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Human rights groups face global crackdown ‘not seen in a generation’

Laws affecting funding, requiring registration and prohibiting protest are among controls that are making it difficult for NGOs and other campaign groups

Women hold a banner as they shout during a protest against the new law to regulate non-governmental organisations in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in July.<br>
 Women hold a banner as they shout during a protest against the new law to regulate non-governmental organisations in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in July.
Photograph: Pring Samrang/Reuters

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.

James 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 Licences for more than 13,000 organisations have been revoked for alleged violations of a law on foreign funding.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.

The third cause of the NGO crackdown is the proliferation of counter-terrorism measures – often promoted by the west – that sweep civil society organisations into their embrace, either inadvertently or deliberately. Legitimate measures to curb funding of and money-laundering by terrorist organisations often have a debilitating effect on NGOs.

This is affecting civil society in the west itself, and has consequences around the world, say campaigners. Savage says states such as the UK and US that have been supportive of NGOs and been human rights defenders are, because of the practices they are introducing in their own states, undermining their ability to have positive influence and push back at restrictions that are “much graver” in places such as Russia and Egypt. “That’s a very worrying new trend,” he says.

Samit Aich, left, Greenpeace India’s executive director, and campaigner Priya Pillai at a press conference in May.

 Samit Aich, left, Greenpeace India’s executive director, and campaigner Priya Pillai give a press conference in May after bank accounts were frozen. Photograph: Rajat Gupta/EPA

The result, Carothers says, is an “asphyxiation of independent space – fewer voices, self-censorship, closing down of organisations”.

High-profile global organisations with strong reputations, such as Amnesty International, have greater protection from the worst effects of the crackdown – although Greenpeace was targeted in India, and Save The Children was temporarily expelled from Pakistan.

But, according to Poonam Joshi of the Fund for Global Human Rights, the effect on domestic NGOs and civil society groups can be paralysing. “You see organisations go very quiet, no one wants to rock the boat. And many face a new bureaucratic burden that affects their operational capacity.”

In response, the UN has appointed Maina Kiai as a special rapporteur to focus on freedom of expression and assembly. The EU organised a global forum of more than 200 civil society participants last December. Development branches of western governments, foundations and global NGOs are training and advising local groups on how to respond to new restrictions. Amnesty International has identified defending NGOs and human rights campaigners as one of its five strategic goals, and will launch a global campaign next year.

But reversing the trend is challenging. “Once laws come in, it’s very difficult to repeal them,” says Joshi. “This is an uphill struggle, but a critical one.”

Countries in the spotlight

The new assault on NGOs has intensified principally in countries such as China, Russia and central Asia, where notions of democracy range from primitive to non-existent. But, worryingly, an array of democracies have joined the list.


Israeli NGOs critical of the government – in particular the country’s continued occupation of the Palestinian territories – are facing severe new restrictions amid a toxic political climate on the right that has sought to label them as disloyal.

A draft law seeks to cut off foreign funding by introducing a tax and labelling NGOs with external finance as “foreign agents” receiving funds from foreign governments to continue their work.

Some of Israel’s best-known human rights groups – including B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence, an organisation of former soldiers that highlights alleged military human rights abuses – are likely to be affected.

The threatened new law comes as Tzipi Hotovely, Israel’s deputy foreign minister and a member of the prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s rightwing Likud party, ordered Israeli officials “to create a diplomatic dialogue about Israel, putting a red line around the activities of BDS [boycott, divestment and sanctions] organisations that support the boycott of Israel, working for the [Palestinian] right of return, or slander IDF [Israel Defence Force] soldiers and de-legitimise IDF soldiers”.

Although human rights NGOs have long been a target for criticism on the right, that has increased since the 2014 Gaza conflict.

The new “foreign agents” bill, introduced into the Knesset in June, would require any organisation that receives more than $50,000 (£32,000) from a “foreign political entity” to be defined as a “foreign organisation” and pay tax on that funding – a move critics say would in effect remove funding for the groups.

The law would also see an end to any cooperation between government ministries and “foreign agent” groups, while NGOs would be required to be labelled as “foreign agent” on every document, web page or publication.

Yehuda Shaul, a founder of Breaking the Silence, traced the campaign against such groups to the aftermath of Operation Cast Lead, the Gaza war in 2008-09. “The bottom line is that this is a way of trying to discredit organisations and people who have different agendas to government. It’s a smear campaign.”

Sarit Michaeli of B’Tselem, speaking in a personal capacity, says: “B’Tselem has always been the target of political attacks by the right and settlers. While, in the past, the criticism was led by rightwing NGOs related to the government, now it is the government involved in these attacks.
“Regardless of what law emerges I think feature of this process – starting off with extremely draconian proposals for legislations – is that it tires out the resistance. You create a toxic and vitriolic climate where you have parts of the media depicting NGOs as traitors and leftists.

“It is damaging and creates a chilling effect in media and public. It is a scare tactic to frighten people into keeping their mouths shut. In that sense, it is very effective.”

Peter Beaumont in Jerusalem


Pachamama, an organisation that supports indigenous groups and campaigns for the conservation of biodiversity, was one of the first to feel the force of the clampdown on NGOs and civil society organisations by the government of President Rafael Correa.

A few months after executive decree 16 was issued in June 2013, Pachamama was closed down for having violated the order, in what Mario Melo, the foundation’s lawyer, calls a “tainted and invalid administrative process where Pachamama wasn’t given the right to defend itself”.

Pachamama had provided technical information to the Sarayaku people about the effect of drilling for oil, an act that Melo says led to “some unease among those who encourage extractive activities without any respect for human and nature’s rights”.

The official justification was that Pachamama, which received some US funding, was interfering with public policies that undermined internal or external state security that “might affect public peace”, as the International Journal of Not-for-Profit Law reported.

Last September, the pro-democracy foundation Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung closed its Ecuadorian offices because of “the increase of control and influence of the government in Quito, in the political work of foundations and non-governmental organisations”.

And Yasunidos, which advocates for the protection of Amazonian territories, has also reported being a target of government pressure. Last December, members of the group joined the Climatic Convoy, an activist bus en route from Mexico to an environmental summit in Lima. The bus was impounded by Ecuadorian police, and its passengers had to continue their journey in another vehicle.

In August, Correa signed some modifications to executive decree 16. NGOs and civil society organisations are no longer required to declare details of foreign funding. But, according to Fundamedios, which campaigns for freedom of expression, the modified decree maintains restrictions to freedom of assembly and allows public servants to decide, according to unpublished criteria, whether an organisation violates the law.

Marcela Ribadeneira in Quito


Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s populist prime minister, has called for the monitoring of certain “foreign-funded civil society organisations” that he describes as “agents of foreign powers”.

The targeted NGOs – referred to as “the dirty 13” in pro-government media, and including Transparency International, the Civil Liberties Union and the Roma Press Centre – received letters demanding two years of financial and administrative documentation within one week.

Veronika Móra of Ökotárs, the main distributor of Norwegian grants, says: “The situation escalated quickly, from a media campaign, to administrative harassment, and then to a raid on our offices and, finally, criminal accusations. Our offices were raided in early September, which a court later ruled illegal, due to a lack of reasonable suspicion.”

The authorities also interviewed organisations that provide services to the NGOs. “So far they have not uncovered a single irregularity,” Móra says.

In January, a Budapest court upheld a complaint from Ökotárs that the raid of its office had been unlawful. “Of course, the public prosecutor rejected our complaint, but the court overturned that decision. I was pleasantly surprised as this proves that Hungary’s judiciary is still independent,” Móra says.

The Hungarian tax authority is conducting inspections at seven NGOs, including several of the so-called dirty 13, and has attempted to freeze the tax accounts of the four NGOs that disburse the Norwegian grants, a move that would render them incapable of operation, and one that Ökotárs has so far blocked. “A judge sent one of these cases to the constitutional court and a decision is expected in September or October,” Móra says.

Dan Nolan in Budapest

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