Civil society under threat: could international law help?

In the name of ‘traditional values’ and raisons d’état, authoritarian governments and dictators around the world are targeting the civil-society organisations who animate the public square. Democratic states and the UN must stand up for international legal standards.

Mandeep Tiwana
21 January 2014

Not here, thank you: Friday prayers in Amman, January 2012. Flickr / Charles Roffey.Some rights reserved.

Independent and outspoken civil-society groups are facing an unprecedented onslaught.  In an increasingly globalised world, as the ability of active citizens to connect and express solidarity on common causes has risen, so too has the paranoia of autocratic leaders. And they are hitting back—hard.

In the last two months alone, in apparent breach of international human-rights standards, a raft of draconian laws have been drawn up in diverse countries to prevent civil-society activists and organisations from speaking out against official policies or mobilising on the streets—even  just formally organising. The justifications offered range from ‘national security’ to safeguarding ‘traditional’ religious and cultural values.

‘Foreign agents’

On January 16 Ukraine became the latest country to join the global charge to criminalise dissent. Shaken by the massive popular protests against the increasingly punitive rule of the president, Viktor Yanukovych, its Parliament hurriedly passed a series of laws imposing restrictions on the mass media and the internet while requiring internationally funded civil-society groups which engage in ‘political’ advocacy to register as ‘foreign agents’. Ukraine’s constraints on civil-society organisations are similar to those introduced in Russia in July 2012, following large-scale protests against the election as president of Vladimir Putin amid claims of electoral fraud.  

Pakistan, too, is considering a law to exert controls on international funding for NGOs. This would give government officials wide powers to inspect the records of organisations and deny them permission to obtain funding on vague but expansive grounds—such as protection of the ‘security, strategic, scientific or economic interest of the state’. Plans to introduce the law come on the heels of a restrictive policy that requires organisations receiving foreign funding to enter into a memorandum of understanding, empowering officials to limit their areas of operation.

In Azerbaijan, the president, Ilham Aliyev, has been facing concerted protests for years against his clampdown on dissent and scrapping of presidential term limits. On December 17, key amendments were made by Parliament to the law on NGOs to increase bureaucratic controls. These require NGOs to re-register with the government every three months, impose high fines for purported infractions and make NGOs more susceptible to forcible dissolution by the courts.

A day earlier, the regime in Saudi Arabia, confronting challenges from pro-democracy and women’s rights activists, passed an ‘anti-terrorism’ law so broad that virtually any criticism or mobilisation against the government could be construed as an act of terror. Recent convictions of prominent NGO leaders on politicised charges raise serious concerns about its likely misuse.

On January 7, Nigeria’s president, Goodluck Jonathan, approved the Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act, which bans the registration of any gay club, society or organisation and threatens its supporters with imprisonment of up to ten years. Like Uganda’s anti-homosexuality bill—which, facing international pressure, the president, Yoweri Museveni, has at time writing yet to sign—the Nigerian law is broad enough to criminalise the entire community of human-rights activists and organisations, firmly opposed to any discrimination against sexual minorities and LGBTI individuals.

Arms twisted

And the story doesn’t end with the passage of repressive laws. Independent civil-society groups are having their arms twisted and being prevented from carrying out legitimate work.

Nor are these events isolated instances.

In Ecuador, the Pachamama  Foundation, a well-known organisation supporting the environment and indigenous people’s rights, was ‘dissolved’ on December 4 on allegations that its members had participated in a violent protest. In Egypt, emboldened by a new anti-protest law, activists belonging to the No Military Trials for Civilians movement were convicted on January 5 on trumped-up charges, from arson to endangering public safety. 

In Malaysia, three days later, the coalition of NGOs (COMANGO) was declared unlawful, purportedly in violation of religious tenets for work which included support for LGBTI individuals. The coalition had been under pressure since October 2013, when it participated in the review of Malaysia’s human-rights record at the United Nations Human Rights Council.

Rising tide of restrictions

Nor are these events isolated instances. There is a rising tide of restrictions on civil liberties and legitimate civil-society activities, imposed by governments across the political spectrum in the name of preserving ‘public order’ and ‘morals’. Nevertheless, the impact is much more severe in autocracies and marginal democracies, as authoritarian leaders and governments have become increasingly fearful of civil-society groups following the Arab Spring uprisings.

A recent report by Civicus, the global civil-society alliance, concludes that far too many governments are failing to honour their commitment to guarantee an ‘enabling environment’ for civil society, made at the high-level forum on aid and development effectiveness in South Korea in December 2011. In October 2012, the UN high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, made a spirited appeal to safeguard the independence of civil-society organisations from legal encroachments.  

In March last year, a resolution was passed by the UN Human Rights Council to protect human-rights defenders; the resolution urged states to ensure that relevant laws were clearly defined, non-retroactive and consistent with international law. A year on, a high-level discussion on creating a safe and enabling environment for civil society in law and practice will take place at the Human Rights Council.

International standards

A vast body of international legal texts and intergovernmental commitments protects core civil-society freedoms, of expression, association and peaceful assembly. But these are frequently broad-brush—sometimes deliberately vague. The challenge is to ensure these often imprecise international-law standards percolate into legislation and practice at the state level.  Some regional courts, such as the European Court of Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, have attempted to interpret the scope of aspects of civil-society rights in cases brought before them but much more needs to be done globally.

The UN Human Rights Committee, the body of jurists which monitors the implementation of the widely ratified International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), can potentially strike an important blow for civil society in this regard. It could develop expert commentaries on the freedoms of association and peaceful assembly, to complement its well-articulated opinion on the scope of freedom of expression. 

But, more importantly, it’s time for democratic governments and UN institutions dedicated to the protection of human rights to begin a conversation on a stand-alone UN convention on civil society, to improve protection of third-sector rights. This could be a key vehicle to solidify commitments made to civil society by world leaders, through a UN General Assembly resolution, when they adopted the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders in 1998. 

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