When U.S. Officials Show You Who They Are, Believe Them

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Opinion

© UNICEF/Tess Ingram
Parts of the city of Khan Younis are now almost unrecognizable after more than eight months of intense bombardment, UN officers report. Credit: UNICEF/Tess Ingram

SAN FRANCISCO, Jun 21 2024 (IPS) – “When someone shows you who they are,” Maya Angelou said, “believe them the first time.” That should apply to foreign-policy elites who show you who they are, time after time.


Officials running the Pentagon and State Department have been in overdrive for more than 250 days in support of Israel’s ongoing slaughter of Palestinian civilians in Gaza. Supposedly dedicated to defense and diplomacy, those officials have worked to implement and disguise Washington’s war policies, which have taken more lives than any other government in this century.

Among the weapons of war, cluster munitions are especially horrific. That’s why 67 Democrats and an equal number of Republicans in the House of Representatives voted last week to prevent the U.S. government from continuing to send those weapons to armies overseas.

But more than twice as many House members voted the other way. They defeated a Pentagon funding amendment that would have prohibited the transfer of cluster munitions to other countries. The lawmakers ensured that the U.S. can keep supplying those weapons to the military forces of Ukraine and Israel.

As of now, 124 nations have signed onto a treaty banning cluster munitions, which often wreck the bodies of civilians. The “bomblets” from cluster munitions “are particularly attractive to children because they resemble a bell with a loop of ribbon at the end,” the Just Security organization explains.

But no member of Congress need worry that one of their own children might pick up such a bomblet someday, perhaps mistaking it for a toy, only to be instantly killed or maimed with shrapnel.

The Biden administration correctly responded to indications (later proven accurate) that Russia was using cluster munitions in Ukraine. On Feb. 28, 2022, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki told journalists that if the reports of Russian use of those weapons turned out to be true, “it would potentially be a war crime.”

Back then, the front page of the New York Times described “internationally banned cluster munitions” as “a variety of weapons — rockets, bombs, missiles and artillery projectiles — that disperse lethal bomblets in midair over a wide area, hitting military targets and civilians alike.”

Days later, the Times reported that NATO officials “accused Russia of using cluster bombs in its invasion,” and the newspaper added that “anti-personnel cluster bombs . . . kill so indiscriminately they are banned under international law.”

But when the Ukrainian military forces ran low on ammunition last year, the U.S. administration decided to start shipping cluster munitions to them.

“All countries should condemn the use of these weapons under any circumstances,” Human Rights Watch has declared.

BBC correspondent John Simpson summed up a quarter-century ago: “Used against human beings, cluster bombs are some of the most savage weapons of modern warfare.”

As the Congressional Research Service (CRS) reported this spring, cluster munitions “disperse large numbers of submunitions imprecisely over an extended area.” They “frequently fail to detonate and are difficult to detect,” and “can remain explosive hazards for decades.”

The CRS report added: “Civilian casualties are primarily caused by munitions being fired into areas where soldiers and civilians are intermixed, inaccurate cluster munitions landing in populated areas, or civilians traversing areas where cluster munitions have been employed but failed to explode.”

The horrible immediate effects are just the beginning. “It’s been over five decades since the U.S. dropped cluster bombs on Laos, the most bombed country in the world per capita,” Human Rights Watch points out.

“The contamination from cluster munitions remnants and other unexploded ordnance is so vast that fewer than 10 percent of affected areas have been cleared. An estimated 80 million submunitions still pose a danger, especially to curious children.”

The members of Congress who just greenlighted more cluster munitions are dodging grisly realities. The basic approach is to proceed as though such human realities don’t matter if an ally is using those weapons (or if the United States uses them, as happened in Southeast Asia, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen).

Overall, with carnage persisting in Gaza, it’s easy enough to say that Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has shown us who he is. But so has Presidente Biden, and so have the most powerful Republicans and Democrats in Congress.

While the U.S. has been supplying a large majority of the weapons and ammunition imported by Israel, a similar approach from official Washington (with ineffectual grumbling) has enabled Israel to lethally constrict food going into Gaza.

During his State of the Union address in early March, Biden announced plans for the U.S. to build a port on the Gaza coast to bring in food and other vital aid. But his speech didn’t mention the Pentagon’s expectation that such a seaport could take 60 days to become operational.

At the time, a Common Dreams headline summed up the hollowness of the gambit: “Biden Aid Port Plan Rebuked as ‘Pathetic’ PR Effort as Israel Starves Gazans.” Even at full tilt, the envisioned port would not come anywhere near compensating for Israel’s methodical blockage of aid trucks — by far the best way to get food to 2.2 million people facing starvation.

“We are talking about a population that is starving now,” said Ziad Issa, the head of humanitarian policy for ActionAid. “We have already seen children dying of hunger.”

An official at Save the Children offered a reality check: “Children in Gaza cannot wait to eat. They are already dying from malnutrition, and saving their lives is a matter of hours or days — not weeks.”

The Nation described “the tragic absurdity of Biden’s Gaza policies: the U.S. government is making elaborate plans to ameliorate a humanitarian catastrophe that would not exist without its own bombs.”

And this week — more than three months after the ballyhooed drumroll about plans for a port on the Gaza coast — news broke that the whole thing is a colossal failure even on its own terms.

“The $230 million temporary pier that the U.S. military built on short notice to rush humanitarian aid to Gaza has largely failed in its mission, aid organizations say, and will probably end operations weeks earlier than originally expected,” the New York Times reported on June 18. “In the month since it was attached to the shoreline, the pier has been in service only about 10 days. The rest of the time, it was being repaired after rough seas broke it apart, detached to avoid further damage or paused because of security concerns.”

As Israel’s crucial military patron, the U.S. government could insist on an end to the continual massacre of civilians in Gaza and demand a complete halt to interference with aid deliveries. Instead, Israel continues to inflict “unconscionable death and suffering” while mass starvation is closing in.

Maya Angelou’s advice certainly applies. When the president and a big congressional majority show that they are willing accomplices to mass murder, believe them.

It’s fitting that Angelou, a renowned poet and writer, gave her voice to words from Rachel Corrie, who was crushed to death one day in 2003 while standing in front of an Israeli army bulldozer as it moved to demolish a Palestinian family’s home in Gaza.

A few years after Corrie died, Angelou recorded a video while reading from an email that the young activist sent: “We are all born and someday we’ll all die. Most likely to some degree alone. What if our aloneness isn’t a tragedy? What if our aloneness is what allows us to speak the truth without being afraid? What if our aloneness is what allows us to adventure — to experience the world as a dynamic presence — as a changeable, interactive thing?”

Norman Solomon is the national director of RootsAction.org and executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy. He is the author of many books including War Made Easy. His latest book, ‘War Made Invisible: How America Hides the Human Toll of Its Military Machine‘, was published in 2023 by The New Press.

IPS UN Bureau

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New Caledonia: Time to Talk about Decolonisation

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Opinion

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LONDON, Jun 20 2024 (IPS) – The violence that rocked New Caledonia last month has subsided. French President Emmanuel Macron has recently announced the suspension of changes to voting rights in the Pacific island nation, annexed by his country in 1853. His attempt to introduce these changes sparked weeks of violence.


Colonial legacies

Scattered around the world are 13 territories once part of the French Empire that haven’t achieved independence. Their status varies. Some, such as Guadeloupe and Martinique, have the same legal standing as French mainland regions. Others have more autonomy. New Caledonia is in a category of its own: since the 1998 Nouméa Accord, named after New Caledonia’s capital, France agreed to a gradual transfer of power. Currently, France determines New Caledonia’s defence, economic, electoral, foreign and migration policies.

The Accord came in response to a rising independence movement led by Kanak people, the country’s Indigenous inhabitants. Kanaks make up around 40 per cent of the population, with the rest being people of European descent and smaller groups of Asian, Oceanian and mixed heritage. Kanaks experienced severe discrimination under French colonial rule, and for a period were confined to reservations.

An independence movement formed after a fresh wave of Europeans arrived in the 1970s to work in the nickel-mining industry. New Caledonia is the world’s fourth-largest producer of nickel, a key ingredient in stainless steel and, increasingly, electric vehicle batteries. The nickel boom highlighted the divide in economic opportunities. Unrest lead to worsening violence and, eventually, the Nouméa Accord.

A downturn in the industry has deepened economic strife, exacerbating the poverty, inequality and unemployment many Kanaks experience. Today, around a third of Kanaks live in poverty compared to nine per cent of non-Kanaks.

Multiple referendums

The Accord created different electoral rolls for voting in mainland France and in New Caledonian elections and referendums, where the roll is frozen and only people who lived in the country in 1998 and their children can vote. These limitations were intended to give Kanak people a greater say in three independence referendums provided for in the Accord.

Referendums took place in 2018, 2020 and 2021, and the pro-independence camp lost every time. The 2020 vote was close, with around 47 per cent in favour of independence. But the December 2021 referendum was held amid a boycott by pro-independence parties, which called for a postponement due to the COVID-19 pandemic: an outbreak that began in September 2021 left 280 people dead, most of them Kanak. Independence campaigners complained the vote impinged on traditional Kanak mourning rituals, making it impossible to campaign.

Almost 97 per cent of those who voted rejected independence, but the boycott meant only around 44 per cent of eligible people voted, compared to past turnouts of over 80 per cent.

France viewed this referendum as marking the completion of the Nouméa Accord. Macron made clear he considered the issue settled and appointed anti-independence people to key positions. The independence movement insisted that the vote, imposed by France against its wishes, wasn’t valid and another should be held.

Since the Accord was agreed, the far right has risen to prominence in France, as seen in the recent European Parliament elections. French politics and its politicians have become more racist, with mainstream parties, including Macron’s, tacking rightwards in response to the growing popularity of the far-right National Rally party. The ripple effect in New Caledonia is growing polarisation. As French politicians have promoted a narrow understanding of national identity, New Caledonia’s anti-independence movement has become more emboldened.

China’s push for closer ties with Pacific countries has also raised Oceania’s strategic importance. The US government and its allies, including France, have responded by paying renewed attention to a long-neglected region. France may be less willing to tolerate independence than before, particularly given the growing demand for electric vehicles.

State of emergency

The immediate cause of the protests was the French government’s plan to extend the franchise to anyone who has lived in New Caledonia for more than 10 years. For the independence movement, this was a unilateral departure from the Nouméa Accord’s principles and a setback for prospects for decolonisation and self-determination. Tens of thousands took part in protests against the change, approved by the French National Assembly but pending final confirmation.

On 13 May, clashes between pro-independence protesters and security forces led to riots. Rioters burned down hundreds of buildings in Nouméa. Communities set up barricades and people formed defence groups. Eight people are reported to have died.

France declared a state of emergency and brought in around 3,000 troops to suppress the violence, a move many in civil society criticised as heavy-handed. French authorities also banned TikTok. It was the first time a European Union country has made such a move, potentially setting a dangerous precedent.

Dialogue needed

Macron, who paid a brief visit once violence had subsided, has said the electoral changes will be suspended to allow for dialogue. His decision to gamble on early elections in France in the wake of his European election defeat has bought him some time.

This time should be used to build bridges and address the evident fact that many Kanak people don’t feel listened to. This goes beyond the question of the franchise. There are deep and unaddressed problems of economic and social exclusion. Many of those involved in violence were young, unemployed Kanaks who feel life has little to offer.

As a consequence of recent developments, New Caledonia is now more divided than it’s been in decades. The question of independence hasn’t been settled. Many Kanak people feel betrayed. For them, before there can be any extension of the franchise, France must agree to complete the unfinished process of decolonisation.

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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Haiti: Transitional Administration Faces Stern Test

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

Opinion

Credit: Bruna Prado/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

LONDON, Jun 14 2024 (IPS) – There’s been recent change in violence-torn Haiti – but whether much-needed progress results remains to be seen.

Acting prime minister Garry Conille was sworn in on 3 June. A former UN official who briefly served as prime minister over a decade ago, Conille was the compromise choice of the Transitional Presidential Council. The Council formed in April to temporarily assume the functions of the presidency following the resignation of de facto leader Ariel Henry.


Upsurge in violence

Haiti has seen intense and widespread gang violence since the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in July 2021. Henry was finally forced out as the conflict escalated still further. In February, two major gang networks joined forces. The gangs attacked Haiti’s main airport, forcing it to close for almost three months and stopping Henry returning from abroad.

Gangs took control of police stations and Hait’s two biggest jails, releasing over 4,000 prisoners. The violence targeted an area of the capital, Port-au-Prince, previously considered safe, where the presidential palace, government headquarters and embassies are located. Haitian citizens paid a heaver price: the UN estimates that around 2,500 people were killed or injured in gang violence in the first quarter of this year, a staggering 53 per cent increase on the previous quarter.

Henry won’t be missed by civil society. He was widely seen as lacking any legitimacy. Moïse announced his appointment shortly before his assassination, but it was never formalised, and he then won a power struggle thanks in part to the support of foreign states. His tenure was a blatant failure. It was when the gangs seemed on the verge of taking full control of Port-au-Prince that Henry finally lost US support.

Now the USA, other states and the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) have thrown their weight behind the Council and a Kenya-led international police force, which has recently begun to deploy.

Contested developments

Gang leaders can be expected to maintain their resistance to these developments. The most prominent, ex-police officer Jimmy Chérizier, demands a role in any talks. But this looks like posturing. Chérizier likes to portray himself as a revolutionary, on the side of poor people against elites. But the gangs are predatory. They kill innocent people, and it’s the poorest who suffer the most. The things the gangs make their money from – including kidnapping for ransom, extortion and smuggling – benefit from weak law enforcement and a lack of central authority. Gang leaders are best served by maximum chaos for as long as possible, and when that ends will seek an accommodation with favourable politicians, as they’ve enjoyed before.

Political squabbling suits the gangs, which makes it a concern that it took extensive and protracted negotiations to establish the Council. The opaque process was evidently characterised by self-interested manoeuvring as politicians jockeyed for position and status.

The resulting body has nine members: seven with voting rights and two observers. Six of the seven come from political groupings, with the seventh a private sector representative. One observer represents religious groups and the other civil society: Régine Abraham, a crop scientist by profession, from the Rally for a National Agreement.

The Council’s formation was shortly followed by the arrival of an advance force of Kenyan police, with more to follow. It’s been a long time coming. The current plan for an international police force was adopted by a UN Security Council resolution in October 2023. The government of Kenya took the lead, offering a thousand officers, with smaller numbers to come from elsewhere. But Kenya’s opposition won a court order temporarily preventing the move. Henry was in Kenya to sign a mutual security agreement to circumvent the ruling when he was left stranded by the airport closure.

Many Haitians are rightly wary of the prospect of foreign powers getting involved. The country has a dismal history of self-serving international interference, particularly by the US government, while UN forces have been no saviours. A peacekeeping mission from 2004 to 2017 committed sexual abuse and introduced cholera. This will be the 11th UN-organised mission since 1993, and all have been accused of human rights violations.

Civil society points to the Kenyan police’s long track record of committing violence and rights abuses, and is concerned it won’t understand local dynamics. There’s also the question of whether resources spent on the mission wouldn’t be better used to properly equip and support Haiti’s forces, which have consistently been far less well equipped than the gangs. Previous international initiatives have manifestly failed to help strengthen the capacity of Haitian institutions to protect rights and uphold the rule of law.

Time to listen

Haitian civil society is right to criticise the current process as falling short of expectations. It’s an impossible task to expect one person to represent the diversity of Haiti’s civil society, no matter how hard they try. And that person doesn’t even have a vote: the power to make decisions by majority vote is in the hands of political parties many feel helped create the current mess.

The Council is also a male-dominated institution: Abraham is its only female member. With gangs routinely using sexual violence as a weapon, the Council hardly seems in good shape to start building a Haiti free of violence against women and girls.

And given the role of international powers in bringing it about, the Council – just like the Kenya-led mission – is open to the accusation of being just another foreign intervention, giving rise to suspicions about the motives of those behind it.

The latest steps could be the start of something better, but only if they’re built on and move in the right direction. Civil society is pushing for more from the government: for much more women’s leadership and civil society engagement. For the Kenya-led mission, civil society is urging strong human rights safeguards, including a means for complaints to be heard if the mission, like all its predecessors, commits human rights abuses. This shouldn’t be too much to ask.

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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African Activists Call on the West to Finance Climate Action

Africa, Civil Society, Climate Change Finance, Climate Change Justice, Conferences, Development & Aid, Editors’ Choice, Environment, Featured, Global, Headlines, Human Rights, Humanitarian Emergencies, Sustainable Development Goals, TerraViva United Nations

Climate Change Finance

Activists at Bonn accuse developed countries of frustrating the process on climate finance. Pictured here are Danni Taaffe, Head of Communications at Climate Action Network (CAN), Mohamed Adow of Power Shift Africa and Sven Harmeling, Head of Climate at CAN. Credit: Isaiah Esipisu/IPS

Activists at Bonn accuse developed countries of frustrating the process on climate finance. Pictured here are Danni Taaffe, Head of Communications at Climate Action Network (CAN), Mohamed Adow of Power Shift Africa and Sven Harmeling, Head of Climate at CAN. Credit: Isaiah Esipisu/IPS

BONN, Jun 13 2024 (IPS) – As the technical session of the global climate negotiations enters the final stretch in Bonn, Germany, climate activists from Africa have expressed fears that negotiators from the developed world are dragging their feet in a way to avoid paying their fair share to tackle the climate crisis.

“I think we will be unfair to the snail if we say that the Bonn talks have all along moved at a snail pace,” quipped Mohammed Adow, the Director, Power Shift Africa.


“Ideally, there will be no climate action anywhere without climate finance. Yet what we have seen is that developed countries are frustrating the process, blocking the UAE annual dialogues, which were agreed upon last year in Dubai, to focus on the delivery of finance so as to give confidence to developing countries to implement climate actions,” said Adow.

According to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the United Arab Emirates (UAE) dialogue was created to focus on climate finance in relation to implementing the first Global Stoke Take (GST-1) outcomes, with the rationale of serving as a follow up mechanism dedicated to climate finance, ensuring response to and/or monitoring of, as may be appropriate and necessary, all climate finance items under the GST

The two-week Bonn technical session of Subsidiary Bodies (SB60) was expected to develop an infrastructure for the New Collective Quantified Goal (NCQG), a climate change funding mechanism to raise the floor of climate finance for developing countries above the current $100 billion annual target.

In 2009, during the 15th Conference of Parties (COP15) of the UNFCCC in Copenhagen, developed countries agreed that by 2020, they would collectively mobilize $100 billion per year to support priorities for developing countries in terms of adaptation to climate crisis, loss and damage, just energy transition and climate change mitigation.

When parties endorsed the Paris Agreement at COP 21 in 2015, they found it wise to set up the NCQG, which has to be implemented at the forthcoming COP 29, whose agenda has to be set at the SB60 in Bonn, providing scientific and technological advice, thereby shaping negotiations in Azerbaijan.

However, activists feel that the agenda being set in Bonn is likely to undermine key outcomes of previous negotiations, especially on climate finance.

“We came to Bonn with renewed hope that the NCQG discussions will be honest and frank with all parties committed to seeing that the finance mechanism will be based on the priorities and needs of developing countries and support country-driven strategies, with a focus on Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) and National Adaptation Plans (NAPs),” said Memory Zonde-Kachambwa, the Executive Director, FEMNET.

“Seeing the devastation climate change is causing in our countries in terms of floods, storms, and droughts, among other calamities, it was our hope that the rich countries would be eager and willing to indicate the Quantum as per Article 9.5 of the Paris Agreement so as to allow developing countries to plan their climate action,” she said.

So far, negotiators from the North have been pushing for collective “mobilization of financial resources,” which African activists believe is merely the privatization of climate finance within NCQG, thus surrendering poor countries to climate-debt speculators and further impoverishing countries clutching onto debt.

Also in the spotlight was the Global Goal on Adaptation (GGA), where the activists feel that the means of implementation is being vehemently fought by the parties from developed countries.

“Adaptation must be funded from public resources and must not be seen as a business opportunity open to private sector players,” said Dr. Augustine Njamnshi, an environmental policy and governance law expert and the Executive Secretary of the African Coalition for Sustainable Energy and Access. “Without clear indications on the means of implementation, GGA is an empty shell and it is not fit-for-purpose.”

According to Ambassador Ali Mohammed, the incoming Chair for the African Group of Negotiators (AGN), the SB60 is an opportunity to rebuild trust in the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities.

“That trust can only be rebuilt if we come out of Bonn with a quantum that adequately covers the needs of the continent,” he said, noting that the figure Africa is asking for, which is to be part of the agenda for COP29, is USD 1.3 trillion per year by 2030.

IPS UN Bureau Report

 

Venezuela’s Opportunity for Democracy

Civil Society, Crime & Justice, Democracy, Featured, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, Press Freedom, TerraViva United Nations

Opinion

Credit: Jimmy Villalta/VW Pics/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay, Jun 10 2024 (IPS) – Venezuela’s 28 July presidential election could offer a genuine chance of democratic transition. Despite an array of challenges, the opposition is coming into the campaign unified behind a single candidate. Many Venezuelans seem prepared to believe that voting could deliver change.

But the authoritarian government is digging in its heels. The opposition reasonably fears the election could be suspended or the government could suppress the opposition vote. Large-scale fraud can’t be ruled out.


All credible opinion polls show that authoritarian president Nicolás Maduro, in power since the death of Hugo Chávez in 2013 and seeking a third term in office, is highly unpopular. But his United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) extensively controls the state apparatus. Electoral authorities aren’t neutral and the election system is riddled with irregularities. A recent decision by the government-controlled National Electoral Council (CNE) excluded from voting over five million Venezuelans who’ve emigrated.

If the opposition defeats the PSUV at the polls, the government will only accept the results if the costs of repression outweigh the costs of withdrawal. This means some form of exit guarantees will need to be agreed. An agreement to coexist would also be needed for a transition period that could last several years, during which PSUV supporters would continue to hold important positions and the party would need to be given the chance to reinvent itself as a participant in democratic processes.

Civil society in resistance mode

Venezuelan civil society has long played a key role in promoting democracy and defending human rights. But civic space has increasingly been shut down, with activists and journalists routinely subjected to threats, harassment, intimidation, raids, arrests, detention and prosecution by courts lacking any independence.

Many civil society organisations (CSOs) and media outlets have closed and others self-censor or have changed their focus to avoid reprisals. Numerous journalists, academics and activists have joined the exodus to other countries.

The government give repression legal cover through a barrage of laws and regulations, supposedly on grounds such as the defence of sovereignty and the fight against terrorism. Many of these, starting with the 2010 National Sovereignty and Self-Determination Law, sought to restrict access to funding to financially suffocate civil society.

In 2017, the state introduced the Constitutional Law Against Hatred, for Tolerance and Peaceful Coexistence, known as the Anti-Hate Law, imposing heavy punishments, including lengthy jail sentences, for inciting hatred or violence through electronic means, including social media. The law leaves the definition of what constitutes hate speech to the government-aligned courts.

In 2021, the government passed an International Cooperation Act that includes a mandatory register of CSOs and an obligation to provide sensitive information.

The government has doubled down ahead of the election. In January, the National Assembly approved the first reading of a draft law known as the Anti-NGO Law, which would prohibit CSOs from engaging in vaguely defined ‘political activities’. The National Assembly is also currently discussing a law against fascism, aimed at banning and criminalising ideas, expressions and activities it deems to be ‘fascist’.

A united opposition

Over the years, the opposition has found it hard to present a unified front and a credible alternative. But this has changed in the run-up to the 2024 election, with the opposition agreeing to select a single presidential candidate.

María Corina Machado emerged as a consensus candidate with over 90 per cent of the vote at the October 2023 primary election. More than two million people were said to have taken part, defying threats from the authorities, censorship and physical attacks on candidates.

In an attempt to regain the initiative, the government sought to stir up nationalist sentiment by activating its dispute over Essequibo Guiana, a large territory in Guyana claimed by Venezuela. In December 2023 it held and predictably won a consultative referendum on the issue.

A week after the opposition primary, the Supreme Court suspended the process and results. In December, Machado filed a Supreme Court writ, but instead the court ratified her disqualification. So on 22 March, three days before the deadline for candidate registration, she announced 80-year-old academic Corina Yoris-Villasana as her replacement.

The government couldn’t find any excuse to disqualify Yoris, so instead it blocked the registration website. Right up to the deadline, the automated system had selective technical issues that affected opposition candidates.

Following an international press conference in which Machado denounced the manoeuvre, support came from two unlikely allies, the leftist governments of Brazil and Colombia. The CNE eventually authorised a 12-hour extension to register its candidates.

As a result of further negotiations in April, all registered opposition candidates withdrew apart from one. The compromise candidate was former diplomat Edmundo González Urrutia, a moderate few could object to.

International community’s role

Some countries, notably European Union (EU) members and the USA, have supported the Venezuelan opposition and urged the government to respect human rights and hold free and fair elections.

Anything the USA does is open to the accusation of imperialist interference, but the EU has been able to supply a credible set of proposals on how to hold fair elections. Recommendations of its report following 2021 regional and municipal elections included strengthening the separation of powers, abolishing disqualifications, holding a public voter education campaign, allowing balanced media coverage, repealing the Anti-Hate Law and ensuring enough properly trained and accredited polling station officials are available on election day.

However, the EU’s role in the upcoming election remains in doubt. After the European Parliament passed a resolution condemning Machado’s disqualification, the National Assembly leader said the EU wouldn’t be allowed to do election observation.

A key step in the right direction was taken in October 2023, just ahead of the primary, when government and opposition representatives met in Barbados and signed an agreement on the right of political organisations to choose their presidential candidates, an electoral timetable and a set of procedural guarantees.

The day after the signing of the Barbados Agreement, the US government eased its oil and gas sanctions but warned it would reinstate them if the government didn’t honour its commitments; in April 2023, it brought them back. The Venezuelan government immediately breached the agreement’s first point, as it initiated legal proceedings against the opposition primary.

Upon the signing of the agreement, the US Secretary of State also said that political prisoners were expected to be released by November. Five were immediately freed, but many more remain behind bars. Their release is a key opposition demand ahead of the election.

Two months before the big day, everything hangs in the balance. The unofficial campaign is well underway. Machado and González are touring the country, promising orderly and peaceful change. The government has launched an aggressive smear and disinformation campaign against González. Relentless harassment follows Machado wherever she goes. Local activists are routinely arrested following opposition rallies in their area.

There are surely many more twists and turns ahead. The Venezuelan government is used to ignoring international criticism, but it’s harder when calls to respect the democratic process come from leftist Latin American leaders. They can play a key role in urging Venezuela to let genuine elections happen and accept the results. The logic of democracy is that sooner or later Maduro will have to go. It would be wise for him to start negotiating the how.

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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India’s Election: Cracks Start to Show in Authoritarian Rule

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

Opinion

Credit: Himanshu Sharma/picture alliance via Getty Images

LONDON, Jun 7 2024 (IPS) – India’s Hindu nationalist strongman Narendra Modi has won his third prime ministerial term. But the result of the country’s April-to-June election fell short of the sweeping triumph that seemed within his grasp.

Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has shed seats compared to the 2019 election, losing its parliamentary majority. Modi remains prime minister thanks to coalition partners. It’s a long way from the 400-seat supermajority Modi proclaimed he wanted – which would have given him power to rewrite the constitution.


The outcome may be that Modi faces more checks on his power. If so, that can only be good news for those he’s consistently attacked – including civil society and India’s Muslim minority.

Modi’s crackdown

Under Modi, in power since 2014, civic space conditions have deteriorated. India’s election was accompanied by the usual headlines about the country being the world’s largest democracy. But India’s democracy has long been underpinned by an active, vibrant and diverse civil society. Modi has sought to constrain this civic energy, seeing it as a hindrance to his highly centralised and personalised rule.

Modi’s government has repeatedly used repressive laws, including the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, to harass, intimidate and detain activists and journalists on fabricated charges. Law enforcement agencies have raided numerous civil society organisations and media companies. In October 2023, for example, police raided the homes of around 40 staff members of the NewsClick portal and detained its editor.

This was one of many attacks on media freedoms. Independent journalists routinely face harassment, intimidation, threats, violence, arrests and prosecution. Last year, the government banned a BBC documentary on Modi, followed by tax investigation raids on the corporation’s Indian offices.

The authorities have also used the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act to block access to international funding for civil society organisations, targeting those critical of their attacks on human rights. In 2020, the government amended the law to make it even stricter, extending powers to freeze bank accounts. Since the start of 2022, the authorities have cancelled registrations of almost 6,000 organisations.

The authorities have also unleashed violence against protesters. In 2019, citizenship legislation created a way for undocumented migrants to become Indian citizens – but only if they weren’t Muslim. Despite India’s secular constitution, the law introduced religious criteria into the determination of citizenship. The passage of this discriminatory law brought tens of thousands to the streets. Security forces responded with beatings, teargas and arrests, accompanied by internet shutdowns.

It was the same when farmers protested in 2020 and 2021, believing new farming laws would undermine their ability to make a living. The farmers ultimately triumphed, with Modi repealing the unpopular laws. But several farmers died as a result of the authorities’ heavy-handed response, including when a minister’s car ploughed into a crowd of protesters. Once again, the authorities shut down internet and mobile services, and police used batons and teargas and arrested many protesters.

As the new citizenship law made clear, those who have least access to rights are the ones most under attack. Muslims are the BJP’s favourite target, since it seeks to recast the country as an explicitly Hindu nation. The party’s politicians have consistently stoked anti-Muslim hatred, including over the wearing of hijabs, interfaith marriage and the protection of cows – a revered animal in Hinduism.

Modi has been accused of spreading anti-Muslim hate speech and conspiracy theories, including on the campaign trail. During the election, he called Muslims ‘infiltrators’ and alluded to India’s version of a narrative often advanced by far-right parties – that a minority population is out to replace the majority through a higher birthrate and the conversion of partners.

The BJP’s populist rhetoric has encouraged hatred and violence. In 2020, Delhi saw its worst riots in decades, sparked by violence at a protest against the citizenship law. Groups of Hindus and Muslims fought each other and 53 people were killed, most of them Muslims.

Top-down institutional violence followed the unilateral revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special autonomous status in 2019. The removal of constitutional protections for this Muslim-majority region was accompanied by a military occupation, curfew, public meeting ban, movement restrictions and one of the world’s longest-ever internet shutdowns. Indian government authorities have detained thousands of Kashmiri activists and criminalised countless journalists.

Disinformation thrives

Ahead of the election, the state detained key opposition politicians such as Delhi’s Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and froze opposition bank accounts, including of the main opposition party, Congress. Almost all politicians investigated by the government’s Enforcement Directorate are from the opposition.

Indian elections always take several weeks, given the huge logistical challenge of allowing up to 969 million people to vote. But this one, spread over 82 days, was unusually long. This allowed Modi to travel the country and make as many appearances as possible, representing a campaign that put his personality front and centre.

Disinformation was rife in the campaign. BJP politicians spread claims that Muslims were engaged in what they called a ‘vote jihad’ against Hindus, accompanied by accusations that the opposition would favour Muslims. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi was a particular target, with false allegations of links to China and Pakistan and doctored videos in circulation.

But despite the many challenges, the opposition coalition performed better than expected. The result suggests at least some are tired of the Modi personality cult and politics of polarisation. And for all the BJP’s attempts to emphasise economic success, many voters don’t feel better off. What matters to them are rising prices and unemployment, and they judged the incumbent accordingly.

It’s to be hoped the result leads to a change in style, with less divisive rhetoric and more emphasis on compromise and consensus building. That may be a tall order, but the opposition might now be better able to play its proper accountability role. Modi has lost his sheen of invincibility. For civil society, this could open up opportunities to push back and urge the government to stop its onslaught.

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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