‘Politics of fear’ threatens rights, prompts civil society ‘choke-out’



The politics of fear led to a global roll-back of human rights and a great civil society choke-out during 2015, according to the 659-page World Report 2016 from Human Rights Watch, which reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries.

Civil society is under more aggressive attack than at any time in recent memory, says the group’s Executive Director Kenneth Roth. Facing independent civic groups that have further reach, and more outlets to publish their findings and make their case, governments around the world have begun working to silence them by depriving them of their right to seek funding abroad, even when domestic funds are unavailable, he writes in his introductory essay to the report:

By closing the political space in which civic groups operate — interfering with the funds that allow groups to organize, investigate, and agitate — autocrats are trying to suck the oxygen from organized efforts to challenge or even criticize their self-serving reign.

Such a strategy is extraordinarily dangerous for civil society. Many countries are too poor to have a pool of donors capable of significant financial contributions to civic groups. When individuals are wealthy enough to make such gifts to groups critical of the authorities, autocrats can often dissuade them, attacking their business interests, threatening a tax investigation, withholding necessary licenses, or restricting business with the government….

Russia has applied such restrictions aggressively — first tarring Russian groups that accept contributions from abroad as “foreign agents” (which in Russian has the unsavory connotation of “traitor” or “spy”), then banning certain donors as “undesirable foreign organizations” with criminal penalties applicable to anyone who cooperates with them. Donors that have been banned include the National Endowment for Democracy and George Soros’s Open Society Foundation.

The report echoes some of the principal findings of Freedom House’s newly-released Freedom in the World 2015 report and the recently-released  Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index, which concludes that “an increased sense of anxiety and insecurity in the face of diverse perceived risks and threats—economic, political, social and security—is undermining democracy.”

Efforts to restrict civil society’s access to foreign donors are not about transparency or good governance. They are about avoiding organized oversight of governance, about blocking what is often the sole source of independent funding for such efforts when domestic sources do not exist or have been scared off, Roth argues:

If governments really wanted to shelter their societies from foreign funds, they could emulate the reclusiveness of North Korea. But what these governments truly desire is a selective cutoff, enabling commercial funds and international aid they deem beneficial while restricting those that might be used to hold them accountable. Any such governmental distinction between commercial and charitable funds, or between aid to themselves and aid to civic groups, should be seen for what it is: an effort to block citizens’ rights to freedom of expression and association, and the accountable governments they foster.


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