Last year’s unprecedented fires in the world’s most biodiverse rainforest, the Amazon, made headlines not only because it was a major climate crisis but also because Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro fallaciously accused Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) of setting the forest on fire, stating that they intended to create public outrage and harm his government’s image. According to him, their motive was to protest the cutting down of Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) funding. This offensive and disparaging statement was made without any evidence. This irresponsible attitude towards civil society has also been exhibited by other world leaders, misusing their influential positions to publicly humiliate NGOs. Similar derogatory remarks have been made by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. In 2019, he called these organisations ‘anarchists’ and vowed to outlaw civil society groups campaigning against Australian businesses. In 2016, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi claimed to be a victim of NGOs, frantically stating that ’NGOs conspire from morning to night on how do we finish Modi, how do we remove his government, how do we embarrass Modi?’. Hostile attitudes towards these organisations are reflected not only in their words but actions too. For instance, in 2018 the Pakistani Government ordered as many as 21 NGOs to renew their registration, but denied the renewal of these licenses without sufficient reason after they submitted the new applications. Furthermore, Russian President Vladimir Putin enacted a law in 2012 under which NGOs were to be declared ‘foreign agents’ if they received any funding from abroad to which Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed her dissent and said that Russia must rather encourage civil societies.
These statements are problematic because global leaders have an international obligation to respect and promote the works of these organisations under the United Nation’s Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. In the resolution adopted by Human Rights Council (United Nations General Assembly) on 9th October 2013, 3rd October 2014, and 1st July, 2016, they urged that States should ‘acknowledge publicly the important and legitimate role of civil society in the promotion of human rights, democracy and the rule of law’. It was also emphasized that civil societies play an important role at not only local but also national, regional, and international levels. While leaders are busy issuing belittling statements, the UN’s Special Rapporteur suggested that the very first step to reduce such threats and risks is an issuance of public statements by States already recognising the civil society’s status and role, thereby strengthening the legitimacy of their work. States are required to adopt measures to endorse the campaigns organised by NGOs and by pay tribute to the contributions made by them. In one of the reports submitted by the special rapporteur, it has also been proposed that not only state but non-state actors and international communities too should acknowledge, respect, and support their activities through public recognition of their role as well as through technical or financial assistance. For instance, when attempts are made to defame NGOs by wrongly accusing them of being ‘terrorists, criminals or against the State’, the media could counter these attempts by promptly challenging them.
The resolutions also call for a proper legal framework, via comprehensive and transversal policy by Governments, to establish an enabling environment where their work is respected. Since domestic legal and administrative provisions are misused in a manner to hinder their work, the need for reviewing and amending national legislation and policies is highlighted – a check-and-balance mechanism for the promotion and protection of these organisations, remaining consistent with international law, international human rights law and international humanitarian law. Countries like Germany, India and the United Kingdom voted in favour but tellingly China and Russia were against these resolutions. The Council of Europe and the European Union have also called for states to take effective measures to ensure that their activities are respected.
Here, it is pertinent to note that when world leaders blatantly abuse and disrespect CSOs and NGOs, they not only breach international obligations, but the creation of this kind of hostile environment ultimately has ramifications for the work of the organisations. For instance, Uganda’s 2016 NGO Act restricts organisations from advocating for the LGBTQ+ community, sex workers, and women’s sexual and reproductive health rights including access to safe abortions. By cancelling the Greenpeace’s FCRA licence, the Indian Government also took a backward step in the fight against climate change and limited the dissemination of information on environmental issues. However, the move was stayed by the High Court of India. These cases are the tip of the iceberg. Painted as threats to security, development, and traditional values, members of these organisations risk human rights violations including assassination, forced disappearances, smear campaigns, harassment, intimidation, assaults, and violent threats. As these statements further ingrain harmful ‘us versus them’ narratives, genuine efforts by organisations are delegitimised and the blame for social and political grievances are put on them.
Moreover, these States’ reliance upon civil society since the outbreak of COVID-19 further highlights the hypocrisy of their claims. The Indian Government is now appealing to over 92,000 NGOs/CSOs to assist them in identifying hotspots, appointing volunteers and care givers to vulnerable groups to raise awareness about prevention, social distancing, and combating stigma, to provide shelter to homeless, daily wage workers, and urban poor families and set up community kitchens for migrants. NGOs are clearly at the forefront in this time of crisis, despite being openly labelled as foreign agents, terrorists, anti-nationals, criminals, undesirables, and defenders of demons.
While firmly acknowledging the need to critique contentions surrounding the practices of CSOs themselves, particularly of International NGOs, their efforts have made and continue to make tangible progress for the establishment of human rights and social justice. Thus, there is a necessity for state and non-state actors to come together and condemn state leaders for their non-compliance to the resolutions, and explicitly recognize the legitimacy of these organisations, publicly support their work, and acknowledge their contribution to the advancement of human rights.
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