Laws affecting funding, requiring registration and prohibiting protest are among controls that are making it difficult for NGOs and other campaign groups.
Human rights organisations and campaign groups are facing their biggest crackdown in a generation as a wave of countries pass restrictive laws and curtail activity. Almost half the world’s states have implemented controls that affect tens of thousands of organisations across the globe.
Over the past three years, more than 60 countries have passed or drafted laws that curtail the activity of non-governmental and civil society organisations. Ninety-six countries have taken steps to inhibit NGOs from operating at full capacity, in what the Carnegie Endowment calls a “viral-like spread of new laws” under which international aid groups and their local partners are vilified, harassed, closed down and sometimes expelled.
ames Savage, of Amnesty International, says: “This global wave of restrictions has a rapidity and breadth to its spread we’ve not seen before, that arguably represents a seismic shift and closing down of human rights space not seen in a generation.
“There are new pieces of legislation almost every week – on foreign funding, restrictions in registration or association, anti-protest laws, gagging laws. And, unquestionably, this is going to intensify in the coming two to three years. You can visibly watch the space shrinking.”
Among countries that have recently cracked down on NGO and civil society activity are:
• India The government labelled the environmental NGO Greenpeace as “anti-national”, blocking its bank accounts, deporting foreign workers and preventing local staff from travelling abroad. Licences for more than 13,000 organisations have been revoked for alleged violations of a law on foreign funding.
• China Under a new law, NGOs will be required to register with the police and obtain approval to carry out activities, and submit annual activity plans and budgets to a supervisory unit.
• Russia “Undesirable” international NGOs can be shut down. In July, the Washington-based National Endowment for Democracy became the first organisation to be banned under the new law.
• Egypt Sweeping new legislation on “terrorist entities” could encompass human rights and civil society organisations. NGOs are already required to register with the government.
• Uganda A government-appointed board will have power to reject or dissolve NGOs and civil society organisations. Harsh penalties – including imprisonment – await individuals who violate a law enacted in April.
• Cambodia A new law requires registration and annual reports to be filed with the government. NGOs can be disbanded if their activities “jeopardise peace, stability and public order or harm the national security, national unity, culture and traditions of Cambodian society”.
Tom Carothers, of the Carnegie Endowment, says: “Big countries that have been the drivers of this [crackdown] have continued to lead the way – and smaller countries are following their lead.” Restrictive measures are both formal, in the form of legislation, and informal – harassment, intimidation, demonisation, bureaucratic burdens. “Just counting NGO laws doesn’t quite give you the full picture.”
The causes of increasing restrictions are complex, say organisations that monitor civil society activity, but broadly fall into three categories.
First is the shift in political power away from the west, the main source of funding for domestic civil society groups and the base for most big international NGOs. At the end of the cold war, the US and other western countries stepped in to assist newly democratising countries and burgeoning grassroots organisations.
But, more recently, many governments in the developing and post-communist world have pushed back against what they see as western interference. “This is the end of the post-cold war period in which [the west] felt that liberal democracy and western concepts of human rights were spreading around the world, to a period in which there’s a relativisation of political values and the questioning of a common narrative,” says Carothers.
Second, governments have woken up to the power of civil society – particularly after pro-democracy uprisings in former communist states and the revolutionary wave that swept through the Middle East.
“In most countries where leaders don’t allow a lot of pluralism or democracy, they’ve learned to tame opposition political parties,” Carothers says. “But the deepest fear of repressive governments is that they wake up in the morning, open the shutters of the presidential palace, and look out to find 100,000 citizens in the square saying ‘enough!’. That’s scary and uncontrollable,” particularly, Carothers adds, when coupled with technological skill in harnessing the power of social media to organise and spread messages.