The Global Siege on Civil Society

April 30, 2016

Dozens of governments are adopting means to limit the activities of NGOs and impede their access to foreign funds

(Written by Ana Carbajosa for El País, translated by Alejandrx Urruti and edited by Indhira Prego Raveneau. Click here to read the original article in Spanish)

Beijing just passed a law that restricts the activities of foreign NGOs and subjects them to police investigation. Unfortunately, the Chinese communist party is just one of many governments to do so. Indeed, this law is part of a robust, international trend of similar legislation implemented by politicians that fear the interference of foreigners as well as civil society’s unprecedented capacity to mobilize — which is due in part to new technologies. In the last five years more than fifty nations have adopted measures to curtail the activities of NGOs and human rights advocacy groups, which are increasingly perceived as threats by autocratic leaders in the 21st century. “There is a global trend of states fearing civil society,” warned Maina Kiai, U.N. Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association. “Asia, Africa, Latin America, and post-Soviet states are the main stages where this repression is taking place.”

“We are currently witnessing the greatest collective effort of governments since the 1980s. These restrictive laws are part of a phenomenon that marks the end of a period of democratic opening in the 90’s and begins a period of democratic stagnation. This is a time that is redefining the balance of power between citizens and the State — and autocrats are winning the battle,” noted Thomas Carothers, Vice president for Studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Carothers estimates that in the last five years, more than fifty governments have adopted restrictive measures against civil society organizations. Aside from China, Egypt, India, Russia, and Ethiopia are some of the nations that are hampering the activities of NGOs.

“Governments have gone from perceiving NGOs as benign entities to perceiving them as a threat, because instead of protesting through political parties, citizens are participating in social movements that stand in opposition to their nation’s elites. It terrifies autocrats to think about waking up one day, looking out their window, and being confronted by thousands of people demanding that they resign in a protest organized the night before on Facebook,” Carothers said.

Kenneth Roth is the Director of Human Rights Watch — a renowned human rights advocacy organization — and agrees that we are experiencing a regressive period, which he attributes in part to the emergence of social networks and the anxiety of governments of losing control. “Censuring traditional media was much easier. Maidan, Tahrir, Occupy Central, Hong Kong…the possibility that people will mobilize terrifies autocratic regimes that feel increasingly vulnerable to such opposition,” he explained by phone from New York.

Impoverishing NGOs by restricting their access to foreign funding is one of the most common methods governments employ. In countries where there is no tradition of philanthropy and funding is scarce, many NGOs are forced to go without domestic financing, often causing them to cease their operations. Other methods include blocking organizations from becoming licensed, overwhelming them with bureaucratic requirements, or resorting to the intimidation or incarceration of activists. Methods vary, but the objective is always the same: to silence voices that are critical of those in power once opposition parties have been dealt with. “It is ironic that the same governments that ask for foreign aid and investment would curb funding that goes to their NGOs. It is increasingly difficult for large private foundations and Western development aid agencies to send their donations to NGOs,” claims Roth.

Scholars that work in human rights and civil liberties agree that the Arab Spring sent out a shockwave that is still reverberating in the governments of many developing nations. They explain that this was a profound reminder that no government is immune from destabilization.

“The autocrats of the world saw how leaders that spent decades in power fell overnight and realized that it could also happen to them,” explained James Savage of the Fund for Global Human Rights.

Savage has identified up to a hundred proposed or enacted laws that affect the registration, financing, and operations of NGOs around the world, and warns that national security and the threat of terrorism have become the alibis of many nations seeking to silence civil society.

More Nationalism

The Arab riots coincided with a resurgence of nationalism and a shift inward, rejecting any outside influence. Governments fear that Western agendas—such as women’s rights, the environment, and LGBTQI+ rights—will ignite and contaminate their societies. “It’s a predictable psychological reaction on the part of autocrats who, unable to believe that their citizens would reject them, think that it must be the hand of foreign actors instigating riots within their borders,” Carothers articulated.

Moreover, the widening of middle classes in nations like China has led to an increase in the number of citizens who no longer dedicate all their energy to simply subsisting, allowing them to develop a greater awareness of their rights and higher expectations. Social networks deliver information and enable citizens to organize, which is precisely what authoritarian governments appear ready to avoid at all costs and by decree.

Foreign Money Against the Interests of the State

Below are some of the countries obstructing the activities of civil society organizations:

  • China: The recently passed law that affects foreign NGOs permits Chinese police to inspect their accounts, interrogate their employees, and close their offices. Furthermore, foreign groups will no longer be able to participate in political and religious activities, are not allowed to receive donations from Chinese citizens, or accept these citizens as members.
  • India: Official authorization by the Indian government is required for foundations and governmental agencies that intend to finance projects within India’s borders. Greenpeace India, for example, had its permission to receive foreign funding revoked after ecologists were publically critical of the nation’s mining and nuclear energy projects. In 2015, according to the Carnegie Institute, the Indian government denied the registration applications of 10,000 NGOs looking for permission to receive foreign funds.
  • Egypt: The United Nations has warned that the political crackdown in Egypt has also led to the closing of numerous NGOs, the freezing of their accounts, and the detention of human rights defenders accused of receiving foreign money to fund illegal activities. A new revision of the nation’s penal code allows for the imprisonment of those found guilty of receiving foreign funding with the intent to commit acts against the interests of the State.
  • Russia: Last year marked the passage of a law that allows the Russian Federation to declare any foreign NGO as “undesirable.” To qualify, an NGO would have to pose “a threat to the defensive capacities or the security of the State, or public order or public health, with the purpose of defending the foundation of constitutional order, as well as the morality, rights, or legal interests of others.” Punishment includes prison for any individual who in any way collaborates with an organization charged with this crime.
  • Ethiopia: The Ethiopian government passed legislation that limits the financing of NGOs and runs a strict registry of active civil society organizations. Organizations that receive more than 10% of their resources from abroad are greatly restricted in their ability to act.
  • Hungary: The Hungarian government accused Norway of financing its political opposition through donations to human rights organizations. As a result, various NGOs suffered exhaustive audits, raids, and even police investigations.
  • Israel: A proposed law in Israel would obligate NGOs that receive funding from foreign entities to inform the government of any and all donations they receive. This measure primarily affects organizations critical of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands.
  • Angola: Last year, the government of Angola issued a presidential decree with new, strict requirements to register as an NGO and prohibits them from receiving foreign funding for any activity considered to be against the nation’s interests.
  • Ecuador: President Rafael Correa has decreed the closing of the Pachamama Alliance (Fundación Pachamama), an organization dedicated to indigenous and environmental rights. The President has effectively created an atmosphere of distrust towards organizations that receive foreign funding.