Russia’s expulsion of USAID and Egypt’s prosecution of pro-democracy non-governmental groups are the most publicized cases of a concerted offensive against civil society and, more specifically, against the principles and practice of cross-border democracy assistance. Such actions violate not only international law, but fundamental moral precepts, according to a new report.
“Civil society is at the core of human nature. We human beings want to get together with others … and act collectively to make our lives better,” says Archbishop Desmond Tutu, endorsing a valuable new edition of the Defending Civil Society report. “Civil society is the expression of those collective actions.”
“Through strong civil societies, enjoying the freedoms of association and assembly, we encourage and empower one another to shape our societies and address issues of common concern,” the Nobel laureate says.
The right of civil society organizations (CSOs) to seek and provide assistance – including financial support – is enshrined in international law, including treaties and conventions to which authoritarian violators are signatories, the report demonstrates.
“The right to seek and secure resources, including the cross-border transfer of funds,” is one of a series of “well-defined international principles protecting civil society and underscoring proper government-civil society relations, which are already embedded in international law,” notes the report:
These principles include the right of CSOs to entry (that is, the right of individuals to form and join CSOs); the right to operate to fulfill their legal purposes without state interference; the right to free expression; the right to communication with domestic and international partners; the right to freedom of peaceful assembly; the right to seek and secure resources, including the cross-border transfer of funds; and the state’s positive obligation to protect CSO rights.
Within broad parameters, CSOs have the right to seek and secure funding from legal sources, including individuals, businesses, civil society, international organizations, and inter-governmental organizations, as well as local, national, and foreign governments.
The report, an initiative of a partnership of the World Movement for Democracy and the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL), was repeatedly cited during the World Movement ’s 7th assembly in Lima this week.
“Today, civil society is facing serious threats across the globe,” the report continues:
Civil society activists continue to face traditional forms of repression, such as imprisonment, harassment, disappearances, and execution. However, many governments have increasingly become more subtle in their efforts to limit the space in which civil society organizations (CSOs), especially democracy and human rights groups, operate.
In many states today – principally, but not exclusively authoritarian or hybrid regimes – traditional repression techniques are often complemented or preempted by more sophisticated measures, including legal or quasi-legal obstacles, such as barriers to the formation of organizations, barriers to operational activities, barriers to advocacy and public policy engagement, barriers to communication and cooperation with others, barriers to assembly, and barriers to resources.
Governments have tried to justify and legitimize such obstacles as necessary to enhance accountability and transparency of CSOs; to harmonize or coordinate CSO activities; to meet national security interests by countering terrorism or extremism; and/or in defense of national sovereignty against foreign influence in domestic affairs. This Report exposes such justifications as rationalizations for repression, and, furthermore, as violations of international treaties and conventions to which the states concerned are signatories.
Over the last several years, significant steps have been made to confront the worrying trend of increasingly restrictive environments for civil society around the world, and to advocate for enabling environments. Under auspices of the Community of Democracies, a group of concerned governments established a Working Group on “Enabling and Protecting Civil Society” to monitor and respond to developments concerning civil society legislation around the world.
Some 14 governments have jointly pledged financial support for the “Lifeline: Embattled NGO Assistance Fund” to help civil society activists confronting crackdowns. In September 2010, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) passed a historic resolution on the “Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association,” establishing a Special Rapporteur on the issue for the first time. The Organization of American States (OAS) also adopted a resolution in June 2011 on “Promotion of the Rights to Freedom of Assembly and of Association in the Americas.”
Like the original edition of the Defending Civil Society Report published in 2008, this second edition provides illustrative examples of the legal barriers used to constrain civic space. In addition to including more recent illustrative examples, this Report also expands discussion of major challenges, such as restrictions on the use of new technologies, measures against public movements and peaceful assemblies, and the unintended consequences of efforts to enhance the effectiveness of foreign aid.
The Report articulates the well-defined international principles protecting civil society and underscoring proper government-civil society relations, which are already embedded in international law. These principles include the right of CSOs to entry (that is, the right of individuals to form and join CSOs); the right to operate to fulfill their legal purposes without state interference; the right to free expression; the right to communication with domestic and international partners; the right to freedom of peaceful assembly; the right to seek and secure resources, including the cross-border transfer of funds; and the state’s positive obligation to protect CSO rights.
The Report calls on:
- Democratic governments and international organizations to recognize, protect, and promote fundamental rights, such as the rights to freedom of assembly and of association, using new technologies;
- Democratic governments and international organizations to raise the level of their engagement through mechanisms that already exist, yet have not been employed to their maximum potential, such as the Community of Democracies’ Working Group on Enabling and Protecting Civil Society, and the UN Special Rapporteur’s mandate;
- Civil society organizations to deepen their understanding of legal frameworks governing them, and to build their capacity to engage in the reform of regressive frameworks; and
- Democracy assistance organizations to facilitate national, regional, and international discussions among their civil society partners and governments to develop ideas for reforming legal frameworks so that the space for civil society work in every country is protected.