Uncivil societies

russia_civilsociety_HRWThe ongoing crackdown on civil society groups “is about weakening NGOs, not making them more transparent or effective,” The Economist notes:

It is being undertaken by leaders who, if they accept democracy at all, want it to amount to nothing more than a tame vote every few years. Foreign donations are an easy target for autocrats whose worst nightmare is a flourishing civil society. NGOs’ activities in the “colour” revolutions a decade ago in the former Soviet Union and, more recently, the Arab spring, have sharpened autocrats’ hostility to them.

It is hardly surprising that leaders like Mr Putin want to curb those who seek to promote democracy, but these laws reach far beyond free speech and human rights. NGOs also suffer if they criticise poor public services, stand up for reviled minorities or disclose facts that the powerful want to hide. Mr Orban has targeted a group that publicises discrimination against Roma and another that runs a hotline for battered women. Among those Mr Putin has dubbed foreign agents are a group of women seeking information about Russian servicemen injured and killed while covertly deployed in Ukraine.

“Persuading autocrats who have decided that NGOs pose an existential threat to ease up will be a struggle. But donor countries can help stem the illiberal tide,” The Economist notes. “Initiatives such as the Open Government Partnership, launched in 2011, which supports governments keen to increase transparency and cut corruption, should help to stop the trend spreading.”


Labor unions still provide democratic space in civil society

Macedonian labor activists. Credit: Solidarity Center

Macedonian labor activists. Credit: Solidarity Center

Labor unions aren’t perfect–they are not a “countervailing” power when what their own workers do is itself anti-social, notes Rich Yeselson, who worked in the labor movement as a strategist and researcher for over 20 years.  ”Fortress Unionism” an essay he wrote in 2013 for Democracy about the decline of the postwar labor movement and its future prospects.

But, if you read the news you understand that governments, corporations, and non-profits like universities aren’t perfect, either, he tells the New Republic’s Jonathan Cohn:

In the past several decades of democratic revolutions all over the world–from South Korea to Eastern Europe to South Africa and elsewhere–unions and workers are in the forefront of those struggles. And when those movements are crushed, it is the organizations of workers that are among the first to be destroyed or neutered.  In a democratic society, unions are a critical part of the political culture, at their best transcending the differences of race, gender, sexual orientation and much more that divide people from one another, providing a democratic space in civil society between the family and the state. That’s what social solidarity is about—sometimes unions have to fight against the wealthy and powerful, but, in doing so, they bring people together. 


Swaziland labor, rights groups call for action on AGOA


Photo: Kate Conradt, Solidarity Center

Swaziland’s government needs to act on the African Growth Opportunity Act by October, according to a prominent rights advocate.

The government had limited time to salvage the situation and help the country save AGOA eligibility, said human rights lawyer and activist Sipho Gumedze.

Rights groups last week urged Swaziland and other states represented at this week’s summit of the Southern African Development Community meeting to curb rights abuses and uphold individual freedoms in their countries.

Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights deplored “serious human rights concerns” in Angola, Malawi, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Labor unions and rights groups condemned remarks by Swaziland Prime Minister Sibusiso Barnabas Dlamini, calling for the strangulation of union representatives participating in the White House summit on Africa.

Due to systematic violations of fundamental worker rights, the USG removed AGOA benefits from Swaziland.

In a new policy paper, the AFL-CIO labor federation insists that AGOA must “ensure that it delivers on its ambitious goals of supporting democratic governance, enhancing civil society, combating corruption and promoting the rule of law in Sub-Saharan Africa”.

“Swaziland is one of the poorest countries in the world, with 60% of the country living in poverty and an official unemployment rate of 28.5%. The government, one of the world’s few remaining monarchies, has banned all political parties and refuses to recognise democratically established trade union associations. Trade unionists are regularly imprisoned, harassed and intimidated,” the AFL-CIO notes.

“While scrutiny of this repression is welcome, complete suspension of all tariff benefits is a blunt instrument,” it added. “The ability to target benefit suspensions at industries or sectors where violations are occurring would leverage the power of employers to seek better enforcement, and interim measures beyond revocation would prevent autocratic regimes from passing the harm onto workers.”

The general secretary of the Trade Union Congress of Swaziland (TUCOSWA) says members will protest Minister of Labor and Social Security Winnie Magagula’s appearance before parliament, VOA’s Peter Clottey writes:

Vincent Ncongwane said Swaziland is set to lose about 17,000 jobs after the country was thrown out of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) initiative over the country’s poor human rights record.

“Our members are mobilizing for protest action. Of course the challenge is that they have ensured that they are prepared to crash any protest, but that is what our members are mobilizing to do,” said Ncongwane. “We want to hear from the minister as to what is it that this government have in mind as with regards to AGOA, beyond just misleading the international community.”

U.S. trade benefits for Africa—known as the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA)—provide key economic support for countries such as Swaziland, according to Vincent Ncongwane, secretary general of the Trade Union Confederation of Swaziland (TUCOSWA).

Yet some in the Swazi government are falsely accusing Ncongwane and human rights lawyer Sipho Gumedze of taking a stand against AGOA benefits for Swaziland when they were in Washington, D.C., last week as part of a delegation of 40 African trade union leaders, notes the Solidarity Center, a core institute of the National Endowment for Democracy:  

While in Washington, Ncongwane and Gumedze, both internationally respected labor and human rights advocates, the Swazi Prime Minister Sibusiso Dlamini reportedly told lawmakers “you must strangle them” upon their return. The U.S. State Department condemned the threat, saying in a statement:

“The United States is deeply concerned by the threatening remarks made by Swaziland Prime Minister Sibusiso Barnabas Dlamini toward Swazi labor and civil society leaders who participated in the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington this week. Such remarks have a chilling effect on labor and civil rights in the Kingdom of Swaziland.”

“The comments made today by Prime Minister Dlamini are a clear threat to the human rights community,” said Santiago Canton, Director of RFK Partners for Human Rights. “This type of language is another indication that Swaziland’s authorities do not, in any way, respect the basic human rights of its people.”


China’s labor movement, 5 years after Tonghua

chinalaborbulletinFive years ago today, Chen Guojun, a senior manager at the Tonghua Iron and Steel Works in Jilin was killed during a protest by workers angry at the takeover of the plant by the Jianlong Group, at the time China’s largest privately-owned steel company, which Chen represented, China Labour Bulletin reports.

The “Tonghua Incident” became one of the most talked about events of the year. It focused attention on the volatile state of labour relations in many workplaces in China and the need to find a more effective and peaceful way of resolving labour disputes.

But while government officials, policy makers and commentators were debating the issue, China’s workers themselves were showing everyone the way forward.

A lot has changed in China’s workplaces over the last five years, and it is the workers’ movement that has been largely responsible for generating that change. China’s workers have shown that they are not rabble-rousers: They are determined to stand up for what is rightfully theirs but crucially they are also willing to sit down with management and work out their differences in peaceful, face-to-face negotiations – as was shown just this week in the Shenzhen QLT factory strike.


China Labour Bulletin is supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.

Commemorating slain Russian rights defender Estemirova

estemirovaRussian and international rights organizations have called for justice on the fifth anniversary of the killing of slain Chechen rights activist and journalist Natalya Estemirova, RFE/RL reports:

Estemirova was abducted in the Chechen capital, Grozny, on July 15, 2009. Her body was found the next day in Ingushetia. The Memorial Human Rights Center, where Estemirova worked, said an investigation by authorities showed the possible involvement of law enforcement officers in the crime. No one has been arrested for her murder.

“Ms. Estemirova’s courage and dedication continues to serve as an inspiration for those who have carried on her work in Russia and elsewhere,” said the U.S. State Department. “Sadly, many of her colleagues in Russia continue to face harassment for their work. We call on the Russian Government to ensure that human rights defenders can safely and freely pursue their work, which is so vital to a healthy, democratic society.”

David Kramer, president of the rights watchdog Freedom House, said Russian officials had “dragged their feet and pushed forward a version of events [of Estemirova's death] that is obviously fabricated, shielding her killers from justice, effectively validating their actions.”