Halfway to 2030: Our 5 Asks at the SDG Summit

Civil Society, Crime & Justice, Development & Aid, Environment, Global, Headlines, Human Rights, Inequality, Poverty & SDGs, Press Freedom, Sustainable Development Goals, TerraViva United Nations


A protest for women’s rights in Puebla, Mexico. Credit: Melania Torres/Forus

NEW YORK, Sep 15 2023 (IPS) – At the UN SDG Summit in New York, the Forus global civil society network is calling for decisive action on SDG implementation. Clearly, as we hit the midpoint towards the “finish line” of the Agenda 2030, progress is stagnating.

The 2023 Special Edition of the SDG Progress Report emphasized that we’re falling short in implementing the SDGs. In April this year, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres deplored that “Progress on more than 50 per cent of targets of the SDGs is weak and insufficient; on 30 per cent, it has stalled or gone into reverse,” disproportionately impacting the world’s poorest and most vulnerable.

As we approach the halfway mark of the 2030 Agenda, we urge world leaders at the UN General Assembly to address the precarious state of SDG implementation. Here’s our 5 asks.

Walk the talk with clear implementation plans and benchmarks for the realization of the Sustainable Development Goals.

“In Guatemala, there are two worlds, one for a small group that benefits from this macroeconomic stability, this weakness of democracy, this co-optation of state institutions, and a large majority of the population that faces poverty and inequality,” says Alejandro Aguirre Batres, Executive Director of CONGCOOP, the national platform of NGOs in Guatemala that recently published an alternative report on the implementation of the SDGs in the country.

Human rights activists in Cartagena, Colombia from the Coalition of Human Rights in Development at the Finance in Common Summit. Credit: Sebastian Barros/Forus

Governments must make specific national implementation plans to advance the Sustainable Development Goals, with clear benchmarks on when to achieve the targets set in 2015. Following the SDG Summit, we call on the United Nations and its partners to ensure that the “National Commitments to SDG Transformation” called for by the Secretary-General are adequately compiled and tracked, including by providing a transparent and inclusive platform for showcasing these commitments, helping to ensure adequate implementation, follow-up and accountability. All efforts and commitments must focus on breaching the increassing gap in inequalities, healing polarisation and restoring socio-environmental rights at the core of Agenda 2030 implementation as no form of development should come at the cost of environmental degradation and injustice.

Presenting a viewpoint from Asia, Jyotsna Mohan Singh, representing the Asia Development Alliance, emphasizes that while the SDGs look good on paper, their real-world implementation remains far from satisfactory. She explains, “Governments should develop a policy coherence for sustainable development roadmap with timebound targets,” adding that it’s all about creating spaces grounded in equity where civil society and other stakeholders can join discussions and connect with local communities.

In regions like the Sahel, stretching 5,000 kilometers below the Sahara Desert from the Atlantic to the Red Sea, challenges like conflict, political instability, extreme poverty, and food insecurity affect nearly 26 million people. Yet, this region is teeming with opportunities, boasting abundant resources and a young population, including 50% young women and girls. As civil society leader Mavalow Christelle Kalhoule, Forus Chair and President of SPONG, the Burkina Faso NGO network, puts it, “What unfolds in the Sahel and in so many other forgotten communities ripples across the globe, impacting us all even if we choose to look away. Implementing the Sustainable Development Goals is vital to unlock a different future. But for global change to truly happen, we need countries to come together, we need solidarity, horizontal spaces, and for world leaders to start listening and acting accordingly.”

Commit to the protection of civic space and human rights.

“Although the state of Pakistan has ratified many global instruments, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the SDGs, the irony is that none of them have been transformed into local policies and regulatory frameworks. Unfortunately, civil rights advocates and organizations have either transformed themselves into humanitarian organizations or practiced self-censorship to avoid state atrocities. Pakistan is failing to achieve SDGs due to disengagement with civil society and other stakeholders. Ironically, the government is unable to provide reliable data on any of their own priority indicators to measure progress towards the implementation of SDGs, particularly on rights-based indicators,” says Zia ur Rehman, National Convener of the Pakistan Development Alliance. Their newly published Pakistan Civic Space Monitor reveals a generally restricted civic space, including restraints on freedom of speech, assembly, information, rule of law, governance, and public participation, with further deterioration. This rings true for 92% of Forus members – comprising national and regional civil society networks in over 124 countries – who consider the protection of civic space and human rights a top priority.

Fridays for Future activists during a Climate March in Brussels, Belgium. Credit: Both Nomads/Forus

Indeed, over the past decade, thousands of civil society organizations have faced increasing challenges due to restrictions on their formation and activities. Nine out of 10 people now live in countries where civil liberties are severely restricted, including freedoms of association, peaceful assembly, and expression, according to the CIVICUS Monitor. Forus reports confirm that civil society deals with increasing restrictions, involving extra-legal actions, misinformation and disinformation about their work both online and offline. Research also highlights the insufficiency of current institutional mechanisms to ensure an enabling environment for civil society, including addressing impunity for attacks on civil society and human right defenders, implementing supportive laws and regulations, and facilitating effective and inclusive policy dialogue. A recent ARTICLE 19 report highlights the inadequate integration of crucial elements like freedom of expression and access to information into SDGs, hampering progress. Journalist killings increased in 2022. Additionally, monitoring access to information mainly focuses on having a legal framework, ignoring its quality and adoption. Strengthening these rights is vital for advancing all SDGs. The growing number of human rights defenders being killed every year – at least 401 in 26 countries were murdered for their peaceful work in 2022 – is another worrying trend that needs to be reversed as the protection and promotion of human rights is the cornerstone of achieving sustainable development. Without human rights we will just move backwards.

Strengthen and Catalyze Robust Financing for the SDGs.

From the recent Summit for a new global financing pact to the Finance in Common initiative, it’s clear that the focus this year has been on increasing investment. But we need quality not just quantity, as expressed in a join civil society declaration aimed at public development banks signed by over 100 civil society organisations from 50+ countries. While we welcome UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres’s call for a SDG Stimulus, we remind Governments, International Financial Institutions, public development banks and donors that more efforts must be done to scale up investments for the realization of the SDGs at all levels, including through additional support for civil society and by involving communities in all “development talks”. The role of the private sector and financial institutions in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda must be talked about openly. It is important to include in all development projects being carried out specific budgets for actions linked to the implementation of the 2030 Agenda. Discussions about financial reforms that are being repeatedly undertaken by several countries cannot happen behind close doors and in non-inclusive forums such as the G7 and G20. Instead, they should be open, inclusive, and transparent, involving a broader spectrum of protagonists, including civil society, to ensure fairness and sustainability in shaping global financial policies.

“The SDGs are severely off track as we reach the critical half-way point of Agenda 2030. We need a renewed global ambition on financial commitments to make progress on the SDGs. Reforms of global financial architecture are a crucial part of this to ensure we have a fairer, more effective, inclusive and transparent system supporting lower-income countries that are at the forefront of the global climate, debt, poverty, food, and humanitarian crises. It’s not about a lack of finance, it is about political will and getting our priorities right,” says Sandra Martinsone, Policy Manager – Sustainable Economic Development at Bond UK.

Mobilize Transformative Commitments for SDG16+.

Recognizing the vital role of SDG16+ as a critical enabler for the entire 2030 Agenda, governments should come to the SDG Summit with targeted, integrated, focused and transformative commitments to accelerate action on SDG16+. As developed in the #SDG16Now collective campaign, this includes domestic policies and resources, legal reforms and initiatives to advance SDG16+ at the international, national and local levels, as well as ambitious global commitments to strengthen multilateralism and international resolve to promote peace, justice, the rule of law, inclusion and institution-building. Additionally, governments must use key moments – such as the 2024 High-Level Political Forum and the Summit of the Future – to advance implementation and delivery of the SDGs through similar commitments to action, and ensure adequate follow-up to these commitments going forward.

Ensure civil society participation and listen to communities, reinvigorate commitments to SDG17.

The 2030 Agenda overall cannot be achieved without building on the role of civil society and fostering a true global partnership. Every year at the fringes of the UN General Assembly, initiatives such as the Global People’s Assembly bring to the ears of world leaders the voices of communities historically marginalised. Governments need to reinvigorate engagement towards SDG17 to trengthen the means of implementing sustainable development goals and revitalising global partnerships for sustainable development. It’s high time we move away from conducting discussions about the future of development in closed-door settings. Tokenistic participation of civil society, where their involvement is merely symbolic or superficial, undermines the core principles of nclusivity, hurting genuine progress and meaningful collaboration. A more inclusive approach must be embraced that actively involves civil society and communities. Let’s #UNmute their voices and perspectives by bringing about reforms to current participation mechanisms, and giving them a real platform to be heard.

In 2015 every government in the world agreed as a global community on what we want for our comon future for people and planet. So many efforts and work went on to reach such an agreement. Now is the time for governments and world leaders to walk the walk and prioritize people and the planet, delivering the 2030 Agenda, essential to secure our shared future. It is time for world leaders to act decisively and uphold their commitments to the SDGs.

IPS UN Bureau


Guatemala: Change Within Reach

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


Credit: Luis Acosta/AFP via Getty Images

MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay, Aug 29 2023 (IPS) – On 20 August, Guatemala witnessed a rare event: despite numerous attempts to stop it, the will of the majority prevailed. Democracy was at a dramatic crossroads, but voters got their say, and said it clearly: the country needs dramatic change and needs it now.

Bernardo Arévalo, leader of the progressive Movimiento Semilla (Seed Movement), born out of 2015 anti-corruption protests, is now Guatemala’s president-elect. All-night street celebrations erupted as early results were announced. It was a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence: politics bringing joy rather than disappointment to Guatemalans.

But renewed attempts to prevent change can be expected. What Guatemalans expect from Arévalo is a morally competent government that will bring about genuine democracy – a government looking out for the public rather than self-serving elites. The unprecedented seriousness of Arévalo’s promise is reflected in the fear his rise has fuelled among the beneficiaries of the current authoritarian kleptocracy.

A blatant manipulation of judicial institutions after the first round of voting on 25 June failed to prevent Arévalo competing in the runoff – but now the attempt is to stop his inauguration. Following the runoff, the Public Prosecutor made yet another attempt to have Semilla suspended.

The stakes are so high that an attempt to stop change by force can’t ruled out. An assassination plot involving state and non-state forces came to light days before the runoff.

For security reasons, Arévalo couldn’t address the crowds celebrating on election night. On 24 August, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights granted precautionary measures to Arévalo and vice-president-elect Karin Herrera, giving the state 15 days to report back on the adoption of additional measures – both already have state-issued security – to protect their physical integrity.

Guatemalans are counting the days to the inauguration of their new government, scheduled for 14 January 2024. But their hope is mingled with uncertainty and fear.

An election surprise and its aftermath

The collective mood on 20 August couldn’t have been more different from that on 25 June, when first place in the first round went to invalid votes.

The run-up to the June vote had been marked by further deterioration of civic space and the restriction of the choice on offer through the disqualification of several contenders, including the candidate first in the polls, conservative business leader Carlos Pineda Soa. But Arévalo wasn’t on the radar of opinion polls and no one saw him coming. In a very fragmented vote, his 12 per cent put him in the runoff. The frontrunner, with 16 per cent, was a political insider, former first lady Sandra Torres of the National Unity of Hope (UNE).

The establishment rightfully feared Arévalo because he didn’t seem the kind they could easily bring into the fold. A progressive academic and a member of Congress since 2020, he promised to bring back the numerous justice officials in exile and resume the fight against corruption ended by his predecessors.

The fact that he could become Guatemala’s next president made the 25 June election results an instant object of contention. Nine parties, including UNE, submitted complaints about supposed ‘irregularities’ that had gone undetected by all international observers. Their supporters converged outside the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE).

In what was denounced as an attempted ‘electoral coup’, the Constitutional Court ordered a recount and instructed the TSE to suspend certification of results. The TSE eventually endorsed the results two weeks later, on 12 July.

But in the meantime, the Attorney General, an official under US corruption sanctions, spearheaded an onslaught of judicial harassment against Arévalo. She launched an investigation of Semilla for alleged registration irregularities and had its offices raided. She twice ordered raids on TSE offices too. And just as the TSE announced Torres and Arévalo as the runoff competitors, she ordered Semilla’s suspension. The Constitutional Court however blocked this order.

Citizens defend democracy

The European Union and the Organization of American States, both of which had observation missions, took a strong stance. Domestic condemnation of the attempt to twist the results was also voiced by groups ranging from leading business associations to Indigenous authorities. But the starring role was played by citizens who spent weeks on the alert to ensure that Arévalo wasn’t kicked out of the runoff.

Large-scale peaceful demonstrations were repeatedly held in Guatemala City and departmental capitals, overwhelmingly led by young people. They were vocally nonpartisan, making clear that they were marching not for Arévalo or Semilla, but for the future of democracy.

On election day, this translated into a clear victory for the change candidate: Arévalo took 58 per cent of the vote, compared to Torres’s 37.2 per cent. The election saw strong participation by young, educated, urban voters, many voting for the first time.

An uncertain future

Once he takes office Arévalo will face a tough time fulfilling his promises, not least because the June election produced a highly fragmented Congress in which Semilla will have only 23 of 160 seats.

But the urgent question now is what lengths deeply entrenched elites will go to to try and stop Arévalo taking office. Torres hasn’t conceded defeat. Instead, she’s cried foul and accused the five TSE magistrates of ‘breach of duties and abuse of authority’.

Meanwhile the Attorney General and her right-hand man, a prosecutor who has made a career of protecting the powerful and persecuting the press, continue the ‘investigation’ through which they seek to shut Semilla down. People have responded by continuing to demonstrate outside the Attorney General’s office demanding her resignation.

Guatemala is living a unique moment, an opportunity that many didn’t think they’d ever see. But it’s also an uncertain time. Guatemala must walk carefully into the future, one step at a time, resisting the onslaught, judicial or otherwise, to get the president-elect to Inauguration Day.

People have made it clear they’re ready to take to the streets in numbers to defend what they’ve achieved. And they’ll need to both support and hold to account the new government for the mission it’s been entrusted with: that of restoring the substance of democracy.

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.


Two Years after the Taliban Took over, More Should Be Done to Rescue Afghanistan

Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Crime & Justice, Education, Education Cannot Wait. Future of Education is here, Gender, Gender Violence, Headlines, Human Rights, Press Freedom, TerraViva United Nations


A young girl in school uniform and covered in veil walks alone in the empty corridor of Tajrobawai girls primary and secondary school seen on September 16, 2021 in Herat, Afghanistan. The Taliban has forbidden girls at high school level to attend schools throughout Afghanistan. Credit: Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Images

KUALA LUMPUR / JOHANNESBURG, Aug 28 2023 (IPS) – His name is Matiullah Wesa, a girls education campaigner who now symbolises the “war” waged by the Taliban against the education and empowerment of women and girls. Exactly two years since the Taliban took over, Afghanistan is on a downward trajectory and unfortunately, global attention that was drawn by families chasing planes to flee a few days after the Taliban assumed control of the government has waned over the last two years.

Any improvements made in advancing human rights, especially the rights of women and access to education have been quickly reversed and replaced with severe restrictions that have almost completely wiped away the rights of women in almost all sectors and spheres of life. In a brazen move that provided a clear indication to the international community that the Taliban had an anti-human rights agenda, human rights defenders and members of their families have been harassed, detained and attacked in their homes while Afghanistan’s independent human rights commission was dissolved and its premises confiscated. In the absence of any internal human rights mechanism, the Taliban are only accountable to themselves and act with utmost impunity.

Matiullah was arrested in March 2023 for his dedication to provide education to girls particularly in rural areas. Through his organisation – PenPath which he founded in 2009, he campaigned for the right to education for girls, working with tribal leaders to provide mobile libraries to ensure girls have access to education. Penpath has successfully reopened 100 schools (including those closed for more than a decade due to war and the Taliban’s restrictions on education) in 16 provinces.

Matiullah Wesa, Afghan educational activist, reads to students in Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of Matiullah Wesa/PenPath

In an interview with CIVICUS, a year before he was arbitrarily arrested, Matiullah pointed out that they had provided education facilities for about 110000 children, about 60% were girls and distributed 1.5 million stationary and collected 34000 books through its book donation campaigns. His continued detention means, at best this much needed support provided to communities has been scaled back substantively and at worse has almost completely stopped. Yet, Matiullah is just one among hundreds who have worked tirelessly to improve the lives of Afghans over the years and are unable to do so either because they are in detention, have fled the country to avoid reprisals or have been forced to self censor.

The de facto Taliban regime has over the last two years institutionalised restrictions against women, dismissed women in public service, prevented girls from attending school and university and in December 2022, banned women from working with NGOs and aid agencies. It followed this decision exactly four months later by banning women from working for the UN in Afghanistan – as they had been exempted from the previous ban.

Through the Directorate for Intelligence, the regime monitors and targets women activists on social media and those identified as protest leaders. Others who participate in protests are identified through pictures posted on social media and through interrogations and arrested. On 11 February 2023, women’s rights activist and founder of the social movement – the Takhar Women’s Protest Movement – Parisa Mobarez, was arrested together with her brother in Takhar province and physically assaulted before they were released.

Matiullah Wesa, Afghan educational activist, reads to students in Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of Matiullah Wesa/PenPath

A day after, activist Nargis Sadat was arrested for protesting against the restrictions on women’s right to work and education and released after two months. In response to an announcement by the Taliban regime that it would close beauty salons, women protesters converged at the Shar-e Naw district in Kabul on 19 July, displaying protest signs with calls for ‘bread,’ ‘work’ and ‘justice.’ The women protesters were rounded up as security forces fired shots into the air and physically assaulted some of the women using electric stun guns.

The above restrictions are happening in a context of an ever increasing humanitarian crises exacerbated by growing social and economic challenges. Human rights groups report that the number of people living in poverty has increased to 97%, an increase of about 47% over the last three years and that more than half of the population – about 28 million people urgently need humanitarian assistance. The restrictions placed on women in government ministries and the ban on women from working for NGOs have a devastating impact on the families of these women and communities including women and children who have benefited from services provided. In addition, most women have literally been confined to their homes as they are banned from gyms, swimming pools and public parks.

Afghan women are fighting back

Despite the reprisals from the Taliban and threats of violence and arrests, Afghan women continue to mobilise to keep the face they face on the agenda of the international community. The resilience of these brave Afghan women and their sustained protests continue to shed light on the state of human rights in Afghanistan, especially at a time when the international community seems to have moved on to other crises. As women protesters, journalists and human rights defenders and families face increased attacks, protests have been moved indoors and online. Some of the protesters continue to cover their faces to avoid reprisals while others remain unveiled to encourage others.

Photo courtesy of PenPath

What can be done?

The current situation is especially tricky for many international actors and though the Taliban craves for international recognition to boast its legitimacy, members of the international community including the European Union, United Kingdom and India who engage with the Taliban as well as humanitarian organisations and civil society groups should respect the wishes of Afghans and not provide any form of formal recognition to the de facto regime. They should also support Afghan women rights activists in exile.

Millions of Afghans will continue to need humanitarian assistance for the foreseeable future and ongoing and future dialogues to negotiate for space and access through humanitarian corridors should be premised on respect for human rights and lifting of current restrictions on women and girls.

At the level of the United Nations, the UN Security Council Resolution on Afghanistan which accused the Taliban of violating human rights and the appointment of a Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan are important steps in the right direction but nearly not enough. The Security Council should continue to prioritise Afghanistan and push for accountability mechanisms inside of Afghanistan which would serve as some kind of a deterrent and a check on impunity. Lastly, there is a need for an intra-Afghan dialogue that is inclusive and should be led by a neutral party.

Josef Benedict is a researcher covering the Asia Pacific region for the CIVICUS Monitor. Malaysia. David Kode is the advocacy and campaigns lead for CIVICUS. South Africa

IPS UN Bureau


Senegal: Democracy in the Balance?

Africa, Civil Society, Crime & Justice, Economy & Trade, Featured, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, Labour, Press Freedom, TerraViva United Nations


Credit: Zohra Bensemra/Reuters via Gallo Images

LONDON, Aug 18 2023 (IPS) – Civic space is deteriorating in Senegal ahead of next February’s presidential election. Recent protests have been met with lethal violence and internet and social media restrictions. Senegal’s democracy will soon face a key test, and whether it passes will depend largely on whether civic space is respected.

Political conflict

Recent protests have revolved around the populist opposition politician Ousmane Sonko. Sonko came third in the 2019 presidential election and has grown to be the biggest thorn in President Macky Sall’s side. He’s won support from many young people who see the political elite as corrupt, out of touch and unwilling to tackle major social and economic problems such as the country’s high youth unemployment. He’s also been the subject of a recent criminal conviction that his supporters insist is politically motivated.

On 1 June, Sonko was sentenced to two years in jail for ‘corrupting youth’. This resulted from his arrest on rape charges in March 2021. Although he was cleared of the most serious charges – something women’s rights advocates have expressed concern about – his conviction likely makes him ineligible to stand in the next presidential election.

Sonko’s arrest in March 2021 triggered protests in which 14 people died. His conviction set off a second wave of protests. Sonko was arrested again on 28 July on protest-related charges, including insurrection. A few days later, the government dissolved his party, Pastef. It’s the first such ban since Senegal achieved independence in 1960.

All of this gave fresh impetus to Sonko’s supporters, who accuse the government of instrumentalising the judiciary and criminal justice system to stop a credible political threat.

Repressive reaction

The latest wave of protests saw instances of violence, including stone-throwing, tyre burning and looting. The state responded with lethal force. According to civil society estimates, since March 2021 over 30 people have been killed, more than 600 injured and over 700 detained.

In response to the recent protests, the army was deployed in the capital, Dakar. Live ammunition was used and armed people dressed in civilian clothes, evidently embedded with security forces, violently attacked protesters.

Journalists were harassed and arrested while covering protests. Recent years have seen a rise in verbal and physical attacks on journalists, along with legal action to try to silence them. Several journalists were arrested in relation to their reporting on Sonko’s prosecution. Investigative journalist Pape Alé Niang has been jailed three times in less than one year.

The government also limited internet access and TV coverage. TV station Walf TV was suspended over its protest coverage. On 1 June, social media access was restricted and on 4 June mobile internet was shut down for several days. In August, TikTok access was blocked. Restrictions harmed both freedom of expression and livelihoods, since many small traders rely on mobile data for transactions.

Third-term tussle

A major driver of protests and Sonko’s campaign was speculation that Sall might be tempted to seek a third presidential term. The constitution appeared to be clear on the two-term limit, but Sall’s supporters claimed constitutional amendments in 2016 had reset the count. Thousands mobilised in Dakar on 12 May, organised by a coalition of over 170 civil society groups and opposition parties, to demand that Sall respect the two-term limit.

On 3 July, Sall finally announced that he wasn’t running again. But it hasn’t ended suspicion that the ruling Alliance for the Republic (APR) party will go to any lengths stay in power, including using the state’s levers to weaken the opposition.

There’s precedent here: ahead of the Sall’s re-election in 2019, two prominent opposition politicians who might have presented a serious challenge were excluded. In both cases, barely weeks before the election the Constitutional Council ruled them ineligible due to prior convictions on corruption charges that were widely believed to have been politically motivated.

That Sonko and Pastef might have stood a chance in 2024 was suggested by the results of votes in 2022. In local elections, the APR lost control of Dakar and Sonko was elected mayor of Ziguinchor city. And then in parliamentary elections, the APR lost 43 of its 125 seats and Pastef finished second, claiming 56 seats, leaving no party with a majority.

Reputation on the line

Senegal long enjoyed an international reputation for being a relatively stable and democratic country in a region that’s experienced numerous democratic setbacks. With West African countries such as Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mali and now Niger under military control, and others like Togo holding deeply flawed elections, Senegal stood out. It’s held several free elections with changes of power.

The country’s active and youthful civil society and relatively free media have played a huge part in sustaining democracy. When President Abdoulaye Wade sought an unconstitutional third term in 2012, social movements mobilised. The Y’en a marre (‘I’m fed up’) movement got out the youth vote to oust Wade in favour of Sall. Wade himself rode a similar youth wave in 2000. So Sall and his party are surely aware of the power of social movements and the youth vote.

A small step forward was taken recently when parliament voted to allow the two opposition candidates who’d been blocked in 2019 to stand in 2024. But the government needs to do much more to show its commitment to democratic rules.

Upholding protest rights would be a good start. The repeated use of violence and detention of protesters points to a systemic problem. No one has been held to account for killings and other rights violations. It’s high time for accountability.

Media freedoms need to be respected and people detained for exercising their civic freedoms must be released. For Senegal to live up to its reputation, Sall should strive to enter history as the president who kept democracy alive – not the one who buried it.

Andrew Firmin is CIVICUS Editor-in-Chief, co-director and writer for CIVICUS Lens and co-author of the State of Civil Society Report.


Cambodia’s Election a Blatant Farce

Credit: Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP via Getty Images

By Inés M. Pousadela
MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay, Aug 4 2023 (IPS)

The title shouldn’t fool you: Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen is one of the world’s longest-ruling autocrats. A political survivor, this former military commander had been bolted to his chair since 1985, presiding over what he turned into a de facto one-party system – and now apparently a dynastic regime.

On 23 July, running virtually unopposed, Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) took 82 per cent of the vote, winning almost all seats. The only party that could have offered a challenge, the Candlelight Party, had been banned on a technicality in May.

Following the proclamation of his ‘landslide victory‘, Hun Sen finally announced his retirement, handing over his position to his eldest son, Hun Manet. Manet had already been endorsed by the CPP. Winning a parliamentary seat, which he just did, was all he had to do to become eligible. To ensure dynastic succession faced no obstacle, a constitutional amendment passed in August 2022 allows the ruling party to appoint the prime minister without parliamentary approval.

Hun Sen isn’t going away: he’ll remain CPP chair and a member of parliament, be appointed to other positions and stay at the helm of his family’s extensive business empire.

A slippery slope towards autocracy

Hun Sen came to power in a world that no longer exists. He managed to cling onto power as everything around him changed.

He fought as a soldier in the Cambodian Civil War before defecting to Vietnam, taking several government positions under the 1980s Vietnamese government of occupation. He was appointed prime minister in 1985, and when 1993 elections resulted in a hung parliament, Hun Sen refused to concede defeat. Negotiations resulted in a coalition government in which he served as joint prime minister, until he orchestrated a coup to take sole control in 1997. At the head of the CPP, he has won every election since.

In 2013 his power was threatened. A new opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), offered a credible challenge. The CPP got its lowest share of votes and seats since 1998. Despite obvious fraud, the CNRP came dangerously close to defeating Hun Sen.

In the years that followed, Hun Sen made sure no one would challenge him again. In 2015, the CNRP’s leader Sam Rainsy was summarily ousted from the National Assembly and stripped of parliamentary immunity. A warrant was issued for his arrest, pushing him into exile. He was then barred from returning to Cambodia, and in 2017 convicted for ‘defaming’ Hun Sen. His successor at the head of the CNRP, Kem Sokha, soon faced persecution too.

In November 2017, the Supreme Court ordered the dissolution of the CNRP and imposed a five-year political ban on 118 opposition members.

As a result, the only parties that eventually ran on a supposedly opposition platform in 2018 were small parties manufactured by government allies to give the impression of competition. In the run-up to the vote, the CPP-dominated National Election Committee (NEC) threatened to prosecute anybody who urged a boycott and warned voters that criticising the CPP wasn’t allowed. What resulted was a parliament without a single dissenting voice.

There was no let off after the election, with mass arrests and mass trials of former CNRP members and civil society activists becoming commonplace. Rainsy was sentenced in absentia to life imprisonment, and Sokha was given 27 years for ‘treason’. At least 39 opposition politicians are behind bars, and many more have left Cambodia.

But as the CNRP faded, the torch passed to the Candlelight Party. In June 2022 local elections, Candlelight proved that Hun Sen was right to be afraid: in an extremely repressive context, it still took over 20 per cent of the vote. And sure enough, in May 2023 the NEC disqualified Candlelight from the July election.

Civic space under assault

Political repression has been accompanied by tightening civic space restrictions.

The crackdown on independent media, underway since 2017, intensified in the run-up to the latest electoral farce. In March 2022, the government stripped three digital media outlets of their licences after they published stories on government corruption. In February 2023, Hun Sen ordered the closure of Voice of Democracy, one of the few remaining independent media outlets, after it published a story about Manet. Severe restrictions weigh on foreign media groups, some of which have been forced out of the country.

In contrast, government-owned and pro-government media organisations are able to operate freely. Major media groups are run by magnates close to the ruling family. One media conglomerate is headed by Hun Sen’s eldest daughter. As a result, most information available to Cambodians comes through the filter of power. Most media work to disseminate state-issued disinformation and discredit independent voices as agents of propaganda.

The right to protest is heavily restricted. Gatherings by banned opposition parties are prohibited and demonstrations by political groups, labour unions, social movements and essentially anyone mobilising on issues the government doesn’t want raised are routinely dispersed by security forces, often violently. Protesters are subjected to threats, intimidation, arbitrary arrests and detention, and further criminalisation.

As if leaving people with no choice wasn’t enough, Hun Sen also mounted a scare campaign to force them to vote, since a low turnout would undermine the credibility of the outcome. People were threatened with repercussions if they attempted to boycott the election or spoil ballot papers. The election law was hastily amended to make this a crime.

Experience gives little ground to hope that repression will let up rather than intensify following the election. There’s also no reason to expect that Manet, long groomed for succession, will take a different path from his still-powerful predecessor. The very least the international community should do is to call out the charade of an election for what it was and refuse to buy the Cambodian regime’s whitewashing attempt.

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.


!function(d,s,id){var js,fjs=d.getElementsByTagName(s)[0],p=/^http:/.test(d.location)?’http’:’https’;if(!d.getElementById(id)){js=d.createElement(s);js.id=id;js.src=p+’://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js’;fjs.parentNode.insertBefore(js,fjs);}}(document, ‘script’, ‘twitter-wjs’);  


Civil Society Space in Southern Africa Shrinking as Government Repression Rises

Several Southern African countries have or are in the process of enacting legislation that limits the civil society space, with implications for human rights. Credit: CIVICUS Monitor

Several Southern African countries have or are in the process of enacting legislation that limits the civil society space, with implications for human rights. Credit: CIVICUS Monitor

By Busani Bafana
BULAWAYO, Jul 31 2023 (IPS)

Freedom of expression is under threat as governments in Southern Africa have enacted laws restricting civil society organizations, says global rights advocacy organisation, CIVICUS, warning that human rights violations are on the increase globally.

“The state of civil society is unfortunately not improving; civil restrictions continue across the world,” said David Kobe, the advocacy Lead at CIVICUS.

“More than 2 billion people live in countries that are rated as closed, which is the worst rating any country can have – this means that 28 percent of the world’s population are not able to speak out when there is corruption or human rights violations restrictions or cannot write articles as journalists without facing appraisals,” Kobe told IPS in an interview, noting that the organization’s human rights tool is indicating growing suppression of civil space across the world.

The CIVICUS Monitor, a tool accessing the state of civic space in more than 190 countries, provides evidence of restrictions on human rights by governments. The CIVICUS Monitor rates the state of civil space ‘open, ‘repressed’, and ‘closed’ according to each country.

Kobe notes that human rights violations are increasing globally with more restrictions on civil society in Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States. The picture is not different in the Southern Africa region where restrictions on civil space have been continuing, and these have included censorship, violent response to protests and restrictive laws as seen in Angola, Mozambique and Zimbabwe

Closing Civil Society Space

Zimbabwe remains on the CIVICUS Monitor Watchlist as attacks on civic space continue ahead of the scheduled 2023 national elections.

Last November, Zimbabwe approved the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Amendment Bill, 2022, known as the Patriotic Act. The law seeks to create the offence of “wilfully damaging the sovereignty and national interest of Zimbabwe” and will essentially criminalise the lobbying of foreign governments to extend or implement sanctions against Zimbabwe or its officials.

Furthermore, the Zimbabwe government gazetted the Private Voluntary Organisations Amendment Bill in November 2021, amending the Private Voluntary Organisations Act, which governs non-profit organizations. The main aim of the Bill is to comply with the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) recommendations to strengthen the country’s legal framework to combat money laundering, financing terrorism and proliferation.

Civil society organizations warn that the Bill could hinder their activities and financing with potential adverse impacts on economic development. Besides, NGOs argue that they are a low-risk sector with no precedence of financing terrorism and money laundering.

Musa Kika, Executive Director of Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum, says the PVO will affect the operations of NGOs, including deterring donors from funding PVOs, fearing the money could end up under the grip of the government. Besides, the Bill has a provision giving the Minister of Justice unfettered powers to place under supervision or surveillance, using subjective discretion, those PVOs the Minister deems to be high risk.

“Continued hostility and harassment on the part of the government towards the work of CSOs in the country will thus only result in a hugely detrimental effect on their efforts in advancing the protection of and respect for the basic human rights and freedoms of ordinary Zimbabwean civilians as espoused under Zimbabwe’s Constitution,” Kika said. He noted that civil society organisations were operating in a tough environment in Zimbabwe where the government does not trust them, especially those working in the fields of governance and human rights.

“We have a government that does not want to account,” said Kika. “We have had many human rights activists who have been arrested on flimsy charges…Terrorism finance is being used as a cover, but the motive is to close the democratic space because the government and accountability in human rights and governance are sworn enemies.”

In Zimbabwe, NGOs have, in partnership with the government, supported development, providing a range of services in health, education, social protection, humanitarian assistance, environmental management, emergency response and democracy building.  A research report commissioned by the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum in collaboration with the Southern Defenders and Accountability Lab has warned of huge job and financial losses if the Bill is passed into law.

United Nations experts have urged Zimbabwe’s President Emerson Mnangagwa to reject enacting a bill that would severely restrict civic space and the right to freedom of association in the country.

However, President Mnangagwa has defended the passage of the PVO Bill, vowing to speedily “sign it into law once it reaches my desk”. In a commentary in his weekly column published by the government-owned Sunday Mail, Mnangagwa said signing the bill into law will usher Zimbabwe into a “new era of genuine philanthropic and advocacy work, unsullied by ulterior political or financial motives.”

Mnangagwa said the law was meant to defend the country from foreign infiltration.

Engendering Patriotism but Endangering Democracy

Zimbabwe has also recently approved another repressive law known as the ‘Patriot Act’.

“The Patriotic Act is an extremely repressive and unconstitutional piece of legislation that has serious ramifications for citizens’ rights, particularly the rights of freedom of expression in the lead up to the elections,” human rights lawyer, Dough Coltart, tells IPS in an interview.

“There is a very real need to educate the citizens on what the ramifications of this Act are for people’s lives because the Act has far-reaching consequences for the entire country and will essentially stifle any public dialogue around the challenges we are facing as a country.”

“The Patriot law is a bad piece of legislation which is an affront to the practice of ethical journalism in Zimbabwe,” Njabulo Ncube, Coordinator of the Zimbabwe National Editors’ Forum (ZINEF), told IPS. “It stinks to the highest skies as it criminalizes the practice of good journalism. It is anti-media freedom and free expression…civil society organisations have also been caught in the mix; they cannot effectively make government account for its actions.”

Democracy Dimming

The situation in Zimbabwe is echoed in some countries across Southern Africa, where governments are cracking down on CSOs in the name of protecting national sovereignty and the threats of money laundering and terrorism financing.

In Angola, the country’s National Assembly, on May 25 2023, passed a draft NGO Statute, which CSOs have criticized for limiting freedom of association by giving the state excessive powers to interfere with civil society activities.

According to the Movimento de Defensores de Direitos Humanos de Angola (Movement of Human Rights Defenders of Angola, KUTAKESA), the government has targeted civil society with legislation that is meant for terrorists and money launderers, though it has never been proven in any court that a CSO has committed an act of terrorism in Angola.

On the contrary, the rationale of this legislation constitutes institutional terrorism, the target of which are CSOs, said Godinho Cristóvão, a jurist, human rights defender and executive director of KUTEKA in an interview with the CIVICUS Monitor.

“The Angolan authorities should have aligned themselves with the democratic rule of law and respected the work of CSOs and HRDs,” Cristóvão is quoted as saying.

“Instead, there has been an increase in threats, harassment and illegal arrests of human rights defenders who denounce or hold peaceful demonstrations against acts of bad governance and violations of citizens’ rights and freedoms. There have been clear setbacks with regard to the guarantee of fundamental rights and freedoms enshrined in the constitution, as well as the rights set out in the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and other human rights treaties Angola has ratified.”

In Mozambique, a new NGO on Anti-Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing Act, which overregulates CSOs, is seen as the death knell for the civic movement in the country. The Act was approved in October 2022 under the pretext of fighting terrorism. It has further curtailed freedoms of expression, information, press, assembly and public participation.

Paula Monjane, Executive Director of the Civil Society Learning and Capacity Building Centre (CESC), a Mozambican non-profit civil society organisation, said currently, the legislation was being proposed to silence dissenting voices and people fighting for better governance of public affairs and the protection of human rights in the country.

The draft Anti-Money Laundering and Terrorism Financing Act law establishes a legal regime for the creation, organisation and functioning of CSOs, and Monjane highlighted that it contains several norms that violate freedom of association despite this right being safeguarded by the constitution and international human rights treaties.

“It gives the government absolute and discretionary powers to ‘create’, control the functioning of, suspend and extinguish CSOs,” said Monjane, adding, “If the bill is approved, it will legitimise already existing practices restricting civic space, allowing the persecution of dissenting voices and organisations critical of the government, up to banning them from continuing to operate.”

Monjane said if the bill is passed into law CSOs in Mozambique will push for it to be declared unconstitutional and will ask the African Union, through the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and the United Nations, through the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association to urgently condemn it.

On actions to foster human rights and human rights defenders, Kobe said civil society organisations must be supported to hold governments accountable for upholding national and international human rights conventions that they have subscribed to.

The Universal Periodic Review, an assessment of the state of civic and human rights of a country over a four-year period, provides recommendations to governments enabling them to open civic space and remove restrictive laws.

“Governments need to implement the recommendations of the UPR and not treat them as a formality for them to be seen by the international community as respecting human rights when they are not,” said Kobe, adding that encouraging governments to implement the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development was also a way of getting them to see development alongside human rights.

IPS UN Bureau Report


!function(d,s,id){var js,fjs=d.getElementsByTagName(s)[0],p=/^http:/.test(d.location)?’http’:’https’;if(!d.getElementById(id)){js=d.createElement(s);js.id=id;js.src=p+’://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js’;fjs.parentNode.insertBefore(js,fjs);}}(document, ‘script’, ‘twitter-wjs’);