World NGO Day: Standing up for those who stand up for others

27 February marks World NGO Day – a day to celebrate the work of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) around the world. As a key part of civil society, NGOs help to drive positive change, protecting and promoting fundamental human rights, democracy, and rule of law.

CSW networks and collaborates with hundreds of NGOs around the world, empowering communities whose concerns may often be overlooked, amplifying these issues in international advocacy arenas, and whenever possible, providing a platform for them to address policy makers directly.

Even as the world celebrates the invaluable work of civil society, there are many countries, including several on which CSW focuses, where the work of NGOs is not celebrated, but is instead stifled or shut down by state or non-state actors.

India: Civil society suffocated

Perhaps one of the most restrictive environments for NGOs to operate in is in India. In recent years, the country’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and other Hindu nationalist groups have increasingly attempted to label dissent as damaging to India’s national interests, arguing that those who speak up about human rights are ‘anti-nationals.’

This means that NGOs that criticise India’s human rights record, which has deteriorated significantly under the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, are increasingly treated with suspicion and even hostility. In a 2016 speech, Modi said: “They [NGOs] conspire from morning to night on ‘how do we finish Modi, how do we remove his government, how do we embarrass Modi?’ But my friends, you have voted me to rid the country of these diseases.”

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi

Since coming to power in 2014, the government has consistently used the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) 2010 to target NGOs and other civil society actors. The Act places controls on foreign funding for NGOs, and is often used to block funds and hamper the activities of NGOs that question or condemn the government or its policies. These controls were tightened even further in an amendment passed in September 2020, and the number of NGOs working in the country has continued to fall sharply.

Perhaps one of the most high-profile indicators of the BJP’s hostility to NGOs came just a day after the passage of the latest amendment to the FCRA, when on 29 September 2020 Amnesty International announced it had been forced to halt its operations in the country owing to government ‘reprisals.’ Amnesty’s bank accounts were reportedly frozen, and the organisation was forced to lay off several staff in country as well as halting its campaign work and research.

The fact that the BJP, using the newly amended FCRA, was able to stifle the work of one of the largest and best-known NGOs in the world is highly alarming, and raises serious concerns for just how difficult it can, will and is making life for the hundreds of smaller NGOs working on human rights in the country.

Egypt: A world of red tape

A similar story is unfolding in Egypt, where the authorities have used restrictions and investigations into NGO funding as a means of pressuring those who speak out on human rights issues. The government’s hostility to such organisations was made even more clear in November 2016 with the passage of the Civic Association Law.

The law required NGOs to apply for legal status and prove that they meet extensive and subjective registration conditions, such as not engaging in ‘activities that might harm the national security of the country, or activities that might violate the public order, morals, or health.’ It also granted the government right of veto on any resolution passed by a registered organisation, and officials also had jurisdiction over other NGO business, such as board appointments and frequency of meetings. NGOs that operate without legal status risk sentences of five years’ imprisonment and fines of up to EGP1 million (approximately £45,000) for its staff.

Following intense domestic and international criticism, and the withholding of aid by the United States, the Egyptian president ratified a new NGO law in August 2020, which the authorities claimed was a significant improvement of the previous legislation. While the new law reduces the costs of operating licences for local and foreign NGOs and removes the requirement contained in the previous legislation for these NGOs to pay a portion of their grants to the state, it remains excessively restrictive.

Under the new law all civil society groups require a licence, and the government can suspend licence applications on vague grounds. Government entities can interfere arbitrarily in an NGOs’ work, including by entering their premises without notice, inspecting documents, challenging decisions, and removing board members. The government can also suspend or dissolve NGOs for minor administrative errors.

The activities of NGOs have been limited to “societal development,” while “political,” “religious” or any activities deemed to “violate public order” are illegal. NGOs cannot conduct public surveys or field research without prior permission, and cooperation of any “foreign entity” or the employment of foreigners, even as volunteers, require a licence from the Minister of Social Solidarity. Fundraising activities require prior approval, and the government can block the use of any funds, whether local or foreign, suspend activities, and dismiss boards for violating funding rules. The law also defines NGO finances as “’’public funds,” allowing any citizen to request an investigation into expenditure, during which the government can block access to these funds.

Unsurprisingly, the number of NGOs operating in Egypt has continued to fall significantly, while those that remain do so under constant surveillance, harassment and intimidation from the government.

For example, in November 2020 Egyptian police arrested three senior staff of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), a human rights organisation working on freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) and gender equality, among other issues.

Gasser Abdel-Rzaek, the CEO of the EIPR, was detained in November 2020. Credit Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

The three men were eventually released following sustained international pressure, including from UN Mandate Holders and the incoming US Secretary of State, but their arrests and detention provided a crucial reminder of the plight of NGOs in Egypt, and a worrying indicator that the country’s crackdown on human rights may be intensifying.

Colombia: Under threat of violence

In some countries, it is not just the government that impedes the work of NGOs. For example, in Colombia, NGOs and activists involved in peacebuilding efforts are increasingly targeted with violence and threats of violence from illegal armed groups.

Last year, CSW spoke with Pablo Moreno, Rector of the Unibautista (Baptist) Seminary in Cali and Director of the Colombian Council of Evangelical Churches Peace Commission (CEDECOL), who described how unarmed members of civil society, including churches and NGOs, were highly vulnerable to the influence of illegal armed groups which impose restrictions on their freedom of movement or blocked their ability to work on certain peacebuilding projects.

Similarly, the Mennonite peace and justice NGO Justapaz has informed CSW of death threats the organisation has received from illegal armed groups operating in the areas where they work.

While the Colombian government may not be directly targeting NGOs in this manner, it is important to remember that it does bear some responsibility. In the past there have been troubling links between the Colombian military and far right paramilitary groups. Corrupt regional and local governments have also allegedly been infiltrated by members of illegal armed groups.

Posters call for peace in Bogota, Colombia

The national government has consistently slowed down the implementation of the peace agreement it signed with the then-largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC-EP), in November 2016. These delays are already having highly concerning effects, leaving many demobilized armed actors frustrated and, in some cases, threatening to return to open hostilities, which in turn has a negative knock-on effect for NGOs and others working for peace in the country.

Shout louder

India, Egypt and Colombia are by no means the only countries in which NGOs face challenges. Civil society is routinely stifled in many other countries that CSW works on, including Cuba, China, Nigeria, Sri Lanka and Vietnam.

As the world celebrates the essential work of these organisations, it is vital that we also remember those functioning in situations where it is practically impossible to shout about their achievements, and where the very work they do can put them at risk of harassment, imprisonment and deadly violence. For these organisations we must shout even louder, applauding and celebrating their bravery, while also calling on the international community to hold states where NGOs face restrictions and repression to account.

By CSW’s Public Affairs Officer, Ellis Heasley