No shortcut to national dialogue, Sudanese civil society insists

sudan darfurA national dialogue to address Sudan’s endemic crises requires security and basic rights for all citizens, a lifting of the state of emergency and a cessation of hostilities, say Sudanese civil society groups

Eighteen NGOs issued a statement on Thursday demanding that the national dialogue, proposed by President Omar Al Bashir earlier this year, should be inclusive of civil society.

Hafez Mahmoud, Director of the Sudanese Justice Africa, one of the signatories of the statement, told Radio Dabanga that the dialogue process should not be limited to political parties. “They lack the participation of society.”

Other signatories of the statement are the Darfur Bar Association of lawyers, the centre of Alkhatim Adlan for Enlightenment and Human Development, Nuba Relief and Rehabilitation, and Sudan Democracy First.

“We welcome calls for a national dialogue in Sudan, but we are deeply concerned as active civil society organisations that current plans for dialogue fall short of the minimum required,” the statement said:

A common approach to addressing grievances across our country is desperately needed. A de facto one party system has confiscated democratic freedoms and sought to silence dissenting voices even from within its own ranks. Piecemeal approaches to peace have failed, with the Darfur conflict now in its eleventh year and fighting in South Kordofan and Blue Nile continuing unabated.  

Full enjoyment of fundamental rights such as freedom of expression, association and assembly, along with a cessation of hostilities and humanitarian access are required before any meaningful dialogue can start.

“In my many travels to Sudan over the years, I have been inspired by the resilience, courage and vision of civil society leaders and activists,” said Ambassador Princeton Lyman, the former US Special Envoy to South Sudan and Sudan.

“I am impressed by the commitment of these non-partisan Sudanese citizens to advancing the interests of their country through open public consultations on creative proposals to resolve long-standing national problems,” which is why he is especially “concerned that the government has recently been increasingly engaged in a ‘crackdown’ on civil society organizations and leaders,” he wrote for Al-Jazeera.

The dialogue must be inclusive of all stakeholders and not restricted to political parties and alliances within them,” the NGOs added:

The process must not be elitist, limited to like-minded political parties and lack the participation of and accountability to society at large. This will require public access to credible and independent information on the dialogue and the space to debate and reach consensus. The ultimate failure of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was its lack of ownership by the Sudanese people. This time around, representatives of victims of Sudan’s many wars, civil society, youth, women’s groups, trades unions and intellectuals must be included, as well as political parties, and society at large.  The National Congress Party (NCP), National Consensus Forces (NCF), opposition groups, and Sudan Revolutionary Front must all participate.


New ‘foreign agents’ assault on Russia’s NGOs

russia_civilsociety_HRWThe upper chamber of Russia’s parliament is working on new amendments to force advocacy groups to register as “foreign agents.” Under the new proposal, the Justice Ministry could register groups as “foreign agents” without their consent, Human Rights Watch said today: 

The proposal comes amid an intense government crackdown on freedom of expression. A draft law would ban publication of “inaccurate” information about the Russian government and military. New proposals would further restrict media freedom online. Several opposition websites have recently been blocked and hundreds of peaceful protesters have been detained. 

On March 27, 2014, at a meeting between President Vladimir Putin and the leadership of the upper chamber of the Russian Parliament, the chair of the chamber’s committee on constitutional law, Andrei Klishas, announced that the upper chamber was working on the amendments to the legislation on nongovernmental organizations. He said the amendments were intended to make sure that all groups that receive foreign funding and engage in “political activities” publicly identify themselves as “foreign agents.”

A 2012 law requires groups receiving foreign funding and conducting broadly defined “political activity” to register as “foreign agents,” effectively demonizing them as foreignspies. Authorities define as “political” such work as urging legal and policy reforms, raising awareness, and assisting victims of abuse.

Not a single advocacy group has registered as a “foreign agent,” and instead groups are fighting through the courts the efforts by the authorities to force them to register. Thirteen Russian rights groups also have jointly filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights challenging the “foreign agents” law as violating freedom of association. The case is under review.

When explaining the planned amendments to the president, Klishas characterized foreign-funded human rights groups as subversive organizations that refuse to register as “foreign agents” despite being engaged in “political activities” and promoting an allegedly foreign agenda. Putin said in response that, “No loopholes should be left for those who do not protect the interests of Russian citizens but rather protect the interests of foreign states inside Russia.” Authorizing the Ministry of Justice to register groups as “foreign agents” without their consent would apparently close that “loophole.” 

“For two years now, the ‘foreign agents’ law has been at the core of Russia’s unprecedented crackdown on independent groups and activists,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “If it becomes law, this new proposal would take the crackdown to a new, dire level.”



External actors in democratic transitions: avoiding funding frenzies

barbarahaigExternal actors, including democratic states, non-governmental organizations and private groups can make a significant contribution by assisting transitioning countries to succeed with reforms, and develop political pluralism, rule of law, and accountability. But they should not be allowed to eclipse local actors, says Barbara Haig, Deputy to the President for Policy & Strategy at the National Endowment for Democracy.

External actors play an important role in assisting transitions to democracy by lending political and material support and know-how. They can help constrain the impact of spoilers (both internal and external), and cushion the blow of painful reforms with incentives and rewards. They can also serve as neutral conveners by providing a space for competitors and adversaries to resolve conflicts or disputes and reach consensus on policy or strategy.

Since the transitions of the early 1990s, donor countries and non-governmental groups grew confident about their ability to fund and in other ways support democratic transitions. While complicated and tumultuous, these transitions offered a relatively hospitable environment for external actors who wanted to help. But it is important to remember that prior to the breakthroughs in Central Europe, only modest material and technical support was provided to democracy activists, who shaped the course of their own actions and strategies. Donors, such as the NED, served as a support mechanism for their work, but they conducted their own negotiations – with outgoing authoritarian powers in the form of ‘pacted transitions’ and with democratic partners or rivals to resolve tensions over strategy and tactics. It was not until the transitions were underway that government donors entered in a big way, along with the contractors they employed. While much U.S. government funding was driven by political processes and short-term objectives, private foundations lent longer term support to build institutions and capacity within civil society, including political parties.

Sensitivity to sovereignty

Fast forward to more recent and current transitions—where the environment for support is not always hospitable and can turn very nasty. Donors and foreign implementers must be attuned to the possibility that, as we’ve seen in Egypt and elsewhere, national pride and sensitivity to issues of sovereignty can rapidly consume a society and distract local actors from the tasks at hand. Social media can quickly spoil reputations and distort the picture. It may not always be wise to quickly ramp up democracy and civil society funding in a manner which could appear to be driven more by showing how involved we are in the transition rather than how to nimbly respond to what is practical and can be effective. Awarding substantial sums to new or weak organizations can pull them away from their potential constituencies with ruinous effect.

Over time, entrenched powers—even Western allies—realize that they can gain prestige in their region by pushing back against a “Western agenda.” And in many cases citizens can be stirred up by appealing to feelings of cultural or religious nationalism under the guise of preventing violations of national “sovereignty”. . Such trends can actually derail transitions, particularly if they turn violent.

For those of us who have engaged with many transitions over the years, there is a disturbingly familiar pattern. Donor resources are ramped up and hordes of consultants and contractors descend on the capital city of the country undergoing transition. Endless strategy and proposal writing meetings take place and eat up the time of people who need to be preparing and organizing their efforts. Rents go up and talented locals are lured away from their poor NGOs with high salaries offered by foreign contractors. The air is sucked out of local organizations and coalitions as outside groups with resources strive to pull locals into new coalitions for voter education and monitoring that is in their work plan. The critical role of political parties can be undermined if all key functions and resources are directed toward civil society.

Donor countries and foreign organizations should not make the mistake of taking too direct a role in building governance. Rather, indigenous civil society and political parties, as well as professional information outlets, however incipient, must be vested with these responsibilities since it is these actors that will ultimately be responsible for ensuring democratic governance. As these organizations will be the ones to hold institutional bodies accountable and generate new ideas and proposals, they should not be supplanted, but strengthened with the help of foreign actors. A transition is a long-term process, and needs local capacity to generate strategies for capable action over the long-term. Endless series of trainings and short-term project activities do not produce lasting results.

There is no question that those countries which are able should help transitioning countries to succeed with reforms, and develop political pluralism, rule of law, and accountability. But transitions should not be allowed to become opportunities for frenzies of funding in which proposal writing professionals take control.

Helsinki model’s ‘diplomatic multitasking’ can promote human rights in Iran

takeyh_2A U.S. push for human rights reforms during discussions of a nuclear agreement with Iran could lead to progress on both fronts through “diplomatic multitasking,” says a leading analyst.

“A prospective comprehensive nuclear agreement need not be explicitly linked to Iran’s human rights record, but by highlighting this issue, Washington can convey to Tehran the importance it attaches to how Iran treats its citizens,” writes Ray Takeyh in a new Policy Innovation Memorandum for the Council on Foreign Relations.

In “How to Promote Human Rights in Iran,” Takeyh details the country’s human rights violations, which include curbs on freedom of assembly, appalling prison conditions, unfair legal provisions, religious discrimination, and violations women’s rights.

“Diplomatic multitasking” will be required to negotiate a nuclear agreement while promoting human rights, writes Takeyh, who offers the following recommendations to facilitate the process:

  • The United States should highlight the work of Iran’s civil society groups and support freedom of expression in Iran.
  • High-ranking U.S. officials should speak more openly and persistently about human rights conditions in Iran.
  • The United States should pressure Iran into meeting international standards.

“Iran will change; its citizens’ quest for a more participatory and tolerant political system cannot be denied forever,” Takeyh concludes.


As the United States and other countries focus on the Islamic Republic of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, it is easy to ignore the fact that Iran is also one of the world’s worst human rights violators. In his latest report on Iran, the UN special rapporteur insisted that “the human rights situation in the Islamic Republic of Iran continues to warrant serious concern, with no sign of improvement.”Rouhani_2

Iran’s recent presidential election, which brought to power the longtime regime insider Hassan Rouhani, offers an opportunity to address these violations. A prospective comprehensive nuclear agreement need not be explicitly linked to Iran’s human rights record, but by highlighting this issue, Washington can convey to Tehran the importance it attaches to how Iran treats its citizens. This step requires diplomatic multitasking to negotiate a nuclear agreement while promoting human rights.

Helsinki Accords Model

Since his election, Rouhani has released a number of political prisoners and has continued to speak out about the need for more freedom. It is hard to determine whether these are merely public relations gestures or indicate a real commitment to improving Iran’s human rights record. Rouhani’s motivations need to be tested.

Today, Iran is one of the few countries in the Middle East where the population is widely considered to be pro-American. The media coverage and the election itself demonstrated that voters are tired not just of economic sanctions but also of the suffocating political environment. A United States that champions its values and calls for transparency, equality before the law, and respect for international human rights standards is likely to empower and not discredit such forces.

The Helsinki Accords of 1975 offers an important model for negotiating with Iran. Neither the Ford administration nor the Soviet Union anticipated the accords’ eventual effects. The United States introduced the human rights issue to placate allied and domestic opinion and the Soviet Union conceded to its inclusion given the more pressing arms control issues at stake. In due course, the Helsinki monitoring groups that emerged throughout Eastern Europe and within the Soviet Union itself did much to invigorate activists pushing for human rights. As with the Soviet Union, the Islamic Republic will resist and denounce discussions as interference in its internal affairs; but Rouhani, who likes to portray himself as an enlightened figure, may be more sensitive to this criticism than his predecessor.


Iran will change; its citizens’ quest for a more participatory and tolerant political system cannot be denied forever. ….. To facilitate that process, the United States should undertake the following steps.

The United States should highlight the work of various nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Iran is still endowed with many NGOs, as byproducts of the political renaissance of the 1990s, which are dealing with issues such as judicial reform and improvement of prison conditions for dissidents. The lawyer guilds, writers associations, and various women’s rights groups are examples of NGOs that are still struggling with their tasks. …

The United States should support freedom of expression in Iran. One manner of helping these organizations lies in the realm of Internet freedom and public diplomacy. ….Washington should look into providing readily accessible means of communication to Iranian organizations, including software to help overcome Internet blockage and technologies to penetrate the Iranian government’s obstructions of satellite transmissions. …………

“The best U.S. efforts to highlight Iran’s human rights violations may have a limited effect. Still, appealing to Iran’s new president and the Iranian public opinion may nudge the Islamic Republic in the right direction,” Takeyh concludes. “Even without such strategic benefits, Washington should advocate on behalf of Iranian citizens on account of the values and principles the United States professes to uphold.”

Read the full report here.