Why the growing attack on NGOs globally concerns all of us

by Kumi Naidoo | Amnesty International
Thursday, 21 February 2019 09:00 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: The shadow of a pedestrian walking on a Sydney street is visible through a set of metal bars August 17, 2005. REUTERS/Tim Wimborne

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

From Hungary to the USA, we have witnessed the terrible impact this is having on people who are coming together to defend human rights

Kumi Naidoo is Secretary General of Amnesty International.

Real leaders keep human rights alive. They don’t try to stifle them by placing unreasonable restrictions and barriers on NGOs to prevent them from carrying out vital human rights work. Nor do real leaders use bullying techniques or tie up non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in red tape in a bid to silence them.

Yet as more self-proclaimed ‘tough guy’ leaders have emerged on the world stage in recent years, these are exactly the kind of bullying tactics they have resorted to in their attempts to target and attack already marginalised communities.

As Amnesty International’s new report on the global crackdown on civil society globally reveals, since 2017 almost 40 pieces of legislation designed to hamper the work of civil society organizations have been put in place, or are in the works, globally.

From Hungary to the USA, we have witnessed the terrible impact this is having on people who are coming together to defend human rights. Activists working for the rights of women, LGBTI people, refugees and migrants and the environment are among the worse effected.

Take Saudi Arabia, where the murder of Jamal Khashoggi has opened many people’s eyes to the grim reality of how dissenting voices are treated.

One of the ways the Saudi government is clamping down on dissent is by denying the registration of new organizations and disbanding them if they are deemed to be “harming national unity”. Under this policy, no independent human rights organization has been able to register, and women’s rights groups have been particularly targeted.

Women human rights defenders such as Loujain al-Hathloul, Eman al-Nafjan, and Aziza al-Yousef, among several others, remain arbitrarily detained, without charge and with no access to lawyers.

As our report attests to, burdensome registration requirements, obstacles to access funding and other restrictions based on vague notions of “national security” or “traditional values” disproportionally affect women and marginalized groups.

What is extremely alarming is how these repressive laws are fast expanding around the world, even in countries traditionally regarded as more open to civil society. President Donald Trump’s reinstatement of the so-called “Global Gag Rule”, which he implemented as one of his first priorities in office in 2017, is a case in point. The rule blocks US health assistance, often in the form of vital funding, to any NGO that uses its own funds to provide abortion services, counselling, referrals or indeed tries to advocate for decriminalizing these services.

This has not only resulted in preventing millions of women and girls globally to access life-saving sexual and reproductive health services, it has also impacted organizations providing care for other health issues like HIV and malaria.

These restrictions are not just affecting women’s rights activists and the communities they work with. Migrants and refugees have long been targeted by politicians wielding a toxic “us vs them” rhetoric, and those attacks are now increasingly expanding to include groups showing solidarity and providing assistance to those in need.

In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government has presided over the passing of xenophobic laws designed to target individuals and organizations that provide support to refugees and migrants. Under the “Stop Soros” package of laws passed in 2018, the simple act of preparing or distributing pamphlets containing information on migration could be a criminal offence. This legislation is so broadly worded, it is farcical.

But Hungary is not alone. Australia’s Border Force Act of 2015 has been one of the most egregious examples of how governments have tried to stifle solidarity with refugees: the Act prevents law enforcement officials from speaking out about any abuse or medical negligence committed in Australia’s offshore detention centres. Anyone that does could face a two-year jail term.

In their attempts to demonize and vilify already marginalized minority groups, governments are intent on dragging everyone into their net, especially the activists who dare to stand up for the rights of others.

This is an issue that concerns all of us, not just NGO workers. Because the end result, if governments are allowed to continue with these tactics, is a world in which we are more divided than ever, and in which fewer people are willing or able to stand up for the rights of marginalised communities.