30 January 2007
30 January 2007 - Across the globe, our civil liberties are being sacrificed in the name of the “war on terror,” warned activists at both the World Economic Forum and World Social Forum, during press conferences organised by CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation.
Calling on government and business leaders at the World Economic Forum (WEF) to take immediate action, Mary Robinson, former UN Human Rights Commissioner, Ziad Abdel Samad of the Arab NGO Network for Development, Philip Jennings of the Global Union Federation (UNI), and Mohsin Abdulla of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions, along with Kumi Naidoo of CIVICUS, highlighted how restrictive government actions have reached new extremes and are undermining and eroding democracy and hard-won human rights.
“The influence and importance of civil society is increasingly being recognised at international institutions and meetings, such as the World Economic Forum,” said Kumi Naidoo, CIVICUS Secretary General. “Sadly, however, the so-called “war on terror” is being used by both “democratic” and repressive governments alike to justify restrictions on civil society activities, undermining their very existence.”
Commenting on the repressive tactics employed by governments, Robinson said, “It is tragic that governments that are supposedly democratic are engaging in actions such as extraordinary renditions. Extraordinary rendition is simply a euphemism for torture.”
At the World Social Forum (WSF), CIVICUS was joined by actor Danny Glover, Nobel Peace Prize winners Shirin Ebadi and Jody Williams, as well Sylvia Borren of Oxfam Netherlands (NOVIB) in demanding governments stop using the war on terror as an excuse to clamp down on voices critical of government.
Reflecting on his experiences in the USA, long time activist Glover said, “The avenues of dissent have all closed in this country. Communities have been and remain silenced.”
Iranian activist, lawyer and former judge Ebadi, explained, “The non-democratic governments are scared of the power of the people and they don’t want people to unite. When civil society unites, maybe at an international level, they have a lot of power.”
Governments around the world are using the pervasive climate of fear post 9/11 to intensify crackdowns on political opponents, advocacy groups and civic activists, warned the activists. While governments claim that new security legislation and law enforcement measures have been introduced to ’protect’ their populations, they have instead led to appalling infringements of human rights. While rights such as freedom of expression, assembly and association must be respected in all circumstances, including when fighting terror; recent reality is an erosion of these hard-won rights and civil liberties across the globe.
Panelists at both the WEF and WSF highlighted the need for immediate action to reverse this disturbing trend. Williams, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997 said, “I believe that the best thing we can all do as activists in the world is to never allow them to silence us as that is what they want. They want to scare us. They want to use any tactics they can to make activists be quiet, to support their policies…We need to continue our fight as civil society to make governments really be of the people, by the people, for the people and not allow this terrorist war to stop us from exercising our rights as national and global citizens.”
From North to South and from East to West, the voices of activists and organisations are being silenced. During 2006, CIVICUS highlighted threats to civil society in 80 countries. For example, the Russian government has used draconian laws to threaten the activities of both local and international NGOs. In August last year, CIVICUS facilitated a conversation between President Putin and 11 other international NGOs on their concerns with the implementation of a new law. However, despite his promises to review the law, six months later no official action has been taken.
Lebanese activist Ziad Abdel Samad, said civil society in the Middle East has also been similarly restricted. “The forces of democracy in the Middle East are being dealt a severe blow by the way the war on terror is being conducted,” he said.
The situation in Africa is no better. Last November, a CIVICUS-facilitated mission of civil society leaders from across Africa visited Zimbabwe to offer solidarity and to speak with activists about the challenges they face. Zimbabwean activists explained that many of them have been beaten, arrested and tortured and that the government has attempted to silence them through repressive laws, particularly targeting the media.
Trade unions have not been immune to the suffocating climate, particularly in countries such as Iraq where workers are forced to organise under extremely difficult circumstances. “We need to stop the war on terror from becoming a war against workers and trade unions,” urged Jennings.
All over the world, vague and broad definitions of “terrorism” have threatened to criminalise peaceful activities and violate freedoms of expression, association and assembly. Countries that seek to represent themselves as bastions of human rights are destroying such claims with grossly extended periods of detention without trial, inhumane treatment of asylum-seekers, invasions of the right to privacy, and disdain for dissenting views.
“We have a responsibility to ensure civil society is able to operate freely, without threat of legal action, detention and torture as a result of their peaceful activism," says Naidoo. "For them, for ourselves and for future generations of activists we call on government and business to re-examine their actions taken through the war on terror, and to reverse the frightening restrictions currently suffocating civil society."
CIVICUS called on all actors at both the WSF and WEF to do their bit in ensuring governments across the globe live up to the standards of human rights and democracy promised to their people through their constitutions and international treaties. Now is the time to act, before it is too late.