Armed non-state actors, criminal elements and violent extremists—not just governments—are responsible for the increasing crackdown on civil society, notes Shannon N. Green, director and senior fellow of the Human Rights Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
To date, the international community has been primarily focused on governmental efforts to use legislation and legal restrictions on CSOs to limit their operability, she writes in a contribution to the openGlobalRights debate on closing space for civil society.
The International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, for example, monitors legal barriers affecting the freedom of association in 50 countries and eight multilateral organizations. So why should considerations of closing space be broadened to include violence perpetuated against CSOs by armed actors?
The presence of armed non-state actors, criminal gangs, or violent extremists is both a response to and driver of government assaults and stigmatization of civil society. Governments have created an environment conducive to such violence by vilifying civil society, labeling organizations as “foreign agents,” “undesirables,” or “evil society,” and committing (or at least allowing) physical attacks on activists, Green writes:
In Libya, human rights defenders and other members of civil society have been killed, abducted, tortured and forced underground. …. The February 2015 killing of Entissar al-Hassaeri (above), a vocal critic of Libya’s militias and fierce advocate for a strong national army and police force, shocked Libyan civil society, as it was the first time that a well-known female civil society activist was targeted in Tripoli. Unfortunately, as in many other countries confronting lawlessness and impunity, women activists in Libya have borne the brunt of retaliation, harassment and violence by militant groups who want them to withdraw from public life and stop advocating for human rights.
Violent extremists in Bangladesh have been responsible for a spate of attacks against outspoken critics and bloggers. In January 2013, Asif Mohiuddin (right), a self-described “militant atheist” blogger, was stabbed near his office in Dhaka. ….
Finally, in Colombia, the increasing strength of neo-paramilitary groups, collectively known as BACRIM, (short for bandas criminales or “criminal gangs”) has caused an uptick in violence against landowners’ rights and indigenous peoples’ rights activists, trade unionists and journalists. By January 2013, the Urabeños, a splinter group of BACRIM, had killed at least 18 students, blue collar workers and indigenous peoples and had threatened several prominent trade union leaders with death.
More research is needed on the impact of armed non-state actors, criminal networks, and violent extremists on the enabling environment for civil society, and how to deal with this dimension of closing space. In the meantime, including these groups in the debate around closing space leads to a few conclusions, she adds:
1) the international community should condemn all efforts to undermine freedoms of association, assembly and expression, regardless of whether a state or non-state actor is responsible;
2) the international community should call on countries where these abuses are common to uphold their human rights obligations and bring perpetrators to justice;
3) states should lower the rhetorical temperature fueling these attacks by ceasing to disparage civil society; and
4) governments should enhance protections for CSOs, including by ensuring that law enforcement officials are properly trained on their human rights commitments.