CIVICUS Monitor Watch List Updated-20th March 2019

Latest Update: 20th March, 2019 - The new CIVICUS Monitor Watch List highlights serious concerns regarding the exercise of civic freedoms in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, Sudan, and Venezuela. The Watch List draws attention to countries where there are serious and ongoing threats to civic space, according to CIVICUS Monitor research findings and consultations with activists on the ground. 

Activists and civil society organisations in these countries are experiencing an infringement of their civic freedoms as protected by international law. These violations include the use of excessive force by security forces during peaceful protests and journalists being arbitrarily detained and harassed in both Sudan and Venezuela. In Serbia, space for independent media is under concerted attack while massive anti-government demonstrations are taking place. In Saudi Arabia, authorities continue the crackdown on women human rights defenders, who are being subject to arbitrary detentions and ill treatment for their activism on gender issues. While, in Afghanistan, civilian deaths have hit a record high. More than 3,800 civilians, including more than 1,000 children were killed in 2018. The July presidential elections pose a security risk, as over 400 civilians and voters were killed or injured during the October parliamentary elections.

In the coming weeks, the CIVICUS Monitor will closely track developments in each of these countries as part of efforts to ensure greater pressure is brought to bear on governments. CIVICUS calls upon these governments to do everything in their power to immediately end the ongoing crackdowns and ensure that perpetrators are held to account.

Descriptions of the civic space violations happening in each country are provided below. If you have information to share on civic space in any of these countries, please write to monitor@civicus.org or find details of how to send us an encrypted email here.

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Afghanistan

On top of the record high civilian deaths, recent efforts by the United States (US) for peace negotiations with the Taliban have raised serious concerns that human rights and civic freedoms might be undermined. Civil society fear the Taliban may return to power following a negotiated settlement without strong guarantees for the protection of constitutional rights. During their rule, the Taliban became notorious for curtailing individual freedoms, especially by imposing harsh restrictions on women’s rights including the right to education and participation in public life. Current peace negotiations in Afghanistan between the Taliban and the US in Doha, Qatar, and parallel peace talks in Moscow have excluded civil society and women’s rights organisations. Many of these groups have demanded the promotion and protection human rights and democratic freedoms. With women’s rights at stake, activists also expressed serious dismay at the limited role of women in the peace talks so far. On 28th November 2018, President Ashraf Ghani presented an updated peace plan which envisaged an advisory role for civil society, and a Consultative Loya Jirga on Peace (traditional assembly of Afghans) has been scheduled for 29th April 2019 to convene 2,000 participants, with 30% women. However, these efforts do not guarantee the meaningful inclusion of civil society in all stages of the peace negotiations. Women's groups from across Afghanistan have been mobilising to ensure their space is preserved and their voices and rights are considered in the peace process stating “going back will be unacceptable”.

With lack of protection and systematic impunity, journalists and media workers have been subjected to continuous threats, abuse and attacks implicating non-state armed groups (such as ISIL and Taliban) and Afghan government officials. Since the beginning of 2019, at least three journalists have been killed in Afghanistan. In fact, the country was ranked the world's deadliest for journalists in 2018 with thirteen journalists and two media workers killed, most of them in attacks directly targeting the media. In the context of ongoing peace efforts and upcoming presidential elections in July 2019, it is likely that freedom of expression will face further restrictions.

Saudi Arabia

Saudi authorities continue to persecute human rights defenders and women human rights defenders. Since the crackdown which began in May 2018, at least 22 women human rights defenders have been arrested and subjected to human rights violations because of their rights activism on gender issues. Reports indicate that several detained women human rights defenders have been subjected to torture including sexual assault and harassment. Despite claims that the government is leading reforms to improve the situation of Saudi women, the authorities are in fact detaining and torturing women who have called for the same reforms for Saudi women, including the right to drive.

The murder of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Ahmad Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on 2nd October 2018 is yet another shocking example of journalists, human rights defenders and activists who have been targeted by the Saudi Arabian authorities over the past months. Khashoggi was a prominent journalist and government critic who worked for the Washington Post. He had been critical of the Saudi authorities in the months leading up to his death. The levels of impunity by the state and state agencies have meant that perpetrators are facing no consequences, as violations continue. 

Serbia

Serbia has witnessed sustained protest since December 2018. Protests started after an opposition politician was assaulted by unknown assailants wielding metal rods. Protestors note that the wave of nationwide assemblies are a reaction to hostile government rhetoric against critical voices. Mobilising under the banner of #1od5miliona (1 of 5 million) the protests have attracted widespread support from across the political and social spectrum.

For the most part, authorities in Serbia have largely ignored or attempted to downplay the scale of the protests. However on 17th March 2018 after 14 consecutive weeks of assembly, police in Belgrade used excessive force to disperse protesters demanding greater press freedom and fair elections. After encircling the Presidential building, clashes between protesters and police broke out, leading to the use of tear gas by Serbian authorities. Ten people were arrested in the confrontation. The government has also orchestrated a smear campaign against protesters labelling opponents of the government as “paid” activists working against Serbian interests.

Despite the countrywide mobilisation, space for independent media is under concerted attack in Serbia. In fact, since Aleksandar Vučić came to power in 2017, independent Serbian media outlets have witnessed an increase in attacks, smears and harassment by groups affiliated to the government. Local reporting highlights there were 102 separate attacks on Serbian journalists in 2018. These attacks include a litany of repressive actions, including shootings, firebombs as well as physical violence. 

Sudan

Large-scale anti-government demonstrations have been ongoing across Sudan since 19th December 2018 calling for President Omar Al-Bashir to step down in the context of a growing frustration over the harsh economic and social situation. In response, the authorities have launched a violent campaign targeting protesters, including doctors, teachers, journalists, women activists and opposition political leaders. On 22nd February 2019, President Bashir declared a year-long state of emergency, that was subsequently approved and reduced to six months by the Parliament. The emergency provisions give sweeping powers to the armed forces, prohibiting assemblies and giving 10 year prison sentences to activists. The newly set up Emergency Courts have tried hundreds of protesters and sentenced dozens on charges of participating in demonstrations. Security forces have used excessive and at times lethal force to disperse and prevent peaceful protests – using live ammunition, rubber bullets, tear gas, and attacking hospitals that treat injured protestors. Reports indicate that at least 45 people have been killed and thousands arrested with allegations of abductions, enforced disappearance and torture of activists, including a number of deaths in custody. As women have assumed prominent roles in leading and organising protests, the authorities have also targeted women activists with arbitrary arrests and detention, intimidation and physical abuse, including allegations of sexual abuse in detention.

Systematic measures have been used by authorities also to silence media outlets, journalists and civil society. In the first month of the protests, more than 100 press freedom violations have been registered by media watchdogs. The security forces arrested at least 79 journalists and there have been 63 bans and seizures of newspapers by the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS), as reported by Reporters without Borders on 14 February. Journalists have been sentenced under the state's emergency measures.  

Venezuela

In Venezuela, since January 2019, massive anti-government protests have continued to take place in the country. The government has responded by using excessive force against demonstrators, arbitrarily detaining protestors, including teenagers, as well as detaining and harassing human rights defenders and journalists. Just between 21 and 25 January, at least 41 people died in circumstances linked to the protests, and more than 900 people were arbitrarily detained. For years, protesters in Venezuela have been met with excessive force by authorities, as people take to the streets to demand a change in government, the pattern of repression will likely intensified. Human rights organisations working to deliver humanitarian aid are especially targeted with harassment, and in some cases, their offices have been raided. It is estimated that more than three million Venezuelans have fled the country due to the humanitarian crisis and denial of basic rights such as health and food. 

ENDS.