In the name of security: when silencing active citizens creates even greater problems

Iva Dobichina and Poonam Joshi,
Open Democracy,
April 22, 2016

Silencing activists in
the name of security can stifle actors most likely to challenge
extremist ideologies, making insecurity worse. A contribution to the
openGlobalRights debate on closing
space for civil society

The global governance
frameworks around counterterrorism and international development have
framed the role, value and impact of civil society as a critical ally
but also, more recently, as a threat. At best, donor governments have
acknowledged civil society as a key partner in fostering development,
peace and security. 

At worst, some aid recipient governments have sought to
limit the role of development and human rights groups only to
delivering public services, or they view civil society as an enabler
for funding terrorist groups. 

Yet there are opportunities for civil
society actors to use counterterrorism and development policies and
processes to their advantage.


Since 9/11 more than 140
governments have passed counterterrorism legislation, often in
response to US pressure, UN Security Council resolutions and the
counterterrorism guidelines developed by the Financial
Action Task Force
(FATF), an intergovernmental policy making body
established in 1989 by the G7, and hosted by the OECD, to combat
global money laundering and terrorist financing. FATF’s
singles out the NGO sector as being particularly vulnerable to
abuse for financing terrorism and recommends that national
governments take steps to prevent this. 

Governments have used this standard extensively to
close the space for cross-border funding of civil society groups
through the introduction of restrictive legislation. 

More recent examples are the 2010
Foreign Contribution Regulation Act in India
and the 2009
NGO Policy in Sierra Leone

These recommendations
have also affected the ability of humanitarian, peace building and
development groups to receive resources in conflict zones, to
devastating effect. 

Last month, a
Reuters investigation
reported that 21 international and local
NGOs (including a consortium of 90 Syrian NGOs) found that policies
enacted to counter terrorist financing were forcing aid agencies
in Syria to
avoid communities controlled by extremist groups, making it harder to
deliver vital supplies and leaving people vulnerable to

FATF standards also provide governments with the
ability to rhetorically link civil society, terrorism and organized
crime, a narrative that delegitimizes and isolates groups already
operating on the margins of society because of their work on
contested human rights issues.

Ironically, FATF was
practically unknown to civil society until a core
of counterterrorism
and philanthropy
initiated contact with FATF’s secretariat in 2012. Over the last
four years, the Civil
Society Platform on the FATF
has mobilized support from 123
organizations in 46 countries, representing a diverse range of
non-profits, including service organizations, peace builders, donors,
and human rights and transparency groups. 

As a result of this
engagement, FATF has revised its guidance to remind governments that
civil society organizations are not all vulnerable to exploitation,
and that governments should assess actual risks in partnership with
civil society, rather than fast-tracking restrictive
one-size-fits-all laws. 

The Platform has also
expressed concern that FATF’s standards have been used, sometimes
deliberately, to stifle the very actors who are most likely to
challenge extremist ideologies within communities. 

In the coming
months, FATF will review Recommendation 8 in consultation with civil
The challenge for
activists and donors is to take advantage of this progress, and
explore how these welcome developments can be used to reopen the
regulatory environment at the domestic level. For example, how could
these successes be used to build national-level coalitions to
challenge proposed legislation in countries such as Pakistan,
Morocco, Kenya,
and Nigeria,
where governments are using the security agenda to justify proposals
for restrictive NGOs laws?

Development frameworks

published research
shows that from 1993 to 2012, 39 of the
world’s 153 low- and middle-income countries introduced laws
restricting foreign funding to domestic civil society, often in the
aftermath of hotly contested national elections.
In a context where
foreign-aid flows from donor countries amount to an average of 10% of
the GDP of aid-receiving countries, governments in aid-receiving
countries see their inability to control foreign-aid flows as a
threat to their political control. 

This trend has manifested itself in a number of ways.

At the international
level, the intergovernmental commitment secured in the 2011 Busan
Partnership for Effective Development Co-operation—to promote an
enabling environment for civil society actors as agents of change—is
absent from the Sustainable Development Goals. At the national level,
smear attacks characterizing development actors as corrupt and elite
are on the rise, and governments are actively pitting NGOs,
development groups and human rights actors against each other. 

This latter
strategy worked most effectively in Ethiopia,
where international development and humanitarian NGOs did not join
forces with local human rights groups to challenge a bill targeting
civil society organizations, fearful that contesting the proposed
legislation would close down the space for development and
humanitarian work. 

The 2009
Ethiopian CSO Proclamation Act
, widely regarded as being the most
restrictive NGO law in Africa, has decimated the local human rights
community, and requires development actors to operate as implementers
of government policy, begging the question of what kind of
development can take place in a human rights vacuum.

Opportunities for a joint
civil society response to closing space, however, exist at both the
international and national levels. For example, Kenyan human rights
groups, when faced in 2013 with proposed NGO legislation similar to
that introduced in Ethiopia, were able to ally with development
actors, in particular the movement of people living with HIV/AIDS, to
make a persuasive case for the role of civil society in rights-based

In Sierra Leone,
local human rights groups are building alliances with both domestic
and international development NGOs to challenge proposed policy
changes that would permit the government to control the activities of
all NGOs. 

At the international level, the
broadening of the Sustainable Development Goals to encompass targets
around rule of law, access to justice, transparency and good
governance, will mean that governments will be unable to meet these
goals if they simultaneously close down the space for human rights
and transparency groups.  

The way forward

While these issues are
not new, surprisingly little has been done by private donors and
civic groups to make the case for civil society, or marshal the data
and evidence to demonstrate that silencing active citizens does not
result in greater security or prosperity, but the reverse. 

experiences around the role of civic engagement in finding innovative
solutions to complex development problems and preventing extremism
can be used to open the space for participation, then our partners
might be able to tell a different story—not about closing space but
about the importance of civil society in keeping the public sphere
open for everyone.