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Everywhere at the Human Rights Council (HRC) the catchphrase on everyone’s tongue is “shrinking spaces for civil society”. But what does it mean, really? How are activists grappling with this “shrinking space” in their work? To try and find out a little more, JASS Southern Africa’s Maggie Mapondera interviewed activists from as far afield as Mongolia, Brazil and India to learn from their experiences and analysis.

In Conversation with Sukhgerel Dugersuren, Oyu Tolgoi Watch, Mongolia

“Mongolia is a traditional nomadic country. Nomads need space to move and it is not about culture or tradition. It’s important because the grass is very thin in arid lands and in order for the herds to survive they need to follow the grass. So pastures are a crucial necessity, a life-sustaining resource. And this right to pasture for nomads is not recognised by the company and government. Pastures are regulated by custom to date. It is not incorporated in the current legal framework. So nomads have no title to pastures and in addition in these arid, semi-desert areas they don’t even have titled rights to water wells.”~ Sukhgerel Dugersuren, Oyu Tolgoi Watch, Mongolia

Oyu Tolgoi Watch (OT Watch) monitors the compliance of transnational corporations with international environmental and human rights standards. “We cannot go against local players without transnational support and alliances, as well as international civil society can’t go against transnational corporations without being grounded in local context” says Sukhgerel. “As civil society you need both to tackle the complex issues when it comes to business and development and human rights.” One of the greatest challenges for business and human rights defenders is the tentacle-like reach of big corporations and the need to build strategies that cut across the national-local and the transnational in order to protect people, communities and the environment from corporations who prioritise big profit.

Sukhgerel: Mongolia is now being brain-washed that it can be a hydropower– building HPPs, dams and 1000 km pipelines funnelling water from the north to the south so that thirsty mega-mines can continue extraction in the desert with no benefit to the local economy or even adequate compensation to affected nomadic population. 

Maggie: This resonates with the Zimbabwe situation, we have this precious minerals explosion, diamonds in Marange and it has meant a whole lot more extraction but very few standards and very little attention paid to human rights, so you have people being displaced for mining projects, violence in multiple forms taking place but no recourse. May you speak more about how OT Watch is being viewed and positioned, is that how you would think about shrinking space?

Sukhgerel: We have a NGO law that is very prescriptive and thus not conducive to civil society work. Not only is the law very poor, there is also arbitrary interpretation that allows officials to harass and pressure NGOs to yield.

For example, I cannot file a claim for damages caused by deporting our international expert from Mongolia to a court because the law says that “an NGO shall have “chairperson”. My position title is a “country coordinator”- therefore I have no standing in court. We cannot hold companies andor government accountable with such arbitrary interpretation of laws by the judiciary and government bureaucracy.

In addition human rights NGOs do not have standing in court to claim damages to public interest. Only environmental NGOs have the right to claim damage to public interest but they have now been disallowed participation in adversarial process, e.g. no right to speak on behalf of the claimant in the court session. These practices close a very important space for us.

Most recent reform of judicial sector further reduced space and access to judicial remedy to local communities and HDRs in rural areas. Mongolia has 334 settlement and only 29 inter-province (aimags) and inter-town (soum) courts. Some towns can be located in 300-500 km from the province centre requiring 8-10 drive off road. There is no legal aid or independent notary at town level. Courts do not accept documents without notary verification. Civil society space is shrinking but it still an important platform that is open for women to protect their own and their children’s rights. Majority of NGOs, especially human rights and local community activist groups in Mongolia are led by women. I believe this is an evidence of women being the first in line targets in human rights abuse or negative impacts of male-dominated extractive and infrastructure industries.   

So shrinking space for civil society is also being achieved by reducing access to judicial and non-judicial mechanisms of accountability. 

Maggie: How do you strategise in such a context?

Sukhgerel: Weak governance and accountability in resource rich developing countries is a given development model. So, it is important for civil society in developing countries to have transnational links, exchange of expertise and information to attack transnationals working locally using their own operational standards and policies. Rio Tinto has prevented a major land-slide in its mine in the US but has not done the same in its mines in developing countries. It is important for us to join in vertical and horizontal alliances to pressure for compliance with the same set of standards regardless of where they work. National companies need to adhere and comply by the same standards. The IFC (International Finance Corporation) standards are considered the best but they are the bare minimum standards. So in order to ensure that the environment is safe for us, they need to comply with at least those standards. And this minimum level compliance has to happen at all levels -only then we can ensure that society and the environment are protected.

This discussion about a binding business and human rights treaty isn’t going to help us if we only work on transnationals. We want all businesses to respect human rights.

Picture source: Bank Information Centre.

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