Freedom of Association Under Threat: The New Authoritarians' Offensive Against Civil Society | Freedom House

Freedom of Association Under Threat: The New Authoritarians' Offensive Against Civil Society

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by Arch Puddington

Freedom of association is the foundation of a strong civil society and an essential component of pluralistic democracy, along with free and competitive elections, freedom of expression, freedom of religion, and the rule of law. Freedom of association has also played a significant role in a number of the democratic transformations that took place during the past several decades, including in the Philippines, Ukraine, Serbia, and South Africa. The fact that freedom of association is thriving today in the former communist countries of Eastern and Central Europe—which endured four decades under a system that regarded practically any activity outside state control as a threat and vigorously persecuted independent organizations dedicated to expanding the horizons of liberty—illustrates the fundamental changes that have swept the globe since the end of the Cold War. Similarly, Latin America, a region where not so long ago voices of peaceful dissent were silenced through torture, exile, or death squads, has made significant strides in the last two decades.

Unfortunately, a new wave of authoritarianism has emerged in the last several years. Among its principal targets is civil society. Democratic political parties, human rights organizations, women’s advocates, independent trade unions, groups that investigate corruption or monitor abuse by security services, organizations that seek legal reform, groups that champion minority rights or religious freedom—those, in other words, who seek to provide ordinary people with a voice or an influence on public policy—have come under growing pressure from regimes that are determined to marginalize or eliminate all perceived sources of opposition and dissent. The result has been a notable reversal for freedom of association in much of the world.

This study, Freedom of Association Under Threat: The New Authoritarians’ Offensive Against Civil Society, shows that in recent years associational rights have declined in practically every region of the world, the only exceptions being Western Europe and sub-Saharan Africa. Associational rights are under particular duress in the Middle East and North Africa and in the former Soviet Union. At the same time, the study shows that in the past several years the most pronounced declines have occurred in the Asia-Pacific region and Latin America. In some instances, the declines are modest and may not pose a threat to a country’s long-term democratic prospects. In a disturbing number of cases, however, the study points to setbacks that stem from deliberate policies of the state and therefore present serious challenges to the development of free institutions. The study also finds that the rights of trade unions, historically a bulwark for associational rights, are faring poorly in authoritarian settings and in some democracies as well.

This campaign to restrict civil society runs counter to the dominant political and cultural trends of the 21st century, which have included greater freedom of movement within states and globally, expanded access to information, and greatly enhanced international trade relations. To be sure, many of the regimes that have passed laws to impede the work of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have also taken steps to muzzle the press and freedom of expression. But while the development of the internet and other technologies have hampered the authoritarian state’s efforts to suppress press freedom, the evidence thus far suggests that repressing associational rights may prove a less formidable challenge.

Freedom of Association: A Core Right

Freedom of association is a core right that is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, included in several United Nations covenants, embedded in the charters of regional bodies like the Organization of American States (OAS) and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and incorporated into the agreements on worker rights adopted by the International Labor Organization.

In an era in which existing political parties have suffered a loss of credibility in many societies, freedom of association is especially important as a means of strengthening NGOs, trade unions, and other institutions that give voice to popular causes, constituencies, and ideas.

The fact that the setbacks to associational rights are so often due to calculated state action is the most disturbing finding of this study. In response to the democratic gains in states that experienced protest-driven “color revolutions,” the regimes in Russia, China, Uzbekistan, Venezuela, Zimbabwe, Belarus, Iran, and elsewhere have taken steps to suppress groups that could form the vanguard of similar protests. Indeed, in societies where political parties have already been cowed and the independent press silenced, civil society is the only entity that prevents an authoritarian leadership from achieving the total destruction of pluralism and the very possibility of political choice.

What This Study Examines

This study assesses the state of associational rights both globally and on a regional basis. Through an analysis of data drawn from Freedom in the World, the report on global political rights and civil liberties published annually by Freedom House,Freedom of Association Under Threat looks at the global trajectory of associational rights and examines the techniques developed by authoritarian regimes in their attempts to weaken civil society. The analysis is derived from a combination of Freedom in the World data sets and interpretive reports on 12 countries where associational rights have been under duress.

Perhaps the most vivid sign of pressure on civil society is the fact that 43 countries, or more than 20 percent of the world total, saw their scores for freedom of association in Freedom in the World decline between 2004 and 2007. Among those countries are a number of the world’s more notable authoritarian states, including Russia, Zimbabwe, Venezuela, and Iran. Also exhibiting a decline is a group of countries in which political freedom, though under varying degrees of stress, has made some progress: Pakistan, Mexico, the Philippines, Nigeria, and Malaysia. While some countries did register freedom of association gains, including a number from sub-Saharan Africa, they tended to be smaller and less geopolitically significant states than those showing a decline.

To be sure, most countries, including most authoritarian states, tolerate the existence of NGOs that carry out noncontroversial humanitarian missions. Indeed, some countries welcome the emergence of an active, albeit depoliticized, NGO sector on the grounds that these entities may provide essential social services that the state cannot or is not interested in delivering. However, a number of countries are placing intense pressure on organizations that serve a political or quasi-political role, or that raise difficult policy issues for the state. Organizations that defend human rights advocates, press for women’s equality, monitor the judiciary or the police, represent religious minorities, speak for university students, or defend journalists are the principal targets of authoritarian campaigns to limit the role of civil society.

Where the old totalitarian model—under which any initiative outside the realm of the state or dominant party was deemed impermissible—no longer obtains, many authoritarian governments likewise eschew the associated tactics of violence in repressing NGOs. As the narrative reports in this study make clear, today’s authoritarians employ techniques of repression that are much more sophisticated than those used in the past. The officers of NGOs are seldom arrested, placed on trial, sent to gulags, exiled, or murdered, though all these things do happen from time to time. Today’s authoritarians instead rely on legalistic or bureaucratic methods to hobble civil society.

They direct the tax police to conduct repeated investigations of NGO or trade union finances; they enact laws that make it difficult or impossible for civil society institutions to raise funds; they impose draconian fines on NGO directors; they discover code violations in the buildings where NGO offices are situated; they adopt rules that prevent global NGOs from establishing local chapters. A measure that has proved especially effective in throttling the finances of local NGOs is a blanket prohibition on contributions by sources outside the country. Funding from sources in the United States or Europe is critical to the existence of NGOs in the many countries that lack the indigenous capacity to sustain civil society groups and have little or no tradition of philanthropy. Furthermore, even in countries where a wealthy class has developed, local businessmen may be reluctant to provoke the wrath of the political leadership by making contributions to controversial causes. And because the drive against associational rights is conducted largely without violence, it evokes little notice from the outside world.

What the Data Show

On a superficial level, the assault on freedom of association can be demonstrated by the sheer number of laws and regulations that have been adopted within the past decade for the purpose of placing NGOs and trade unions under stricter state control. A number of the countries profiled in this study—Russia, Egypt, Venezuela, Zimbabwe, and Kazakhstan, to name just a few—have passed laws that increase the penalties for violation of NGO regulations, place hurdles in the way of NGO funding, outlaw NGO involvement in quasi-political activities, or give the state the authority to directly oversee NGOs’ internal affairs.

Data drawn from Freedom in the World illustrate the seriousness of the problem and identify the countries and regions where the decline is most severe. Through analyses of Freedom in the World scores for the year 2007 and data-set comparisons for the years 2004–07, the study shows a decided setback for freedom of association in much of the world, deterioration in a number of strategically significant countries, and a concentration of decline in countries that already rank among the leading authoritarian states.

To analyze the level of associational rights, this study looked at scores for the category Associational and Organizational Rights in Freedom in the World. These scores in turn are determined by the sum of the scores for three subindicators:

1. Freedom of assembly, demonstration, and open public discussion

2. Freedom for nongovernmental organizations

3. The right of trade unions to exist independent of the state and the existence of effective collective bargaining

In providing scores for a country’s performance on freedom of association indicators, Freedom House examines a wide range of issues, focusing particularly on the political and legal framework that undergirds associational rights. Among the most critical issues are the fairness of registration laws, legal or bureaucratic obstacles to NGO funding, whether donors or funders are subject to harassment or reprisal, the ability of organizations to get permission to hold protests or rallies, and the right of unions to be established without governmental interference. (See Appendix I for a full list of issues that are considered in scoring for freedom of association.)

Regional Comparison

According to the Freedom in the World methodology, the highest possible score in the Associational and Organizational Rights category is 12. (See Appendix II for a complete list.) As Table A shows, Western Europe has the highest score of the various global regions; indeed, the countries of “old Europe” register a near-perfect score for associational freedoms. The region with the second-highest collective score is Central and Eastern Europe, which includes the three Baltic states, the Visegrad countries, and the Balkans. Given the relatively recent emergence of democracy in these postcommunist societies, their robust level of associational rights ranks among the most positive findings of this study. By contrast, the non-Baltic former Soviet Union registers one of the lowest scores, 4.17, only slightly higher than the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), at 3.72.

 

Table A. Regional Comparison of Average Freedom of Association Scores from
Freedom in the World for Year 2007

 

Average Freedom of Association Score in Descending Order*  
Region
Average Freedom of Association Score
Western Europe
11.72
CEE (With Baltic Countries)
10.81
Americas
9.66
Asia-Pacific
7.10
Sub-Saharan Africa
6.73
FSU (Non-Baltic Countries)
4.17
MENA
3.72

 

 

What about regional trajectory? As Table B indicates, the most important regional developments between 2004 and 2007 are in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia-Pacific. Sub-Saharan Africa is notable for its impressive improvement in associational rights, with 18 countries showing gains and just seven suffering declines. Most regions, by contrast, showed modest levels of decline, the most pronounced being in the Asia-Pacific region, with five countries showing gains and 12 showing backward movement. There is particular cause for disappointment in the record of deterioration in the MENA region. While much of the area was already faring quite poorly, six of the 18 countries showed new declines during the period examined.

 

Table B. Regional Developments between 2004 and 2007

 

Countries With Changes in Overall Freedom of Association Score By Region
 
Gains
Declines
Americas
6 countries
10 countries
Asia-Pacific
5 countries
12 countries
CEE (including Baltics)
2 countries
2 countries
FSU (non-Baltic)
2 countries
4 countries
MENA
3 countries
6 countries
Sub-Saharan Africa
18 countries
7 countries
Western Europe
2 countries
0 countries

 

 

Looking at the record for 2007 alone, one observes an especially sharp decline in freedom of association scores on a global scale. In all, 10 countries showed improvements in this area, while twice that number registered declines. As Table C indicates, both the Asia-Pacific region and Latin America showed significant declines for 2007, with seven countries moving in a negative direction in both regions.

 

Table C. Regional Developments between 2006 and 2007

 

Countries With Changes in Overall Freedom of Association Score By Region
 
Gains
Declines
Americas
2 countries
7 countries
Asia-Pacific
2 countries
7 countries
CEE (including Baltics)
1 country
0 countries
FSU (non-Baltic)
0 countries
2 countries
MENA
1 country
0 countries
Sub-Saharan Africa
3 countries
4 countries
Western Europe
1 country
0 countries

 

 

The record for 2007 also shows notable decline in two subregions. First, four countries in South Asia registered reductions in freedom of association: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Likewise, four Andean countries suffered declines: Bolivia, Colombia, Peru, and Venezuela. In a related minitrend, three of the Latin American countries with leftist-populist governments moved in a negative direction on associational rights: Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Venezuela.

Methods of Control

While the countries profiled in this report employ different techniques to keep their civil societies in check, most are driven by a common attitude of suspicion toward the nongovernmental sector. NGOs that are involved in human rights defense, monitoring the policies and performance of the government, or some form of quasi-political work are regarded as potentially dangerous adversaries.

The tactics used to control NGOs in these countries do not involve assassinations or mass arrests, but rather entail subjecting civil society groups to an intense regimen of bureaucratic scrutiny and harassment. Under the terms of a 2006 law, for example, government officials in Russia have the right to examine NGO records, including both financial documents and internal policy papers. State representatives have the right to attend meetings that are, by any reasonable definition, meant to deal with internal matters, including fund raising and discussions of institutional mission. The law gives the state the authority to suspend NGOs on broadly worded and rather vague grounds that could be applied arbitrarily to any organization that clashed with Kremlin policies. The state can quash any project of an NGO or shutter branch offices of groups running projects in different regions of the country.

The new authoritarian regimes seldom if ever wage all-out war against the nongovernmental sector as a whole. Instead they differentiate between civil society groups, showing forbearance toward groups whose democratic credentials or ambitions are limited, while cracking down on liberal and reformist NGOs, and those that directly challenge the leadership’s grip on power.

Egypt, for example, is tolerant toward some groups with an Islamist identification—though not those advancing strident antiregime agendas. Egypt also permits organizations that oppose its peace treaty with Israel to conduct protest demonstrations, but it has frequently acted to shut down NGOs and think tanks that advocate democratic reform, and jail democratic activists and the political candidates of parties with a secular, democratic orientation. Taking a similar stance, Russia is more tolerant of groups with a communist or nationalist orientation than it is of liberal, democratic organizations. This approach is apparently designed to create conditions in which the only visible alternative to the ruling authorities is a collection of radicals harboring dangerous ideologies.

The threat of instability and terrorism provides a ready justification for crackdowns on NGOs. The regimes of Russia, Egypt, Algeria, and Uzbekistan, among others, often cite an antiterrorism rationale when imposing blanket restrictions on civil society, often with popular support. At the same time, these campaigns against legitimate, nonviolent NGOs have often had the unintended effect of strengthening extremist organizations, which are conditioned to a clandestine and illicit existence in ways that nonviolent NGOs are not.

In some countries, oversight of NGOs is administered, in whole or in part, by security forces. In Algeria, for example, NGOs must get approval from the Ministry of the Interior and Solidarity. Algeria has denied entry visas to members of many foreign NGOs, effectively preventing them from establishing projects in the country.

Some governments tolerate NGO activity in potentially controversial areas like the environment while restricting it in other sectors. Russia, for example, allows thousands of civil society organizations to function, including some that challenge certain government policies, while zeroing in on organizations whose missions involve human rights generally, elite corruption, police abuse, election monitoring, the Chechnya conflict, and appealing cases of Russian citizens to the European Court of Human Rights.

Similarly, while the administration of Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has denounced NGOs as an instrument of Western influence and shut down several of the most prominent human rights organizations, other civic groups remain a force in Iranian society. And despite the care which the Chinese government takes to control organizations that it regards as threats to Communist Party rule, the nongovernmental sector continues to expand, and now includes a number of organizations that are willing to challenge regime policies in areas like public health and the environment.

Trade Unions Under Pressure

While authoritarian regimes have not singled out trade unions for the kind of special attention reserved for NGOs, organized labor has endured a difficult time since the end of the Cold War, and conditions have worsened in a number of countries in the past several years.

The problems encountered by workers who want to be represented by unions that are independent of state control, or who seek the benefits of collective bargaining, differ in significant respects from the hurdles encountered by other elements of civil society. Unions, in fact, face intense pressures throughout the world, including in countries where freedom of association is widely respected. The United States provides the most vivid example of a country in which unions face a hostile climate despite a history of otherwise strong adherence to associational rights and civil liberties generally. The United States has a flourishing civil society, in which thousands of organizations, representing every conceivable constituency or program, are able to thrive. Yet the United States also has a legal environment that severely hampers the ability of workers to form unions, achieve bargaining rights, and engage in collective contract negotiations with management. The result is that while 35 percent of the private workforce was unionized in the mid-1950s, the unionization figure for the private sector in 2007 was 7.5 percent, a shockingly low rate for a developed country.

To be sure, it is unclear to what degree the unfriendly legal and political atmosphere has retarded union membership. Union numbers are in decline in much of the democratic world, including in West European countries with strong social-democratic traditions. In fact, in countries like Germany and the United Kingdom, union membership has declined at a steeper rate than in the United States. Union strength has ebbed due to global economic trends, especially technological advances that have made entire industries obsolete, and the pressures on labor costs that derive from economic globalization and the rise of China, India, and other low-wage countries. Put simply, in an era in which political leaders believe that wages must be held in check due to global competition, many governments have moved to limit the power of organized labor.

In their policies towards unions, authoritarian leaders are motivated in part by concerns that a labor movement functioning outside the control of the state or dominant party might complicate their economic objectives. But they also fear the role of unions as an instrument of democratization. The rulers of countries like Russia, China, and Egypt are aware that it was an independent union, Poland’s Solidarity, that toppled the initial domino in a process that led to the collapse of communist rule in Eastern Europe. More recently, unions have played significant parts in the freedom struggles of countries like Zimbabwe and Iran, and have contributed to the expansion of free institutions in several other countries in Africa.

In maintaining control over organized labor, former communist countries and those that retain a Leninist system of political control (like China) have a built-in advantage due to their tradition of total state/party domination of the trade union movement. Thus while unions in the countries of the former Soviet Union theoretically have the right to independent action, the laws and regulations discourage the existence of unions outside the national, party-controlled labor federations that survived from communist times. Variations on the Soviet model have also been embraced by governments in the Middle East and Africa, especially in settings where one-party rule is the norm.

The countries profiled in this study have poor to very poor records of adherence to labor rights. Among the noteworthy features or trends of their labor policies are the following:

  • In one Latin American country, Colombia, the labor situation conforms to an all-too-familiar historical pattern for the region, whereby union activists are the targets of violent right-wing campaigns like those waged by Central American death squads two decades ago. At the other extreme, Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez has resorted to the tried and true Marxist tactic of establishing parallel unions in an effort to bring the labor movement under his political control.
  • In Middle Eastern countries that previously adhered to “Arab socialism” development models, the old tradition of dominant-party control over the labor movement lives on. In Egypt, for example, unions must be affiliated with an umbrella federation that functions as an appendage of the ruling party and controls union elections.
  • Some governments have adopted laws making it illegal for local unions to accept foreign financial assistance, a potentially significant measure given the long history of European and especially American union support for workers’ struggles in developing countries and authoritarian settings.
  • The absence of genuine unions almost certainly contributes to job-site deaths and injuries. Thus in China, where toothless, state-controlled unions prevail, thousands of workers die each year in factory and mining accidents.
  • In a number of countries, the right to strike is severely circumscribed through various laws and regulations. Nonetheless, there is some evidence that worker unrest is increasing in societies with traditions of labor repression. Incidents of worker unrest have risen notably in China over the past decade, motivated by issues like dangerous working conditions, layoffs, and unpaid wages.

Conclusion

Freedom usually progresses in a halting fashion, with a step backward for every two steps forward. But there are reasons to believe that the current round of restrictions on freedom of association is not a passing phenomenon that will automatically correct itself in the near future. First of all, the decline in associational rights has taken place in a constellation of countries that are determinedly authoritarian, often rich in natural resources, and deeply involved in the global economy. Second, a number of these regimes have made the stifling of dissent and independent action a major political priority. They have approached the challenge of limiting freedom with tactical and strategic sophistication, and they have made it clear that the suppression of civil society is a long-term project.

How then should those who cherish freedom and appreciate the essential democratizing role of NGOs, human rights organizations, and trade unions respond? While it is not the intention of this report to advance a laundry list of policy recommendations, the findings do suggest a number of appropriate responses to the new authoritarians’ war on civil society.

  • There is an urgent need to shine the spotlight of publicity on the persecution of civil society and the campaign against freedom of association. While the media are quick to protest actions against press freedom and religious organizations are vigilant in identifying the repression of belief, relatively little has been said about the assaults on associational rights. Democratic governments have a special responsibility to issue formal and public protests against state policies that threaten civil society in cases where other forms of diplomacy fail to provoke reform.
  • Trade unions in Europe and the United States should play a more vigorous role in supporting unions that are under duress and publicizing instances of worker abuse. The American labor movement has a long and worthy history of involvement in helping beleaguered unions in developing societies. The current deterioration in global trade union conditions call for a renewal of that tradition.
  • The repression of associational rights should be raised consistently by democratic governments at all the relevant international forums, including the UN Human Rights Council and regional entities like the OSCE and OAS.
  • The democratic community should differentiate between the methods employed by the majority of authoritarian states in suppressing civil society and the declines in associational rights in countries that are struggling to consolidate free institutions. The problems afflicting Mexico or even Nigeria are different in significant ways from current developments in Iran or Belarus.
  • The world should be reminded that leaders who persecute dissent and restrict freedom of association, no matter how effective their efforts may appear, are betraying their weakness rather than showcasing their strength. China’s pre-Olympic campaign against dissent was not a reflection of self-assurance. Nor are accusations from Russia’s Vladimir Putin that NGOs receiving foreign assistance are “traitors,” or the claims of Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that human rights groups are instruments of Western imperialism. Political leaders who are confident of their legitimacy do not find it necessary to wage war against peaceful organizations that seek democratic reform and popular participation.