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Harmful US hypocrisy on freedoms abroad

From Egypt to Cambodia, countries that enjoy good relations with the US are cracking down on NGOs that monitor human rights and support civil society. If the US is serious about supporting freedom abroad, it can't continue sending taxpayer dollars to repressive regimes.

By Sarah Trister / December 28, 2010

Times are tough for organizations around the world working on sensitive issues such as human rights, governance, religious freedom, and humanitarian aid. As individual human rights and political liberties have declined over the past few years, governments worldwide have also restricted the capabilities of independent nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), preventing them from operating freely, or at all.

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That’s not just bad for the NGOs and the people they help around the world. It’s bad for the United States. And it’s bad for the American taxpayer.

Here’s why. NGOs are often the eyes and ears on the ground that monitor domestic governments’ foreign assistance, including how it might squander or manipulate the use of taxpayer-funded aid, or continue to commit human-rights violations with impunity. And the work that NGOs do globally is also in the Unites States’ best interest. These groups fight the kind of poverty and instability that jeopardize global resources, foster terrorism, and necessitate foreign aid and military intervention in the first place.

Washington is sending the wrong message

Unfortunately, the Unites States’ continued support of and alliance with many of these countries sends the message that repressing civil society won’t interfere with a strategic relationship with the US. This message does more than paint the US as hypocritical: It allows the stifling of NGOs in those countries – a loss that in turn hurts the US.

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Recently, governments with strong ties to the US have taken actions to monitor, repress, and prevent certain NGO activities within their countries. There are always official-sounding excuses for why these measures are necessary – from preventing tax fraud and opposing treasonous internal elements, to combating terrorism and – the forever popular and always vague – protecting national security interests. But these explanations rarely pass the sniff test.

Russia led the pack with a repressive NGO law that went into place in 2006, and now a host of other countries, including Ethiopia, Egypt, and Yemen seek to follow suit. For five years, Freedom House has seen declines in its ratings for “freedom of association” in its annual survey of political rights and civil liberties. According to the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, in 2009 alone, 27 countries across the globe considered or enacted legal measures to constrain civic space.

These efforts are most often aimed at NGOs who receive international funds and operate in “sensitive” areas such as human rights, good governance, and religious freedom.

Actions speak louder than words

In July, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton delivered a praiseworthy speech on the subject in which she pledged US support to foster independent civil society around the globe. However, as commendable as that promise was, America’s actions speak louder than words. And unfortunately, the US has demonstrated that it will maintain close ties with strategic partners despite repressive policies.

Ethiopia, which receives more than $500 million annually in American foreign assistance, and is considered an important partner in US counterterrorism efforts, imposed an incredibly repressive NGO law in 2009 that has all but wiped out organizations working in the areas of human rights and governance.


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