President, International Center for Not-for-Profit Law
The Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset once commented, “A revolution only lasts fifteen years.” This statement proves prescient as we consider the “Associational Revolution” that emerged in Central Europe and the former Soviet Union in 1989. In 2004, fifteen years and five days after the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, Ukrainian citizens embarked on the “Orange Revolution.”
Authoritarian leaders took notice. Alyaksandr Lukashenka of Belarus famously warned, “There will not be any rose, orange, or banana revolutions in our country.” At the same time, Zimbabwe’s Parliament adopted a law prohibiting nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) from receiving foreign funding for governance and human rights activities. The “Associational Counterrevolution” had begun.
In 2005, the counterrevolution gained prominence when the Russian government proposed its own notorious NGO law. The same year, Belarus, Eritrea, Uzbekistan, and other countries enacted restrictive legislation. Autocrats seemed emboldened by a decline in U.S. “soft power” resulting from the “war on terror” and the war in Iraq, as well as U.S. exposure to human rights criticism due to abuses including those at Abu Ghraib. It was a politically convenient moment for authoritarian rulers to advance plans to consolidate power.
Restrictions gained momentum from an unlikely source: ongoing efforts to promote the effectiveness of foreign aid. In March 2005, the international community endorsed the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness. Soon thereafter, many governments introduced restrictive measures to “coordinate” foreign assistance. This was particularly apparent in certain Latin American countries, such as Bolivia, Peru, and Venezuela.
At the same time, autocrats touted variants of Vladimir Putin’s theory of “Managed Democracy,” which often morphed into “Managed Civil Society.” Two models appeared. In some countries, civil society organizations were given latitude to operate, provided they stayed away from politics, broadly defined. In others, the government sought to fully co-opt civil society, quashing those groups that resisted.
Confronted by these and other initiatives, civic space quickly contracted. According to Freedom House’s data, 43 countries showed a decline in their freedom of association scores between 2004 and 2007. But a trend analysis tells only part of the story. For example, Libya, Syria, Eritrea, and Saudi Arabia were stably restrictive, receiving the lowest possible score throughout this period.
As we mark the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the present report illustrates the need to reaffirm and protect the freedom of association. It helps citizens hold their governments accountable. It enables the meaningful exercise of other rights that depend on collective action, such as workers’ rights and the freedom of religion. And it enables people to join together in social clubs, cultural groups, and other associations, helping to ensure that everyday life is not a solitary endeavor.
The Universal Declaration emerged from an era featuring financial crises, the rise of populist antidemocratic movements, unimaginable suffering, and global war. Against this backdrop, the founders of the United Nations sought to share one lesson with future generations confronting challenging times: human dignity and rights are the “foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world.” I commend Freedom House for its dedication to this principle and for raising awareness about the growing threats to freedom of association around the world.