Why are authorities so keen on destroying civil society groups?

Friday February 10 2017

Prof Yash Pal Ghai (sitting, second from left), who is the director of Katiba Institute, with other civil society leaders in Mombasa on January 31, 2017. PHOTO | KEVIN ODIT | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Prof Yash Pal Ghai (sitting, second from left), who is the director of Katiba Institute, with other civil society leaders in Mombasa on January 31, 2017. PHOTO | KEVIN ODIT | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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Over the last few years, the growing phenomenon of “closing space for civil society” has been widely discussed in the human rights and democracy world. It is also sometimes called “closing civic space” and is probably the most significant human rights issue at the moment, affecting activists, trade unions and organisations the world over, who are engaged in not-for-profit endeavours. This phenomenon affects the rights to life, liberty, dignity, free expression, association and peaceful assembly.

“Closing space for civil society” describes the trend where authorities, or their proxies, target civil society organisations (CSOs) and their activists in efforts to destroy, silence or close them down. It could mean the killing of CSO leaders such as Berta Caceras who was a world famous environmental activist and indigenous people’s leader in Honduras; jailing trade union leaders on spurious grounds as happened in South Korea last year; dismantling CSOs as is now common in Egypt; putting CSOs through bureaucratic obstacles including charges on bogus grounds as Teesta Setalvad of India’s Sabrang Trust can testify ; or administrative harassments such as the ones coming from the illegal NGO Board in Kenya.

It also includes passing laws and regulations calculated to weaken civil society organisations such as limiting certain types of funding or requiring approval for fundraising and receipt of funds; insisting on government appointments to CSO boards such as Bar associations and law Societies as in Malaysia; or making it harder for CSOs to operate or register with conditions that can be quite onerous.


On the peaceful assembly side, “closing space” includes the efforts—legal and practical—that authorities employ to make it harder for people to organise peaceful protests and assemblies. Some of these are making organisers financially or criminally liable for the criminal actions of others; turning the right to peaceful assembly into a privilege by requiring authorisation of protests legally or informally; and using excessive force against protests as we normally see in Kenya.

It is easy to think that “closing space” affects mostly the Global South which struggles with entrenching democratic values, and where countries are often led by autocrats and dictators, whether elected or selected in fake and un-credible elections. But truth is that this is a phenomenon that is common in the Global North as well.

In the USA, protests organised by Black Lives Matter or by Native Americans are more likely to be met with militarised police units, unhesitant to unleash force such as pepper spray, water cannons and teargas. Protests by white activists or even Muslim activists face less risk.

In Canada, environmental groups opposing Stephen Harper’s environmental policies were subjected to numerous tax audits to determine their “charitable status.” The UK had a long term policy of posting undercover police officers in protests groups for years, to the extent that some got into intimate relations with the activists and had children. They would then be “recalled” at a moment’s notice, leaving mother and child clueless and alone.

In the Global South, Ethiopia led the practice—which Kenya tried to copy—of restricting foreign funding to CSOs in the governance arena to just 10 per cent of annual budgets. Yet the regime accepts 60 per cent of its annual budget from foreign sources and Ethiopia is the fastest growing recipient of foreign investments in Africa. The Kenyatta regime followed the more open Coalition government with insults and attacks against CSOs, and has used the illegal NGO Board as a battering ram against critical CSOs.

Honduras and Central America is the world’s most dangerous place to be an environmental or activist, with killings a preferred tactic to silence activists. In Cambodia, police are recorded beating up activists in a protests and then the activists are the ones charged with criminal offences. Thailand uses an arcane law called “lèse-majesté” to criminally punish anyone who dares to criticise the king and other important royals. And in Ecuador, the state has tried a number of times to close down critical NGOs on the basis that they are not following government policy. It goes on and on.

So why are authorities so determined to weaken or destroy CSOs? And what can be done about it? That is the topic for next week’s column!