From Nicaragua to India: The global community must stand up for the work of independent civil society 

On 28 June, the Nicaraguan parliament stripped the Missionaries of Charity – the order founded by Mother Teresa – of its legal status. Days later, they were expelled from the country entirely, with local media reporting that 18 nuns were driven to the border by migration officials and police officers before crossing on foot into neighbouring Costa Rica. 

No doubt the incident drew particular attention as a result of the high profile of the organisation in question, however the targeting of the Missionaries of Charity in this manner marks just the tip of the iceberg in a nationwide crackdown on civil society and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) which has been ongoing for several years. 

Ever since protests erupted across the country in April 2018, and particularly since the re-election of Daniel Ortega as president in November 2021, the Nicaraguan government has acted with increasing antagonism towards anyone it perceives as critical of the current regime. This has included the Roman Catholic Church, to which the Missionaries of Charity belong, and which in February 2022 saw a number of its affiliate private universities and aid organisations targeted in a similar manner. 

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Red tape and restrictions: India’s Foreign Contribution Regulation Act is preventing NGOs from doing their vital work

Home of Hope, Chennai, is a church-based non-governmental organisation (NGO) that helps underprivileged children and orphans with monthly sponsorship feeding programs, and helps women with microloans. Like many NGOs, Home of Hope relies on funds from generous donors across the globe to sustain their work, but the Indian government is making life increasingly difficult for this and many organisations like it.

Since amendments to the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA) came into effect in September 2020, things have been different. Two boys receiving support from Home of Hope were prevented from sitting their final examinations in September as they were unable to receive the funds that helped pay their fees on time. Several other critical needs, such as healthcare for COVID-19 patients, were also left unmet due to the delay in funds. 

Of course, Home of Hope is not the only organisation affected by the new regulations. A majority of Christian charities, organisations and even educational institutions in India are funded by international donors, relying on them to survive. The FCRA amendments have made it almost impossible for them to function. 

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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.’

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Dignitaries Sign Letter Supporting Appeal For CSW’s UN Accreditation

Member States of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC)

Re: CSW’s application for UN ECOSOC Consultative Status

Excellencies,

We are writing to you requesting that you vote in favour of Christian Solidarity Worldwide’s (CSW’s) appeal for UN ECOSOC consultative status in April 2017.

CSW is a human rights advocacy organisation with almost 40 years’ experience of promoting the right to Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) in over 20 countries worldwide. Its advocacy work is firmly rooted in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.”

CSW engages regularly with United Nations mechanisms providing evidence-based analysis. It applied in 2009 for consultative status in order to broaden the scope of its work with key human rights advocacy platforms, including the Human Rights Council and General Assembly.

On 3 February 2017, the UN Committee on NGOs voted to reject CSW’s application after repeated deferrals. Since 2009, CSW has provided timely and comprehensive answers to over 80 questions from the Committee, to no avail.

We, the undersigned, are disappointed at the Committee’s decision and deeply concerned about the wider message that the rejection of CSW’s application sends regarding the Committee’s commitment to facilitating NGO access to UN mechanisms.

CSW’s situation is not unique. In May 2016, over 230 NGOs raised concerns about the Committee’s repeated deferral and denial of NGO applications for consultative status, which effectively blocks a number of NGOs from participating fully in UN processes.

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From Deferral to Denial: CSW Continues to be Blocked from the UN by the NGO Committee

“Without the participation of non-governmental organisations and civil society groups, no initiative, however visionary, can be fully achieved” – Former UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon

Civil society participation at the United Nations (UN) is not an ‘add-on’. Rather, inclusive and genuine NGO engagement increases accountability and strengthens the work of the UN, making it more effective and better-informed. This has been flagged numerous times by many of the key human rights experts within the UN.

The importance of the contribution of civil society actors to the capacity, efficiency and impact of the UN Special Procedures and other human rights mechanisms was stressed in the latest report by the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Dr Ahmed Shaheed. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, meanwhile, has pointed out the significant obligation international human rights law places on Member States to respect the freedoms which enable civil society to develop and operate.

Given the role civil society has to play in the protection and promotion of human rights, the recent decision by the UN NGO Committee to deny Christian Solidarity Worldwide’s access to the UN – after arbitrary deferral of its application since 2009 – sends a controversial and troubling message to civil society. Far from being just an administrative hurdle or minor oversight, the decision is effectively an attempt to silence the voice of an NGO promoting FoRB– thus undermining the protection of FoRB within the UN system.

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