What the work boils down to is this: promoting freedom of association and assembly. How it's done: by helping groups design laws that protect these freedoms.
"In too many countries we find that the legal framework actually restricts the ability of individuals to gather together to try to improve their societies," says Douglas Rutzen, president of The International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL) in Washington D.C. "We see in country after country the rights that we might take for granted in the United States are restricted."
The ICNL now works in more than 100 countries helping to establish the legal framework for enhancing individual rights. Last week the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation named the ICNL as one of 15 organizations in six countries that are receiving the MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions. The ICNL will be awarded $1 million. (A list of all the winners is here.)
Among the ICNL's accomplishments:
• Helping to organize a coalition of more than 7,000 organizations in Iraq to pass a law that supports freedom of association and assembly.
• Creating the idea for and helping to establish the first United Nations Special Rapporteur on the freedoms of assembly and association. A UN resolution was adopted in September 2010 and the UN Special Rapporteur now works to defend freedom of association and assembly around the world.
• Maintaining a database of 2,300 laws from more than 160 countries in 37 languages that can be used as source material to create new laws regarding civil freedoms.
The ICNL is currently working in Libya, in concert with the UN and other partners to expand the rights of citizens there. "In Qaddafi's Libya the death penalty could be imposed for someone who sought to set up an independent human rights group," Mr. Rutzen says.
In Mexico, the ICNL is helping local partners work to allow human rights organizations to receive tax deductible donations. In China, it's partnering with the Chinese government to create a legal framework for disaster response and clarify the role charities play in it.
"The magic of INCL is that we're really international," Rutzen says. "About 70 percent of our staff comes from the countries and regions in which they work. [For example] when you look at our Russian office, everybody is Russian."
The center is also active in Egypt, where nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are under intense scrutiny from the new government. "It's really about Egyptian groups and their rights to receive foreign funding," he says.
But the situation in Egypt has broader implications, Rutzen adds.
"Our concern is that this is just the beginning of what may be a prelude to a broader crackdown on Egyptian civil society organizations," he says. "We've also noticed the contagion effect – that when one country does this and gets away with it other countries become emboldened and start to pass restrictive laws as well.
"Just within the last couple of weeks we're seen crackdowns in places like Zimbabwe. There's a draft law in Bangladesh that just emerged. There's been a media campaign against civil society organizations in Venezuela. And the list goes on and on.
"So we think that there is now a broad movement among a number of countries to restrict civic space."
That "civic space" represents a whole host of associations that are not family or business relationships but are based on common interests – from a soccer club to a parent-teacher organization to human rights groups.
"It's that whole collection of nonprofit organizations that enrich our lives," he says.
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