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Why is the International Community silent on caste-based violence in India?

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Dalit Women on the outskirts of Chakrapanpur Village, Varanasi District, Uttar Pradesh, display job cards. Leena Patel/UN Women

“Silence is Golden” is what I learned in my school but it’s not a coherent decision to consciously opt for silence when every new day 8-12 Dalit women (ladies belonging to the ‘untouchable’ caste) are raped in India. To stay apolitical on this contemporary issue is a matter of vociferous ignorance and ‘privilege of elitism’. The predicament does not stop here. The Dalit community, even in today’s century, continues to experience exploitation and discrimination in different forms, despite of the fact that the architect of Indian Constitution (Dr B R Ambedkar) was a Dalit. It’s assumed by the toadies of the ruling party that ‘casteism does not exist’, but little do they know that cowbelt states (Madhya Pradesh: 53%, Himachal Pradesh: 50%, Chhattisgarh: 48%, Rajasthan and Bihar: 47%, Uttar Pradesh: 43%, Uttarakhand: 40%) often practice untouchability or casteism willfully than other regional states in India. Majority of the caste-apologists here are Hindus, Sikhs and Jains. These findings come from a report (2011–12) by NCAER which conducted ‘India Human Development Survey (IHDS-2)’ across 42,000 households.

The buck does not stop in India alone. Wherever a Hindu travels, casteism inherently travels with his soul. A survey (2016) conducted by Equality Labs figured out that around 1,500 people of South Asian origin in the United States confirmed that Dalits often face various types of caste discrimination in South Asian American institutions. This discrimination ranges from derogatory jokes and slurs to physical violence and sexual assault. In the survey, around 26% of Dalit respondents said they had faced physical violence because of their caste while 20% reported discrimination at their work places. When it came to religion, 40% were made to feel unwelcome at their places of worship, the report said. And, 40% of Dalits said they had been rejected as romantic partners because of their caste. In all, 60% of Dalits reported that they had experienced caste-based derogatory jokes and comments.

Casteism is a social structure founded on the tenets of Brahminical hierarchy that determines the caste of a person based on birth and colour. On Wikipedia, it’s defined as “a form of social stratification characterized by endogamy, hereditary transmission of a style of life which often includes an occupation, ritual status in a hierarchy, and customary social interaction and exclusion based on cultural notions of purity and pollution.Its paradigmatic ethnographic example is the division of India’s Hindu society into rigid social groups, with roots in India’s ancient history and persisting to the present time.” It does not just openly exist in the rural areas of India, but it is also existing in meso and micro forms (even in urban areas) too. From separate utensils to casteist slurs, from arranged marriage systems to ghettos, casteism is horrendously and vociferously practiced. In fact, urban cities are known to be the ‘path of development and prosperity’ but unfortunately the very privileged ones residing in the non-rural spheres (not just on the realm of facebook and twitter alone) often condemn and scorn affirmative actions, inter-caste marriages (6% as per the 2011 census report, against the total population), compartmentalization and social equity, etc. A recent series ‘Indian Matchmaking’ on Netflix also tells how educated Indians consider caste to be an important parameter before tying the knot. To add to this woe, the Lok Foundation-Oxford University survey(2018) administered by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) ratiocinated that maintaining caste-based endogamy still remains an important feature of marriage in India. Interestingly, the report also found that lower caste communities slightly practise more inter-caste marriages or exogamy than the upper caste.

What astonishes me is why the international community, other than few UN reports on HR or some renowned NGOs, is unable to collectively call-out the issue? The epoch in India is presently infected with Hindutva nationalism and it continues to ‘otherises’ the minorities, including sexual minorities. Rape culture is something India conserves, excuses, and ignores when crimes are committed against women. It’s the system and the society that has vociferously failed to emancipate and free the Dalit community from a web of oppression. More than ever, it is brutally important to make people aware that casteism, not just caste alone, remains a bitter reality today that stimulates bigotry and sexual exploitation of vulnerable communities. Discussions around abolishing the caste system have been long ongoing. One seminal text is ‘Annihilation of Caste’ by Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, written in 1936. Ambedkar was part of Jat-Pat Todak Mandal (Society For The Abolition Of Caste System), an anti-caste platform that challenged conventional societal norms and orthodoxy of Hindu Society.  There is a dire need to think out of the box in abolishing casteism and freeing people from the age-old matrix of slavery. The Annihilation of Caste was a radical work for its time, and it continues to be, although it is not introduced in the exercises of parenting and schooling. The book’s theme revolves around the effect of casteism (as it matters for ‘untouchables’ like Ambedkar himself). The caste system is a conventional, misogynistic, and a very rigid social order that discriminates and exploits people, except the upper-caste (Brahmins), on the basis of birth, color, gender, identity, and community. It is proven that casteism lynches the very scope of social mobility, cultural emancipation, and freedom of individuality.Ambedkar sought to comprehend and thrust the inequality of casteism into the Hindu consciousness, to divulge social and economic inequality. This question or the social question of political reform is coupled with economic reform, thinking through the characteristics of ‘Indian’ society, but from the perspectives of Dalits. For Ambedkar, it is casteism that prevents a human being from practicing humanity with other humans and nevertheless deprives ‘segmented’ individuals in the hierarchy of caste from experiencing empathy and fraternity.

In 2016, a report on caste-based discrimination by the United Nations Human Right Council’s special rapporteur for minority issues Rita Izsák-Ndiaye irked the present Indian government. It was expected that the government would turn schizophrenic against the report. Her report quoted India’s National Crime Records Bureau data highlighting that there has been an increase in reported crimes against the Dalits by 19% in 2014 compared to the previous year. It mentions that despite prohibition through legislation, the state has institutionalised the practice with “local governments and municipalities employing manual scavengers”. Further, the SR’s report notes that casteism directly affects the health of the discriminated, citing an Indian study which “demonstrated stark disparities between Dalit and non-Dalit women in terms of life expectancy and access to prenatal and postnatal care”.

Buddha aka Siddhartha Gautama himself condemned and scorned the practices of casteism and untouchability in his discourses. He welcomed Hindu untouchables like Prakriti, Suneet, Uppali, etc in his sangha (community). The scripture ‘Majjhima Nikaya’ records it. Thus, it is a logical error to blame the introduction of casteism on Britishers alone, as assumed in today’s India, when casteism has been the core practice since ages. At the same time, currently, not just the academic textbooks of History, international communities too have ignored divulging India on circumventing caste-based massacres: Kilvenmani massacre (1968), Karamchedu massacre (1985), Dalelchak-Bhagora massacre (1987), Tsundurmasscare (1991), Bara massacre (1991), Bathani Tola massacre (1996), Melavalavu massacre (1996), Laxmanpur Bathe massacre (1997), Senari massacre (1999), Kambalapalli massacre (2000), Khairlanji massacre (2006), Mirchpur massacre (2011), Dharmapuri massacre (2012), Saharanpur violence (2017) and other individual cases that unfortunately experienced bigotry, rape and lynching. All these massacres stem from the cultural philosophy of casteism. There have been many cases of Dalits killed, beaten and abused for riding a horse, flaunting moustache, eating in front of upper caste, sitting on a chair, etc. It’s high time for the international community to call-out the culture of casteism that is practised in India and enshrine accountability over human rights violations on the global level too.

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New Social Compact

To Achieve the SDGs We Must Eliminate Violence Against Women and Girls

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During the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence from the 25th of November to the 10th of December, the Ban Ki-moon Centre for Global Citizens contributes to the Orange the World Campaign globally and in Austria, calling for the elimination of violence against women and girls.

Five years ago, in 2015, the member states of the United Nations (UN) agreed on 17 global goals to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all. Since then, these Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have evolved into a guiding roadmap for finding long term solutions to global challenges. “Leaving No One Behind” has become the key message of this agenda, as the global community emphasised that the SDGs can only be achieved if peace and prosperity holds true for everyone.

Women make up half of the world’s population, but they still struggle to even exercise their fundamental human rights. A staggering one in three women experiences physical or sexual violence in their lifetime. Violence against women and girls is, thus, one of the most pervasive human rights violations and perhaps the most obvious manifestation of the deeply rooted imbalances in power in our societies. How will we ever reach the SDGs if such inequalities still exist?

In 2008, the UN, under the leadership of its 8th Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, pushed for a multi-year effort aimed at preventing and eliminating violence against women and girls around the world, called UNiTE to End Violence against Women. The campaign called on governments, civil society, women’s organizations, young people, the private sector, the media and the entire UN system to join forces in addressing the global pandemic of violence against women and girls.Ithas, for example, worked to adopt and enforce national laws to address and punish all forms of violence against women and girls, in line with international human rights standards.

In 2015 UN Women became the agency entrusted to lead the UN’s efforts to advocate the elimination of violence against women and girls. To strengthen UNiTE, UN Women announced the “Orange the World” campaign, to take place annually during the period between the 25th of November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and the 10th of December, Human Rights Day. During these16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, the world’s most prominent monuments and buildings are illuminated in orange, representing a future free from violence against women and girls.

Hosting the United Nations and located in the heart of Europe, Austria plays a key role in boosting the campaign on a local and international level. UN Women Austria, Soroptimist International Austria, HeForShe Austria and the Ban Ki-moon Centre are working in close partnership on the Austrian contribution to Orange the World. In 2019, the partners counted over 130 Austrian buildings in monuments illuminated in orange during the 16 Days of Activism. In 2020, the aim is to surpass this number and to shed light on current challenges regarding gender-based violence with the support of the Austrian actress Ursula Strauss as the campaign’s spokesperson.

2020 has been rattled by the Covid-19 pandemic and emerging data has shown that the lock-down measures around the world were accompanied by a spike in reported domestic violence cases. This alarming development demonstrates that action must be taken to prevent the aggravation and contribute to the elimination of what UN Women has named ‘The Shadow Pandemic’.[1]

Image Reference: https://www.unwomen.org

To spread the message of the campaign to a wider audience and discuss the issues of the Shadow Pandemic with high-level actors, two online events will take place during the Orange the World timeframe.

At a virtual high-level roundtable on November 26thtitled “Tackling the Shadow Pandemic –Violence Against Women During COVID-19 Times”, Executive Director of UN Women Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, former Prime Minister of New Zealand Helen Clark, Regional Director of UN Women Asia and Pacific Mohammad Naciri, CEO of Avon Angela Cretu, and women’s rights activist Trisha Shetty will discuss what steps can be taken to address the spike in violence against women during COVID-19. The event will be hosted by the Co-chairs of the Ban Ki-moon Centre, 8th UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and 11th President of Austria Heinz Fischer.

On December 1st,the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the Ban Ki-moon Centre will host a Virtual Expo called “Education, Empowerment, and Effective Policies: Innovative Initiatives Preventing Gender-Based Violence”. As part of UNODC’s Education for Justice Global Dialogue Series, changemakers from around the world will come together and present how they take action to prevent violence against women and girls.

To make the world a safer and better place for all, we must all do our part to eliminate violence against women and girls in all its forms. We encourage you to get active in the Orange the World campaign by hosting an event, sharing its messages, and becoming part of this global movement!

About the Ban Ki-moon Centre:

In 2018, Ban Ki-moon and Heinz Fischer founded the Ban Ki-moon Centre for Global Citizens (BKMC), to empower women and youth to become global citizens within the framework of the SDGs. Acknowledging that gender-based violence restricts, if not prevents individuals to be a part of and contribute to the 2030 Agenda, the BKMC, based in Vienna, Austria, also advocates for the elimination of violence against women and girls. The Ban Ki-moon Centre has been an active contributor to the Orange the World Campaign in Austria since 2018.

Reach out and learn more at www.bankimooncentre.org


[1]https://www.unwomen.org/-/media/headquarters/attachments/sections/library/publications/2020/issue-brief-covid-19-and-ending-violence-against-women-and-girls-en.pdf?la=en&vs=5006

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New Social Compact

Gender equality agenda of SDGs and Feminist Mobilization

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The revolutionary result of a two-year long process of intergovernmental debate and deliberation was a new set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that was formally declared in a UN summit from 25th to 27th September 2015.  Also known as the Global Goals, the 17 Sustainable Development Goals set by the United Nations General Assembly aim to push highly relevant agendas to be addressed by the year 2030. Amidst the targets set that facilitate basic human existence, such as no poverty, zero hunger, good health and well-being, quality education, there is the equally important strong Goal 5 that need special focus. The increasing wave of feminism and feminism-educated individuals created on bringing to fruition the agenda of Sustainable Development Goal 5: Gender Equality.

Goal 5 holds world governments accountable to their role in putting an end to gender inequality. According to the UNDP’s official manifesto, it proposes to stamp out discrimination and gender-based violence; eliminate child marriage, educate women on their sexual and reproductive health and their reproductive rights, ensure that they have adequate access to PHCs for sexual health check-ups; work on making education and the workforce and equal-opportunity platform for men and women; expand economic opportunities for women and girls; and finally, attempt to reduce the unfair conditions of unpaid work on women. As compared to the earlier designed MDGs that focused minimally on gender roles, these edicts represent a paradigm shift in the thinking of policy makers.

When we talk of feminist mobilization, we often start with a bleak picture that progressively improves. Women with radical opinions are ignored or dismissed as being inexperienced. Out of the many roadblocks faced by feminist groups, a primary one is a general feeling of not being heard. This ranges anywhere from a despondent acceptance to abject frustration. Moreover, this does not exist only in the context of men. Smaller feminist movements are often drowned by larger, more populist feminist agendas. Younger women who are developing their philosophy on feminism tend to choose offbeat paths as they aggressively reject traditional governmental structures. In a large number of instances, there is enough initiative but a dearth of resources. 

Since the 1990s, there have been the advent of a number of structures that are, at their core, against the idea of an independent woman, who sees herself as equal to a man in every way. A few of these include; an unstable global economy that is also wrestling with economic inequality among nations; a completely disregarded worldview on climate change and global warming that pays no heed to an increasingly large number of climate refugees, out of whom women and children survive the least; an increasing number of non-liberal governments and organizations in both high and low income countries where women are discriminated against and seen as second-class citizens; a large mass of migrant displaced populations that keep exponentially increasing due to new clashes daily; and a regression of popular opinion into what seems like medieval times, with no respect for integrity, bodily autonomy, and sexual and reproductive rights, as well as basic human rights to refugees and migrants in receiving countries. Not to mention, the gamut of telecommunications in the present times coupled with the massive volume of information exchange have pushed us as a people into a world where social media is regarded as the gospel truth, and the messages sent via these platforms are used to spread ideas of hatred, inequality, false perceptions and discrimination.

These increasing societal challenges, go hand in hand with deeply unsettling evidence on the widespread inequalities and gender crimes that seem almost entrenched in the fabric of our existence. The Global Gender Gap Index is a system of ranking a total of 144 countries according to their education, economic opportunities, health delivery systems, and political participation. The most recent version of this index was published in 2017 by the World Economic Forum, whose findings show that some parameters of the gap may have worsened in recent years instead of getting better. In terms of estimating earned income in USD, the gap increased considerably after the financial global meltdown in 2008. The index has made an estimate that going forward from 2017, it will take 217 years to completely abolish this gap only in the workplace, and over 100 years to close this gap overall. It seems that only the health and education sectors are somewhat progressing when it comes to achieving some kind of equality, but the same equality in the economic and political sectors between women and men seem to be but a distant dream – they are exponentially increasing each year.

However, there has been renewed interest from funding sources and policy makers on ‘investing in women and girls’ and combined with this strong push from the UN, has made some significant headway.

In The Context of India

As with feminist mobilization, one tends to take on a slightly defeatist attitude when talking of India’s role in global feminism. However, by no means can it be said that India as a country has not been making strides.In 20 years (1994-2014), India has lifted nearly 144 million people out of abject poverty under various government schemes, including the largest employment scheme in the world, the MNREGA, almost half of whose members are women.

In a historic 2016 legislation the law promised 26 weeks of paid maternity leave, to ensure that women do not quit the workforce after planning a family. A renewed push towards gender equality in education is seen by the advent of programs such as the Sarva Siksha Abhiyaan and the Right to Education Act, 2009, which have been instrumental in helping to exponentially increase the gross enrolment rate for girls at the primary school level. Further, there have been similarly encouraging statistics recorded at the secondary school level – the rate of enrolment for girls has increased from 55.5% in 2008 to 78.9% in 2014-15 and at the higher secondary school level it has gone up from 31.6% in 2008 to 53.8% in 2014-15.

While these findings are highly significant, it points to the gamut of work that is still to be done. While India seems to progress in the right direction in terms of policy, it tends to lag behind in understanding the cultural applications at the grass-roots level. According to a study conducted by the Oxfam Organization, there appear to be deep stigmas attached to women working in agriculture. There is also a statistic that might seriously impact India’s feminist movement – that highly educated women tend to leave the workforce to make ‘respectable’ marriages to higher caste and higher income households. 

This points to a shocking number, that being that the contribution of women all over the world to the global GDP is 35%, but Indian women represent less than half of that at 17%. Based on the rankings released by the Labour Force Participation,India comes in at a rank of lowly 120 out of a total of 131 countries, even though 42% of Indian women graduate by education.

Between the years of 2005 and 2012, the Indian workforce was severely depleted by almost20 million women, due to various reasons. This staggering figure is almost equal to the collective population of Sri Lanka. Every one of these women who chose to discontinue their professional aspirations should be regarded as a lost opportunity for their families and for their country, but most importantly, for themselves. The Indian feminist movement that has paved the way for these discussions to take place in the context of the Sustainable Development Goals, has played an important first step in reaching a state of equal respect and opportunity by 2030.

According to policy makers at the ECOSOC Youth Forum held at the UN Headquarters in New York, Mr Ravi Karkara (Senior Adviser to the Assistant Secretary General, UN Women) and Mr Rohith Porhukuchi, the young feminist movement has been indispensable in cementing the SDG agenda. Further, they recommend a greater number of educated women taking up the mantle at advocacy campaigns related to the equality and women empowerment sectors. For example, the UNiTE campaign is creating a large impact through its global, regional and multinational advocacy initiatives and is actively working to mobilize individuals and communities to its cause. This campaign supports the efforts of women’s initiatives and organizations dedicated to their upliftment, but actively engage in work with men – to sensitize and educate them to their cause – along with celebrities, artists, sportspeople, media, corporates and a whole host of others. 

The UN Women’s “Planet 50-50 by 2030: Step It Up for Gender Equality” campaign, again holds world governments accountable to make national public commitments to uplift women and eliminate the challenges that prevent them from reaching their full potential. The HeForShe and MAN UP campaigns also take a stand on gender equality and women’s rights.

Conclusion

During the ongoing process of deciding the SDG agenda, it was common knowledge that key economic issues such as financing, investments, trade, tax laws and unlawful transactions, while extremely important, grossly outstripped and took precedence over issues of feminist advocacy.  This problem was further complicated by the decrease in the authority of the UN, and the rise of ultra-conservatism in many powerful nations across the globe as a result of rapidly spreading religious fanaticism and evangelism. 

In spite of these issues, the global and Indian feminist movements have been extremely organized and have used their resources effectively to bring about small facets of change, using techniques learned from the time of the 1990s conferences and their 5-yearly regional and global reviews. According to the paper Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment: Feminist Mobilization for the SDGs, by Gita Sen, some of these almost ground-breaking reforms include: 

  • Recognizing in the initial stages that there is value in being awarded an official status as part of the Major Groups and utilizing the Women’s Major Group as a platform to voice feminist issues, especially bas civil society is moving more into a zone of closed spaces.
  • Utilizing bodies such as WWG in order to involve concerned persons in critical aspects of campaigning, such as financing and media engagement.
  • Actively seeking out other bodies with similar interests and agendas and networking with them in order to reach shared goals.
  • Being able to coordinate with and mobilize these bodies peacefully with effective and quick conflict resolution when required 
  • Making it a point to never compromise on technical support, language and expertise on processes, so that they can come across as trustworthy and strong in their dealings with official negotiators. 
  • As an extension to the above, further honing the negotiation abilities of young budding feminists.

Feminist advocacy platforms need to be constantly discussed and negotiated periodically. Feminists need to forge valuable partnerships with select organizations and perhaps even corporates that are sympathetic to the feminist cause, but also are able to effectively bring about long-term changes in areas such as finance, education, trade, investment and climate change among others. The annual Spotlight Report on Sustainable Development is the result of a feminist group working with tandem with such an organization (www.2030spotlight.org). The first report was unveiled during the UN High Level Political Forum in July 2016 and was received well among both UN member states and civil societies, being the first major media published which was critical of ongoing responses to feminist needs.

The ability of feminist organizations to defend their vision will need a clear manifesto, exceptional analytical skills, better communication and organizational strategies, and the ability to form collaborations where the youth plays a strong role. 

In totality, this work makes the claim that is that the size of the environment affected is directly proportional to the strength, organization and nature of facilities involved in bringing about a significant social mobilization.

REFERENCES:

1. Gita Sen. Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment: Feminist Mobilization for the SGDs. Global Policy Volume Jan (2010); 10(1)

2. United Nations Development Programme

 3. UN Women

4. Mary Hawkesworth. Policy studies within a feminist frame. Policy Sciences Jun (1994); 27(2-3), pp. 97-118.

5. Paola Cagna, Nitya Rao. Feminist Mobilization, Claims Making and Policy Change: An Introduction. Wiley Online Library. doi

6. Eric Swank, Breanne Fahs. Understanding Feminist Activism among Women: Resources, Consciousness, and Social Networks. Socius. doi

7. jacobinmag

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New Social Compact

Time to take action against SLAPPs

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Free speech is a cherished right in Europe. But in some countries, certain rich and powerful people use specious lawsuits to censor, harass and ultimately suppress critics. This is a long-standing problem but one that has been increasing in magnitude in recent months. Journalists, activists, and advocacy groups are the preferred targets of these so-called Strategic Lawsuits against Public Participation (SLAPPs).

When investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was murdered, she was already facing over 40 civil and criminal defamation suits in Malta. Some of these lawsuits have continued posthumously against her family. Throughout August and September 2020, 39 defamation lawsuits were taken out against three journalists at the investigative news website Necenzurirano in Slovenia. Primož Cirman, Vesna Vuković and Tomaž Modic are facing 13 different criminal defamation lawsuits each. They were filed by a tax expert who argues that their reporting on his business dealings – including a controversial loan to the political party of the Slovenian Prime Minister, the SDS – contains false information and has damaged his honour and reputation. In Italy, where defamation is still a criminal offence, several journalists have been targeted by malicious lawsuits with the sole aim of silencing them and draining their time and financial resources. One such example is Federica Angeli, a journalist under threat who is known for her thorough investigations into the Mafia, and has had to fight over 120 lawsuits. In another current case in South Tyrol, criminal court proceedings have been brought by the provincial councillor in charge of agriculture and by apple farmers against environmental activists and the publisher of a book denouncing the high levels of pesticide use in the region.

These are just a few examples of abusive lawsuits intended to intimidate and silence critics. Commonly known as “SLAPPs”, these suits pose a significant and growing threat to the right to freedom of expression in a number of Council of Europe member states, perverting the justice system and the rule of law more generally.

SLAPPs: lawsuits with an intimidating effect

The Annual Report of the Council of Europe Platform to promote the protection of journalism and safety of journalists highlights groundless legal actions by powerful individuals or companies that seek to intimidate journalists into abandoning their investigations. In some cases, the threat of bringing such a suit, including through letters sent by powerful law firms, was enough to bring about the desired effect of halting journalistic investigation and reporting.

This problem goes beyond the press. Public watchdogs in general are affected. Activists, NGOs, academics, human rights defenders, indeed all those who speak out in the public interest and hold the powerful to account might be targeted. SLAPPs are typically disguised as civil or criminal claims such as defamation or libel and have several common features.

First, they are purely vexatious in nature. The aim is not to win the case but to divert time and energy, as a tactic to stifle legitimate criticism. Litigants are usually more interested in the litigation process itself than the outcome of the case. The aim of distracting or intimidating is often achieved by rendering the legal proceedings expensive and time-consuming. Demands for damages are often exaggerated.

Another common quality of a SLAPP is the power imbalance between the plaintiff and the defendant. Private companies or powerful people usually target individuals, alongside the organisations they belong to or work for, as an attempt to intimidate and silence critical voices, based purely on the financial strength of the complainant.

It should be no surprise that SLAPPs are multiplying in areas such as environmental and consumer protection, crime prevention or corruption allegations. A typical example is when a large company sues journalists or activists who have exposed an environmental disaster. France is a case in point. In 2018 two companies affiliated to the Bolloré Group sued three newspapers (Mediapart, L’Obs and Le Point) and two NGOs (Sherpa and ReAct) for defamation for publishing accusations of land grabbing made by villagers and farmers in Cameroon. This was one of more than 20 lawsuits filed by companies associated with the Bolloré Group, particularly palm oil companies Socfin and Socapalm.

I have also recently received information about specious lawsuits against LGBTI activists, in which wealthy conservative organisations have taken local human rights defenders to court as a means of intimidating them and hampering their work.

Existing standards applicable to SLAPPs

The European Court of Human Rights has made it very clear: unreasonably high damages for defamation claims can have a chilling effect on freedom of expression. Therefore, there must be adequate domestic safeguards so as to avoid disproportionate awards being granted. The Court has also stressed that States are required to create a favourable environment for participation in public debate by all, enabling everyone to express their opinions and ideas without fear.

Member states therefore have a positive obligation to secure the enjoyment of the rights enshrined in Article 10 of the Convention: not only must they refrain from any interference with the individual’s freedom of expression, but they are also under a positive obligation to protect his or her right to freedom of expression from any infringement, including by private individuals.

Several texts adopted at the Council of Europe refer explicitly to the problem of SLAPPs or other forms of intimidating or vexatious litigation against journalists and media outlets, including online media. The Recommendation on the roles and responsibilities of internet intermediaries, adopted by the Committee of Ministers in March 2018, states explicitly that “State authorities should consider the adoption of appropriate legislation to prevent strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPP) or abusive and vexatious litigation against users, content providers and intermediaries which is intended to curtail the right to freedom of expression.”

In addition, the 2012 Declaration of the Committee of Ministers on the Desirability of International Standards dealing with Forum Shopping in respect of Defamation, to ensure Freedom of Expression, touches upon a specific aspect of SLAPPs, namely so-called “libel tourism”, a tactic that is used by many litigators who file a complaint with the court thought most likely to provide a favourable judgment and where it is easy to sue.

Finding the right response

To counter SLAPPs effectively, a comprehensive response should be devised. In my view, this should follow a threefold approach:

  • preventing the filing of SLAPPs by allowing the early dismissal of such suits. This should go hand in hand with an awarenessraising exercise among judges and prosecutors, and proper implementation of the case-law of the European Court of Human Rights on defamation;
  • introducing measures to punish abuse, particularly by reversing the costs of proceedings;
  • minimising the consequences of SLAPPs by giving practical support to those who are sued.

To make this happen, governments, but also journalists, human rights defenders and civil society need to act decisively. I found it encouraging to see that a coalition of NGOs recently published a policy paper on how the EU should end SLAPPs and proposed a number of short- to medium-term measures to address this issue at EU level.

It is high time to tackle a practice which puts pressure both on journalists and on civil society as a whole and dissuades them from critical reporting. This is all the more important at a time when access to information is under strain, with governments seizing emergency powers to ban assemblies, reducing the ability of NGOs and journalists to do field work and sometimes also reining in critical media.

While this practice primarily affects the right to freedom of expression, it also has a dramatic impact on public interest activities more broadly: it discourages the exercise of other fundamental freedoms such as the right to freedom of assembly and association and undermines the work of human rights defenders. This means that it touches on many aspects of my mandate and I will continue to pay close attention to this issue. I believe that the Council of Europe and its member states are well placed to play a role in this context.

Council of Europe

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