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.
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.
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.
In Egypt, the government plays an ever-increasing role in the registering and monitoring of civil society organizations with government approval power over international funding, a process which can quite literally be never-ending. The Egyptian government has arbitrarily canceled NGO events and conferences, detained and deported NGO workers, and frozen funds of independent organizations. In October, the government announced further restrictions on NGOs, conveniently one month before parliamentary elections and 11 months before the presidential election.
The Obama administration has publicly decried many of the most blatant violations by the Egyptian government, but it’s not enough. After the omnibus spending bill with its foreign aid budget was blocked in Congress this month, the new Congress will probably take up a spending bill in January that could include about $1.5 billion in foreign assistance for Egypt in 2011.
Yemen, which could receive more than $100 million in US foreign assistance in 2011, is considering its own NGO proclamation that would place onerous registration requirements on groups that receive international financing and subject them to intrusive approval processes by the Yemeni government.
This fall, Secretary Clinton undertook a tour of Asia aimed at bolstering relations with governments in Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia. Yet one has to question the message the US is really sending these countries. Though not all of them are strategic allies, the Obama administration has made a strong commitment to reinvigorating relationships in Asia.
Regressive measures in Asia
Thailand, though better than many of its regional counterparts, uses its historic “lese majeste” laws to harass and prosecute members of civil society who speak out on sensitive subjects. Vietnam boasts one of the world’s most extensive systems of oppression against NGO activities. If these countries are truly hoping to improve their relationships with the US, they should feel strongly pressed to show an improvement in their treatment of civil society. Yet, just weeks after Clinton’s high-profile trip, sources on the ground report that Cambodia is moving forward with a new NGO law that groups fear would have far-reaching repercussions. Clearly, the message being sent to foreign governments is that passing these types of laws will not have significant negative consequences for their relationships with the US.
The protections of human rights and freedom of expression, and the support of independent civil society, should be a core part of America’s relationship with foreign partners. And while useful, harshly worded statements are not enough. When the US provides millions of dollars to the governments of these countries, it can be viewed by local populations as indifferent to, or complicit in, policies of repression. Behind the scenes pleas or finger-shaking by the US does little to deter governments from moving forward with repressive policies. If America truly wants to prevent these policies from being enacted, it must demonstrate that doing so will negatively impact its bilateral relationships.
In the end, a policy that supports NGOs and prioritizes human rights benefits the United States, as governments that accept and promote fundamental freedoms in their countries make better, more reliable long-term partners.
Sarah Trister is an advocacy officer at Freedom House.