Skip to main content

Twin Threats

How the Politics of Fear and the Crushing of Civil Society Imperil Global Rights

A family of Afghan asylum seekers waits to enter the Moria registration center on the Greek island of Lesbos. Many families with children say they are too afraid to wait in line for registration. October 4, 2015.

© 2015 Zalmaï for Human Rights Watch

Fear stood behind many of the big human rights developments of the past year. Fear of being killed or tortured in Syria and other zones of conflict and repression drove millions from their homes. Fear of what an influx of asylum seekers could mean for their societies led many governments in Europe and elsewhere to close the gates. Fear of mounting terrorist attacks moved some political leaders to curtail rights and scapegoat refugees or Muslims. And fear of their people holding them to account led various autocrats to pursue an unprecedented global crackdown on the ability of those people to band together and make their voices heard. 

In Europe and the United States, a polarizing us-versus-them rhetoric has moved from the political fringe to the mainstream. Blatant Islamophobia and shameless demonizing of refugees have become the currency of an increasingly assertive politics of intolerance.

These trends threatened human rights in two ways, one well known, the other less visible. The high-profile threat is a rollback of rights by many governments in the face of the refugee flow and the parallel decision by the self-declared Islamic State, or ISIS, to spread its attacks beyond the Middle East. The less visible threat is the effort by a growing number of authoritarian governments to restrict civil society, particularly the civic groups that monitor and speak out about those governments’ conduct.

The Western governments threatening to curtail rights include many of the strongest traditional allies of the human rights cause. Their voices are needed to counter the broader effort in countries throughout the world to squeeze civil society, jeopardizing human rights and efforts to uphold them.

Blaming Refugees or Muslims while Missing the Boat on Terrorism

The estimated one million asylum seekers who have fled to Europe by sea in the past year are among the more than 60 million people now displaced by war or repression—the highest figure since World War II. The biggest driving force recently has been the brutal conflict in Syria, due in part to atrocities committed by ISIS and other armed groups but foremost to Bashar al-Assad’s government indiscriminately attacking civilian population centers in opposition-held areas. Some 4 million Syrian refugees initially fled to neighboring countries, including more than 2 million to Turkey and another million to Lebanon where they now comprise nearly a quarter of the population. 

The million or so reaching Europe in the past year are just a fraction of the populations of the European countries where they are heading—some 1.25 percent of the population in Germany, where the largest group sought refuge in light of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s remarkable leadership and welcome, or 0.20 percent of the total European Union population, if resettlement sharing occurs.

But the uncontrolled and at times chaotic refugee flow had sparked deep concern throughout Europe even before ISIS attacked Paris in November, using at least two attackers who may have entered Europe with the refugees. That attack intensified the EU’s reaction: new wire-razor fences were erected, border restrictions mushroomed, fear-mongering and Islamophobia mounted, and the EU promised Turkey €3 billion in aid with the understanding that Turkey would curtail the flow. These steps reflect the EU’s longstanding effort to push responsibility for refugees to others, despite having ratified the conventions to protect refugee rights, and despite Europeans having historically benefited from refugee protection as they fled Nazism and Communism.

To a large extent, Europe’s preoccupation with the new refugees as a possible terrorist threat is a dangerous distraction from its own home-grown violent extremism, given that the Paris attackers were predominantly Belgian or French citizens. The roots of radicalization are complex but relate in part to the social exclusion of immigrant communities—the persistent discrimination, hopelessness, and despair that pervade neighborhoods on the outskirts of some European cities, and particularly the disjuncture between expectations and prospects among subsequent generations.

For some—and it takes only a few—these conditions can foster political violence. How to address these challenges—let alone, how to remedy the larger and related problems of inequality and unemployment—should be major parts of today’s public debate. 

Instead, public discourse has been filled with voices of hatred and fear of Muslims, for whom the refugees are surrogates. These messages need to be countered foremost because they are wrong. In the modern world of easy air travel and rapidly shifting populations, Muslims are part of almost every vibrant community. Like everyone, they should not face discrimination. 

Vilifying entire communities for the unacceptable actions of a few is also counterproductive for the effort to prevent terrorism. It is exactly the divisive and alienating response that terrorist groups seek to generate more recruits. And it undermines the cooperation with law enforcement efforts that is essential for preventing terrorist attacks. By virtue of their community or neighbors, Muslims are often the ones most likely to learn of a terrorist threat based on radical Islam, best suited to dissuade others from such violence, and best positioned to report those who might be planning to use it. Tarring all Muslims risks discouraging them from these important forms of law enforcement cooperation. 

We should learn from the abusive and self-defeating US response to the September 11, 2001 attacks—not only the notorious torture, enforced disappearances in CIA “black sites,” and long-term detention without trial at Guantanamo Bay, but also the use of immigration and “material witness” rules to detain non-citizens because of their religion or ethnicity while circumventing more rights-protective criminal procedures.

Discarding rights or scapegoating people of a certain religious or social profile harms those people while distancing them from counterterrorism efforts. It is the opposite of what is needed. As painful experience shows, the smart counterterrorism policy is the rights-respecting one.

Protecting Refugees also Protects Recipient Countries

The desperate flight of refugees and asylum seekers from unending violence and abuse in countries such as Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Eritrea, and their limited chance to secure adequate work, housing, schooling, and legal status in neighboring countries, will lead many to attempt to reach Europe one way or another. The question is whether they arrive in an orderly fashion that permits security screening, or chaotically through smugglers.

The effect of European policy so far has been to leave refugees with little choice but to risk their lives at sea for a chance at asylum. With boats arriving helter-skelter at various Greek islands, it is difficult to screen systematically to stop a would-be terrorist from slipping in.

A safer and more humane alternative would be for the EU to increase refugee resettlement and humanitarian visas from places of first refuge such as Lebanon or Pakistan.

The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, if adequately supported, could increase its capacity to screen refugees and refer them to resettlement countries.  With expanded resettlement programs, Europe could signal that its doors will not shut abruptly, so there is no urgent need for refugees to board rickety boats to cross the Mediterranean, where some 3,770 drowned in 2015, a third of them children. More orderly screening would also make Europeans safer.

In addition, greater capacity to process refugees in countries of first asylum would facilitate resettlement in the countries beyond Europe that should be doing more—not only traditional recipient countries such as the United States, Canada, and Australia, but also the Gulf states and Russia.

Not every asylum seeker will choose this more orderly route, nor as a matter of right should they be required to. Its success will depend in large part on its generosity: the more that refugees feel it provides a reasonable chance of resettlement without languishing for years in a camp, and the more they can lead normal lives while waiting, the less likely they are to embark on a dangerous alternative. A viable resettlement program would help to reduce the irregular flow that is overwhelming screeners on Europe’s southern shores.

The asylum seekers who manage to enter Europe via Greece or Italy face similar chaos if, as most do, they continue to make their way north. The sluggish implementation of an EU plan for organized relocation combined with the proliferation of beggar-thy-neighbor fences in countries such as Hungary, Slovenia, and Macedonia has contributed to the massive, uncontrolled flow of people that is a gift for those who want to evade law enforcement scrutiny.

Here, too, a more orderly process, with all EU countries living up to their pledges to accept asylum seekers, would permit more effective screening, while providing a safer route as an incentive for asylum seekers to participate. It would also be the first step towards shared responsibility across the EU, which is needed for the common EU asylum system to function effectively and to avoid overwhelming individual EU countries. In addition, it could help to replace the current Dublin Regulation, which imposes responsibility for asylum seekers on first-arrival countries, which include some of the EU members least capable of managing them. 

Europe is not alone in adopting a counterproductive approach to refugees, especially those from Syria.  In the US, some officials and politicians have been denouncing Syrian refugees as a security threat even though the handful permitted into the US have gone through an intensive two-year screening process involving numerous interviews, background checks by multiple US agencies, and biometric data. That is hardly an attractive route for would-be terrorists, who are more apt to enter as students or tourists subject to much lower scrutiny. Of all people entering the US, refugees are the most heavily vetted.

Yet, 30 governors in the US tried to bar Syrian refugees from being resettled in their states. The idea was even floated (though broadly rejected) of blocking Muslim non-citizens from entering the country altogether. Canada, under its new prime minister, Justin Trudeau, offered a very different initial response: accelerating the reception of 25,000 Syrian refugees and spreading them to a largely warm welcome across all 10 provinces. Setting a tone of respect over fear and distrust, he personally greeted the first planeload of refugees at the airport. 

Mass Surveillance Versus Smart Responses to Terrorism

Beyond scapegoating refugees, policymakers in the US and Europe have used the terrorist threat as an opportunity to seek greater law-enforcement powers, including mass surveillance, beyond the formidable array of tools that they already deploy.

In the US, CIA Director John Brennan used the Paris attacks to decry recent technical and legal restrictions on intelligence agencies’ ability to engage in the mass collection of phone metadata, even though those restrictions are modest given the scope of mass surveillance revealed in 2013 by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. Moreover, two independent oversight bodies with access to classified information concluded that such metadata had not been essential to foiling a single terrorist plot, despite the enormous invasion of privacy involved in scooping up these often-intimate details of modern life.

FBI Director James Comey also used the Paris attacks to revive efforts to require Internet companies to include “back doors” to the strongest forms of encryption they use.

Companies have strived to build more secure systems following public dismay at Snowden’s revelations. But there is no back door that only the good guys can exploit. Criminals would inevitably have a field day, endangering critical infrastructure and the sensitive communications of ordinary users. And the terrorists will inevitably find their own encryption methods even if not from the mass market. 

Some European officials, too, appear tempted to increase mass surveillance. France adopted a new intelligence law that bolstered mass surveillance powers. The United Kingdom is in the process of doing the same. Yet the perpetrators in a number of attacks in Europe have included people who were known to police but not pursued due to lack of police resources.

French President François Hollande seemed to recognize this problem by promising to add 8,500 more law enforcement officers to pursue leads, rather than simply accumulating more mass data without the means to follow up. Still, after the Paris attacks France also embraced potentially indiscriminate policing techniques, with its president declaring a state of emergency that allows security forces to conduct warrantless searches and arrests.

The lack of court oversight makes profiling all the more likely—in this case of young Muslim men. Police stops based on such profiling have long plagued the very populations that should be cultivated to help counter violence. 

Civil Society Empowered by Social Media

While Europe and the US worry about the nexus of refugees and terrorism, political and economic pressures have led authoritarian governments to fret about the combination of civil society and social media.

A vigorous civil society helps to ensure that governments serve their people. Isolated individuals find it difficult to speak loudly enough to be heard. Joining together in civic groups amplifies their voices and leverages their ability to influence governments. Civil society—the nongovernmental groups and associations that enable people to band together on matters of mutual concern—is an essential part of any democracy worth its name. Independent and vigorous civic groups help to guarantee that governments build schools, ensure access to health care, protect the environment, and take countless other steps to pursue their vision of the common good. 

Yet some officials see popular input not as a guide to policy, but as a threat. When leaders are primarily interested in advancing themselves, their families, or their cronies, the last thing they want is an empowered public, able to link together and combine resources to investigate, publicize, protest, and rectify government corruption, malfeasance, or incompetence. 

In a different era, autocrats might have dispensed with any pretense of democratic rule, but these days at least a facade of democracy is often a prerequisite for legitimacy. Yet just as authoritarian rulers have learned to manipulate elections to ensure their political longevity, so they are now working between elections to prevent an empowered public from impeding their authoritarian aims. By closing the political space in which civic groups operate, autocrats are trying to suck the oxygen from organized efforts to challenge or even criticize their self-serving reign. 

In recent years, social media have made this competition between state and society more free-wheeling and volatile. Until recently, civil society had to work through traditional media to make its voice heard widely. The finite number of traditional media outlets in any country made censorship easier. 

Today, the rise of social media, especially when readily available on mobile devices, means that people can bypass traditional media and speak to large numbers without a journalist intermediary. The result has greatly enhanced civil society’s ability to be heard and, ultimately, to demand change. The impact of social media is not all positive—users include purveyors of hate as well as “trolls” funded or inspired by governments to reinforce official propaganda. Still, a public able to broadcast its concerns through social media is an important supplement to mainstream media for challenging the government line. 

The most dramatic manifestations of this evolution were the Arab uprisings that began in late 2010, in 2014 the Maidan revolution in Ukraine and the Occupy Central movement in Hong Kong. Each demonstrated the synergy between a restless public and civil society activists adept at using social media to mobilize people in the streets.

But the combination of civil society and social media has also been felt in less spectacular ways. From China to Venezuela to Malaysia, it has forced governments that prefer to rule unconstrained from above to face pressure to be more accountable to the people below.

Repression, corruption, or simple indifference are at greater risk when readily scrutinized by a more connected, better organized society. 

The Autocrats’ Reaction

Disinclined to accept such popular limits on their rule, autocrats are fighting back, in what has emerged as an intense and self-reinforcing trend. As repressive governments learn from each other, refine their techniques, and pass on lessons learned, they have launched the broadest backlash against civil society in a generation.

The most common tools these days are efforts to deprive civic groups of their right to seek funding abroad when domestic sources are unavailable and to smother civil society with vague and pliable regulations. At risk is the promise of more representative government that social media had brought to its more empowered civil society users.

To note this worrisome trend is hardly to spell the demise of civil society. Just as the great potential of an empowered people has pressed terrified autocrats to try to return society to a more atomized, malleable form, so that potential enables civil society to fight back. But it is far from clear who will prevail in this duel between peoples’ quest for accountable government and autocrats’ desire for unfettered rule.

Key third parties in the contest are the many governments that profess belief in the principles of human rights underlying democratic rule. Their willingness to adhere to principle over the temptation to accommodate rich or powerful autocrats can be decisive in determining whether dictatorship or rights-respecting representative government prevails. But as Western powers violate rights in addressing refugees or terrorism, their ability to uphold the broader set of rights is compromised.

Reasons for Covering Up

When you scratch the surface, efforts to suppress civil society are often led by governments that have something to hide. For each offender, there are failures of governance that officials would prefer not be discussed, a record of misconduct they want kept in the shadows, a subject they want changed. Because restricting civil society is about avoiding accountability, the topics that governments choose to suppress are a good indicator of their deepest fears.

China and Russia, perhaps the two most influential offenders, are good examples. Each government made an implicit pact with its people: in return for strict limits on political participation, they promised rapid economic growth and enhanced personal opportunity. They are now having trouble keeping their side of the bargain.

In part that is because the lack of public scrutiny has led to poor economic policies. Russia’s elite milked oil and gas revenue without the diversification of its hydrocarbon-dependent economy that more critical public scrutiny might have encouraged. The economy grew more precarious in the face of plummeting oil and gas prices coupled with sanctions imposed in response to the Kremlin’s military activities in Ukraine.

In China, economic growth is hobbled by the same pathologies as the political system: the impulse to whitewash seemingly controversial information, such as how to respond to the August stock market plunge; the reliance on a court system that does the Communist Party’s bidding rather than impartially adjudicating contracts or other disputes; and an anti-corruption campaign that doubles as a political purge.

These top-down policies, unconstrained by independent public debate, have contributed to economic slowdowns if not recessions. And as waning fortunes raise questions about the rulers’ efficacy, both Russia and China have embarked on crackdowns not seen in decades.

First in response to the anti-Putin protests in 2011 and 2012, and accelerating as the Kremlin stoked nationalism to boost its vision of a new identity for Russia, the Kremlin has been crushing Russian civil society, one of the most important elements to have emerged from the demise of Soviet rule. The new, poisonous atmosphere helped the Kremlin to divert attention as Russia’s economic woes deepened.

Meanwhile the Chinese government, recognizing at some level the need to meet people’s rising expectations, speaks of the rule of law and selectively prosecutes officials for corruption, but is also arresting the lawyers and activists who have the audacity to pursue these goals outside of government control. Needless to say, a government-manipulated legal system is not the rule of law, while a selective government crackdown on corruption undermines the much-needed establishment of a functional, independent legal system. 

Similar trends are evident elsewhere.

For example, one feature often found behind efforts to repress civil society are officials’ attempts to evade the threat of prosecution or other consequences of illegal activity: 

  • Turkey’s then prime minister (now president), Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, began his crackdown—the most intense in at least a decade—after large street protests against his increasingly autocratic rule. He reinforced it when audio tapes emerged suggesting that he and his family were directly involved in corruption. When his party, in office for three terms, received a reduced plurality at the polls in June, the president intensified the crackdown on media and political opponents and was able to secure victory in a rerun of the election in November.
  • Some senior officials in Kenya have attacked civil society organizations for supporting prosecution by the International Criminal Court (ICC) of those who allegedly directed the 2007-2008 post-electoral violence, including Deputy President William Ruto. Kenya has also targeted civic groups that have documented security force abuses in the context of counterterrorism efforts against increased gun and grenade attacks in various parts of the country.
  • Sudan expelled humanitarian organizations from Darfur in response to the March 2009 ICC arrest warrant for President Omar al-Bashir, and shut down groups that publicly promote justice and human rights.
  • President Jacob Zuma’s government in South Africa targeted the group that had obtained a court ruling against its welcoming of Bashir, whose ICC arrest warrants the government openly flouted. 
  • As global outrage mounted over its expanding illegal settlements, Israel adopted a law—affirmed in 2015 year in most elements by the Supreme Court—that could be used to penalize civil society groups, as well as individuals calling for cutting economic or other ties with settlements or Israel.


Other governments have acted when elections or term limits threaten their continuation in power: 

  • In Burundi, the government launched intense and often violent attacks on civil society after widespread protests against President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to seek a constitutionally questionable third term. Most notably, a gunman shot and seriously wounded the country’s foremost human rights defender, Pierre Claver Mbonimpa. Two of his close relatives were killed in separate incidents. 
  • In the Democratic Republic of Congo, human rights defenders and pro-democracy youth activists have been jailed, beaten, and threatened after organizing peaceful protests and speaking out against the possible extension of President Joseph Kabila’s term beyond the constitution’s two-term limit. Government officials claimed without foundation that the activists were plotting “terrorist activities” or “violent insurrection,” while security forces used lethal force to disrupt the groups’ peaceful demonstrations.
  • Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro harassed, arrested, and demonized critics and civil society groups in the months leading up to legislative elections—which he ultimately lost, most observers believe, because of his mismanagement of the economy.
  • Ecuadorian police used excessive force against citizens demonstrating against a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow unlimited presidential re-election. President Rafael Correa’s response was not to investigate the abusive police officers but to congratulate them for their “professionalism.”
  • Some governments seek to exploit natural resources unimpeded by popular input or independent oversight. For example:
  • Oil-rich Azerbaijan has been imprisoning civil society leaders to avoid public unrest over its eye-popping corruption and official mismanagement. Europe has been too busy buying its oil and gas and wooing it from Russia’s influence to mount much protest. 
  • Uzbekistan, whose officials personally profit from the cotton sector, has attacked people trying to document and report on forced labor within the industry. The World Bank has boosted its investment in the industry, but has limited its expression of concern to private conversations of questionable utility. Behind these varied motivations for cracking down on civil society is the autocrats’ view equating organized public debate with a political threat. Better to prevent or hinder people from joining together, these governments seem to reason, than risk their discontent being widely heard and embraced. 

From this fear of unfettered public debate comes a series of devices that have been used to restrict or stifle civil society. These include threats, violence, arbitrary arrests, trumped-up prosecutions, and two increasingly common techniques: restricting the right to seek foreign funding, and imposing arbitrary and oppressive regulations.

Restricting the Right to Seek Financial Support

Many countries are too poor to have a pool of donors capable of significant financial contributions to civic groups. Even when individuals are wealthy enough to make such gifts, autocrats can often dissuade them by attacking their business interests. Threatening a tax investigation, withholding necessary licenses, or restricting business with the government usually suffices to discourage financial support for groups critical of the authorities. 

When would-be domestic donors are too frightened or lack the means to give very much, civic groups naturally exercise their right to seek support abroad. That right, in turn, has become a favorite target of repressive governments. Their first priority has been to cut off foreign sources of funding for groups that defend human rights or hold the government to account.

India, its democratic traditions notwithstanding, has been a long-time practitioner of this technique through its Foreign Contribution Regulation Act, which requires government approval before any civic group can receive a contribution from abroad. The government’s willingness to allow such contributions tends to bear an inverse relationship to the “sensitivity” of the group’s work. Service-delivery groups operate relatively unhindered while human rights groups are often restrained. Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, environmental groups have been particularly victimized because of perceived challenges to official development plans. Another activist who was targeted was known for her work on the anti-Muslim riots of 2002 in Gujarat in which then Chief Minister Modi was implicated.

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.

Other former Soviet states are now emulating Russia. Kyrgyzstan’s parliament is considering its own “foreign agents” law, which borrows heavily from Russia’s. Kazakhstan adopted legislation that requires funding for civic groups to be channeled through a single government-appointed “operator” with discretion over the dispersal of funds. Belarus requires registering all foreign funding with a government agency that can reject it if its purpose is not on a narrow officially approved list. Azerbaijan opened a criminal investigation into a handful of the most prominent foreign donors, froze the bank accounts of dozens of their grantees, jailed key veterans of the human rights movement, and required government licensing of all foreign donors and official approval of each funded project.

Some of China’s most important civil society organizations—particularly those that try to uphold human rights—are largely dependent on outside funding, but the government is expected soon to adopt a foreign NGOs management law that in all likelihood would enable it to exert tighter control of overseas sources of funding. Organizations that engage in advocacy rather than service delivery would be particularly vulnerable. 

Besides India, Ethiopia pioneered such techniques in 2009 by restricting the foreign funding of any group working on human rights and governance to 10 percent of its revenue, effectively shutting down most monitoring organizations. Kenya, claiming that backers of ICC prosecution are promoting a “foreign agenda,” is considering a similar 15 percent cap.

Angola has banned funding from foreign entities that are not approved by a government body. Venezuela’s Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that any group receiving foreign funding could be prosecuted for “treason,” while the pro-government majority in the National Assembly prohibited international assistance to any group that would (in a transparent display of its fear) “defend political rights” or “monitor the performance of public bodies.”

Morocco is prosecuting five civil society activists for “harming internal security” for having accepted foreign funding to organize a workshop to empower citizen journalism through a phone app.  

The Rationalization of Restrictions

Autocrats favor restricting access to foreign donors for civic groups that monitor their conduct because they can dress it up with nationalist rhetoric: how dare those foreigners “interfere” in our internal affairs! Yet the same governments that attack civic groups for seeking foreign contributions actively promote foreign investment and foreign trade deals.

Many also eagerly solicit foreign aid to themselves and encourage it to service-delivery groups. And some engage in the same efforts to influence public debates abroad that they want to prohibit civil society from pursuing at home. 

This inconsistency cannot be explained by the argument that civil society is somehow inappropriately engaged in public affairs. Businesses routinely lobby for beneficial laws and regulations and take part in debates about public policy. Foreign aid often goes to the essence of governmental functions, typically with conditions attached. Indeed, the amounts that civic groups seek tend to be miniscule compared with the foreign money flooding into a country through investment, trade, or aid. 

So why is civil society singled out? Because of its capacity to mobilize a citizenry to challenge governmental malfeasance—especially when the message is amplified on social media. And where media are muzzled, as is often the case in these authoritarian contexts, civil society is the only remaining actor with the capacity to press officials to serve their citizens rather than themselves. An attack on the right of organizations to seek funding abroad is really an attack on organized efforts to hold government to account. 

Governments offer various rationales for depriving civic groups of their right to seek funds abroad, often by comparing their restrictions to those in established democracies. For example, some democracies bar political candidates from receiving foreign contributions.

Yet the restrictions preventing civic groups from receiving funds from abroad extend well beyond the electoral context. They limit civil society’s ability to organize and speak out on a wide variety of issues that have nothing to do with elections.

Neither international human rights law nor any proper understanding of democracy permits it, as UN Special Rapporteur Maina Kiai explained in a recent report. Free popular participation is essential for citizens to give nuance to their periodic act of voting, enabling them to speak out and be heard on the plethora of issues that their officials address between elections. 

Some autocrats also invoke laws in democracies such as the US Foreign Agents Registration Act, which requires those acting on behalf of a foreign government to register as its agent. Yet that law addresses only people or entities that act as “agents” of a foreign government or at its “direction or control.” Few if any contributions to civic groups are so directive. There is no agency relationship that would warrant special disclosure, let alone prohibition. And in many cases, the foreign funder is not a government at all but a private individual or foundation.

Some governments, including Cambodia, Egypt, Tajikistan, and India, justify restrictions on foreign contributions to civic groups as necessary to fight terrorism. Countries such as China, Pakistan, and Bangladesh also invoked the terror threat in introducing draft measures containing similar foreign-donor restrictions. But since terrorist groups can as easily set up businesses as voluntary organizations to finance their crimes, the differential treatment again reveals other concerns. 

The ultimate irony is that many of the same governments that restrict civil society’s right to seek funding abroad themselves spend copiously on lobbyists or public relations firms to spruce up their own images overseas. Governments such as those of Russia, China, Egypt, and Azerbaijan have spent millions of dollars in Washington alone to put a benign face on their repression, while starving civil society as it tries to alleviate that repression at home. Their concern about cross-border funding influencing the public debate thus seems to depend on whether the funding contributes to scrutinizing or reinforcing the government line.

In sum, efforts to restrict civil society’s access to foreign donors is not about transparency or good governance. It is 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.

If governments really want to shelter their societies from foreign funds, they could emulate the reclusiveness of North Korea. In fact, they want a selective cutoff, enabling commercial funds and aid to themselves but restricting funds 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 their citizens’ rights to freedom of expression and association, and the accountable government they foster. 

Death by Regulation

Beyond restricting funds, autocrats are increasingly adopting laws and regulations to rein in civil society.  These rules have the advantage of seeming ordinary, routine, apolitical. And some indeed are unobjectionable—for example, those requiring honest and transparent budgeting, respect for labor laws, or simple administrative registration. Yet autocrats seeking to stifle civil society have used legal constraints to accomplish far more: to undermine the very independence of civic groups. 

A common method is to claim that civil society jeopardizes some vague, government-defined sense of the common good—usually meaning the government’s continuation in power or policies favored by a powerful constituency. 

  • Russia criminalized revelations about military losses during “special operations,” which just happened to include the Kremlin’s military activities in eastern Ukraine. Critics of Russia’s annexation of Crimea also faced prosecution.
  • China enacted a series of laws on state security, cybersecurity, and counterterrorism that conflate peaceful criticism with threats to national security. The proposed Foreign NGO Management Law would broadly preclude civic groups from “endangering China’s national interests” or “society’s public interest,” as well as “public order and customs.”


  • Kazakhstan has criminalized “inciting social, national, clan, racial, class, or religious discord,” which it has used repeatedly to silence critics.


  • Hungary used “fraud” charges to attack funding groups that addressed corruption and human rights.


  • Turkey jailed journalists and closed media groups that showed themselves willing to scrutinize government policy and corruption, or report evidence of arms transfers to Syrian opposition groups.


  • Uganda’s parliament adopted an act that, if signed into law, would permit up to three-year prison sentences for leaders of independent groups that shirk broad and undefined “special obligations,” including engaging in any act that is “prejudicial to the interests of Uganda or the dignity of the people of Uganda.”
  • Sudanese journalists and civil society activists who voice dissent face charges of “crimes against the state” that carry the death sentence.
  • Cambodia shuts groups that “jeopardize peace, stability and public order or harm the national security, national unity, culture and traditions of Cambodian society.”
  • A Moroccan court ordered the closure of an association that promoted the rights of the population of the Ifni region on the grounds that it harmed Morocco’s “territorial integrity.”
  • Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa gave his government the power to dissolve groups that “compromise public peace.” It then used this power to shut down an environmental group challenging oil drilling in the ecologically sensitive Amazon. 
  • Bolivian President Evo Morales has signed a law and issued a decree in 2013 granting his government the power to dissolve any civil society organization whose legal representative is criminally sanctioned for carrying out activities that “undermine security or public order.” 

As Western governments intensify their efforts to stop terrorism, others have become adept at using vague language about terrorism to deflect criticism of their crackdown on civil society.

  • Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said that crushing the Muslim Brotherhood and the threat it once posed to him at the ballot box is really about fighting terrorism. His ploy is backed with billions of dollars from the Gulf monarchs, who are terrified by a movement that combines the political Islam they claim to uphold with the electoral means they find anathema.
  • Kenya included two human rights groups on a list of suspected supporters of terrorism. The two organizations documented abuses by security forces during counterterrorism operations. The organizations had to go to court for a judge to clear them of any links to terrorism and unfreeze their bank accounts.
  • A draft Chinese law defines terrorism to include “thought, speech, or behavior” that attempt to “influence national policy-making.” It also includes a catch-all prohibition of “other terrorist activities” that could be used to deem any activity a terrorist offense.
  • A counterterrorism bill under consideration in Brazil contains overbroad and vague language that criminalizes “advocating terrorism” without any explanation of what that entails. Another provision could be interpreted to allow the prosecution as terrorists of protesters for “taking over” roads and buildings.

Behind these efforts to restrict civic groups to government views of the public good is a misconception of the role of civil society. In a rights-respecting society, people should be free to band together to pursue their own conception of the public good, subject only to limitations preventing direct harm to others. Many of these goals will differ from a government’s; indeed, that is the idea. A government is most likely to meet the needs of its people if they are free to debate what those needs are and how best to pursue them. People joining together to advance their points of view, in whatever variations and permutations, is an essential part of the process.

When governments use vague laws about the public good or the national interest to constrain civil society, they restrict the scope of public debate—both through their own censorship and the self-censorship of groups struggling to understand what statements or activities are allowed. That not only violates the rights of those who want to join with others to make their voices heard. It also results in a government that is less likely to serve its people and more likely to serve the private interests of its leaders and their most powerful allies.

Convenient Homophobia

An increasingly popular method to crack down on civil society is to target organizations of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people or those that advocate on their behalf. Some repressive governments claim, much like their calls to limit the right to seek foreign funding, that LGBT people are alien to their culture, an imposition from the West. 

But no Western country is “exporting” gays or lesbians; they have always been in every country, with their visibility largely a product of the extent of local repression. The only imposition going on is the local government imposing dominant views about gender and sexuality on a vulnerable minority. 

Like broader attacks on civil society, attacks on LGBT groups tend to be most intense when governments are most intent on changing the subject. Some of the world’s most vocal leaders on repressive LGBT legislation—Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, Nigeria’s former President Goodluck Jonathan, and Gambia’s Yahya Jammeh—tend to be under political pressure for failures of governance. Portraying themselves as guardians of “traditional values” against gays is a convenient way to avoid discussion of their own mismanagement. But because that ploy is unlikely to work indefinitely, official homophobia is often a prelude to a broader crackdown on civil society, the proverbial canary in the coal mine. 

Closed Societies

The most severe autocrats do not settle for limiting civil society; they bar or dismantle it altogether. In countries of severe repression—North Korea, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Eritrea, or Rwanda—there is no independent civil society to speak of. Organized commentary on government conduct is out of the question. In many other countries—Bahrain, Belarus, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, Vietnam—forming a civil group to hold the government to account is a recipe for prison.

Yet today, many of the governments leading the charge to repress civil society want the benefits of calling themselves democratically accountable but not the actual organized oversight that civic groups foster. They are often the ones most likely to resort to the subterfuge of limiting access to foreign funds or imposing vague constraining regulations. Governments committed to a vision of democracy based on human rights should make clear that they see through this subterfuge and will condition normal relations on its end.

Rights as the Way Forward

As the global community becomes more connected—as travel and communication become easier—human rights issues rarely present themselves in the isolation of a single country.

Atrocities in Syria or Afghanistan spark refugee crises in Europe. Europe’s response, or lack thereof, affects the ability to build societies elsewhere that respect people of different cultures, religion, and sexual orientation. The ease and democratization of modern communication—the Internet and especially social media—challenge governments the world over to accept accountability to their people in a more active and piercing form.

Given the tumult in the world today, meeting these challenges is hardly easy. Change can appear threatening, whether to a community grasping nostalgically at memories of greater homogeneity, a nation confronting increased insecurity, or a dictator clinging to power.

But if the aim is to ensure communities that respect all their members, nations that secure the best strategy for their defense, or governments that most effectively serve their people, the wisdom enshrined in international human rights law provides indispensable guidance.

We abandon it at our peril. 

Kenneth Roth is the executive director of Human Rights Watch