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In Latin America, The Pandemic Has Been Bad For Civil Rights

Civil society's scope and powers are taking a hit in places like Mexico, Venezuela and Brazil.

Military police in Rio de Janeiro
Military police in Rio de Janeiro
Andrés Serbin

-OpEd-

BUENOS AIRES — Across Latin America, the current health crisis has been accompanied by efforts to limit people's basic rights and reduce civic spaces, meaning the places where citizens and civil society can organize themselves, debate and act — outside the state, corporation or the family — in defense of public goods and civil rights.

So concluded participants in a recent workshop, organized by the CRIES think tank association, on regional responses to the crisis. Evidence for this claim comes from a report by Civicus, a global alliance of NGOs, noting that civic spaces have been restricted in 22 of Latin America's 32 states, and strangled or blocked in eight.

The situation is of particular concern in Mexico, Brazil and Venezuela, according to study. The trend, nevertheless, can be seen in other countries as well. In fact, in many cases the pandemic and quarantine norms imposed to curb contagion have helped deepen tendencies that began before the pandemic, and given governments — both of the Left and the Right — opportunities and pretexts to increase oversight, authoritarian practices and often unconstitutional controls over citizens.

The measures taken in response to the pandemic have restricted civic spaces at local, national, regional and even international levels. The situation is alarming to the international community in general, and to the international rights community in particular.

States using a range of legal, pseudo-legal and illegal means have been severely repressive of things such as the right to influence public policies and to develop interactive dialogue with decision-takers at the government and intergovernmental levels. There's also been a crackdown on the freedoms of association and expressions, and in some cases citizens are subjected to violence.

There's an Orwellian twist.

In addition to legal, illegal and extra-legal mechanisms used to disempower civil society and curb its abilities to express itself and impact events, new technologies have, in an Orwellian twist, aided in this shrinking of the civic sphere by allowing greater controls, distortion, censorship and intervention online.

Indeed, new control and monitoring mechanisms have come to constitute some of the most important exports to this region by the main actors of the international system.

A recent report by the Igarapé Institute in Brazil establishes a specific typology of strategies used by governments to reduce the civic sphere: confiscation, direct or indirect coercion, fake news and disinformation, open censorship, intimidation and harassment, violation of privacy (watching individuals), violation of civil and political rights, restrictions (legal and illegal) on civil participation and involvement, restriction of financial freedoms, physical violence, use of unconstitutional procedures and abuse of power.

These strategies are implemented in the framework of a complex worldwide transition already threatening certain basic values of the established international system. This is not just in economics, but also — and specifically — with regards to values around the rule of law and democratic governance, civil liberties and human rights. Any sinister similarity to actual events, both immediate or remote, is definitely not a coincidence.


*Serbin, an international affairs analyst, is president of CRIES.

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Geopolitics

Patronage Or Politics? What's Driving Qatar And Egypt Grand Rapprochement

For Cairo, Qatar had been part of an “axis of evil,” with anger directed at Al Jazeera, the main Qatari outlet, and others critical of Egypt after the Muslim Brotherhood ouster. But the vitriol is now gone, with the first ever visit by Egyptian President al-Sisi to Doha.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi met with the Emir of Qatar in June 2022 in Cairo

Beesan Kassab, Daniel O'Connell, Ehsan Salah, Hazem Tharwat and Najih Dawoud

For the first time since coming to power in 2014, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi traveled to Doha last month on an official visit, a capstone in a steadily building rapprochement between the two countries in the last year.

Not long ago, however, the photo-op capturing the two heads of state smiling at one another in Doha would have seemed impossible. In the wake of the Armed Forces’ ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood government in 2013, Qatar and Egypt traded barbs.

In the lexicon of the intelligence-controlled Egyptian press landscape, Qatar had been part of an “axis of evil” working to undermine Egypt’s stability. Al Jazeera, the main Qatari outlet, was banned from Egypt, but, from its social media accounts and television broadcast, it regularly published salacious and insulting details about the Egyptian administration.

But all of that vitriol is now gone.

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