Can Human Rights NGOs Be Trusted in the Corridors of the United Nations and International Criminal Justice Institutions?
Lyal S. Sunga
The Government Backlash Against Human Rights NGOs
Governments around the world have been shortening the leash on human rights non-governmental organization (NGO) watchdogs.
Algeria,1 Egypt,2 Bahrain,3 Israel,4 and many other countries in the Middle East and North Africa have made it more difficult for NGOs to become established and to operate, squeezing the freedoms of assembly, association, speech, thought, opinion, and expression at the same time.5 Angola, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe enforce onerous mandatory NGO registration requirements and give government officials overly broad discretionary powers to decide upon applications. Senegal and Uganda require NGOs to apply for permits to carry out many of their
L.S. Sunga (*)
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normal functions. Others, such as Angola, Equatorial Guinea, Sudan, and Tanzania, severely restrict or even prohibit international NGOs from operating in their territories or bar local NGOs from receiving foreign support.6
Government restrictions on NGOs have become more common on other continents too. Notwithstanding the Russian Federation’s constitutional human rights guarantees, in June 2012 President Vladimir Putin ushered through Parliament a new law that branded certain NGOs from engaging in political activity and receiving funding from abroad as ‘foreign agents.’7 By the end of 2015, Russia had used the law to list Memorial—a group that documents Soviet-era abuses—along with 100 other human rights NGOs, as foreign agents.8 In January 2016, the Supreme Court rejected the Kremlin’s application to shut Memorial down entirely,9 but the government continued to interfere in its activities and in those of hundreds of other Russian-based human rights NGOs.10 In Belarus, in March 2015, the government moved to shut down the Mahiliou Human Rights Center, the only registered regional human rights organization in the country,11 on flimsy technical grounds relating to its office address. After concerns were raised by Miklos Haraszti, UN Human Rights Council’s Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Belarus,12 and Human Rights House Network, a coalition of more than 100 NGOs active in 13 countries,13 the government dropped its lawsuit the following month.14
Many Asian governments have also increased their control over NGOs over the last few years. Central Asian governments targeted human rights, democracy, and development NGOs, as Article 19, a leading NGO that champions freedom of the press, highlighted in its June 2015 statement to the UN Human Rights Council.15 India’s government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, shut down some 13,000 human rights and environmental NGOs in two months in June 2015, including Amnesty International, ActionAid, Ford Foundation and Greenpeace.16 The People’s Republic of China, which has long restricted the establishment of NGOs while allowing some to operate in a legal grey zone,17 launched fresh campaigns against NGOs in 2015, calling many of them threats to national security.18
A 2015 Carnegie Endowment for International Peace report titled ‘Closing Space: Democracy and Human Rights Support under Fire’ uncovered a clear worldwide trend of government restrictions on human rights and democracy NGOs, particularly in countries with weak democratic traditions and authoritarian tendencies: more than 50 countries have engaged in some form of pushback against external democracy and rights support. Nor is pushback leveled against only a select number of high-profile US democracy groups. It is affecting an ever widening range of US, European, and multilateral organizations involved in various types of politically related as well as developmental assistance. And nor is it the work of only authoritarian or semi authoritarian regimes. A growing number of democratic governments are restricting space for externally sponsored democracy and rights activities.19
Carnegie’s report linked this trend to US President George W. Bush Administration’s regime change policies in Iraq and the War on Terror which tried to coopt human rights and democracy work by NGOs into US military and counter-insurgency strategy.20 Conflation of US military objectives with international human rights and humanitarian NGO activity prompted many people around the world, especially those opposing the illegal invasion of Iraq in the first place, increasingly to view the NGO sector as an arm of American interventionism in their internal affairs.21
Reports from the International Center for Non-Profit Law, which publishes the online journal Global Trends in NGO Law,22 certain influential human rights NGOs such as Amnesty International,23 Human Rights Watch,24 International Commission of Jurists,25 intergovernmental organizations including the United Nations, Council of Europe, European Union and others,26 as well as academics,27 document how governments around the world have been clamping down on civil society and human rights NGOs and the chilling impact this has had on good governance, the rule of law and human rights.
In April 2012, Ms Navi Pillay, the then UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, warned that governments were placing far-reaching restrictions on human rights NGOs. She underlined that civil society, including NGOs, trade unions, human rights defenders, academics, journalists, bloggers, and others were essential to ensure that governments implemented their human rights obligations. She underlined their role in checking the power of government and serving as bridges between government and their people,28 citing Egypt, Zimbabwe, Cambodia, Algeria, Ethiopia, Belarus, Israel, Venezuela, and most of the countries in the Middle East and North Africa, as places where government severely curtailed NGO activity in one way or another.
Certain governments see NGOs working in the field of human rights, and more recently, those working to fight impunity for serious violations, as Trojan Horses for foreign intervention in their internal affairs, as if human rights were something that fell exclusively within domestic jurisdiction, which it does not. With regard to international criminal justice, over the last few years, some governments have joined a chorus denouncing the International Criminal Court (ICC) as a tool of Western neocolonial domination.29
Do NGOs dictate UN human rights and international criminal justice policy, force a Western agenda on countries of the Global South and undermine their national security and sovereignty? Have NGOs become too numerous and too powerful? Are they accountable to anyone?
To consider these kinds of question, it is important to explore beyond rhetoric and reaction. It is useful first to trace how and why human rights NGOs came to acquire the influence they currently wield and to place this development into historical perspective. Second, it is valuable to note how the UN accreditation process for human rights NGOs works and the kinds of issue that have given rise to serious disagreement among states over NGO applications to gain UN consultative status. Third, it is essential to recall the many ways in which NGOs interact with the UN human rights system and international criminal justice institutions. Finally, the question as to whether human rights NGOs should be trusted in the corridors of the UN and international criminal justice institutions is considered.