It is of great concern that governments around the world and even governments in democratic countries are threatening Civil Society Organizations such as Avaaz, Greenpeace and others by passing draconian laws to limit their influence and punitive measures against them and their followers.
One of the main organizations under attack is Avaaz—meaning “voice” in several European, Middle Eastern and Asian languages—launched in 2007 with a simple democratic mission: organize citizens of all nations to close the gap between the world we have and the world most people everywhere want and since then has exploded to become the globe’s largest and most powerful online activist network and governments don’t like this at all as Avaaz empowers millions of people from all walks of life to take action on pressing global, regional and national issues, from corruption and poverty to conflict and climate change.
So Avaaz and other Civil Society Organizations are under grave threat as Governments worldwide are passing ‘gag laws’, prohibiting protest and intimidating or closing down organisations in the biggest crackdown on civil society in a generation.
It isn’t just repressive regimes like Egypt that kick out Avaaz staff and those of other Civil Society Organizations. In India, the biggest democracy in the world, Avaaz has been vilified and harassed by the government. In Spain Avaazers could be fined up to 600,000 euros just for participating in a peaceful protest. In Israel a draft law threatens to label brave human rights organisations as “foreign agents”, and cut off their international funds. And in Uganda a government body can dissolve any group it doesn’t like!
Over 60 countries now have laws that inhibit non-governmental 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.
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.
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.”
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 or semi-democracies have joined the list including Spain, Israel, India, Ecuador and Hungary.
I raise my voice to help Avaaz by donating so that they can get a team of the best international pro-democracy lawyers. They already have a small but efficient team but this crackdown by governments is a declaration of war against free speech. It isn’t just repressive regimes like Egypt that kick out Avaaz staff. In India, the biggest democracy in the world, Avaaz has been vilified and harassed by the government. In Spain Avaazers could be fined up to 600,000 euros just for participating in a peaceful protest. In Israel a draft law threatens to label brave human rights organisations as “foreign agents”, and cut off their international funds. And in Uganda a government body can dissolve any group it doesn’t like!
We already know that having a top legal team works. For example, when the South African government tried to censor Avaaz’s campaign against the lion bone trade, they took them to court and won a landmark free speech case that set a standard for the whole country. And with enough support, they with us, can together:
- Expand the Avaaz legal team to have top class representation where Avaaz is under attack
- Hire lawyers to challenge Hungarian officials’ abuse of EU or international law.
- Build a data base of the best pro-democracy lawyers in the world and bring them together to form the Avaaz pro-democracy law group
- Develop legal challenges and lawsuits to take on the rogues whenever they come after us.
This last decade has seen a surge of people power with the Arab Springs, massive anti corruption protests in India, Brazil and Spain, and people raising their voices and taking to the streets in droves. These regressive laws show our strength. We can’t now let governments crush an informed and organised citizenship, it is a crucial pillar of democracy and we must defend it.
There are moments where risking everything is necessary to preserve the very core of what Avaaz has worked so hard to create. That’s what they did when taking on powerful media barons in England and government cronies in Canada. That’s what they are poised to do now in India and Spain if they can raise the funds. It’s what they can do everywhere for us, Civil Society.
PLEASE DONATE GENEROUSLY because we need to be able to be heard. Democracy is under fire with multinational companies controlling the world economy and the governments of the world who in turn want to control us by preventing we speak out.
I suggest that for all of those who have yet not read our latest novel, The Twilight of the Fourth World you do so and maybe all of us together with organizations such as Aavaz can prevent things getting worst.