Civil society groups feel heat as elected governments turn on NGOs

International civil society groups say they are facing intensifying pressure even in democracies as elected governments wield political, legal and financial weapons to halt their work.

Amnesty International’s suspension last week of its Indian operations is the latest casualty in what critics view as a widening crackdown from Budapest to Brasília by elected but autocratic leaders seeking to entrench their power.

The trend has fed broader fears of a tilt towards authoritarianism worldwide. Activists fear that the loss of campaigning on injustices by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) will add to factors such as online disinformation and the Covid-19 pandemic that already alienate people and make it easier for politicians to tighten their grip.

“An atomised society is a society that’s easier to control — that’s the rationale behind cracking down on NGOs,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of US-based Human Rights Watch. “That was a first principle of dictatorship — but we are now seeing this in ostensible democracies.”

Clampdowns on domestic civil society groups viewed as threatening official interests are familiar in countries that either hold no elections or whose polls are seen by international observers as flawed, such as China and Russia.

However, in recent years a number of democracies have begun to use similar tactics to curb the work of local and global NGOs.

Critics say the trend is part of a strategy of “hybrid government” by authoritarians, who amass power not by directly rigging votes but through domination of the public sphere achieved by stifling dissenting voices and promoting supportive ones.

“It’s definitely happening more with democratically elected governments,” said Elena Lazarou, an associate fellow at the Chatham House think-tank. “And they are not only cracking down but also trying to boost their own alternative sets of civil society actors.”

Amnesty stopped its work in India after the country’s economic crime investigation agency froze the aid group’s bank accounts on the grounds that it allegedly broke laws prohibiting overseas funding. Amnesty has denied wrongdoing and says it has been harassed by Indian authorities for the past two years. It recently published two reports that attacked the human rights record of Narendra Modi’s government.

Elsewhere, a July report by the Philippines’ Commission on Human Rights warned that President Rodrigo Duterte had created a “dangerous fiction” that it was legitimate to monitor and harass NGOs. He said in 2017 that police should shoot human rights activists who were “obstructing justice” in his bloody drugs war.

In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro last year initially blamed non-profit groups, without evidence, for wildfires that surged through the Amazon. Last month he branded NGOs a “cancer”.

In the EU — which sees itself as a bastion of democracy — Hungarian leader Viktor Orban’s government has criminalised civil society groups that provide help to migrants it deems illegal. It also imposed law changes and exerted political pressure that forced the Open Society Foundations, created by billionaire financier George Soros, to move its European headquarters to Berlin.

Rights activists say lack of international pushback against such leaders is making the problem worse. While western democracies have in the past toned down criticism of authoritarian allies, human rights advocates worry that US president Donald Trump’s warm relationship with politicians such as Mr Duterte has gone a step further and weakened the position of civil society groups even more.

The EU has channelled money to foreign NGOs and says its treaties and agreements are compliant with global human rights norms, but some activists question whether the political will exist to enforce such standards. Overseas support for local NGOs can also do more harm than good, say observers, as it can be portrayed as outside interference in a country’s affairs.

“The EU routinely speaks out against the ‘narrowing space for civil society’ in its bilateral talks with these countries, and the EU special representative for human rights works a lot with NGOs,” said Julia De Clerck-Sachsse, a former adviser in the bloc’s diplomatic service. “But there is also an awareness that too much overt support can result in more problems for those organisations, rather than helping them.”

Rights groups are seeking to counter the threat, with strategies including the mobilisation of what Nils Muiznieks, Amnesty’s Europe regional director, calls online “human rights brigades” to defend activists and journalists under attack.

The issue is magnified by wider problems, including the coronavirus pandemic’s hit to their finances, funding pressure on UN human rights bodies and tensions between member states of multilateral institutions such as the Council of Europe and Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

“The human rights system — and the commitment to that system — is weakening,” said Mr Muiznieks. “Governments used to ignore criticism. Now, they are trying to stifle it — which I find quite scary.”

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