Organizations from Asia and Europe held online forum on increasing political repression amid COVID-19

May 21, 2021

As part of the 13th Asia Europe People’s Forum (AEPF), IBON International Europe, Council for People’s Development and Governance (CPDG), Viva Salud, People’s Coalition on Food Sovereignty (PCFS), and Asia-Pacific Research Network (APRN) held a webinar entitled “Peoples’ Resistance Against Shrinking Space and the COVID-19 Pandemic in Asia and Europe” on May 20, 2021.

The webinar aimed to discuss different experiences and analyses relating to the weaponization of COVID-19 response, political repression during the pandemic from various countries in Asia and Europe as well as pushbacks and resistance from the ground. Human rights lawyers, CSO leaders and parliamentarians from Hongkong, Malaysia, Philippines and Belgium gave their expertise and insights on shrinking space, political repression and the resistance of people’s movements in the time of Covid-19. 

The AEPF since its inception during the mid-1990’s has served as a mechanism for cooperation and solidarity among people’s organizations across Asia and Europe. It’s biennial conference has tackled social issues relating to trade, democracy, social justice and peace. 

Aaron Ceradoy of Asia-Pacific Mission for Migrants opened the webinar by highlighting that the people, especially marginalized sectors have been fighting back against the attacks on civil and political rights even before the pandemic.

“Before the pandemic, actions by social movements have sprouted from Asia to Europe, from Hong Kong to France, from the Philippines to the US. Actions participated in or led by workers, rural peoples, urban poor, indigenous peoples, women, migrants, and young people were happening that triggered reactions of repression through policies or force by states,” Ceradoy narrated.

The onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic was preceded by the rise of authoritarian strong-man rule, especially countries in the global south, resulting in multi-faceted disasters. Several governments exploited the health crisis by imposing measures that curbed freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. Some governments have   maximized the opportunity to railroad their political and neoliberal economic agenda, most of which are against the people’s interest such as what is happening in Myanmar, India, Indonesia and the Philippines. There are also countless cases of human rights violations perpetrated by state security forces and enforcement of antidemocratic laws meant to silence critics and consolidate political power. 

Sarojeni Rengam of Pesticide Action Network – Asia Pacific described the detrimental effects of increasingly militarized and repressive responses of Asian governments in dealing with the pandemic.

“COVID-19 exposed the policies that intensified the social, political and economic crisis. There are more policing and militaristic interventions in the pretext of COVID-19 response to quell protest and resistance,” Rengam shared.

Joke Callewaert of Progress Lawyers Network on the other hand shared the Belgian experience relating to anti-poor and anti-democratic COVID-19 measures.

“The government puts the economy first before the people. Big companies were identified  as ‘essential industries’ and operated business as usual while poor communities were subjected to violations of their democratic rights. Abuses by security forces and police were prevalent in neighborhoods where it is impossible to stay at home. It is even exacerbated by unclear rules,” Callewaert explained.

Both in Asia and Europe, people’s organizations have fought and pushed back against attacks by the state while calling for a humane pandemic response and a bigger focus on public health rather than punitive measures.

National Union of People’s Lawyers Secretary General Ephraim Cortez pointed out the importance of international mechanisms like the Generalized Scheme of Preferences+ (GSP+) and the United Nations Human Rights Council in demanding accountability of human rights violators but he emphasized the primacy of people’s active participation in social movements.

“While there are available legal remedies under domestic and international laws and mechanisms, these will not provide us with complete relief from our present situation. Ultimately, it is the peoples’ united action that will produce changes in our socio-economic and political system, and it is only then that complete relief is obtained,” says Cortez.

There were two simultaneous breakout rooms during the webinar. The first breakout room focused on the challenges and recommendations in strengthening advocacy and engaging with government bodies and other institutions. The second one collected good practices from the ground in EU and Asian countries in forging solidarity among people’s movements for resistance, assertion, and push-backs against shrinking civil space and political repression. The breakout rooms were facilitated by Jennifer Guste of CPDG and Nicky Gabriels of Viva Salud respectively.

Rapporteurs then shared what they had gathered after the breakout sessions which took about 15 minutes. The synthesized report will become the basis of recommendations for further unity and solidarity among the participating civil society organizations in Asia and Europe. It will also serve as a guidance in engaging government and international institutions in advancing people’s rights in the midst of COVID-19.

The pandemic which deprived physical democratic space gave birth to increased usage of available cyber and digital domains. Asian and European CSOs maximize this for carrying out advocacy work and expressing solidarity. A good point was raised during the breakout sessions that while COVID-19 is not yet eliminated, the people’s movements should not be tied to it. There is a need to gain ground and increase all available platforms towards working on social justice while being vigilant to the possible shift of attacks.

Parliamentarians were also invited to give their insights on supporting people’s movements and initiatives in this humanitarian crisis. Severine de Laveleye, a member of the Federal parliament of Belgium (Ecolo), gave inputs on the opportunities and current challenges in advancing human rights issues in parliament. Succeeding her is Arlene Brosas who represents Gabriela Women’s Party in the Philippine House of Representative who emphasized ……

International mechanisms like the AEPF have immense importance for causes relating to human rights and social justice. It gives a better platform to people’s organizations, especially those from the global south. It also becomes a space where like-minded groups can exchange practices and ideas towards building international solidarity.

In her closing remarks, APRN Secretary General Mara Medrano called for increased solidarity in pushing social justice while combating the pandemic.

“Now more than ever, we must extend our solidarity from defeating this pandemic to creating a social system that is owned and shaped by the people; a society that prioritizes people’s rights and development over corporate interests,” Medrano concluded.