[Webinar] Defending Rights and Civic Space during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Dear friends,

On Wednesday, June 10th, 2020, Members of the Legal Empowerment Network, Civicus, and the Justice for All Campaign hosted the webinar Defending Rights and Civic Space during the COVID-19 Pandemic, a virtual round-table discussion on how grassroots justice groups can respond to the challenges of constricting civic space and increasing human rights violations during the pandemic.

You can listen to the webinar recording here.

This webinar, moderated by Stacey Cram (@staceycram ), Namati’s Policy Director, featured a conversation with Namati’s CEO Vivek Maru (@vivekmaru) and key members of the Legal Empowerment Network.

Here we share some key takeaways:

  • Vivek Maru (@vivekmaru), Namati CEO

    Namati and the Legal Empowerment Network stand in solidarity with those courageously rising up across the United States and around the world against police brutality and systemic racism. The message of the protest is we may be broken but we will not lay down. We will make this world anew. That determination, that part of the human spirit that insists on justice no matter what; it’s beautiful. I hope all of us can hold on to it in these challenging times. ~ Vivek Maru

  • David Kode, the Advocacy and Campaigns Lead for CIVICUS shared some very interesting reports on the state of civil society and human rights violations carried out under the pretext of responding to the pandemic. He highlighted a rise in restrictions and violations of freedom such as journalists being attacked for simply covering stories of COVID, governments running campaigns to delegitimize human rights defenders and threatening them, and high cases of police brutality largely targeting the people in the informal sector.

  • Stefánia Kapronczay (@kapronczay), the Executive Director of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, gave us a description of Hungary in the current crisis and how legal empowerment groups like the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union are responding to the challenges. She gave accounts of how governments are taking advantage of the situation to get more powers and to impose/enforce policies that further constrict civic space and how this has in turn affected civil societies and citizens in general.

  • Ritz Lee B. Santos III (@ritzlee), a social activist and human rights defender and currently the Executive Director of Balay Alternative Legal Advocates for Development in Mindanaw, Inc. (BALAOD Mindanaw) also got to share about the Philippine situation. He took us through emergency powers, restrictions to fundamental freedoms, and more importantly, how civil society groups are responding to the situation.

    These are extraordinary times. Even IHRL permits restrictions but it should be necessary and proportionate. Be wary of leaders who exploit this crisis to serve their political ends. ~ Ritz Lee

  • Denise Dora (@deniseddora), a lawyer and human rights activist, co-founder of THEMIS-Gender Justice and Human Rights, and Director of Article 19 for South America, debunked on the suspension of access to information mechanisms in Brazil during the pandemic and Article 19’s call for transparency specifically, for the release of verified COVID-19 statistics. She iterated on the right to information mechanisms and other accountability mechanisms especially in spaces where governments are dismantling the legal structure of countries which would have led to civic participation.

  • Julie Matheka (@JulieWayua), leads the portfolio on Criminal Justice and Security Sector reform within the Human Rights and Justice Programme at the Kenyan Section of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ-Kenya). Julie was gracious enough to take us through a common feature that we have seen across the globe during the pandemic as part of governments’ response: the increasing role of the security sector – the police and the military – in the enforcement of government actions, such as lockdowns. She spoke on the involvement of the police and military in enforcing government actions and how it has aggravated the human rights situation in many countries.

    There has been an outcry from the community that police brutality is perpetrated towards certain people: the poor and the vulnerable. The people who are supposed to be protected are on the receiving end. Thanks to this, there’s been a great fire to question the policing. ~ Julie Matheka

Here are some key pointers addressing what legal empowerment groups and ordinary citizens can do in this context:

  1. Host legal empowerment programs and broadcasts in native languages to provide information related to COVID.
  2. Mobilize members in online spaces and if you are going to do physical gatherings, abide by social distancing measures.
  3. Despite the pandemic, remain active and resilient in holding the government accountable.
  4. Make personal donations to civil society organizations
  5. Lend your expertise to organizations that are at the forefront of campaigning for Justice for All
  6. Call on respective members of parliament and have them stand accountable
  7. Demand for action from your government
  8. Speak up!
  9. Document cases of violations so you would have substantial proof
  10. Vote wisely

By listening to this webinar recording, legal empowerment groups can learn from the sharing of past and current initiatives in addressing common challenges that we face in the midst of this global emergency.

Together, we will explore ways of supporting each other in this extraordinarily challenging period.

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Special thanks to all those who joined us on the Defending Rights and Civic Space during COVID19 webinar, and for those of you who’ve taken the time to go through the recording.

As promised, here are the questions you posed to the panelists (@JulieWayua, @ritzlee, @deniseddora, @kapronczay, and @davidkode) that unfortunately, due to time constraints, we weren’t able to get to during the webinar.

As the panelists answer your questions, feel free to also chime in to the discussion; your thoughts and opinions are highly valued.

  • How do we re-strategize ourselves to stand in where the government has failed seeing as government institutions are slow in their response to the issues that communities are facing. The phasing in of the lockdown restrictions has increased the number of citizens living below the poverty line while online platforms created by the government for citizens to use during the lockdown are inadequate as people don’t have enough money to even buy food, let alone data.

  • How do we go around reaching out to our communities considering social media isn’t as feasible as we may want it to be due to issues like poor network and the fact that many of our community members cannot afford gadgets to get them online.

  • During the period of COVID-19, people are adversely affected, especially the youth through the loss of jobs. What strategies are you putting in place to help the youth, who contribute 75% to the population, empowered, and curb illegal economic restrictions and retrenchment due to COVID-19?

  • What can we do in cases where governments are politicizing COVID19?

  • (for kapronczay) Please shed light on the categories of legal requests that were made between march to now.

  • (for @JulieWayua ) Are human rights defenders and opponents of government among those being targeted by police?

  • In India, we don’t have synergy between the Central and provincial government. How can an Independent organization work in this situation?

  • In closed civil society spaces, with high political polarization like repression, what experiences do you have of self-convened movements?

  • How can organizations prepare themselves to mitigate such times especially during tight situations like this in the future?

  • The pandemic has led to multiple lockdowns across the world. This has provided somewhat more time for people to engage in online activity, including online protests, expression of human rights sentiments, and the like. With this trend, can we say that the migration of human rights activists to the digital space has only alienated the masses further given that not everyone has access to this kind of technology?

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