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Global governance on minority rights: assessing the UN Forum on Minority Issues


Left to right: Dr Corinne Lennox, Evelin Verhás (Tom Lantos Institute), Dr Fernand de Varennes (UN Special Rapporteur on minority issues), Dr Anna-Mária Bíró (Tom Lantos Institute). © Lilija Alijeva (SAS MPhil/PhD student)

Dr Corinne Lennox

Yezidis, Ahwazis, Copts, Kurds, Rohingya, Dalits, southern Cameroonians, Afro-Colombians. These are just a few of the minority groups that brought their concerns to the UN Forum on Minority Issues at its 10th session, 30 November–1 December, 2017.

Why did they come? Because the state in which they live does not respect fully their rights, and in some cases, is failing to protect them from violent attacks. They cannot easily raise their concerns at the national level, or have found their government’s response to be lacking, so they turn to the UN as an alternative space. In the words of one of our interviewees, ‘I think the sole outcome is to be heard by [our country] firstly, also to be heard by other NGOs, other international organisations and member states that are present here.’

18 December 2017 marks the 25th anniversary of the adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities. It was a landmark achievement for the UN, having decided decades before to not ‘remain indifferent to the fate of minorities’. On 10 December 1948 (the same day the UN adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), the UN General Assembly asked the Commission on Human Rights to ‘make a thorough study of the problem of minorities, in order that the United Nations may be able to take effective measures for the protection of racial, national, religious or linguistic minorities’ – (UN General Assembly, Resolution 217 C (III). ‘Fate of Minorities’, UN Doc. A/RES/3/217 C (10 December 1948).

The suggestion that minorities are a ‘problem’ for the UN reflects the central difficulty that many non-dominant minority groups face in accessing their human rights: states often see them as a potential threat to sovereignty or ‘agitators’ for a social, economic and political order that is fully inclusive, and as a result, seek to minimise their power.

This tension is one reason why the UN plays such an important role in giving a voice to minorities, and establishing legal standards to protect their rights. This is a key ‘global governance’ function of the UN, that is, to coordinate international cooperation to ensure that minorities are safe from threats, can freely express their cultural and religious identities, are not discriminated against and can participate in decision-making that affects their lives.

Over the past two years, myself and Dr Anna-Mária Bíró, director of the Tom Lantos Institute, have been doing research on how this function plays out in the UN Forum on Minority Issues. This is the one space in the entire UN system dedicated to minority groups engaging in dialogue with governments. Once a year for two days in Geneva, minorities around the world convene to raise issues of concern and states to share examples of good practice, based on a thematic topic and overseen by the UN Special Rapporteur on minority issues, an independent expert appointed by the UN to monitor minority rights in practice.

Why were we interested to study this space? It gave us the chance to study the agency of minority groups in claiming and re-shaping their rights within a system created by and for states. How do actors use the Forum? What is the perceived utility of the Forum? What is the Forum’s role in protecting minority rights?

The research has used a mixed-methods approach. With the help of many volunteers, we gathered, transcribed and translated 1,209 of the 1,373 statements made to the Forum across its ten sessions (making our dataset about 88 per cent complete). These have been coded from among over 150 actor and issue characteristics to essentially ask what is being said at the Forum and by whom? To supplement this data, we also conducted more than 30 semi-structured interviews with states, NGOs, experts and UN actors and gathered 40 surveys from NGOs.

We had the opportunity recently to present our research at a side-meeting of the 10th session of the Forum. With the participation of all three experts who have or are serving as the UN Special Rapporteur on minority issues (currently Dr Fernand de Varennes), we shared some of our key findings. On this basis, we also made several recommendations for reforming the Forum, which were supported by the new Special Rapporteur in his concluding remarks.

We also have plans to launch an online, open-access database where all of the statements made to the Forum since its inception can be searched and used for advocacy, programming and legislative and policy reforms, enabling learning between states and across minority groups. This will be launched at the 11th session of the Forum in late 2018 and will be found at

Dr Corinne Lennox is senior lecturer in human rights at the School of Advanced Study, University London, and co-director of the School’s Human Rights Consortium (HRC). She is also programme director of the new distance-learning MA in Understanding and Securing Human Rights.

This blog was previously published in the Talking Humanities blog of the School of Advanced Study, University of London. 

Genocide, human rights and the campaign to eradicate ecocide


Dr Damien Short

On the 10th December 1948 the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly at its third session. The Declaration consists of 30 articles affirming an individual’s fundamental rights and freedoms which, while not legally binding in themselves, over the years since, have been elaborated in subsequent international treaties, regional human rights mechanisms, and national constitutions. The Declaration is commemorated each year on 10 December, the anniversary of its adoption and known as International Human Rights Day.

The day before the UDHR was adopted, the 9th December, the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (the Genocide Convention) was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly. The Convention entered into force on 12 January 1951 and was the product of the tireless efforts of the Polish jurist who coined the term, Raphael Lemkin, and the international movement to criminalise Geocide that he helped to shape.

The concepts, philosophy, laws, mechanisms and jurisprudence of human rights and genocide have developed considerably since 1948, but on one vitally important issue the field of human rights has developed where genocide studies and genocide jurisprudence has not. It concerns, what Joel Kovel has called, an ‘ecological crisis’. It is more than a crisis of ‘environmental destruction’, which suggests that we human beings exist apart from our natural context. Indeed, it a crisis of ecosystems in which we are embedded. The crisis includes everything from, species extinctions, anthropogenic climate change, sea level rise, and pervasive plastic pollution to the dramatic decline in our pollinating bee populations. Regardless, of the arguments for protecting and mitigating these issues for issues for their own sake, they need to be addressed for our sake. The human rights discourse now appreciates this. All human beings depend on the environment in which we are ecologically embedded.

A clean, healthy and sustainable environment is vital to the full enjoyment of a wide range of human rights, including the rights to life, health, food, water and sanitation. Without a healthy environment and ecosystems, we are unable to lead the ‘minimally good life’ that human rights and meant to guarantee. Simultaneously, protecting human rights can help protect the environment. Since the early 1970s, the recognition of vital links between human rights and the environment has grown considerably. We have seen a veritable explosion in the number and scope of international and domestic laws, judicial decisions, and academic studies on the relationship between human rights and the environment. Indeed, numerous States now incorporate a right to a healthy environment in their constitutions. In 2012 the Human Rights Council established a mandate on human rights and the environment, in order to analyse human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment, so as to promote best practices in environmental policymaking. Mr. John Knox was appointed in August 2012 to a three-year term as the first Independent Expert on human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment. His mandate was further extended in March 2015 for another three years as a Special Rapporteur.

The human rights legal regime is still largely focussed on the rights of individual human beings despite some relatively recent more ‘collective’ developments such as UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples . The Genocide Convention, however, has a focus on social groups and seeks to criminalise international destruction of ‘national, ethnical, racial or religious groups’ by a) killing members of the group; (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group. While the methods listed there are actually quite broad the field of genocide studies and the international criminal tribunals that have used the Convention have tended to focus almost exclusively on physical killing. In my latest book ‘Redefining Genocide: Social Death, Settler Colonialism and Ecocide’, I outline how Lemkin’s much broader definition put ‘culture’ at the heart of the understanding of a social group ( a ‘genos’) and hence cultural destruction was a key method of genocide and not a lesser form of it. I also show how indigenous peoples in the world today who use the word ‘genocide’ to describe their lived experience of colonisation and suffer environmental destruction, often at the hands of multi-national extractive industries, have an understanding of genocide much more in keeping with Lemkin’s original conception than international law or the work of many genocide scholars who focus on mass killing.

Indigenous peoples’ who use of the language of genocide to describe their living conditions often emphasise how ecological destruction has disastrous physical and cultural consequences. This is a dimension of genocide that is far too infrequently discussed, a situation I tried to address in my book. That said, before the civil war in Rwanda and the subsequent International Criminal Tribunal the Genocide Convention wasn’t being used and the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities in 1978 decided to review the effectiveness of the Convention. The Sub-Commission wanted to examine if the cultural method which Lemkin emphasised should be re-inserted into the Convention alongside a new method, ‘ecocide’ to cover the emerging environmental crisis and the destructive affect it can have on the survival of distinctive cultural groups. As Sub-Commission member, Mr Abdelwahab Bouhdiba, argued in support for criminalising ecocide;

‘any interference with the natural surroundings or environment in which ethnic groups lived was, in effect, a kind of ethnic genocide because such interference could prevent the people involved from following their own traditional way of life’.

Ultimately, however, the recommendation from the Sub-Commission came many years later and simply recommended that ‘further consideration should be given to this question’. Thus, an opportunity to advance the law, jurisprudence and even the field of genocide studies was missed and the human rights discourse continued to lead the way in its appreciation of the role environmental destruction can play in human rights violations. Moreover, as climate change bites across the world protecting cultural diversity for the good of all becomes ever more important, for traditional knowledge of local environments, passed on through culture, has been human kind’s primary adaptive mechanism.

With this is mind, and the desire to protect the planet for future generations, in recent years a campaign to criminalise ecocide in its own right, and as a strict liability offence,[i] has been instigated by international lawyer and environmental activist, Polly Higgins.[ii] The Eradicating Ecocide campaign draws attention to the numerous examples of ecocide and its human consequences worldwide, at a time when preventing further ecological destruction couldn’t be more pressing. Eradicating Ecocide is one of a number of campaigns[iii] that highlights the particularly devastating impact environmental destruction has on indigenous peoples who depend on the health of their local environment not only for their own physical well-being but also for their spiritual and cultural health. Even so, the focus goes beyond the plight of indigenous peoples to eradicating ecocide for the good of the planet, its ecosystems and all those beings that depend on them.

As we have seen, we do not currently have an international crime of ecocide and hence there is no law to prosecute those who are destroying our environment and ecosystems.[iv] Far from it, under our current neo-liberal capitalist order governments the world over positively encourage such destruction in the name of economic growth.[v] We do have an international crime of environmental destruction as a War Crime, but this has no applicability in times of peace and ‘environmental destruction’ doesn’t capture our environmental embeddedness, nor the full scale of our predicament, or the role of capitalism and resource extraction in its development. The Eradicating Ecocide campaign may not endorse an overtly anti-capitalist agenda but in its preference for the concept of ‘ecocide’ rather than ‘environmental destruction’ it invokes a holistic understanding of the problem as an ecological crisis, and the concomitant need for the protection of ecosystems, rather than an abstract and external ‘environmental’ crisis. Indeed, Higgins defines ‘ecocide’ as:

‘the extensive damage to, destruction of or loss of ecosystem(s) of a given territory, whether by human agency or by other causes, to such an extent that peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants of that territory has been severely diminished.’

This definition is the basis of the Eradicating Ecocide campaign’s proposed amendment to the Rome Statute, treaty that established the International Criminal Court (ICC) – it entered into force on 1 July 2002.[vi] In short, it is envisaged that any extensive damage, destruction to or loss of an ecosystem can constitute ecocide. ‘Extensive’ can be either widespread, long lasting or severe. To define these terms the campaign invokes the 1977 United Nations Convention on the Prohibition of Military or any other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques (ENMOD):

  • Widespread: encompassing an area on the scale of several hundred square kilometres.
  • Long-lasting: lasting for a period of months, or approximately a season.
  • Severe: involving serious or significant disruption or harm to human life, natural and economic resources or other assets.

Under the Rome Statute, the ICC can only investigate and prosecute the core international crimes where states are unable or unwilling to do so themselves. These are the existing four Crimes against Peace (genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and the crime of aggression) and hence the argument that ‘ecocide is the missing fifth Crime against Peace’[vii]

Higgins outlines two types of ecocide 1) Human induced or ‘ascertainable ecocide’ – ecocide caused by human agency, where an individual responsible for the activity can be identified. Usually, Higgins points out, this is corporate induced ecocide, and she invokes the poster child of extreme energy- the ecological disaster that is the Athabasca tar sands in Alberta Canada, which we will discuss later on in the book. 2) Ecocide by ‘other causes’, like catastrophic events; referred to in law as an ‘act of God’, such as flooding or an earthquake. Events such as these can be termed ‘non-ascertainable ecocide’ as no one perpetrator can be identified. Of course, this type of ecocide cannot be stopped, but when human induced ecocides, which destroy carbon sinks and create escalating carbon emissions, are stopped, it is possible that this could reduce the frequency of climatic extremes and mitigate the negative impacts of naturally occurring ecocides.

Following on from Higgins’ initiative, a global grassroots supporting campaign (not dissimilar to that which lobbied hard for the Genocide Convention) has emerged called ‘End Ecocide on Earth’. The ultimate goal of the initiative is that ecocide will be recognised as a crime around the world. In their own words: ‘this means not only national ecocide crimes in all states but also the recognition that ecocide is an international crime which can be enforced with an international court. To that end, ecocide should be incorporated into the Rome Statute as international Crime against Peace under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. Leaving aside the thorny issue of likely political opposition, the process of revision of the Rome Statute is remarkably simple in that one member state can propose the amendment to the UN Secretary-General, who then distributes the proposal to the other member states during a general assembly or convenes a revision conference. It remains to be seen whether a potential crime of ecocide can progress further within the international system this time around, when the need is much more urgent and pressing than it was in the preceding decades, but I sincerely hope it can.

Dr Damien Short is a Reader in Human Rights at the School of Advanced Study and Co-Director of the Human Rights Consortium. Dr Short is also the Convenor of the renowned MA in Understanding and Securing Human Rights and module tutor on the online distance learning MA in Understanding and Securing Human Rights.

[i] On this see Higgins, P, Short, D and South, N (2013) ‘Protecting the planet: a proposal for a law of ecocide’, Crime, Law and Social Change April 2013, Volume 59, Issue 3, pp 251-266

[ii] For a personal background see

[iii] E.g Survival International, Forest Peoples’ Alliance, Raven Trust, Cultural Survival and many more.

[iv] See P.Higgins, D Short and N.South, 2013 ‘Protecting the Planet: a proposal for a law of ecocide’, Crime, Law and Social Change, February DOI 10.1007/s10611-013-9413-6

[v] See Martin Crook and Damien Short, Marx, ‘Lemkin and the Genocide Ecocide Nexus’, The International Journal of Human Rights, Volume 18, Number 3, 3 April 2014, pp. 298-319 (22) and for a more in-depth discussion of this theme see Joel Kovel, The Enemy of Nature: The End of Capitalism or the End of the World, Zed Books: London. 

[vi] Eradicating Ecocide, Closing the Door to Dangerous Industrial Activity: A concept paper for governments to implement emergency measures.

[vii] Guger et al, (2013) ‘Ecocide is the missing fifth Crime…’

Reflections on Business & Human Rights


By Stephanie Vélez*

Forum on Business and Human Rights, U.S. Mission Geneva, Photo by Eric Bridiers Photo licenced under CC BY-SA 4.0

Following the 6th UN Forum on Business and Human Rights that took place in Geneva last week, you may be forgiven for wondering whether these high-level get-togethers ever change anything for people on the ground – for workers in garment factories and on farms toiling away for hours a day yet still stuck in poverty and some, with no knowledge of their rights.

When I was doing my Masters in Understanding and Securing Human Rights in 2011-12, I thought exactly that. The UN Global Compact was relatively new (2005) and John Ruggie’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights had only just been endorsed, making the framework the first corporate human rights responsibility initiative to be endorsed by the United Nations. I too thought, there’s just no point unless it’s mandatory, you’ll only get the more advanced companies signing up without creating a level playing field, allowing the others to continue with business as usual, which may be having adverse human rights impacts on people in their supply chains.

But I’m happy to say that things are changing. In 2015, the word ‘TISC’ became very exciting, and not in a condescending way. It was muttered around multi-stakeholder meetings as a game changer – the Transparency in Supply Chains Clause brought forward by the UK government in the Modern Slavery Act. The clause wouldn’t even have made it in if it weren’t for companies campaigning and lobbying, challenging the government’s supposition that corporates dislike regulation. The clause requires companies with a turnover of £36 million or more (the Companies Act definition of a medium-sized company) to write an annual statement about what they’re doing to tackle slavery and human trafficking in their businesses and supply chains. This statement must be signed by a director and posted on the company’s website with a link from the homepage.

Two years on, we are now at the stage where every eligible company should have posted its first statement. Unfortunately, the government didn’t introduce a monitoring mechanism for this, but as can be expected, the NGOs and consultants are on it. They are gathering as much evidence as they can as to who hasn’t written a statement and have also started benchmarking the quality of the content. Ergon Associates have published anonymised reports based on how well companies report according to the government guidance and the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre recently ranked the top FTSE 100 companies on their statements.

Alongside these benchmarks looking only at modern slavery statements, there are now a handful of benchmarks assessing companies’ broader attitude and actions on human rights. This is encouraging – 5 years ago you couldn’t even mention the words ‘human rights’ to most Board executives but now they’re sitting up and paying attention.

Know the Chain looks at companies’ activities around fighting forced labour across the ICT, food & beverage and apparel & footwear sectors and Oxfam is about to launch a human rights risk assessment tool for food and agricultural supply chains. The first results from the Corporate Human Rights Benchmark were released in March this year and although it seems ironic that a multinational mining, metals and petroleum company enshrouded in environmental disasters could come out top, no company scored more than 69%. The Workforce Disclosure Initiative, endorsed by more than $8 trillion worth of asset management investors and which we’re advising on at Lake Advisory seeks, via a survey, to understand the type of data companies gather and hold on their own employees and on workers in their supply chains. It’s designed to send signals to companies that they should start collecting these types of data as investors begin to use innovative ways of assessing a company’s performance which includes human rights.

Most of these benchmarks assess publicly available information which is driving a huge push towards greater transparency – and as many CSR professionals realise, if you’re not sitting at the table – you’ll be on the menu.

* Stephanie Vélez works for Lake Advisory, an independent consultancy specialising in responsible sourcing and sustainability. Lake Advisory works with businesses, investors, non-profits and governments to drive greater transparency, responsibility and efficiency in global supply chains.

Female indigenous activism in Guatemala: inspiration and challenges for women as agents of change


By Roslynn Beighton*


Mayan women represent significant actors in resistance movements and social development organizations calling for basic human rights in Guatemala. During a research trip earlier in the year, I was fortunate enough to meet and stay with some truly inspiring female activists who are working exceptionally hard to fight for their basic human rights – as women and as members of various Mayan ethnic groups.

In just under four weeks I navigated my way across eight departments of Guatemala, via local ‘chicken buses’ winding their way over the country’s hair-raising roads. I was interested to find out what motivates Mayan women to create and occupy spaces for activism, as well as explore the obstacles they face in mobilising in such spaces. With the help of Minority Rights Group International (MRG) and Peace Brigades International (PBI), I interviewed several Mayan women working in rights-based grassroots organizations.

The K’ekchi women of RED Abriendo Oportunidades, an organization supporting Guatemalan girls


Maggie, the first and most passionate activist I had the pleasure of meeting and staying with, had independently set up her own organization named Movimiento de Jovenes Mayas (Movement of Young Mayans, AJUP) without the support of external funds. Whilst sat on a rock at the edge of the south east shore of Lake Atitlán in her hometown of San Lucas Tolimán, she spoke to me at length about how private companies, with the aid of the government, were removing water from the lake, a vital source which has been used for generations by the indigenous villages interwoven into the stunning landscape of imposing volcanoes, verdant valleys and tranquil beaches.

The following claim has stayed with me since she shared her story, as above all, it highlights the raw energy she and other female indigenous activists possess:

“I think that knowledge is born in every person, it is a conviction… It is innate, if you need it then you have to defend it and take care of it, you don’t learn that, you are born with that and you grow up with that.” Maggie, AJPU

On the weekend I stayed with her family, protests were taking place in the town of Santiago and the district capital of Sololá. Maggie’s mother Felipa advised us not to take certain roads west as it was risky. She also confessed that Maggie’s work as an activist kept her up most nights – she believed it hopeless to try and get involved in activist spaces and worried immensely for the safety of her family. Unfortunately I sensed a defeatist attitude by many women in indigenous communities, which proves how terrorization of individuals and their families can be triumphant in paralysing spaces for activism. Figures such as Maggie represent those women who, through sheer conviction and drive, challenge the system of oppression they are born into by fighting for their rights.

Indigenous activists and members of social and environmental grassroots groups meet at a conference organised by RENSAG in Guatemala City

We avoided the local manifestaciones and instead headed to the capital, where Maggie invited me to observe a forum of indigenous peoples held by Red Nacional Por La Defense De La Soberania Alimentaria En Guatemala (National Network for the Defense of Food Sovereignty in Guatemala, RENSAG). I noted the participants made up over 40 men and less than 10 women. However, my conversations with several female activists from various organizations I shared a room with, including two organizers from Nuevo Horizontes (New Horizons), exposed the important role of rural women in solidifying activist spaces for other female community members, and working for causes such as food sovereignty, education for girls, reproductive rights, female political empowerment and indigenous land and resource protection.

“We strengthen women in farming so they can have a bit of everything in order to have good nutrition. They have learnt how to make organic fertilizer, organic pesticides, medicine for birds, everything natural. We’ve also supported them in their decision-making so they can be part of the community council. There are a lot of activities in favour of women so they can stand out and value themselves.” Carmen Alicia, Nuevo Horizontes

I met with Norma, a Mam activist working for RENSAG who was a former refugee that had fled to Mexico when she was five years old. She remembered the journey vividly, as well as the years of pain and trauma she suffered after the death of her father and her move back to Guatemala to a town where no one spoke the Mam language and neighbours accused her family of being ‘guerrillas’. Bearing the mentality ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’, Norma adapted to her circumstances and through identifying herself as a woman, a Mam and a mother, she learned to stand up for her beliefs and family.

“A lot of women take action simply because they feel threatened and they say to themselves: ‘I’m going to defend this and I’m going to defend it with my life’. Women have a very strong connection with the elements of the earth and I think that’s what inspires us – protecting life, and the lives of our children.” Norma, REDSAG

Mayan cosmovision

Spaces for female indigenous activism are often the result of movements conceived out of necessity in communities at high risk of oppression from institutionalised discriminatory policies. My fieldwork findings attribute the most powerful driver for social change in these women’s lives to be their Mayan cosmovision.

All the women I spoke with cited their ‘cosmovision’ as a philosophy which guided them to take action for the protection of their communities. They felt incredibly proud to be both Mayan and women, identities which gave them a purpose in the world which could never be planted by external stimuli. During my visit to the humid jungle town of Chisec, I conducted a focus group with over 10 members of RED Abriendo Oportunidades (Opening Opportunities), each a young Q’eqchi woman who made exclamations such as:

“We feel proud about our language, our traditional clothes, and our culture, for what our ancestors have left and taught us. The greatest shame is to deny that you are Q’eqchi!” Angustia Caralonzo, RED

Lago Atitlan is surrounded by Tz’utujil and Kaqchikel Mayan villages

Despite the assault on Mayan lifestyles by globalising forces as a result of neoliberal policies, the shared values of Mayan communities continue to profoundly shape the evolution and organization of Guatemalan indigenous societies. Equality, harmony and balance were mentioned time and again as intentions of the cosmovision which induced alternative ideas of ‘foreign’ theories – such as feminist theory – by striving for well-being and happiness for all members of a community.

Activist spaces must be contextualized in this worldview, which binds nature and humanity in eternal unity. The expression of a value system rooted in ancestral ways of living reflects a particular inspiration for the participation of female Mayans in activist spaces.

Barriers to female indigenous activism: ethnic discrimination

Every activist I interviewed recounted how they had been discriminated against for their ethnicity for as long as they could remember. Belen, a young woman working in a community radio station told of times when she had been denied employment over ladina women, despite having more qualifications and experience for positions. She was upset that she was seen, firstly as lower than men because of her gender and secondly as lower than other women because of her traje which represents her ethnicity as Quiché.

Belen in her traditional Quiché dress at the radio station she works at to raise awareness of Mayan issues

“If I’m wearing a trouser and a blouse, nobody sees me in a funny way but if I’m wearing my custom dress people avoid me because they don’t want to get close to me. It’s due to a misconception that indigenous people smell bad, that we don’t shower and we live in an uncivilized way as we live in the countryside, in the mountains. People mistreat us. We can actually get used to it but it hurts sometimes… if you are sitting in a place they tell you to move and leave the place to a ladino.” Belen

The most unjust aspects I found in response to the social movements these women are a part of is the direct and indirect resistance they face from the state, as a result of structural inequalities that have plagued this country since the Spanish conquest. Smear campaigns stigmatizing and discrediting activists for environmental and social issues falsely accuse them of extremism and they are increasingly at risk of violent attacks, defamation and death. PBI documents 223 assaults, 14 killings and 7 attempted murders registered between January and November 2016 against human rights defenders. In 2016, Guatemala was named one of the most dangerous countries on Earth for activists working to defend and protect natural resources.

The government’s ‘war on indigenous peoples’ prevents indigenous females from participating in spaces for the advancement of their rights because they fear for their safety and security. I spoke at length with Maggie’s intelligent younger sister Diana, who wished for better conditions for other Mayan women as well as access to the water resources of Atitlán which have always been a source of life for Kaqchikel villagers. However, she refused to join her sister’s movement because she agreed with her mother Felipa: it was too dangerous to fight ‘the bigs’.

Barriers to female indigenous activism: violence against women

A common theme I found in my interactions with the activists I engaged with, is Guatemala’s extreme sexist attitudes, which are embedded within a culture of machista thinking. Asociacion Ixqik, a women’s rights organization in the far north of the country who invited me to their offices in San Benito, near the idyllic island of Flores, claimed domestic violence to be the biggest issue faced by indigenous women and the primary obstacle to their participation in social activism. GBV directly blocks the development of spaces for activism by impacting upon the physical and mental well-being of women. Furthermore, it has severe indirect consequences generally unassociated with physical harm.

Maggie, a Kaqchikel activist and founder of APJU with her mother Felipa

Indigenous women face reduced opportunities for advancement in critical causes, which relate to the expectations placed on them from birth. The young community mentors of Red Abriendo Oportunidades told me they had grown up being told that women were supposed to have babies and keep a clean house. Most women do not have the time to dedicate to activist work as they are focusing on the survival of their children and families. They are often not allowed out in the evenings, which is the main time of day when men organize around rights-based movements and it is considered taboo for them to be physically present for dialogues. Critical attitudes (from the family to the national level) can lead to feelings of fear and inferiority that actively demotivate females from being involved in movements. A grave concern is that the denial of women’s capabilities in leadership can solidify barriers to spaces for activism through the development of an inferiority complex in women and girls, which can stop many women from speaking out about their abuses and taking their work seriously.

Moreover, the unavailability of resources restricts pathways for participation in spaces which promise empowerment of women and indigenous peoples. Mayan women are in the weakest socio-economic position in Guatemalan society. It is especially difficult for them to seek justice and defend their rights without the means to become aware of the factors determining their situation in the first place, and even more so when considering the restrictive roles women occupy in their communities.

State structures which are both racist and sexist at times directly block indigenous women’s ability to access basic services, such as healthcare and education, let alone afford them the spaces they need to organize and resist their oppression.

Conclusion: Role models

Despite the challenges I was told about and witnessed first-hand, it is clear many spaces for female indigenous activism are created and occupied ‘internally’ at the localised level by women who should be seen as agents of change, rather than simply victims of a viciously unjust system. My conclusion from my trip is based on the impact of role models who are strengthening spaces for individuals and groups of women to participate in improving conditions for women and all members of their indigenous communities.

Some interviewees saw true role models as women who possessed a raw energy to protect the living world, and were dedicated to an indigenous way of life, or at least a life that was not corrupted by capitalism:

“Who represents us? Those fighting to defend the territory; few women are fighting but they are leading and doing real things. They are in their territory, in their remote villages defending their lands against mining and electric companies, against those life models that affect us. Those are the true indigenous, and for me, those are the ones who represent the town and inspire me.” Maggie

Norma, a Mam activist and one of the leading members of RENSAG

“If you ask anyone who Joan of Arc is they are going to tell you they don’t know. But when you hear what Doña Juana, for example, is doing in the community and how she is defending and standing against the mines, that inspires you and it inspires the community.” Norma

My interviewees’ impassioned speeches show that the role models who motivate indigenous women to participate in activist spaces are not necessarily self-proclaimed feminists or famous global leaders. They are fundamentally protectors of their loved ones, defenders of basic human rights and preservers of Mayan cultures. Overall, the analysis of role models exposes how central ethnic identity is to these women and other activists like them. They are driven by a force which is paramount to their sense of purpose as members of Mayan communities which are threatened. They must choose to either channel their repression into a positive movement or succumb to a life of discrimination. They choose the former.

I feel incredibly humbled to have had the opportunity to meet such incredibly strong and inspiring female indigenous activists. I am appreciative for their hospitality, generosity and friendship, without which my study would not have been possible. Thank-you very much to: Maggie Garcia, Felipa Cos, Norma Mejía, Belen Pak, Carmen Alicia Torres Hernandez, Elvira Chuktiu, the women of RED Abriendo Oportunidades and the women of Asociacion Mujeres de Petén Ixqik.

*Roslynn Beighton is a former communications intern at MRG and now works for Fern, an organization which campaigns for the protection of the world’s forests and forest peoples. Roslynn is also an alumna of the MA in Understanding and Securing Human Rights. 

Eliminating violence against women: individual approaches, or a group concern?


Today, 25 November, marks the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. Considering the decades the international community has had to identify and working to resolving the problems of gender-based violence, why is it still such a prominent global problem in 2017? And how are women identified as rights-holders as individuals and as part of a uniquely vulnerable group?


The international community has recognised the discrimination women face and the violence they are subjected to through a number of conventions, declarations, and international agreements. The 1979 UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women recognised that systematic violence against women was hindering the achievement of equality between the sexes, and that this had serious consequences for women’s abilities to realise their human rights. The Convention affirmed that individual women are rights holders in their own right – for example by affirming that women’s citizenship should be held by them and should not be dependent on the citizenship of their husbands. This Convention served as a reminder that women’s contributions to their societies are often not recognised and pointed out that the achievement of equality between the sexes would not be achieved in the absence of a re-evaluation of men and women’s traditional gender-based social roles.

The 1993 Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, meanwhile, went further by identifying violence against women as a ‘social mechanism’ whose purpose was to keep women in a subordinate position vis-à-vis men. It recognised that ‘violence’ encompasses sexual and psychological harm as well as physical damage to women and that, around the world, gender-based violence takes place in domestic environments as well as the public sphere. The Declaration explicitly embedded violence against women in gender-based inequality, pointing out that violence against women is a particular manifestation of a long history of subjugation. The implication of this is that gender-based violence cannot be resolved simply by identifying acts of violence against women as criminal activities and prosecuting them alone: instead, each society needs to address the legal and cultural roots of gender based inequality wholesale. Gender-based violence cannot be fully addressed if it is addressed in a vacuum which does not take the wider socio-cultural context into account.


If gender-based violence is a manifestation of the historical treatment of women as an insubordinate group, is it useful to see women as a group whose rights should be specially protected in domestic and international law? This situation can be complex, especially as human rights as often seen as accorded to individuals instead of groups. Group rights have often been controversial among theorists who conceive of human rights as a doctrine to protect individuals from the power wielded by groups; for some thinkers group rights actually pose a threat to human rights as conferred to individuals. In addition to the tension between collective and individual human rights, the granting of collective rights to different groups can sometimes be contradictory; for example, where cultural or ethnic groups may hold the right to continue certain cultural or traditional practices, this can be in conflict with age or gender-based group rights held by some members of the group.

Are women’s rights and needs best served by understanding them as individual rights holders who can be protected through legislation which applies to all individuals (for example, criminal laws prohibiting assault), or should they be recognised as a group with a strong common identity, with specific vulnerabilities arising out of that identity, who should be protected by specific laws and, in some cases, elevated rights? When we identify women as a group with a common identity and common interests based on gender, it is also important to remember that, unlike some ethnic or cultural groups with defined rights, women are not a minority – protecting the rights of women ensures the protection of 50% of all humanity.


Adding further complexity to the idea of women as group rights holders, the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women observes that women can belong to certain other groups which can exacerbate their vulnerability to violence; membership of some of these groups can cut across their gender identity and is shared with men (for example, minority and indigenous women or refugee women or age-related group membership).

The theme of 2017’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women is ‘Leave No One Behind’ and is a reminder that ‘women’ are not simply a universal category facing identical experiences but that gender intersects with other social realities, including race, class/wealth, and sexual orientation, resulting in particular women being especially vulnerable, not just to violence, but to seeing their attackers treated with impunity. The campaign to eliminate violence against women also encompasses transgender and intersex women, highlighting the particular risks these women face, which may be heightened by cultural and legal barriers which prevent transgender women from securing legal recognition of their identity.

In the midst of these reminders that the vulnerabilities of groups are not uniform and that there are hierarchies of vulnerability within groups, it should not be forgotten that any woman can be subject to gender-based violence, and that violence against women is not merely the outcome of individual criminal behaviour, but is deeply embedded, and implicitly and explicitly coded as acceptable, across societies.

The Human Rights Consortium’s MA in Understanding and Securing Human Rights covers topics of contemporary relevance in human rights, including issues surrounding group and individual rights. The degree is now also offered by distance learning with the University of London’s International Programmes.

Implementing the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in Japan: Ainu and Forest Certification


By Fumiya Nagai*

It has been 10 years since the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) was adopted at the UN General Assembly on 13 September 2007. The adoption of the UNDRIP was one of the most important achievements in the indigenous peoples’ rights movement at the global level. As this year is the 10th anniversary of the UNDRIP, its implementation is being reviewed to discuss the progress and challenges it presents at various places including the Human Rights Consortium at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. In this article, I will discuss the situation of the indigenous peoples’ rights protection mainly for the Ainu people in Japan, particularly taking a look at the current Ainu policy and the recent development of the forest certification mechanism.

To understand and consider contemporary circumstances of indigenous peoples who have struggled for their rights for a long time, the history of the remaining colonialism would not be negligible. It is quite important to raise the fact that a significant part of indigenous peoples’ identity derives from colonial rule such as mass-killings, genocide, marginalisation, assimilation, resettlement as well as cultural destruction. Through the indigenous rights movement, they have fought for the recognition of being “peoples” who hold the right to self-determination, requiring the protection and benefits of international law. In this regard, while independent statehood is not something indigenous peoples have pursued, the establishment and implementation of the UNDRIP could be regarded as an extension of the process of decolonisation.

Traditional Ainu Settlement Areas and Ainu Population in Hokkaido (2013 Survey on Ainu Living Condition)

In my country of Japan, one of the indigenous peoples, the Ainu people, have also suffered from colonialism. Originally, they inhabited Hokkaido, the northern island of Japan, and the far-eastern region of Russia. Currently, according to the latest survey on the Ainu living condition in Hokkaido in 2013, although it is not comprehensive, the number of the Ainu people was at least 16,786. It was soon after the Meiji Restoration and modern nation-state building in the 1860s that the Government of Japan began having direct control over Ainu traditional land by renaming it Hokkaido. Based on the justification of the doctrine of terra nullius, the Government dispossessed the Ainu of their lands and sovereignty, and their cultural manners and customs were prohibited or strictly limited with assimilative policies and legislations, notably the establishment of the “Former Native Protection Act” in 1899. Throughout colonial rule, the Ainu people were also regarded as a “dying race”, and most notoriously, Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone referred to Japan as an ethnically “homogeneous nation” in 1986. His statement became one of the factors that triggered the Ainu representatives to participate in the international indigenous network, which started in 1987.

Traditional Ainu Settlement Areas and Ainu Population in Hokkaido (2013 Survey on Ainu Living Condition)

However, until 2008, a year after the adoption of the UNDRIP, the Government had still failed to recognise the Ainu as an indigenous people. In addition, while the Government also began working on Ainu policy having recognised them as a people, it has been based on the “Japan-Specific Indigenous Policy” view. According to this view, sovereignty status and related rights such as the right to self-determination does not fit in the context of Japan, and indigenous rights outlined in the UNDRIP has been referred to only if they are relevant. For example, collective rights that consist of the major part of the rights of indigenous peoples are not necessarily protected because the Japanese Constitution is based on individualism. Moreover, cultural aspects are prioritised as they easily coincide with the benefits of the majority population in Japan. In this regard, the current Ainu policy has been moving away from what indigenous peoples including the Ainu have pursued through their rights movement and the implementation of the UNDRIP for decolonisation.

In this situation, private sectors’ voluntary approaches have also been increasingly paid attention to. One of the most notable developments in recent years is forest certification, and the amendment of the Principles and Criteria (P&C) of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) in 2012. FSC is an international non-governmental organisation that runs the global forest certification mechanism, which certifies whether forests are environmentally responsible, socially beneficial, and economically viable. The P&C are a set of rules for it, and one of the 10 Principles (Principle 3) has been on indigenous rights, recognising indigenous peoples as rights holders including the Ainu people.

Before the 2012 revision, under the FSC scheme the primary normative reference for indigenous rights was ILO Convention 169. However, the Government of Japan has not ratified it, so indigenous rights protection under the scheme is considered not necessarily effective in Japan. On the other hand, the new standards have become stricter, and importantly, the UNDRIP has been included as a normative reference. As the Government of Japan voted in favor for the adoption of the UNDRIP and has recognised the Ainu as an indigenous people, FSC Japan has also acknowledged that Principle 3 would be applied to the Ainu people and forests in Hokkaido in 2013. In this regard, compared with the Governmental policy, the FSC scheme seems to go a step further for the implementation of the UNDRIP, and the revision of the FSC P&C is quite implicative for the Ainu rights protection.

FSC Logo

Nonetheless, the situation of FSC certification does not warrant optimism as it still faces some challenges. One of them is for example, that the forest certification is a voluntary and market-driven mechanism. Although the price premium is recognised for the certified products in the Japanese market, it is not considered high. In this sense, the mechanism might not be influential enough to change forest practices, although certificates could be suspended depending on the scale and number of non-conformities against the standards. Also, not all of the forests in Hokkaido are FSC-certified. In addition, the certification process is not completely independent from local or national laws and policy. The lack of domestic laws on the Ainu rights might make it unclear, for instance, on which sites the Ainu hold their indigenous rights. Similarly, as there is no official representative or decision-making institutions consented among the Ainu people, who the Free, Prior and Informed Consent should be obtained from might also be ambiguous.

Saru Forest

One of the notable relationships between forest managers and the Ainu is found in relation to the Saru Forest in Biratori, Hokkaido, which is owned by the Mitsui Bussan, a general trading company in Japan. In 2010, along the P&C revision process, the agreements on the Saru Forest were concluded among the Biratori Ainu Association, the municipality of Biratori and the Mitsui Bussan. In the agreements, it is acknowledged that some plants and trees that are important for the Ainu culture are nurtured in the forest, and the Ainu people can use the resources when necessary for their cultural activities. However, the focus of the agreements is on preservation and promotion of the culture, but not on their rights protection. In other words, it is failed to discuss the rights of indigenous peoples for the Ainu in relation to the forest. For example, the agreements do not necessarily acknowledge that the Ainu people have the right to manage or freely access the forest. Nonetheless, these agreements are considered as one of the models for the relationships between the Ainu and forest managers in Hokkaido under FSC certification. In this sense, there still remains room that the protection of indigenous rights for the Ainu through forest certification could be dodged as well.

Saru River and Forests in Biratori

Considering these concerns and challenges, although it might be difficult to completely exclude the possibility that forest certification is appropriated to make forest managers socially acceptable, for the effective work of the mechanism, it is clearly important that the Governmental policy changes its current direction and takes a step to implement the rights of indigenous peoples for the Ainu. Furthermore, another significant point might be the quality of auditors because they inspect forest practices on-site and decide whether the certificate is given or not. However, in general, auditors of forest certification are professional in forestry and not in indigenous peoples’ rights, and the cost of fostering and training new auditors is high. Due to this, experts on indigenous peoples’ rights might be included into an audit team as a technical expert, or some human rights activists have begun working on providing programmes for auditors to learn human rights and the rights of indigenous peoples. However, considering the balance between the cost for and the quality of the certification, it might not necessarily be easy to achieve either. In this sense, while the recent development of the FSC scheme is quite suggestive in Japan, further efforts would still be necessary in cooperation with the Ainu.

As seen in the case of Japan above, the situations of the implementation of indigenous rights have changed for a decade since the adoption of the UNDRIP in 2007. While various challenges still remain, there have been some implicative developments as well, including the FSC forest certification. Welcoming the 10th anniversary of the UNDRIP, it is sincerely hoped that indigenous rights would be further promoted hereafter in Japan as well as in the globe.

* Fumiya Nagai is an MA student in Understanding and Securing Human Rights at the School of Advanced Study, University of London.

Eradicating poverty, achieving human rights: the links between development and human rights goals


Today, 17 October, marks the 25th International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. The reduction and eradication of poverty and achievement of development goals is often closely linked to human rights rhetoric – but how, and why, are they connected?

To explain the important links between the eradication of poverty, development and achievement of human rights goals, we spoke to Camilla Silva Fløistrup, Senior Legal Adviser at the Danish Institute for Human Rights (DIHR), an independently operating state institution which holds the legal mandate as a National Human Rights Institution (NHRI). DIHR has a 20-year track record in human rights development work around the world, as well as a highly acclaimed research department combining academic research with the practical experiences derived from working with partners on the ground. In addition, the DIHR applies a human rights-based approach and has built analytical and practical capacity in a wide range of human rights fields, including the linking of sustainable development goals and human rights.

The DIHR is leading a module on Human Rights and Development for the Human Rights Consortium’s MA in Understanding and Securing Human Rights by distance-learning, equipping students to understand the conceptual, legal and practice-based links between human rights and development.

How are the reduction and/or eradication of poverty and the achievement of human rights goals linked?

Reduction/eradication of poverty is closely connected to development and human rights provide norms that serve to couch policy goals and orientations in development efforts.

As noted in Human Rights and Development in the New Millennium: Towards a Theory of Change (eds: Paul Gready, Wouter Vandenhole)*, “Human rights values are often invoked in development or changing social norms contribute to human rights value changes that affect development practices and organizations […] Actors invoke values to legitimize action, and the perpetual reference to human rights may also serve to reinforce the role of rights in development.”

Human rights principles overlap with good governance criteria. This is the case for the principles of participation and accountability. The human rights principles agenda drives accountability citizenship as part of operational policies. Nonetheless, many development actors still need to use human rights principles connected to non-discrimination, inclusion and equality to reach the most disadvantaged groups of society. By using human rights, we ensure that the most vulnerable in each society can be reached.

Why is it useful to conceptually link together human rights and social justice?

Human rights is also about changing social structures and transforming the power dynamics to ensure that all in society have access to all human rights.

Human rights is also about changing social structures and transforming the power dynamics to ensure that all in society have access to all human rightsEven though, many times the human rights discourse might have been closer connected to individual rights connected to trials or elections, it is the work on Human Rights Based Approach that actually looks into changing the power dynamics of societies, like social justice work does.

Human Rights and Development in the New Millenium notes that “Human rights-based approaches do have a positive impact on equality and poverty reduction. Examples of situations where human rights has been integrated into development policies, and where human rights integration results in positive change can be found in gender policies, social sectors, behaviour change, migration policies, land rights, and private sector engagement with surrounding communities and societies.”

Human rights-based approaches have a positive impact in development because: a) human rights contributes to empowerment and social protection of marginal groups; b) human rights reinforces work on non-discrimination and equality, raising a demand for disaggregated data; and c) human rights brings attention to legal approaches.

What are the connections between human rights, decolonisation, and international development aid?

The international human rights agenda gains force in the 1950s and 1960s, at the same time as decolonisation processes in the world gain power. Many former colonies used human rights discourse, mostly the initiatives connected to equality and non-discrimination. In the 60s, developing countries that had recently become independent were champions in advocating for the adoption of international human rights conventions and asking that the human rights agenda be disconnected from Cold War politics. Development aid had its own agenda for some decades, but from the 1980s, with the adoption the UN Declaration on the Right to Development, the two fields started to converge and human rights and development have started focus more on similar issues. Human rights has become part of development. UN agencies, bilateral donors, international NGOs, and local partners are using human rights to tackle development issues. In the poorest countries and in middle-income countries, human rights has guided different approaches and initiatives in order to improve people’s lives and a human rights-based approach has set focus on the relationship between the state and its citizens.

How are the UN Sustainable Development Goals linked to international human rights law and to securing human rights in national frameworks?

In September 2015, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs are critically important as most international development efforts, from 2016 until 2030 —including those of donors, major development institutions, national governments and civil society—will likely be directed toward achieving these goals. The seventeen goals address poverty eradication, food security, education, gender equality, health, work, and other areas of human development, as well as economic growth, natural resource governance, and environmental protections. Each SDG is implemented via specific targets as well as indicators to measure progress toward each target.

The 2030 Agenda, which contains the SDGs, is explicitly grounded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and international human rights treaties. The commitment to non-discrimination and to “leaving no one behind” is a reflection of this foundation in human rights. Additionally, the commitment to human rights is reflected throughout the goals and targets. The implementation of the Agenda 2030 lends itself to a HRBA, as it in many ways is based on HRBA principles for its implementation. Inclusion is a concept, which has become more prominent with the HRBA and is now strongly grounded in the SDGs goals and targets.

Human rights instruments and the 2030 Agenda are tied together in a mutually reinforcing way. Human rights offer guidance for the implementation of the 2030 Agenda, while the SDGs in turn contribute substantially to the realization of human rights.

*see working papers and policy briefs related to this work in the Human Rights Consortium’s SAS-Space collection.



On the Limits of Abuse: Bruce Gilley and his worldview of Colonial History


By Rahul Ranjan*

It is a fatiguing exercise, or rather a much-unsolicited task to respond to Bruce Gilley in his innocuous article published in the ‘Third World Quarterly’ that makes a defensive overtone for colonialism. In fact, it can be seen as the exercise of reiterating violence that colonialism brought to former colonies, even when one understands the polemical article of Gilley has been written with a cheap publicity stunt. Nonetheless, there are some academics like – Gilley, who continue to champion the cause of recolonising through their assumed supremacy that figure into writings quite clearly. It is futile to dispute such claims on one level while outraging at other to write a response. The futility is borne out of constant manifestation of racism, and supremacy – not to be read only through the colour of the skin – but the positioning of the ‘west’ as the point of reference to any progressive imagination. The outrage, however; comes from the place being exposed to an intimate violation of the self. The violation was produced through the ‘academic writing’ of Gilley, whose reading of colonialism is informed by [a]historical factual details and indeed obtuse secondary texts. It is often possible through such sheer reductive reading, articulated by whitewashing the racial violence, and moral indignation caused to the formerly colonised subjects that we continue to witness newer modalities of colonial rule. Gilley’s article is what colonialism was, at least on the level of ideas, where ‘west’ continues to emerge as a point of reference for the world. The point about the moral indignation is pertinent at least, to the content of the article published in an otherwise reputed journal. It is morally indignant because the systemic violence of colonialism is only understood in a mechanical fashion of macro-economic form, and not as a system of cognitive damage. The colonialism was not only an economic expropriation machinery, but rather a site of most episodic violence on cultural frontiers as well. It refused the most basic forms of recognition to human and survived on the brutal cultivation of knowledge that produced abjection and collective apathy. It is in fact; a matter of grave concern, how do we allow such defamatory to find a place in otherwise reputed journals. The publication stands as the testimony to deep-seated hatred, misinformation and dull imaginative landscape of an author to produce their worldview of history.

In the age, where countless publications weigh academic credentials, and high ending project endorsements, Gilley’s article stands as a metaphor of systemic production of populist thinking and an attempt of enforcing a historical amnesia on colonial past. We are all exposed to a dark reality of academic writings, a particular kind of history falsifying that is no less than sensationalist journalism. Over past a week, online petitions are seeking for editor’s resignation that is now signed against Gilley’s article virtually through outlets of social media. This is, however; a minor representation of anger and insult, while larger cognitive damage continues to haunt the people with the history of colonial past, often much violently expressed by the worldview of Gilley.

* Rahul Ranjan is a PhD student at the School of Advanced Study, University of London and working on the memory of Adivasi (Indigenous peoples) resistance in the late 19th and early 20th century colonial India.

Event report: “Shrinking Space for Civil Society in Russia: challenges and new strategies”


By Lilija Alijeva*

“First, we started with providing legal assistance to those who became victims of human rights abuses of Russian law enforcement officers. Then, in 2011, when mass protests started in Moscow and other regions, many people were arrested. We started to provide legal assistance to these peaceful protesters in their battle and struggle at the courts for the right to go to the streets and make their voices heard. Later, in 2013 after the adoption of the Foreign Agents Law – mass campaign against non-governmental organisations (NGOs) started, and we started to provide legal assistance to the NGOs and their leaders to help them in their struggles in the courts for the right to continue their work.”

– Ms. Natalia Taubina, director of the Public Verdict Foundation (Общественный Вердикт), on 9th May, 2017 at the University College London.

The presentation by Ms. Taubina at the Global Governance Institute of the UCL provides just a glimpse into the changing dynamics of human rights issues that the Russian NGO, Public Verdict Foundation, is working on. Ms. Taubina has been working in the field of human rights since 1992. She has been involved in the work of the Russian Research Centre for Human Rights. From 1997 to 2011, she was the director of the Foundation for Civil Society and since 2004 she has been the director of the Public Verdict Foundation. Ms. Taubina’s presentation titled ‘Shrinking Space for Civil Society in Russia: challenges and new strategies’ focused on the issues that civil society organisations in Russia have been facing, including the start of the problematic legislative changes, their implementation and impact on civil society organisations, and coping strategies that human rights organisations adopt.

2012 was the year it all started, which Ms. Taubina called the “last massive attack on civil society in Russia”. This was the time when a number of legislative changes were enforced in Russia. Many human rights professionals and students may be aware of the amendment of the Federal Law N. 121-FZ On Non-commercial Organisations or “Law on Foreign Agents” that requires Russian non-governmental organisations (NGOs) register as “foreign agents”, if the organisations receive foreign funds and engage in “political activity” (here, Ms Taubina notes, that initially the definition of “political activity” was very vaguely defined, however after amendments passed in 2016 the definition now includes a variety of activities done in public). This Law was enacted in November 2012. The term “foreign agent” was mainly used in the Soviet period to describe agents who work against the state’s interests. But it still carries a strong and negative meaning especially among the public. The original idea was that Russian civil society organisations will voluntarily acquire this status and register on the Foreign Agent list. However, the response from civil society organisations was the opposite. Since no independent NGO would voluntary acquire such status, the Ministry of Justice was given the powers to include any non-commercial organisations it sees fit onto the Foreign Agent list.

This means that once an organisation is registered as a “foreign agent” this term must appear on all publications produced by the organisation, as well as on their official websites, states Ms. Taubina. After being registered as a “foreign agent”, it means more reporting to the authorities by the organisations and more auditing. Ms. Taubina notes that it is probably a reasonable measure if one considers principles of transparency and accountability, however, this affects smaller organisations that receive small annual budgets (for instance £10,000 per year) more negatively than larger NGOs with much larger annual budgets because conducting the whole process becomes much more costly. Additionally, if the status of foreign agent fails to be mentioned in any publication, the organisations may face fines and later criminal persecution with a term up to two years for refusal to follow obligations. Administrative fines may also be imposed on the publications failing to include the name ‘foreign agent’. According to the reports, while cases could be brought against the publications without the explicit status of “foreign agent”, they could also be brought against every single issue. That means the fine could be imposed for the publication or for its each issue. Ms. Taubina states that recently, more than 130 administrative cases were opened against NGOs, but these are the ones that are known about. Other NGOs decide not to make it public. Most of the cases end with fines, usually the maximum amount. First criminal case has been opened against Valentina Cherevatinka, now Ms. Cherevatinka faces up to two years if she is convicted.

There are more than  100 NGOs listed as “foreign agents”, according to the data available from the Ministry of Justice. The European Court of Human Rights has currently been investigating if the ‘Foreign Agents Law’ violates human rights based on the cases of 48 Russian non-governmental organisations, including Memorial, Siberian Ecological Centre and many more that were branded as “foreign agents”. Recently the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders was granted leave to intervene as a third party into the process. But as Ms. Taubina said, this is not the only legislative change that affected the civil society activities in 2012. In the same year the legislation on freedom of assembly was amended increasing sanctions and fines for those violating the rules on holding a public gathering, rally, demonstration, march, or picket; and the Federal Law on “Treason and Espionage” (Law N. 190-FZ or “Law on Treason”) of 23 October 2012 made amendments to the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation and widened the scope of criminal provisions on “treason”

In 2015 the Law ‘on Undesirable International and Foreign NGOs’ was adopted which states that if foreign or international NGOs recognised by the authorities as ‘undesirable’ for the Russian state, they cannot continue their activities in Russia, including any financial transfers. An organisation categorized as undesirable faces administrative sanctions and criminal investigation if they continue their activities. To date, there are ten organisations on this list, eight of which are from the USA and two from the UK. Main US donors are included in the list of Undesirable Organisations. Other donors like MacArthur Foundation which were the key force behind Russian civil society since the Brezhnev era, decided to suspend their activities even though they were not included in the list. The representatives of MacArthur Foundation stated that the environment in Russia is difficult for continuing their work.

In the light of these legislative changes several dozens of NGOs decided to cease their activities due to the lack of support. Other NGOs are forced to apply for foreign financial support as the presidential awards are generally not given to ‘foreign agents’. Ms. Taubina stated that there was a short period in 2014-2015 that some human rights NGOs who were included on the list of foreign agents and continued to receive foreign funds, also received the so called presidential grants. Her organisation is one example of that. But since the beginning of 2016 no organisation with ‘foreign agent’ status has received presidential grants.

It is also becoming increasingly difficult for NGOs to conduct their work. For instance, Ms. Taubina’s organisation used to organise roundtable discussions and training events for authorities on detention institutions and other issues. Now however, as Ms. Taubina states, the activities conducted by the NGOs with the ‘foreign agent’ status are not as appealing to authorities. Lawyers working on human rights cases have been subjected to attempts of removal from the case or faced prosecutions for their collaboration with organisations with ‘foreign agent’ status, which was the case for Ms. Taubina’s organisation. Physical attacks against NGO leaders and staff have also risen constituting a further obstacle for civil society, however there has been no investigation into such cases.

In these difficult conditions Natalia Taubina stated that there are many strategies being used within the tight and shrinking space for civil society activities which include:

1) Temporary dissolution of local entity in Russia, while seeking other models of work.

2) Establish partnerships with organisations from outside of Russia and become members of international coalitions.

3) Developing of crowd-funding campaigns, which base themselves on money received from the people; and becoming more transparent as the organisations aim to attract those public funds.

4) Establishing coalitions within the country, especially among human rights organisations.

5) Conduct work closer to the people, in order to equip the public with guidance on different situations through social media, interactive games and tests and etc.

Several questions followed from the audience on how the situation can be tackled and whether the international community should have done more for the Russian civil society when it had a chance. In response to my question on whether there are any partnerships developing between Russian-based NGOs and NGOs outside of Russia who face similar problems, Ms. Taubina answered “Yes, of course!”. Partnerships between human rights NGOs that face similar obstacles in conducting their work contact each other in order to seek advice and help. International solidarity networks which have already been taking place can be used as another important strategy in coping with the gradual clampdown on civil society actors around the world. Ms. Taubina’s presentation is both informative, passionate and worrying, however it does give a glimpse of hope that the survival of civil society space is possible even in the most severe conditions.

*Lilija Alijeva is a Research Student at the School of Advanced Study, University of London.

Hidden Among the Maple Trees: Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Asylum Seekers in Canada


In her podcast ‘Hidden Among the Maple Trees’, Jennifer Rooney, an MA student in Understanding and Securing Human Rights at the School of Advanced Study, University of London, looks at some of the ‘hidden’ issues of immigrant and refugee rights in Canada, namely the difficult and traumatic asylum processes facing the LGBTQ community. The podcast also includes an interview with Caitlin Rooney, Research Assistant for the LGBT Research and Communications Project at the Center for American Progress.

Want to LEARN more or HELP out?


Canadian Organizations
Egale: a national charity promoting lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans (LGBT) human rights –>

The 519: committed to the health, happiness and full participation of the LGBTQ community ->

Rainbow Railroad: helps LGBT individuals from countries where they are open targets of violence –>

Journal Article
“On what grounds?” LGBT asylum claims in Canada

News Articles:…icle19285991/…btq-refugees.html…icle34858343/


*The views expressed by Caitlin Rooney are her own and not necessarily those of CAP

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