The Global Assault on Civil Society

Written Testimony by Vanessa L. Tucker
Vice President for Analysis at Freedom House

given before the 

Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission

“Global Declines in Freedom and the Assault on Civil Society”

Introduction

Chairman McGovern, Chairman Hultgren, and members of the Commission, it is an honor to testify before you today. I ask that my full written testimony be admitted into the record.

Freedom House’s flagship publication, Freedom in the World, has documented political rights and civil liberties in every country in the world for more than forty years. Our most recent edition marked the 11th consecutive year of decline in global freedom, the longest-running slump that we have ever measured. After a long-running trend of authoritarian governments getting worse, 2016 saw a number of setbacks in countries widely considered established democracies, among them, Brazil, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Poland, Serbia, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, and Tunisia.

Increased Restrictions on and Vilification of Civil Society

Our analysis shows that the ability of civil society institutions to function without state restrictions has suffered a pronounced decline over this period. It is in particular the organizations that pursue politically sensitive objectives—human rights advocacy, democratic reform, or anticorruption measures—that are under threat. The setbacks have been concentrated in states like Russia, China, Venezuela, and Iran. But civil society has also met with growing problems in democracies—India and Indonesia among them—and in settings where democracy’s prospects are unclear, as with Ecuador, Hungary, Bolivia, and Kenya.

Especially in countries where elections have been rendered meaningless, civil society groups can become surrogates for a democratic opposition, and are therefore regarded with deep suspicion by the leadership. The growing offensive against civil society is in many respects a tribute to the prominent role that these organizations have come to play in the political life of most countries. An active civil society is often seen as a formidable threat to a repressive or illiberal status quo. Civil society was the linchpin in the successful popular revolutions in Serbia, Ukraine, Tunisia, and Georgia. In fact, civil society organizations frequently pose a greater threat to autocracy than do traditional opposition parties, which have proven relatively easy for determined authoritarians to sideline, neutralize, or co-opt. Civil society movements, by contrast, are generally composed of younger activists, committed to a cause, more resilient, more agile, and less prone to corruption. These factors make civil society the central avenue for political participation in many countries and therefore a prime target of an assault on democratic rights.

Governments employ myriad legal and strong-arm strategies to restrict civil society, but I would like to draw attention to a theme that runs through all of them: the vilification of civil society as illegitimate and foreign. These groups are often portrayed as venal paid agents of nebulous transnational forces dedicated to diluting national sovereignty.

This phenomenon has surfaced across Europe, particularly with the advent of the migrant crisis. The common theme is that prodemocracy civil society groups that stand up to populists and nationalists, defend the rights of minorities and refugees, and work with institutions like the European Union are alien to the authentic nation. Civil society groups working to solve some of the most difficult political questions their countries have ever faced are ridiculed as foreign agents, and left vulnerable to attack by the increasing numbers of radical nationalist forces. It is an immediate threat to human rights and democracy when this kind of political activity is presented as a foreign imposition rather than basic political participation based on fundamental democratic principles.

Recommendations

Freedom House recommends three measures to stop this troubling trend.

First, there are many leaders around the world who see the current political climate in the United States as vindication of their engagement with extremist and populist rhetoric. Congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle should condemn attacks on and public ridicule of civil society in the United States and anywhere in the world in order to make it clear that they do not endorse an approach to politics that treats civil society groups as enemies of the nation. When mainstream politicians flirt with extremist rhetoric, it normalizes that behavior and opens the door to groups and individuals that will act, whether through hate speech or through physical violence.

Secondly, the United States should prioritize diplomatic and financial support for civil society organizations around the world. This is a matter not just of doing what is right but is also a strategic imperative. Pluralistic societies have more mechanisms for peaceful dispute resolution and are therefore more stable international partners. Strong and diverse civil society is an excellent foundation for political pluralism.

Finally, this support should include the return of USAID to Central and Eastern Europe to provide sustained support to civil society groups. It is clear from our analysis over the last several years that the deterioration in Hungary over recent years is just the beginning, and that a process of de-democratization is under way in some important parts of this region. Both Hungary and Poland are considering legislation to restrict civil society organizations. The United States must make clear, even before such legislation is considered by legislative bodies, that we consider such measures an assault on democracy. It is not in American interests to let this decline grow worse as it would not only be an unfortunate development for the region but would send a message to emerging democracies around the world.

Conclusion

Despite the disturbing trends I have outlined, there remains a great deal of democratic activism by civil society groups around the world. In the face of increasing threats and violence from their governments and from extremist nationalist groups, civil society organizations continue to do the difficult work of promoting democratic change. These groups are the on the frontlines of the defense of democratic liberties, and they deserve our support and admiration.