears

Editors’ Choice, Europe, Featured, Freedom of Expression, Headlines, Human Rights, Press Freedom, TerraViva United Nations

Freedom of Expression

Camera crews wait outside the Slovak parliament building in Bratislava days after the attempted assassination of PM Robert Fico. Credit: Ed Holt/IPS

Camera crews wait outside the Slovak parliament building in Bratislava days after the attempted assassination of PM Robert Fico. Credit: Ed Holt/IPS

BRATISLAVA, May 24 2024 (IPS) – Fears for the safety of journalists in Slovakia are growing in the wake of an assassination attempt on the country’s prime minister, which some politicians are blaming in part on local independent media.

Relations between some media and members of the governing coalition, led by Prime Minister Robert Fico’s Smer party, have become increasingly tense since the government came to power in October last year.


And immediately after Fico was shot and seriously injured on May 15, as he greeted members of the public after a government meeting, senior members of coalition parties linked the attack to critical coverage of Fico and accused outlets of spreading hate against him.

The 71-year-old man who shot the prime minister is thought to have had a political motive for his attack.

Since then, there have been calls from some other politicians and heads of media organizations to stop trying to apportion blame for the attack on any group so as to defuse tensions in society.

But senior figures from governing coalition parties have continued to attack the media for what they see as their role in fomenting anger towards the government and provoking the tragedy.

Journalists in Slovakia, and press freedom watchdogs, worry this is increasing the risk reporters could also become targets of a violent attack.

“Journalists are in no way responsible for this, and blaming them is only fueling the fires and increasing the likelihood of another violent incident,” Oliver Money-Kyrle, Head of European Advocacy and Programmes at the International Press Institute (IPI), told IPS.

For many years, Fico and his Smer party, who have been in power for much of the last 18 years in Slovakia, have publicly attacked individual media, and specific journalists in some cases, for their critical reporting of the various governments he has led.

When Jan Kuciak, a reporter investigating alleged corruption by people close to Fico’s government, and his fiancée, Martina Kusnirova, were murdered in 2018, critics said Fico’s rhetoric towards journalists had contributed to creating an atmosphere in society in which those behind the killings believed they could act with impunity.

Fico was forced to step down as PM not long after the murders, following massive public protests against his government.

But since returning to power, he and other members of the ruling coalition have repeatedly attacked journalists they see as critical of the government and his party has refused to communicate with certain newspapers and broadcasters.

The government has also pushed through legislation that media freedom organizations and members of the European Commission have warned could severely restrict independent media and press freedom.

Some journalists at major news outlets have been regularly receiving death threats and facing horrific online harassment for years, but others have said they have become increasingly worried for their safety in recent months, and that those concerns have been exacerbated now in the wake of Fico’s shooting.

Many believe that years of aggressive, derogatory rhetoric against them has made them a target for hate among some parts of a society with widespread distrust of media—a recent survey showed only 37 percent of Slovaks trust the media.

Since the assassination attempt, some newsrooms have taken extra security measures and the government has said it will also be providing extra protection for groups which could be facing an elevated safety risk, including media.

While this has been welcomed by media rights organizations, they have said politicians must take the lead in reducing tensions in society and lessening immediate safety risks for journalists.

“The way to de-escalate the situation is that political hate speech against media must stop,” Pavol Szalai, head of the EU/Balkans desk at RSF at Reporters Without Borders (RSF), told IPS.

In the immediate hours after the shooting, some ministers appeared to be pushing to calm the situation.  At a press conference, Interior Minister Matus Sutaj Estok appealed “to the public, to journalists, and to all politicians to stop spreading hatred”.

Meanwhile, dozens of editors from print and broadcast media issued a joint statement publicly condemning the attack on the prime minister and calling for politicians and media to come together to calm tensions.

However, even days after the shooting, senior government figures continued to attack specific media or play down the seriousness  of comments made by colleagues just after the shooting, including  labelling media as “disgusting pigs”.

The Slovak government did not respond to questions on journalists’ safety from IPS.

But beyond putting journalists at increased risk, it is feared that the assassination attempt may also worsen what research has shown is significantly worsening media freedom in the country.

The government recently approved legislation – which is expected to be passed in parliament within weeks that will see the country’s public broadcaster, RTVS, completely overhauled and, critics say, effectively under control of the government.

Ominously, the leader of the governing coalition Slovak National Party (SNS), Andrej Danko, warned after Fico was shot that there would “be changes to the media” now.

And on May 19, speaking on the TA3 private news channel, he said he was planning to propose legislation that would set new regulations governing journalistic ethics, relations between journalists and politicians, and what politicians would be obliged to “put up with” from journalists.

Beata Balogova, Editor in Chief of the Sme daily newspaper, one of the news outlets in the country regularly criticized by government politicians, told international media that the government could now introduce “brutal measures against the media.”

Local journalists say any repressive measures would make an already difficult job even harder.

“I haven’t thought about how things could get more difficult for us to do our work in the future because it’s already very hard. It’s so difficult to gather news with political parties refusing to speak to us. [More restrictions] certainly wouldn’t make things easier,” Michaela Terenzani, an editor at Sme, told IPS.

She added, though, that it was difficult to predict what would happen in the coming days and weeks.

“At the moment, we are all just getting over the shock and trying to get on with our work as best we can. This is a major moment in Slovakia’s history and we will have to see what happens with relations between the media and politicians. Everyone is calling for calm, and I hope that is what we get,” she said.

IPS UN Bureau Report

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North Macedonia Turns Back the Clock

Civil Society, Crime & Justice, Economy & Trade, Europe, Featured, Headlines, Press Freedom, TerraViva United Nations

Opinion

Credit: Robert Atanasovski/AFP via Getty Images

LONDON, May 23 2024 (IPS) – The old guard is back in North Macedonia, as the former ruling party – the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization – Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE) – returns to parliamentary and presidential power.


Long the country’s dominant political force, the right-wing VMRO-DPMNE had been out of power since 2016. But this month, the political alliance it leads came first in the parliamentary election, taking 58 of 120 seats. In the presidential election runoff, its candidate triumphed with 61 per cent of the vote. In both cases the centre-left, pro-Europe Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM), which had led the governing coalition and held the presidency, came a distant second. In parliament, its political alliance lost 28 of its 46 seats with only 14 per cent of the vote.

VMRO-DPMNE made its way back to office by harnessing widespread public frustration over the country’s attempt to join the European Union (EU), which has moved slowly, been dogged by controversy and forced the government to make numerous compromises. SDSM stood on a platform of rapid constitutional reform to accelerate progress, but VMRO-DPMNE, while claiming to support EU membership, opposes further changes. Its return signals a turn away from Europe, and a likely worsening of civil society conditions.

Rocky road towards the EU

North Macedonia has been an official candidate to join the EU since 2005. Negotiations are always lengthy, but North Macedonia’s road has been particularly bumpy. Before it could begin formal negotiations, it had to change the country’s name. Any existing EU member can block a non-member’s accession, and Greece stood in the way. The country shared its name with a region of Greece, which the Greek government saw as implying a territorial claim.

The hugely controversial issue brought extensive protests as name-change negotiations reached their conclusion in 2018. A referendum intended to approve the change failed when a boycott left turnout well below the level required; VMRO-DPMNE urged its supporters to reject the deal. The referendum was non-binding, and parliament went on to change the constitution regardless in January 2019.

Then Bulgaria intervened. The Bulgarian government insists its North Macedonian counterpart must do more to prevent the spread of anti-Bulgarian sentiments and protect the rights of the country’s Bulgarian minority. This heated issue, inflamed by much disinformation, helped force a political crisis in Bulgaria in 2022 when the government collapsed.

The two sides finally struck a deal to allow North Macedonia to begin EU negotiations in July 2022, but disputes still flare. In 2023 Bulgaria’s parliament warned it could halt the process again. North Macedonia’s outgoing government failed to win the two-thirds parliamentary majority needed to change the constitution to recognise the Bulgarian minority.

Relations with Bulgaria played their part in the campaign. Some think the government has gone too far in compromising, and VMRO-DPMNE characterised the SDSM-led government’s actions as a surrender.

As a consequence of all the delays and compromises, public support for joining the EU has fallen.

A troubling return

VMRO-DPMNE led the government for a decade from 2006 to 2016, with Nikola Gruevski prime minister throughout. The party also held the presidency, a less powerful role, from 2009 to 2019.

Gruevski and his party fell from grace in 2016 amid allegations that he and many more of his party’s politicians were involved in a wiretapping scandal affecting over 20,000 people. Mass protests followed. VMRO-DPMNE still came first in the 2016 parliamentary election but couldn’t form a coalition, so power passed to an SDSM-led government. SDSM retained power in the 2020 election, and its candidate won the presidency in 2019.

Gruevski’s fall was swift. In 2018, he was sentenced to two years in prison for corruption, but he fled to Hungary, where the government of his authoritarian friend Viktor Orbán granted him political asylum. Further convictions followed, including a seven-year sentence for money laundering and illegal acquisition of property.

From exile, Gruevski has continued to criticise the government that replaced him. And while relations with VMRO-DPMNE’s current leader are hostile, ideologically VMRO-DPMNE still carries his fingerprints and the networks Gruevski developed among supportive media, the private sector and criminal groups remain. Under Gruevski, the party took a nationalist, pro-Russia and anti-west direction, promoting identity politics that hark back to the ancient Macedonian Empire.

For civil society, this makes the results concerning news. Conditions deteriorated during VMRO-DPMNE’s decade in power. The party’s identity politics fuelled a polarised environment. Nationalist groups physically attacked several journalists. Civil society leaders were among those subjected to illegal surveillance. Using the same tactics as Orbán, the government hurled abuse at civil society groups receiving funding from Open Society Foundations, accusing them of colluding with foreign governments. It subjected critical organisations to financial audits and raided their offices.

The election was held in an atmosphere of intense polarisation and proliferating disinformation, some originating in Russia, which doesn’t want any more countries joining the EU. There’s now a risk of a return to the politics of division, which would bring a resumption of attacks on civil society and independent media. VMRO-DPMNE has already made clear it’s looking for confrontation. New president Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova upset Greece by using North Macedonia’s old name during her inauguration ceremony.

The EU impasse wasn’t the only reason voters were unhappy. People haven’t seen any progress in combating corruption or improving economic conditions and public services. In country after country, there’s a broader pattern of electoral volatility as voters, unhappy with the performance of incumbents in difficult economic conditions, shop around for anything that looks different. Populist and nationalist parties – even long-established ones such as VMRO-DPMNE – are doing best at making an emotional connection with voters’ anger, offering deceptively simple answers and promising change.

For civil society, that means there’s now work to be done in depolarising the debate, building consensus and defending civic freedoms: a tall order, but a vital one, for which it’ll need a lot of support.

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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Panama’s Elections: Has Impunity Prevailed?

Civil Society, Climate Change, Crime & Justice, Economy & Trade, Education, Featured, Headlines, Labour, Latin America & the Caribbean, Migration & Refugees, TerraViva United Nations

Opinion

Credit: Johan Ordoñez/AFP via Getty Images

MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay, May 21 2024 (IPS) – Regional experts called it Panama’s most important election since the 1989 US invasion that deposed de facto president General Manuel Noriega. Panamanians went to the polls amid high inflation and unemployment, with a stagnating economy. Endemic corruption was also high on their long list of concerns, along with access to water, education and a collapsing social security system.


The winner, conservative lawyer José Raúl Mulino, was a stand-in for former president Ricardo Martinelli, disqualified from running due to a money laundering conviction. Martinelli remains popular regardless and managed to transfer his popularity to his less charismatic substitute. For those who backed Mulino, nostalgia for the economic stability and growth that marked Martinelli’s pro-business administration seemed to outweigh his proven record of corruption.

On the face of it, the election results seemed to demonstrate the primacy of economic considerations in voters’ minds, with hopes for growth trumping corruption fatigue. But that’s not the whole story.

Free, fair and uncertain

On 5 May, Panamanians went to the polls to elect a president and vice-president, 71 National Assembly members, 20 Central American Parliament deputies and local representatives.

The elections were undoubtedly clean and transparent, with integrity guaranteed by the participation of civil society in the National Scrutiny Board. Results were announced quickly and all losing candidates accepted them. But the pre-voting context was far less straightforward. Until the very last minute the now president-elect wasn’t sure he’d be allowed to run.

Mulino served as security minister in Martinelli’s government between 2009 and 2014. Ten years later, largely unknown to the electorate, he entered the race as Martinelli’s running mate for Achieving Goals (Realizando Metas, RM), a party Martinelli founded in 2021.

In July 2023, Martinelli was convicted of money laundering and sentenced to 10 years in prison, making him ineligible to run. He appealed, but the Electoral Tribunal didn’t make a final decision on his disqualification until March. To avoid jail, he sought asylum in the Nicaraguan embassy in Panama City. Mulino took his place, but his presidential candidacy was also challenged. For two months, he became the centre of attention as the Electoral Tribunal and Supreme Court debated whether he could ran. The positive court ruling came on 3 May, just two days before voting. Mulino also received a lot of help from Martinelli, who campaigned for him online while holed up in the Nicaraguan embassy.

A fragmented vote

Eight candidates contested the presidency, a five-year position with no possibility of a second consecutive term. With no runoff, a fragmented vote was likely to produce a winner with far less than half the vote. Mulino’s winning total of 34.2 per cent wasn’t unusual: two previous presidents received similarly low shares, including the outgoing centre-left president, Laurentino Cortizo of the Democratic Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Democrático, PRD).

Mulino’s closest competitor, on 24.6 per cent, was Ricardo Lombana, a centre-right anti-corruption outsider. In third place was Martin Torrijos, another former president and Martinelli’s immediate predecessor, now distanced from his original party, the PRD, and running on the ticket of the Christian democratic People’s Party (Partido Popular, PP). Fourth was Rómulo Roux, of the centre-right Democratic Change (Cambio Democrático, CD), the party Martinelli founded and used as a vehicle for the presidency, but which he abandoned in 2020 amid leadership disputes.

The parties that once dominated the political landscape fared badly. The Panameñista Party didn’t even have a presidential candidate; instead, its leader joined Roux as his running mate. The PRD, which led three of the last six governments, fell below six per cent.

Independents on the rise

In 1998, Martinelli’s CD was the first to challenge the dominance of traditional parties. Later changes to the electoral law allowed independent candidates to stand. Their growing prominence reflects widespread dissatisfaction with traditional parties and the political class.

In the 5 May congressional elections, independent candidates won more seats than any political party – 20, up from just five. Mulino’s new RM party took 14 seats. The PRD lost a whopping 22, retaining only 13. The new composition of the National Assembly speaks of a thirst for renewal that doesn’t match the choice for corruption and impunity the presidential results might suggest.

Spotlight on the economy

For the three decades before the pandemic, the Panamanian economy grew by around six per cent a year, helped by income from the Panama Canal and construction and mining booms. But then challenges started piling up. The economy slowed down. Jobs disappeared. Inflation rose.

Activity in the Panama Canal has been severely affected by the impacts of climate change, with a drop in water levels. Drought has also reduced access to drinking water in some regions. Meanwhile an unprecedented rise in the numbers of migrants travelling through the Darién Gap, the treacherous stretch of jungle at the border with Colombia, has stretched the resources of the humanitarian assistance system.

Mulino campaigned on promises to improve the economy by attracting investment, developing infrastructure and creating jobs. He pledged to improve access to safe water and promised to ‘shut down’ the Darién Gap.

Mulino’s voters may have accepted the bargain he appeared to offer – prosperity in exchange for impunity – but many more people voted against him than for. He was able to win because the vote against was so fragmented. The number of independents who entered Congress is just one of many indicators of widespread dissatisfaction with politicians like him.

Mulino will have to deliver on his promises to attract investment and create jobs. He’ll need to reduce inequalities and deal with growing insecurity, the situation in the Darién Gap and a pensions system on the brink of insolvency. Last but not least, he’ll need to strengthen institutions and tackle corruption – which begs the question of what he’ll do about Martinelli.

The challenges are many and great, and Mulino won’t have anything close to a legislative majority. The National Assembly is so fragmented that a high-level deal with one or two parties won’t be enough. Mulino seemed to recognise this on election night when he called for national unity and said he was open to dialogue and consensus. This was a first step in the direction he should keep following.

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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Billions will Vote this Year – LGBTIQ+ People Must not be Excluded

Civil Society, Democracy, Gender, Global, Global Governance, Headlines, Human Rights, IPS UN: Inside the Glasshouse, LGBTQ, TerraViva United Nations

Opinion

UNDP is working in all regions of the world to integrate LGBTIQ+ people and issues in development efforts. Credit: UNDP Dominican Republic

UNITED NATIONS, May 20 2024 (IPS) – This year has been called the ‘super election’ year, with 3.7 billion people potentially going to the polls. This historic political moment is also an opportunity to reflect on what these billions of voter experiences will look like. Who will vote, who can run for office and who might be excluded from the political process?


It goes without saying and is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that everyone should have the right to participate in the political processes in their country, and huge strides have been made in recent years to recognize and advocate for LGBTIQ+ rights. But the reality for LGBTIQ+ people is often very different.

Because despite progress, one third of countries maintain laws that make same-sex relationships illegal. For the LGBTIQ+ people living in these countries, what is their experience with elections, as voters or as candidates?

Consider the transgender person who faces harassment whenever they leave their home and is ultimately excluded from their community. Or the LGBTIQ+ groups that are receiving constant online hate because of a wave of social media disinformation. To what extent are they free to express their political views, without fear of discrimination, hate speech or even physical violence?

These experiences do not exist in a vacuum. They are the result of a vast swathe of anti-LGBTIQ+ laws and policies, which in some countries are continuing to gather momentum, compounded by the pervasive stigma and discrimination many LGBTIQ+ people face in their everyday lives.

And they directly impact our political processes by silencing people, limiting the extent to which they can have a voice in their societies and in the decisions which affect them, and entrenching structural discrimination.

UNDP has been working for decades to help break these barriers and to strengthen laws, policies and programmes that respect the human rights of all individuals. This demands we work with a broad range of global partners and advocates, recognizing that LGBTIQ+ people are a diverse group and face multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination.

But with estimates suggesting about half of the global population may vote this year, it does throw into sharp focus the need to ensure that the people determining the leadership and political direction of their countries, truly reflects the full diversity of the world we live in.

We have reason to be hopeful that they will. Because with the steadfast support of partners like Luxembourg, UNDP has been supporting global efforts, including LGBTIQ+ organizations and activists, to help transform LGBTIQ+ rights.

For instance, last October, UNDP launched its global publication ‘Inclusive Democracies: A guide to strengthening the participation of LGBTI+ persons in political and electoral processes,’ in a jointly cohosted event with the LGBTI intergroup of the European Parliament.

Its aim is to provide policymakers, electoral management bodies, legislators, civil society and other stakeholders a clear set of tools to work towards a more equal exercise of civic and political rights, freedom of expression and association, and access to public services. The publication, informed by UNDP’s work globally, includes best practices from over 80 countries, mainly from the Global South.

At the same time, UNDP is working in 72 countries and all regions of the world to integrate LGBTIQ+ people and issues in development efforts.

This includes working with young key populations in Southern Africa – which includes young gay men and other men who have sex with men, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people – to help challenge some of the negative stereotypes appearing in mainstream media, and to change the negative narratives.

Support has focused on organizing media skills training for young people to build their journalistic skills and enhance the use of digital platforms for advocacy on issues affecting them.

But digital platforms also have the power to do great harm, and LGBTIQ+ individuals often face disproportionate online harassment, posing a threat to their equal political participation. With support from Luxembourg, UNDP has been able to prioritize combating dangerous online speech that targets individuals based on gender, sexual orientation or ethnicity.

For example, the Cabo Verde Free and Equal Campaign, part of UNDP’s efforts, focuses on fighting gender stereotypes and eliminating prejudices through legal and communication channels.

The global efforts to address LGBTIQ+ rights are having an impact. The recent HIV Policy Lab report – produced jointly by Georgetown University’s O’Neill Institute, UNDP and the Global Network of People Living with HIV (GNP+) shows a clear and ongoing trend toward decriminalization of consensual same-sex sex around the world, with more countries removing punitive laws in 2022 than in any single year in the past 25 years.

These advances are part of a collective effort, because building inclusive and equitable societies means building a coalition of partners. At UNDP, the importance of partners like Luxembourg in helping to fund this vital work, and shining a light on the injustices LGBTIQ+ people face, is never underestimated.

This is important because investments in human rights are investments in our societies. And thanks to Luxembourg and our core donors, UNDP has been able to help people, whoever and wherever they are, to have a voice in shaping their societies.

This year, the stakes have never been higher. The decisions made in the elections taking place will set the course for how societies develop, and to what extent human rights are respected. Which is why we must also use this moment to recognize our partners and to renew our commitments to the LGBTIQ+ community.

The world’s attention will be focused on the election winners and losers. But the outcome is only one piece of the puzzle. Ensuring the political processes taking place are inclusive, credible and peaceful is how we ultimately build a world where everyone can vote, anyone can run for office, and most importantly, where no one will be silenced.

Ulrika Modeer is UN Assistant Secretary-General and Director of the Bureau of External Relations and Advocacy, UNDP; Christophe Schiltz is Director General, Directorate for Development Cooperation and Humanitarian Affairs, Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs, Defence, Development Cooperation and Foreign Trade, Luxembourg

Source: UNDP

IPS UN Bureau

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Solomon Islands: A Change More in Style than Substance

Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Crime & Justice, Democracy, Economy & Trade, Featured, Global, Headlines, Human Rights, Press Freedom, TerraViva United Nations

Opinion

Credit: Saeed Khan/AFP via Getty Images

LONDON, May 16 2024 (IPS) – There’s change at the top in Solomon Islands – but civil society will be watching closely to see whether that means a government that’s grown hostile will start doing things differently.


Jeremiah Manele is the new prime minister, emerging from negotiations that followed April’s general election. He’s part of OUR Party, led by outgoing four-time prime minister Manasseh Sogavare. The party came first, winning 15 of 50 constituencies, but several incumbents who stood for it lost their parliamentary seats, and Sogavare only narrowly held his. Weakened, Sogavare stood aside to allow Manele to prevail as the consensus candidate of the post-election coalition his party stitched together.

China in the spotlight

Voters had to wait to have their say. The election was supposed to be held in 2023 but the government postponed it. It claimed it couldn’t afford to hold the election and host the Pacific Games in the same year, and temporarily suspended constitutional provisions through a parliamentary vote. The opposition accused Sogavare of a power grab and questioned his commitment to democracy.

Political debate in recent years has been dominated by the government’s relations with China, a major funder of the 2023 Pacific Games. Sogavare pivoted towards China shortly after becoming prime minister for the fourth time in 2019. Until then, Solomon Islands was among the small number of states that still recognised Taiwan instead of China. The move was controversial, made with no consultation after an election in which it hadn’t been an issue.

Sogavare then signed a series of agreements with China, including a highly secretive security cooperation deal. For civil society, this raised the concern that Solomon Islands police could be trained in the same repressive techniques used in China, and Chinese security forces could be deployed if unrest broke out. The country has experienced several bouts of conflict, including ethnic unrest and violent protests started by young unemployed men, with some violence targeting people of Chinese origin. Such conflict followed controversial post-2019 election manoeuvres that returned Sogavare to power, and surged again in 2021 over the government’s relations with China. Sogavare blamed ‘foreign powers’ for the 2021 unrest.

China is making extensive economic diplomacy efforts to encourage states to switch allegiance and has developed a keen interest in Pacific Island nations, long neglected by western powers. Its efforts are paying off, with Kiribati and Nauru also abandoning Taiwan in recent years. The Pacific Islands cover a vast oceanic territory, and a major Chinese foreign policy objective is to break up the island chains it sees as encircling it and constraining its reach. It’s long been suspected of coveting a naval base in Solomon Islands.

Further, while the populations may be small, each state has an equal vote in the United Nations, and the more allies China has, the more it can shield itself from criticism of its many human rights violations.

China didn’t just help pay for the Games. It provides direct funding to pro-government members of parliament, and has been accused of outrightly trying to bribe politicians. Daniel Suidani, a strong opponent of deals with China, claims to have been offered bribes to change his position. Suidani was premier of Malaita Province, until 2023, when he was ousted in a no-confidence vote following the central government’s apparent intervention. Police then used teargas against protesters who supported him.

China’s attempts to exert influence extend to the media. Last year, it was reported that the Solomon Star newspaper had received funding from the Chinese state in return for agreeing to publish pro-China content.

Disinformation favourable to China also circulated during the campaign. A Russian state-owned news agency falsely reported that the US government was planning what it called an ‘electoral coup’, a lie repeated by the Chinese Communist Party’s Global Times newspaper. During the campaign, Sogavare also doubled down on his support for China, heaping praise on its political system and suggesting that democracy might open the door to same-sex marriage, which he portrayed as incompatible with his country’s values.

At the same time as China’s media influence has grown, the Solomon Islands government has gained a reputation for attacking media freedoms. It took full control of the public broadcaster, the Solomon Islands Broadcasting Corporation, giving itself the power to directly appoint the broadcaster’s board, and made an attempt to vet all of its news and current affairs programmes, which it dropped after backlash. Following an investigation of relations with China by Australia’s public broadcaster, the government threatened to bar foreign journalists from entering the country if they run stories it deems ‘disrespectful’, accusing media of spreading ‘anti-China sentiments’.

Following criticism, the government also threatened to investigate civil society and accused civil society organisations of fraudulently receiving funds. It’s clear that the other side of the coin of closer relations with China has been growing hostility towards dissent.

Looking forward

China was far from the only issue in the campaign, and many voters emphasised everyday concerns such as the cost of living, the state of education, healthcare and roads, and the economy. Some criticised politicians for spending too much time talking about foreign policy – and will be judging the new government by how much progress it makes on these domestic issues.

The good news is that the vote appears to have been competitive, and so far there’s been no repeat of the post-election violence seen after the 2019 vote. That’s surely a positive to build on.

But Sogavare isn’t gone from politics, taking a new position as finance minister. Meanwhile, Manele, foreign minister in the old government and viewed as another pro-China figure, is unlikely to take a new foreign policy direction. But there’s some hope, at least for civil society, that he’ll be a less polarising and more conciliatory politician than Sogavare. The first test will be how the new government handles its relations with civil society and the media. The government should prove it isn’t in China’s pocket by respecting civic freedoms.

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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SBSTTA and SBI—Biodiversity Meetings Crucial for the Global South Begin

Africa, Biodiversity, Conferences, Development & Aid, Editors’ Choice, Environment, Featured, Global, Headlines, Health, Sustainability, Sustainable Development Goals, TerraViva United Nations

Biodiversity

More than 1,400 delegates are present at two crucial meetings, where the topic of preserving the planet’s ongoing biodiversity for the benefit of humanity is under discussion. Under the spotlight are the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, synthetic biology, the detection and identification of living modified organisms, and, critically, biodiversity and health.

Over 1,400 delegates, including 600 representing parties or signatories from over 150 countries and a significant delegation of Indigenous Peoples and other observer organizations, including women’s groups are attending two crucial biodiversity meetings in Nairobi, Kenya. Credit: Stella Paul/IPS

Over 1,400 delegates, including 600 representing parties or signatories from over 150 countries and a significant delegation of Indigenous Peoples and other observer organizations, including women’s groups are attending two crucial biodiversity meetings in Nairobi, Kenya. Credit: Stella Paul/IPS

NAIROBI, May 14 2024 (IPS) – The 26th meeting of the Subsidiary Body of Scientific, Technical, and Technological Advisors (SBSTTA) of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (UNCBD) started in Nairobi, Kenya, on Monday. Over 1,400 delegates, including 600 representing signatories or parties from over 150 countries, are present for the seven-day meeting at the headquarters of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). A large number of members from Indigenous Peoples and other observer organizations, including women’s groups, are also attending the meetings.


SBSTTA will be followed by the meeting of the Subsidiary Body on Implementation (SBI), another subsidiary body of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). The SBI will take place from May 20–29 at the same venue.

Opening the meeting on Monday morning, David Cooper, the Acting Executive Secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, called on the delegates for a successful meeting.

“A key part of ensuring the implementation of the Global Biodiversity Framework is to monitor the progress and that’s why finalizing a monitoring framework includes authenticators for the parties to report on. I would like to give my sincere appreciation to all those working on putting together a comprehensive set of authenticators. I encourage you to make full use of what we have achieved so far and let’s make this meeting a success,” Cooper said.

IPS, which is exclusively covering the meetings, has insights into the meetings and presents here the brief history of both the meetings and their significance in larger global biodiversity protection, especially in the global south, including the implementation of the Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF), the legally binding international biodiversity treaty adopted by the nations in December 2022

SBSTTA: History, Mandate and Role in the COP

SBSTTA was established 30 years ago, in 1994, as a subsidiary body of the CBD during the first meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the CBD in Nassau, Bahamas. Article 25 of the CBD, which mandated its creation, tasked it with giving the COP timely advice regarding the application of the Convention.

Since then, SBSTTA ‘s main role has been providing assessments of scientific, technical, and technological information relevant to the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity. It typically meets once or twice a year to review and assess relevant scientific information, including reports submitted by Parties, relevant organizations, and stakeholders. Its discussions cover a wide range of topics, including biodiversity loss, ecosystem services, invasive species, genetic resources, and biotechnology.

The main output of SBSTTA meetings is a set of recommendations to the COP, which are based on the scientific and technical assessments conducted during its sessions. These recommendations provide guidance to Parties and other stakeholders on key issues related to the implementation of the CBD.

For example, in 2007, SBSTTA recommended that the biodiversity COP consider the potential impacts of synthetic biology on biodiversity and ecosystems and encourage Parties to undertake further research, risk assessments, and regulatory measures to address any potential risks associated with the release of synthetic organisms into the environment.

This recommendation was later taken up by the CBD COP, leading to the adoption of decisions on synthetic biology, including Decision XIII/17, which encouraged Parties to continue their efforts to address the potential positive and negative impacts of synthetic biology on biodiversity, and take a  precautionary approach.

A more recent example is the SBSTTA’s recommendation from 2018 that the COP should encourage Parties to mainstream biodiversity considerations into sectoral and cross-sectoral policies, plans, and programs, including those pertaining to agriculture, fisheries, forestry, tourism, energy, and infrastructure.

The CBD COP later agreed with this suggestion, which led to the adoption of decisions and guidelines on mainstreaming biodiversity across sectors. One of these was Decision XIV/4, which asked Parties to do more to mainstream biodiversity into relevant sectors and to encourage synergies between the goals of sustainable development and biodiversity conservation.

SBSTTA and Genetically Modified Mosquitoes

SBSTTA-26 has a large number of issues on its agenda. Most prominent among them are: 1) creating a monitoring framework for the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework; 2) synthetic biology; 3) detection and identification of living modified organisms; and 4) biodiversity and health.

It is expected that under the detection and identification of living modified organisms, genetically engineered mosquitoes for Malaria prevention will be discussed. Research on genetically engineered mosquitoes for malaria control has been an area of interest and investigation for several years, although little information is available on it in the public domain.

Scientists in many countries, including in the United States and Brazil, have been exploring various genetic modification techniques to create mosquitoes that are resistant to the malaria parasite or are unable to transmit the disease. One approach involves genetically modifying mosquitoes to produce antibodies that neutralize the malaria parasite when it enters their bodies.

The other approach is to use “Gene Drive Technology,” which involves modifying mosquitoes in a way that ensures the modified genes are passed on to a high proportion of their offspring. Already, many field trials of genetically engineered mosquitoes have been conducted or are underway in different parts of the world, most notably those conducted by the company Oxitec in Brazil and the Cayman Islands.

At the SBSTTA, scientific and technical advisors will look closely at the important environmental and ethical considerations related to GE mosquitoes. According to the World Health Organization’s 2023 World Malaria Report, there has been an increase in malaria infections all over the world as a result of climate change. However, several countries and organizations have serious reservations against the release of GM mosquitoes, which they believe may have an irreversible and devastating impact on local biodiversity. One of the most vocal organizations against GE/GM mosquitoes has been Friends of the Earth, a US-based environmental advocacy group. Dana Perls, senior program manager at Friends of the Earth, said, “Significant scientific research on genetically engineered mosquitoes is still needed to understand the potential public health and environmental threats associated with the release of this novel genetically engineered insect.”

The SBSTTA is expected to witness passionate discussions, especially from environmental NGOs and faith-based organizations, including the need to ensure that communities are properly informed and engaged in decision-making processes, especially in the global south.

The agenda for the meetings includes creating a monitoring framework for the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, synthetic biology, detection and identification of living modified organisms, and biodiversity and health. Credit: Stella Paul/IPS

The agenda for the meetings includes creating a monitoring framework for the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, synthetic biology, detection and identification of living modified organisms, and biodiversity and health. Credit: Stella Paul/IPS

SBI: Most Crucial Agenda Items

The SBI was established under the CBD during the third meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the CBD in 1996. The SBI’s mandate includes providing guidance and recommendations to the COP on matters related to the implementation of the CBD as well as identifying obstacles and challenges that may hinder effective implementation.

Like SBSTTA, SBI also typically meets once or twice a year to conduct its work. Its discussions cover a wide range of topics related to the implementation of the CBD, including national biodiversity strategies and action plans, financial resources and mechanisms, capacity-building, and technology transfer.

Chaired by Chirra Achalender Reddy of India, the SBI in Nairobi has placed several items on its agenda. However, the most crucial ones among them are: 1) resource mobilization and financial mechanisms; 2) a review of the progress in national target setting; and 3) the updating of national biodiversity strategies and action plans.

As IPS recently reported, only a handful of countries have so far been able to submit their updated biodiversity action plans, while the rest are said to be facing multiple challenges in doing so, including a lack of capacity. In fact, Kenya, the host country of these meetings, has not been able to submit their updated action plan yet.

On Monday, in her inaugural address during the opening ceremony of SBSTTA, Ingrid Andersen, the Executive Director of UNEP, acknowledged that a lack of capacity to revise and update their action plans has been reported by several member states. “Capacity building is a serious issue and at the SBSTTA and SBI, this will be seriously discussed,” Andersen said.

David Ainsworth, the Communications Director of UNCBD, said that the capacity is lacking in several areas, including communications (where countries do not know how to communicate to different ministries the need for working together to develop their biodiversity action plans), finance (lack of funding, budgetary constraints), and knowledge.

“Perhaps the most crucial of these is finance and this will be seriously discussed at the SBI,” Ainsworth said.

IPS UN Bureau Report