Results from the conference “Time to react – Creating an enabling environment for civil society”

First conference on “shrinking spaces” with an LGBTI focus

Following a number of years in which liberation movements around the world were making successful progress, a dangerous counter-movement has recently arisen. It seeks to restrict the scope for action on the part of organizations and groups in civil society, and “shrinking spaces” is the term used to describe the phenomenon internationally. In many countries, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are being confronted with laws to preserve national values, bans on funding from abroad, and prohibitive administrative requirements, as well as the consequences of international laws to combat money laundering. These developments restrict primarily the freedoms of assembly and expression. Often they are accompanied by smear campaigns, hate speech in the media, and animosity toward minorities.

This is a reaction to the rising presence of pro-democracy movements in many countries, and to strong campaigns that have developed for land rights, women’s rights, environmental protection, human rights, and recently also for LGBTI rights. The laws and restrictions affect all of these progressive movements, but LGBTI groups are often the initial targets and are hit especially hard by repressive measures.

The conference “Time to react – Creating an enabling environment for civil society” was the first of its kind to address the problem of shrinking spaces with an LGBTI focus. The Yogyakarta-Alliance, herself being a civil society network came up with the idea to do a conference on the subject. Organizations that work for lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and inter (LGBTI) rights have long faced hurdles in becoming registered, particularly in countries that criminalize homosexual acts. As Monica Tabengwa from Botswana explains, if your organization is not registered it cannot get a bank account, address, space, rental agreement, phone or Internet service – which means it has no way to work.

New restrictive measures include anti-propaganda laws like that in Russia which prohibit and criminalize any positive mention of homosexuality – including information related to healthcare. “Positive” means not only affirmative but also any neutral, non-disparaging descriptions. Less well known internationally are anti-NGO laws such as that in Uganda supposedly instituted to protect “national dignity”. This poses an acute threat to individuals with any type of public profile, and means that human rights defenders require protection.

More networking is needed

The conference revealed that international donors need to network more with each other and to have a lot more contact with the local civil societies they support. Above all, much more contact is needed between civil society and government bodies. The scope for civil action is shrinking, and joint efforts are needed to address this. One option is to take legal action, such as filing suit against restrictions that make it impossible for organizations to register. This was the successful course of action taken by LEGABIBO (The Lesbians, Gays & Bisexuals of Botswana). Legal action also needs to be taken against hate campaigns, in so far as that is feasible. Moreover, donors need to listen closely and learn from the people who depend on their support.

Funding from abroad is crucial, because in many countries there is no financial support whatsoever for minorities or human rights movements. NGOs are also acutely threatened by the tendency of some countries to establish an increasing number of pseudo-NGOs. Known as GONGOS (government-organized non-governmental organizations), they appear to be committed to social causes and actively solicit funding from international donors. If donors lack sufficient background information, the GONGOs soak up the funding. It is hard to assess this from outside. Only local people are in a position to judge the situation, so it is always important to coordinate action with them.

Germany needs to do more

Journalists, human rights campaigners and LGBTI activists regret the withdrawal of support for human rights by the USA under the Trump administration. The general view is that Germany and the EU now need to play a greater role in supporting defenders of human rights.Menschenrechtsbeauftrage Bärbel Kofler - Foto: Caro Kadatz

Innovative funding strategies

The conference guests from Russia, Uganda and Botswana were united in the following message: please do not withdraw, but continue your support. Donors are facing greater challenges. In particular, grant applications and funding criteria need to be more flexible. Above all, support needs to be provided over longer periods of time. Less bureaucracy means greater freedom, so more streamlined application and accounting processes are required. Thus far they have been too complex, insufficiently flexible, and not possible at all if organizations cannot be registered. There is an urgent need for innovative funding strategies.

For example, in Russia it is complicated or even impossible to start non-profit political organizations, but very easy to start private limited companies. So strategies are needed to fund organizations that have a formal “for profit” status. And to fund organizations that are not registered at all.

Impressive successes, great resilience

The conference showed that there are already some good approaches for counter-strategies. LGBTI organizations have a special role to play here. Their situations need to be considered and included. There is a lot to learn from LGBTI organizations. They show impressive resilience and great courage. They have a lot of experience in utilizing even the smallest legal opportunities. They have won suits that seemed hopeless, such as the one in Botswana.

International solidarity is extremely important. It can provide protection and great assistance. But it is essential to ask local people first whether they want public attention and high-profile solidarity, or whether it might be more helpful to engage in quiet diplomacy or other less conspicuous actions. Civil society always has to be involved, also and especially in Germany and EU countries. The political struggle against repressive tendencies and for a strong civil society will remain a project for the next generation.

 

Sarah Kohrt
LGBTI Platform for Human Rights

Photos: Caro Kadatz

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