NGO Crackdowns Are Spreading, In Both Dictatorships And Democracies
NGOs around the world are facing difficulties as governments criminalize them. The crackdown leaves states less accountable, while the biggest victims are the most vulnerable.
“It just so happens that people who value freedom the most are often deprived of it.”
These words from Belarusian human rights advocate Ales Bialiatski upon being awarded the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize strike an extra bitter chord now: last Friday a Minsk court sentenced him to 10 years in prison.
Founder and chair of Viasna, a Minsk-based non-governmental organization (NGO), Bialiatski had been arrested in July 2021 alongside two of his colleagues for “financing of group actions grossly violating the public order.” The charges were denounced as politically motivated by U.N. human rights experts.
Belarus strongman Alexander Lukashenko has earned a reputation for its hostility towards human rights organizations and opposition groups. But crackdowns and criminalization of NGOs are not unique to Belarus — indeed, they’re not even limited just to authoritarian regimes.
In democracies, too, NGOs are increasingly targeted by political authorities.
"Foreign agents" in Russia and Georgia
“Governments all over the world are increasingly trying to create a hostile environment for NGOs. This is not new, but the situation has definitely worsened over the past few years,” said Justine Lavarde and Clara Ferrerons Galeano, officers at the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, an independent monitoring body founded in 1997 by the International Federation for Human Rights and the World Organization Against Torture.
Laws are specifically designed to limit the ability of NGOs to act and raise money.
“Such hostility translates into legal actions on the one hand and stigmatization through media and social media on the other. The legal machinery and the public discourse constitute two complementary repressive trends.”
The legal arsenal includes laws specifically designed to limit the ability of NGOs to act and raise money or even arbitrarily outlaw them. This is the case of Russia’s 2012 “foreign agent law”, which imposes crippling bureaucratic burdens on organizations receiving funds from abroad. It’s also what happened with the 2015 “undesirable organizations law”, which has allowed the government to ban so far 77 NGOs arbitrarily accused of “threatening the constitutional order of the Russian Federation, the defense capability of the country, or national security” (OVDinfo).
Last February, a Russian court also ordered the closure of the Moscow Helsinki Group, Russia’s oldest human rights organization, at the request of the Justice Ministry.
Also in neighboring Georgia, protesters clashed this week with police in the capital, Tbilisi, after parliament backed a similar draft law that would require non-governmental and media organizations that receive more than 20% of their funding from abroad to declare themselves as "foreign agents."
A similar approach was taken in Algeria, where the Ligue Algérienne pour la Défense des Droits de l’Homme was notified of its dissolution without even being summoned for trial. In Zimbabwe, the Senate recently passed a bill giving a newly established governmental body the power to discretionarily grant or reject registration of NGOs.
Ales Bialiatski testifying at the European Parliament headquarters in Strasbourg, France in 2014.
Consequences in Italy
But obstruction and criminalization can also take more subtle forms and occur in Western countries.
Last month, Italian authorities decided to block a migrant rescue ship owned by Doctors Without Borders for 20 days and impose a €10,000 fine. The Paris-based charity is the first victim of the so-called “NGO Decree” put forward by Italy’s right-wing government in January and recently approved by the parliament. The decree prohibits ships in the Mediterranean from carrying out multiple rescues of migrants before reaching the assigned port, unless specifically requested by the authorities.
Italy tends to assign distant ports to NGO rescue ships. According to Giorgia Meloni’s government, it is about distributing migrants more evenly across the country. For NGOs, it is a ruse expressly designed to put ships out of service for as long as possible and increase operating costs at the expenses of migrants.
“This penalization of humanitarian actions would likely deter human rights and humanitarian organizations from doing their crucial work,” declared the United Nations Human Rights Chief Volker Türk on Feb. 16, echoing the concerns already expressed by the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for human rights and the UN special rapporteurs on the situation of human rights defenders and on the human rights of migrants.
Whatever the reason behind this decree was, nobody doubts there are real-life consequences. Last week, a boat carrying about 150 migrants, mostly coming from Afghanistan and Syria, sank near the coast of the southern region of Calabria and 71 people died. An article in Italian daily Il Post a few hours before the shipwreck showed how none of the 19 NGO ships operating in the Mediterranean were at sea at the time.
A war waging for years
Another criminalization strategy consists of accusing civil society organizations of committing activities considered illegal under existing laws and forcing them to undertake long, expensive and often inconclusive trials. This is the case of the Syrian refugee turned rescue worker Sarah Mardini, featured in the Netflix movie The Swimmers, who went on trial in Greece alongside 23 other volunteers of the NGO Emergency Response Center International for bringing aid to migrants arriving on Europe’s shores.
NGOs represent a critical voice within society.
Last January, the court of Lesbos rejected the charges, which included espionage and people smuggling, but Mardini and his colleague Sean Binder are still under investigation. Meanwhile, Emergency Response Center International has ceased its activities.
Even the European Union is not immune to this trend. As Hans Van Sharens wrote on EUobserver, the Qatargate scandal, where the organization Fight Impunity was allegedly used to channel bribes from Qatar and Morocco to some MEPs to influence the decision-making process, has revitalized the anti-NGO campaign that the European People’s Party and other right-wing groups have been waging for several years.
“Such hostility is due to the fact that NGOs represent a critical voice within society. They point at things that States do wrongly or fail to do,” said Lavarde and Ferrerons Galeano. “Criminalization, obstruction and denigration not only jeopardize the rights of the most vulnerable who benefit from or often depend on the work of these organizations. It is also about freedom of association.”