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 ofFreedom 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.