Eroding Restrictions on Civic Space, Piece by Piece and Bit by Bit

The civil society and human rights community may be wearied by attacks by authoritarian (or authoritarian-inspired) regimes. And we may be worn out by the cynical, and effective, tactics of these regimes, which cite national security or national values as a pretext to limit, control, and clamp down on the activity, expression, and funding of NGOs. And we may be discouraged by the elusive nature of solutions to this problem, which seems to have snuck up on us like an approaching shadow that suddenly materialized into a monster.

But we are not deterred. We continue to search for solutions, together. I participated in a brainstorming effort last week in Tbilisi, Georgia. Sponsored by the Civic Solidarity Platform, civil society and human rights voices from 20 countries in the OSCE region (mostly Europe and Eurasia, but also including Canada, the United States, Mongolia, and Holy See) gathered to identify concrete solutions to recommend to the OSCE and individual member states.

Human rights workers described ongoing threats to their work in the form of restrictions on funding that purportedly protect national security, counterterrorism measures so broad that they encompass human rights monitoring and peaceful protest, and policies claiming to protect traditional values or national identity that target the rights of LGBTI persons, women, and children. They discussed financial restrictions like Financial Action Task Force implementing legislation and the OECD Multilateral Convention on Mutual Assistance, both of which aim to reduce funding to terrorist activity but end up constraining support to human rights organizations.

They also highlighted ways authoritarian states coopt institutions such as the Interpol alert list, which they use to punish activists, and OSCE structures and meetings, which they postpone or contest if the meeting addresses a topic they do not like (such as gender rights), and formal observation status for NGOs at the UN, which they infiltrate with the use of government-sponsored NGOs (GONGOs) that will refrain from any actual monitoring or criticism of government policy.

These threats are in addition the most basic one, which all human rights activists cited: the threat of violence and attacks on their lives.

They also discussed the latest tactics authoritarian states use against civil society workers and citizens. In Kazakhstan, activists—many of whom were arrested as we sat in Tbilisi—now receive an “additional penalty,” which prohibits them from participating in future protests or public actions. In Russia, the government is initiating criminal prosecutions against the directors of organizations it has placed on the “foreign agent” list. First up is Valentina Cherevatenko, director of Women of the Don in Rostov, under criminal investigation this week. In Tajikistan, a new legislative referendum will prohibit all actions that threaten the “moral activity” of the state—a term not defined. And in Poland, the government is abolishing or gutting institutions that combat xenophobia and discrimination, like the Plenipotentiary for Equal Treatment and the Council on Countering Racism and Xenophobia, while NGOs that work to combat xenophobia, facing smear campaigns, are labeled foreign agents and traitors.

We identified challenging over-broad counterterrorism measures as a priority for action, since they loom large in constricting civil society. Robust civil society and human rights protections are in fact essential to combating violent extremism. Security and counterterrorism policies should be developed with human rights protections in mind, and human rights and NGO experts should be consulted during their development.

Taking such precautions would, in the short term, help states—mostly the already human rights-friendly states—to ensure that they don’t inadvertently limit the work of NGOs through weak or ill-defined legislation. In the long term, intergovernmental organizations and human rights-friendly states should emphasize the link between maintaining basic freedoms and preventing instability in ways that will get the attention of more national governments. As a human rights friendly-state, the United States should prioritize these concerns with fellow members of the OSCE, especially Poland, Hungary, Latvia, and Turkey, which have all recently passed or are considering counterterrorism legislation that walks right into this mistake.

The recommendations developed in Tbilisi will be presented to the OSCE toward the end of the year. However, nothing prevents governments, including the U.S. government, from getting a headstart by acting now.


Published on June 2, 2016


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