Iron Fists

NGOs Face Growing Global Oppression

Source: DPA
In India, like here at their Bangalore branch, Greenpeace is no longer allowed to accept foreign donations.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    In Western eyes, this mania about sovereignty is anachronistic, but it is real and it would be wise to take it seriously.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Autocrats fear the power of Western values.
    • In contrast to China and Russia, the NGOs in countries such as India can defend themselves against state chicanery, thanks to an independent judiciary.
    • More than 50 NGO laws are being drafted worldwide and formulated ambiguously to give power to national security agencies.
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    Audio

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The new law that will drastically change China’s relationship with the rest of the world bears an innocuous title: “Foreign Non-Governmental Organizations Management Law.”

In the future, according to the law, all foreign organizations operating in China will be subject to an examination by the Chinese public security bureau before they are allowed to become active in the country. What activities are allowed is left to the discretion of the security forces.

This places any contact with foreign countries under the control of state security, no matter whether it concerns development aid, panel discussions or concerts. It would be a carte blanche for monitoring and harassment at any time, anywhere.

“The space for NGOs is getting tighter. That is the reaction of authoritarian governments to the growing importance of civil society.”

Wenzel Michalski, Germany Director, Human Rights Watch

What’s more, NGOs will not only be monitored for their activities in China, but also for their conduct in other countries where they have a presence. This means a security authority needs only declare that an NGO’s goal is “subversion” or the “spreading of rumors” and it will face sanctions.

If, for example, a group of students on a university campus in the West protest against Chinese policy in Tibet, Chinese authorities could prevent the university and its representatives from operating in China and prosecute any of its staff members working in China.

Unsurprisingly, scientists, business representatives and diplomats are reacting with shock and outrage to the new law.

Foreign NGOs have always been monitored, but now the government also wants to crack down on local NGOs. In the future, they must include communist party observers in their organization. The Chinese government apparently is in the process of shifting from controlling civil society to attacking it.

 

tibet_dpa
If a group of students on a university campus in the West protest against Chinese policy in Tibet, Chinese authorities could prevent the university and its representatives from operating in China and prosecute any of its staff. Source: DPA

 

China is not the worst offender. Everywhere in the world, NGOs are being targeted by the powerful. The world is currently experiencing a hostile, anti-freedom offensive that goes far beyond the importance of individual NGOs. It is a battle of values.

In Russia, NGOs have been forced for more than two years now to register as agents if they accept donations from abroad. The government in Egypt has begun a campaign of harassment that calls activists a “threat to national interests” and “threat to public order,” meaning they can be punished with lifelong imprisonment if they have received money from abroad at any time.

In the meantime, democracies feeling under pressure also are taking the autocratic route. The climate for international NGOs in India has noticeably worsened under the nationalistic government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has been in office since May 2014.

“At the moment, more than 50 NGO laws are being drafted worldwide, which are often formulated to leave the door open for security agencies.”

Barbara Unmüsswig, Heinrich Böll Foundation

A report by the domestic secret services makes the social and environmental activities of NGOs responsible for the loss of two to three percent of economic growth – an absurd figure that only highlights the extent of governmental distrust of non-governmental activism.

In Hungary last summer, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán railed against human rights groups, calling them “activists financed from abroad” and “foreigners” promoting “interests directed against the nation.”

And in Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new coalition agreed upon a law in its coalition agreement that leaves it up to the defense minister to decide on the tax exemption status of NGOs. This would primarily affect critics of the settlement policy dependent on international donations.

“At the moment, more than 50 NGO laws are being drafted worldwide,” said Barbara Unmüsswig of the Heinrich Böll Foundation. In fact, they are mostly anti-NGO laws. “The laws are often formulated ambiguously on purpose to leave the door open for security agencies.”

Wenzel Michalski, the German director of Human Rights Watch, added: “The space for NGOs is getting tighter. That is the reaction of authoritarian governments to the growing importance of civil society.”

Two themes come together in the image of the NGOs as an enemy: Civil society as both a reservoir of headstrong citizens and a gateway for the influence of outside forces. This means the battle is being waged from the top down, between those in power and the people, between “them” and “us”.

The justifications vary. Sometimes the arguments are nationalistic, such as an attack on national sovereignty, and sometimes religious, for example by claiming sacred values are in danger. Sometimes countries declare they are not ready for development while others use a post-colonial argument that they no longer need others to think for them.

However, the reason dreamt up for labeling NGOs objectionable or provocative is always the same: NGOs are players in a political and moral globalization. Simply by existing, and above all through their work, NGOs insist that liberty, security, prosperity and participation are universal values all people should be striving for. Naturally, that provokes autocrats and nationalists. It has always been so. What is new is how aggressively they are fighting back.

Today, democracy is on the defensive worldwide.

The acceptance of democracy as a form of government is at its lowest level since 1989, with declines being noted on all continents.

The international organization Freedom House, an NGO with headquarters in Washington D.C., has been compiling an annual report on the state of liberty in the world since 1972. The latest issue, recently published, makes depressing reading.

The acceptance of democracy as a form of government is at its lowest level since 1989, with declines being noted on all continents, from Russia and China to South America. This is encouraging reading for the enemies of democracy.

Until now, according to Freedom House, most authoritarian governments at least still officially professed freedom of speech, fair elections and human rights. But now they are increasingly standing against the liberal-democratic world order, denouncing it as decadent and promoting the superiority of autocratic leadership.

The basic features of the new anti-democratic suppression can be seen in arguably the world’s two most important authoritarian states: The blurring of the boundaries of the concept of security (China) and perceived state of siege (Russia).

China’s NGO law is only part of a package designed to give security agencies a whole new and extensive level of leeway. The National Security Law is meant to solidify the party’s power over a highly modern society interwoven into the global economy, which is becoming increasingly pluralistic.

The law requires that security must be maintained in all areas of society. Under President Xi Jinping, the party has recognized Western ideas as dangerous and is determined to fight them.

Two years ago, in an internal memorandum called “Document Number 9,” the party defined seven Western ideas as being detrimental. Among them are constitutionalism, universal values, free media and civil society.

Since then, universities, think tanks and the media are being “cleansed” of these concepts. Numerous party reports invoke the danger of “color revolutions” along the lines of Georgia (rose) and Ukraine (orange).

 

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Gay rights activists protest against a bill banning homosexual “propaganda” among minors outside the lower house of Russia’s parliament in 2013. Source: AFP

 

Prevention of such revolutions has been a key move in the fight against NGOs in Vladimir Putin’s Russia for some time. In a speech to his federal security service in April last year, the Russian president said: “We will never let them be used for destructive aims the way it happened in Ukraine.”

Mr. Putin is convinced that the revolution in the former-Soviet territory was the work of Americans, prepared and financed in Washington and carried out by NGOs.

Protests following the Russian parliamentary elections in December 2011, when tens of thousands took to the streets of Moscow protesting voter fraud, triggered Mr. Putin’s issuing of the “Agent Law” mentioned above the following year.

Since then, anyone considered a foreign agent must submit annual reports. Failure to do so is punished with heavy fines and prison sentences of up to four years for the organization’s leader. And every notice that provides information about, for example, gay rights, must have the clearly visible notation “foreign agent” marked on it.

Almost 70 NGOs are on the list. Many have given up, but despite this Mr. Putin is continuing to intensify his course of action.

A law that took effect at the end of May declares NGOs undesirable if they threaten Russia’s “constitutional order,” “defense capability” or “national security.” The director of public prosecutions decides together with the foreign ministry whether there is a violation.

Anyone who is “undesirable” is no longer allowed to work in Russia. And anyone who continues to work together or cooperate with undesirable organizations faces up to six years in prison.

After the experiences of colonization, any Western interference is rejected in many parts of the world.

Democratic states are also increasingly making life difficult for activists. India, the largest democracy in the world, is just one of them. Recently, the government in Delhi prevented an Indian Greenpeace staff member from traveling to London to speak before a committee of the British Parliament about the mining practices of a British firm active in India. The reason given was that her appearance would harm India’s national interests.

Due to alleged violations in the use of its funds, Greenpeace is no longer allowed to accept foreign donations. It seems as if the government wants to starve out the environmental organization. Soon, thousands of NGOs must renew their licenses, as is regularly required. Many are concerned about what awaits them when they do.

What the governments resent most are the NGOs mobilizing citizen protests against economic and development projects. The Modi government wants to industrialize India on a grand scale, but people who organize the farmers, peasants or tribal groups against the construction of a new power plant or dam are interfering with this.

 

ttend the inauguration of international bus services between India and Bangladesh in Dhaka on June 6, 2015.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi government wants to industrialize India on a grand scale, but people who organize the groups against construction of new power plants or dams are interfering with this. Source: AFP

 

There is also another motive, an ideological one. For fervent Hindu nationalists, the real danger emanating from NGOs isn’t just economic, it is a cultural undermining, an attack against India’s identity.

Christian groups, who are traditionally very active in India, are the main focus. The suspicion is that foreign-directed activists are spreading an alien faith under the cloak of humanity and progress, and are basically destroying India.

In contrast to China and Russia, the NGOs in India can defend themselves against state chicanery, thanks to an independent judiciary. The Greenpeace employee, for example, challenged the travel ban in court and won. The judge ruled that being opposed to government policy, even when it is allegedly serving the development of the country, is not automatically “anti-national.”

The example of India, however, shows not only the interests of the powerful that are behind the hostility toward NGOs. It is also a matter of historic and cultural geopolitics. After the experiences of colonization, any Western interference is rejected in many parts of the world.

And though they see themselves as representatives of a global political morality, happy also to criticize America and Europe, the major NGOs naturally originated in the West.

Their concepts were shaped in the West and their money mostly comes from the West. This is why they arouse anti-imperialist emotions in the “East” and the “South” of the world.

Until 1947, India was governed as a British colony. The people get sensitive when a foreigner once again starts telling them what is good for India. In Western eyes, this mania about sovereignty is anachronistic, but it is real and it would be wise to take it seriously.

The goal of liberalization, which is ultimately what drives all NGOs, has suffered many setbacks. The wave of democratization that had been washing over the world since 1989 from the Iranian Green Revolution to the Arab Spring has ebbed away. Where religious civil wars and chaos followed the revolts, liberty is having a hard time standing against those who promise order, even an oppressively brutal regime like that in Egypt.

And elsewhere today, tyrants are able to flex their muscles because Western liberal democracies have caused serious damage to their own reputations through ignorance of global injustice and an interventionism that loudly protests about human rights even as they themselves are violating them.It is a bitter irony that NGOs are now the ones who must pay the price for this.

 

This story first appeared in Die Zeit. To contact the authors: alice.bota@zeit.de, angela.koeckritz@zeit.de, joerg.lau@zeit.de and jan.ross@

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