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World: Laws designed to silence: The global crackdown on civil society organizations

Source: Amnesty International Country: World
1. Executive summary Civil society organizations and human rights defenders who speak out against unjust laws and government practices, challenge public opinion or those in power, and demand justice, equality, dignity and freedom, are being increasingly targeted. Around the world, groups working to promote or defend human rights are smeared, stigmatized, put under surveillance, harassed, threatened, prosecuted on spurious charges, arbitrarily detained and physically at some human rights defenders are even killed and forcibly disappeared simply for the work they do. In this context, this report shows that an alarming global trend has surfaced over the last decade in which states are introducing and using laws to interfere with the right to freedom of association and to hamper the work of civil society organizations and individuals who participate in them. The pace is accelerating: in the last two years alone almost 40 pieces of legislation have been either put in place or are in the pipeline. Various provisions impose barriers at all stages of these organizations’ existence, and allow the authorities to closely monitor them. This happens particularly at the point of registration, but also when they plan, conduct and report on their activities, when they seek and receive funds, and when they carry out public campaigning and advocacy. At least 50 countries have put in place such laws in recent years. Those who criticize the authorities in those countries, or who express views which are at odds with dominant political, social or cultural opinions, are at special risk. Too often, they are forced to “tone down”, self-censor, or scale back their activities, dedicate their limited resources to excessive and unnecessary bureaucratic requirements, and may be excluded from funding opportunities. In the worst cases, civil society organizations are shut down and individuals criminalized and jailed simply for organizing to defend human rights. Restrictive legislation reflects the broader political and cultural trends in which toxic narratives demonize “the other” and breed blame, hatred and fear,1 creating a fertile ground for the enactment of such and justifying them in the interests of national security, identity and traditional values. In practice, they often silence critical and diverse views and opinions and inhibit the ability of organizations and individuals to scrutinize governments. The phenomenon is evident in all regions. In some countries leading politicians and government officials are increasingly adopting a nationalist, anti-immigration and “anti-foreign” discourse to delegitimize opponents or scapegoat minorities. States are adopting similar legislation in their drive to silence independent and critical voices in civil society. Politicians are fuelling negative narratives to discredit civil society organizations or human rights defenders, for example those who defend refugees’ and migrants’ rights or who promote diversity.2 The narratives are creeping into the public discourse and creating a hostile environment for those defending and promoting human rights. The justifications for draconian restrictions are as diverse as the countries in which they are implemented. Such justifications include national security, concern about foreign interference in national affairs, the need to protect national identity, traditional values and morals, religious beliefs, economic development and other imperatives. The practical obstacles posed by restrictive and arbitrary laws, and the climate of fear and suspicion surrounding civil society organizations and human rights defenders, discourages others from demanding human rights and makes it increasingly difficult to maintain an open and healthy space for civil society. Change and progress often arise from the efforts of groups of individuals who come together to demand human rights. Their work is a vital check on those in power and silencing them has consequences for everyone’s human rights. Without trade unions, there would be no workers’ without environmental organizations, we would not be concerned about climate change and environmental degra without organized and sustained campaigning, torture and the death penalty would remain pre and without feminist, LGBTI, migrant, and indigenous rights groups, countless people would continue not to be heard and systematically oppressed.
The legislation dealt with in this report is contrary to international human rights law and standards. It is, in many cases, an attempt to make civil society organizations beholden to the state amid a wider erosion of civic space and a general crackdown on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly, association and expression. According to the UN Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, HRDs), “each State has the responsibility and duty to protect, promote and implement all human rights and fundamental freedoms” and “to ensure that all persons under its jurisdiction, individually and in association with others, are able to enjoy all those rights and freedoms in practice”.3 The Declaration also recognizes that everyone, individually or collectively, has a role to play in making human rights a reality, by campaigning and advocating for human rights, sharing information, holding those in power to account, and demanding justice, equality, dignity and freedom. Human rights cannot be realized without a thriving, safe and open civil society space which is free from excessive state controls, interference, and from discrimination. 4 It is time for governments and the international community to address this downward spiral. Amnesty International ends the report by making recommendations to governments to ensure that the right to defend human rights, including crucially the right to association, is enjoyed by everyone without discrimination. The organization is calling for the explicit and public recognition by states of the legitimacy of civil society organizations and human rights defenders, as well as their work, and is urging all states to repeal all laws and regulations that place unnecessary burdens upon them.


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