Argentina: Civil Society’s Urgent Call to Protect Rights

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Opinion

First Round of the elections in Argentina in 2023. Credit: Midia Ninja

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina, Jul 2 2024 (IPS) – Between the Mafia and the State, I prefer the Mafia. The mafia has codes, it keeps its promises, it doesn’t lie, it’s competitive. If a company pollutes a river, where is the damage? The sale of organs is a market like any other. Abortion should be considered “aggravated murder”.


These are just a couple of quotes from former TV pundit Javier Milei, now president of Argentina, as he makes anti-progressism his trademark, borrowying from the ready-made discourse of the globalalt-right. He claims that global warming is “another lie of socialism”.

In recent months, Argentina has witnessed a significant shift under his new administration that threatens to undermine the very fabric of its civil society and democratic governance.

On June 12th, there was a violent crackdown on protesters outside the National Congress, involving the use of batons, tear gas, and rubber bullets. Several individuals were arrested arbitrarily and subsequently labeled as “terrorists” by the government, a move clearly intended to intimidate civil society and criminalize protest. These detainees have been transferred to federal prisons, where reports indicate continued abuse, including the use of pepper spray, physical violence, and denial of basic rights.

Last Friday, the government sent another controversial bill to Congress looking to lower the age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 13, even though minors commit less than 1% of serious crimes in Argentina. A proposal that was labelled by opposers as “pure smoke and mirrors.”

Since taking office, President Javier Milei’s administration has received significant international criticism, including from UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights which has scheduled a hearing on July 11th to address the situation.

“A President proud to repress”, this is what various media across Argentina wrote as Milei went as far as accusing protesters of being “terrorists” and said police violence prevented a “coup d’état”.

These alarming development mark a stark contrast to the country’s long-standing commitment to democracy and human rights, a commitment that has been painstakingly nurtured since the end of its brutal military dictatorship in 1983.

Moreover, this change of administration has been accompanied by an abrupt “retreat” of the state from its historic role as guarantor of the rights of its citizens. This abdication by the State of its essential responsibilities adds even more concerns to the already alarming measures explicitly restricting civic space.

Javier Milei’s aggressive and theatrical style – from superhero costumes to wielding a chainsaw to illustrate his plans to cut down the size of the state – has led some to compare him to Donald Trump in the US or Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil. This shift, alongside the blurring of ideological lines between the Peronist and Together for Change coalitions, has implications for Argentina’s political landscape and on civic space.

Argentina’s civil society organizations, long the backbone of its democratic resilience and human rights advocacy, face unprecedented challenges.

Legislative proposals aimed at restricting their activities, coupled with limitations on freedom of expression and the right to protest, have sent shockwaves through the community. The administration’s policies include drastic public spending cuts, the closure of state institutions dedicated to women’s rights and access to justice, and a suspension of participation in international events related to the 2030 Agenda.

A recent protocol, announced by Security Minister Patricia Bullrich, involves identifying protesters through various means and then billing them for the costs incurred by deploying security forces to police the demonstrations. Human rights activists, opposition legislators, and organizations like the Centre of Legal Studies (CELS) argue that these measures effectively criminalize legitimate protests and violate constitutional rights. The government’s allies, such as legislator José Luis Espert, have responded with aggressive rhetoric: “Prison or bullet”.

Recently, a violent attack against a member of the organization H.I.J.O.S., known for its fight against impunity for the crimes of the last civil-military dictatorship and for the defense of human rights, has been denounced. This attack, characterized by its brutality and strong political message, reflects an alarming increase in violence against activists and civil society organizations. The attackers, by leaving the acronym VLLC (“Viva la libertad, carajo!”), associated with President Javier Milei, insinuate a disturbing link between government rhetoric and violent actions directed against “dissidents”.

These proposals, exacerbated by the country’s ongoing economic and social crises, pose new hurdles for civil society’s ability to operate and advocate for public interests.

Argentina’s history, marked by the dark years of dictatorship between 1976 and 1983, serves as a reminder of the cost of silence and inaction. The country’s journey to reclaim democracy and human rights was arduous, characterized by relentless efforts to acknowledge and compensate the victims of past repression. The current administration’s move to revise policies related to memory, truth, and human rights threatens to undo decades of progress, challenging the very essence of Argentina’s democratic sphere.

The international community, particularly organizations dedicated to the promotion of human rights and the preservation of historical memory, such as UNESCO, must heed this call to action.

The situation in Argentina requires a collective effort to support its civil society, advocate for the protection of civic space, and ensure that the lessons of the past are not forgotten.

This article was written by the Entidades no Gubernamentales para el Desarrollo (EENGD) – Red Encuentro, the national NGO platform of Argentina, in collaboration with the global civil society network Forus.

IPS UN Bureau

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Haiti: Transitional Administration Faces Stern Test

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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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Venezuela’s Opportunity for Democracy

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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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Uniting for Climate Action: UN, World Bank and UNDRR Leaders Push for Climate Finance, Justice and Nature-Based Solutions for SIDS

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Climate Change Finance

Panelists at SDG Media Zone at SIDS4, Antigua and Barbuda. Credit: Alison Kentish/IPS

Panelists at SDG Media Zone at SIDS4, Antigua and Barbuda. Credit: Alison Kentish/IPS

ANTIGUA & BARBUDA, May 29 2024 (IPS) – As leaders of Small Island Developing States (SIDS) meet for the 4th International Conference on SIDS in Antigua this week, top United Nations and World Bank officials are calling for urgent action to help SIDS tackle their unique challenges and plan for the next decade.


Selwin Hart, UN Special Adviser to the Secretary-General and Assistant Secretary-General of the Climate Action Team, had a frank assessment for a United Nations SDG Media Zone event on the sidelines of the conference, known as SIDS4

“The international community has failed to deliver on its commitments to these small nations, but it’s not too late to make amends,” he said.

Hart says the world has the ‘tools, solutions, technologies, and finance’ to support SIDS, but change lies in the political will of  the countries with the greatest responsibility and capacity, particularly G20 nations, which account for almost 80 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

“A mere USD 3 billion of the USD 100 billion goal has been mobilized annually for the small island developing state and you compare that to the USD 36 billion in profit that Exxon Mobil made last year. It represents a tenth of the climate finance that SIDS are attracting and mobilizing. We need to correct these injustices and that has to be at the root of the global response to the demands and needs of  small island developing states.”

Nature-Based Solutions for Nations on the Frontlines of Climate Change
“Both natural and man-made disasters hit SIDS first,” the World Bank’s Global Director of Environment, Natural Resources, and Blue Economy, Valerie Hickey, told the Media Zone. She said that for this reason, the international lending body describes SIDS as “where tomorrow happens today,” a nod to small islands’ role as ‘innovation incubators,’ who must adapt to climate change through the creative and sustainable use of natural capital, biodiversity, and nature-based solutions.

She says nature capital also shifts the narrative, focusing less on the vulnerabilities of SIDS and more on their ingenuity.

“We don’t talk enough about the fact that small islands are where natural capital is the engine of jobs and GDP,” she said. “It is fisheries. It is nature-based tourism. These are critically important for most of the small islands and ultimately deliver not just jobs and GDP but are going to be the only technology for adaptation that is available and affordable, and affordability matters for small islands.”

For small island states seeking to adapt to a changing climate, nature-based solutions and ecosystem based adaptation are essential, but it is also necessary to tackle perennial problems that hinder growth and access to finance. That includes a dearth of current, relevant data.

“The data is too fragmented. It’s sitting on people’s laptops. It’s sitting on people’s shelves. Nobody knows what’s out there and that’s true for the private sector and the public sector,” she said.

“In the Caribbean, where there is excess capital sitting in retail banks, USD 50 billion of that can be used to invest in nature-based solutions judiciously, to work on the kind of longer-term infrastructure that would be fit for purpose both for disaster recovery and long-term growth—it’s not happening for lack of data.”

As part of SIDS4, the world’s small island developing states appear to be tackling this decades-long data problem head-on. At the event’s opening session, Antigua and Barbuda’s Prime Minister Gaston Browne said a much-promoted Centre of Excellence will be established at this conference and that this Global Data Hub for Innovative Technologies and Investment for SIDS will use data for decision-making, ensuring that SIDS’ ten-year Antigua and Barbuda Agenda (ABAS) is led by ‘accuracy and timeliness.’

Reducing Disaster Risk and Early Warning Systems for All

A discussion on SIDS is not complete without acknowledging the disproportionate impact of disasters on the island nations. Assistant Secretary-General and Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction, Kamal Kishore, says mortality rates and economic losses from disasters are significantly higher in SIDS than the global average.

“If you look at mortality from disasters, the number of deaths normalized by the population of the countries, the mortality rate in SIDS is twice that of the rest of the world. If you look at economic losses as a proportion of GDP, globally it is under one percent; in SIDS, in a single event, countries have lost 30 percent of their GDP. SIDS have lost up to two-thirds of their GDP in a single event.”

Kishore says the ambition to reduce disaster losses must match the scale of the problem. He says early warning systems are a must and have to be seen by all not as generosity but responsibility.

“It is not acceptable that anybody on planet Earth should not have access to advanced cyclone or hurricane warnings. We have the technical wherewithal to generate forecasts and warnings. We have technologies to disseminate it. We know what communities need to do and what local governments need to do in order to respond to those warnings. Why is it not happening?”

The Early Warning for All initiative was launched by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres in 2022. Kishore says 30 countries have been identified in the initial stage and a third of those countries are SIDS. Gap analyses have already been conducted and a road map has been prepared for strengthening early warning systems. The organization needs money to make it happen.

“The world needs to show some generosity and pick up the bill. It’s not in billions. It’s in millions and it will pay for itself in a single event. You invest in early warning in a country and one major event happens in the next five years, you’ve recovered your investment. The evidence is there that it makes financial sense, but we need to mobilize resources to close that gap.”

The Road Ahead

Thirty years since the first International Conference on Small Island Developing States (SIDS), the three leaders agree that there is hope, but that hope is hinged on action—an approach to development in SIDS that involves financial investment, comprehensive data collection and management and nature-based adaptation measures.

“It’s not too late,” says Selwin Hart. “What we need now is the political will to make things right for small island developing states.”

IPS UN Bureau Report

 

Small Island Nations Demand Urgent Global Action at SIDS4 Conference

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Conferences

The once-in-a-decade SIDS Conference opened in Antigua and Barbuda today, with a clear message: the world already knows the challenges that SIDS face—now it’s time for action.

King Charles III of Britain addresses the opening ceremony of the Fourth International Conference on Small Island Developing States, May 27, 2024. Credit: Alison Kentish/IPS

King Charles III of Britain addresses the opening ceremony of the Fourth International Conference on Small Island Developing States, May 27, 2024. Credit: Alison Kentish/IPS

ANTIGUA, May 27 2024 (IPS) – “This year has been the hottest in history in practically every corner of the globe, foretelling severe impacts on our ecosystems and starkly underscoring the urgency of our predicament. We are gathered here not merely to reiterate our challenges, but to demand and enact solutions,” declared Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Brown at the opening of the Fourth International Conference on Small Island Developing States on May 27.


The world’s 39 small island developing states are meeting on the Caribbean island this week. It is a pivotal, once-a-decade meeting for small states that contribute little to global warming, but are disproportionately impacted by climate change. The Caribbean leader reminded the world that SIDS are being forced to survive crises that they did not create.

“The scales of equity and justice are unevenly balanced against us. The large-scale polluters whose CO2 emissions have fuelled these catastrophic climate changes bear a responsibility—an obligation of compensation to aid in our quest to build resilience,” he said.

“The Global North must honor its commitments, including the pivotal pledge of one hundred billion dollars in climate financing to assist with adaptation and mitigation as well as the effective capitalization and operationalization of the loss and damage fund. These are imperative investments in humanity, in justice, and in the equitable future of humanity.”

Urgent Support Needed from the International Community

United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres told the gathering that the previous ten years have presented significant challenges to SIDS and hindered development. These include extreme weather events and the COVID-19 pandemic. He says SIDS, islands that are “exceptionally beautiful, exceptionally resilient, but exceptionally vulnerable,” need urgent support from the international community, led by the nations that are both responsible for the challenges they face and have the capacity to deal with them.

“The idea that an entire island state could become collateral damage for profiteering by the fossil fuel industry, or competition between major economies, is simply obscene,” the Secretary General said, adding, “Small Island Developing States have every right and reason to insist that developed economies fulfill their pledge to double adaptation financing by 2025. And we must hold them to this commitment as a bare minimum. Many SIDS desperately need adaptation measures to protect agriculture, fisheries, water resources and infrastructure from extreme climate impacts you did virtually nothing to create.”

Antigua and Barbuda Agenda for SIDS (ABAS)

The theme for SIDS4 is Charting the Course Toward Resilient Prosperity and the small islands have been praised for collective action in the face of crippling crises. Their voices were crucial to the establishment of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement.

Out of this conference will come the Antigua and Barbuda Agenda for SIDS (ABAS). President of the UN General Assembly, Dennis Francis, says that programme of action will guide SIDS on a path to resilience and prosperity for the next decade.

“ The next ten years will be critical in making sustained concrete progress on the SIDS agenda – and we must make full use of this opportunity to supercharge our efforts around sustainability,” he said.

The SIDS4 conference grounds in Antigua and Barbuda will be a flurry of activity over the next four days. Apart from plenaries, there are over 170 side events hosted by youth, civil society organizations, non-governmental organizations, and universities, covering a range of issues from renewable energy to climate financing.

They have been reminded by Prime Minister Gaston Browne that this is a crucial juncture in the history of small island developing states, where “actions, or failure to act, will dictate the fate of SIDS and the legacy left for future generations.”

IPS UN Bureau Report

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Panama’s Elections: Has Impunity Prevailed?

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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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