Times are tough for organisations around the world working on sensitive issues such as human rights, governance, religious freedom, and humanitarian aid. As individual human rights and political liberties have declined over the past few years, governments worldwide have also restricted the capabilities of independent non-governmental organisations (NGOs), preventing them from operating freely, or at all.
That's not just bad for the NGOs and the people they help around the world. It's bad for the United States. And it's bad for the American taxpayer.
Here's why. NGOs are often the eyes and ears on the ground that monitor domestic governments' foreign assistance, including how it might squander or manipulate the use of taxpayer-funded aid, or continue to commit human-rights violations with impunity. And the work that NGOs do globally is also in the Unites States' best interest.
Sending the wrong message
Unfortunately, the United States' continued support of and alliance with many of these countries sends the message that repressing civil society won't interfere with a strategic relationship with the US.
Recently, governments with strong ties to the US have taken actions to monitor, repress, and prevent certain NGO activities within their countries. There are always official-sounding excuses for why these measures are necessary — from preventing tax fraud and opposing treasonous internal elements, to the forever popular and always vague — protecting national security interests. But these explanations rarely pass the sniff test.
Russia led the pack with a repressive NGO law that went into place in 2006, and now a host of other countries seek to follow suit. For five years, Freedom House has seen declines in its ratings for "freedom of association" in its annual survey. According to the International Centre for Not-for-Profit Law, in 2009 alone, 27 countries across the globe considered or enacted legal measures to constrain civic space.
In July, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered a speech on the subject in which she pledged US support to foster independent civil society around the globe. However, as commendable as that promise was, America's actions speak louder than words. And unfortunately, the US has demonstrated that it will maintain close ties with strategic partners despite repressive policies.
Ethiopia, which receives more than $500 million (Dh1.8 billion) annually in American foreign assistance, and is considered an important partner in US counterterrorism efforts, imposed an incredibly repressive NGO law in 2009 that has all but wiped out organisations working in the areas of human rights and governance.
This fall, Secretary Clinton undertook a tour of Asia aimed at bolstering relations with governments in Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia. Yet one has to question the message the US is really sending these countries.
Thailand uses its historic "lese majeste" laws to harass and prosecute members of civil society who speak out on sensitive subjects. Vietnam boasts one of the world's most extensive systems of oppression against NGO activities. Sources report that Cambodia is moving forward with a new NGO law that groups fear would have far-reaching repercussions. Clearly, the message being sent to foreign governments is that passing these laws will not have significant negative consequences for their relations with the US.
The protection of human rights and freedom of expression, and the support of independent civil society, should be a core part of America's relationship with foreign partners. Behind-the-scenes pleas or finger-shaking by the US does little to deter governments from moving forward with repressive policies. If America truly wants to prevent these policies from being enacted, it must demonstrate that doing so will negatively impact its bilateral relationships.
In the end, a policy that supports NGOs and prioritises human rights benefits the US, as governments that accept and promote fundamental freedoms in their countries make better, more reliable long-term partners.
Sarah Trister is an advocacy officer at Freedom House.