Governments in China, Burma, Cambodia, and several other Asian countries are imposing severe funding and other restrictions on nongovernmental organizations, preventing them from operating effectively in upholding human rights in the region, a new report said Thursday.
The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (OBS) said that access to foreign donations is “increasingly hindered” by governments in the region which seek to silence activist groups, impacting efforts by civil society to protect human rights and ensure that victims are heard.
The OBS is a joint program of the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the Geneva-based World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT).
The report cited a case of an NGO in Cambodia awaiting registration by the authorities for more than a decade.
In China and Burma, the OBS said NGOs are subject to a cumbersome and costly system of registration with a threat of “criminalization” of organizations that remain unregistered and the governments exercising strict controls on them.
The report said access to funding for NGOs defending human rights is a universal right and that they should be allowed to flourish.
“Unfortunately, however, in many countries this development potential is largely suppressed by the multiplication of obstacles impeding access to funding for NGOs posed by authorities.”
The global economic crisis has reduced funding possibilities for these NGOs, notably at the national level, the report said, forcing them to seek financial support from foreign donors.
But it said that in many countries, what should be a straightforward process between donors and recipients has become a form of control by the state, which seeks to stifle the NGOs by cutting off or restricting their funding.
OBS said that with a historical and political environment that is witnessing the overthrow of authoritarian regimes and the emergence of popular calls for democratic governance, “it is not surprising that some States are adopting a nationalist, xenophobic, or anti-Western stance in order to demonize foreign funding of NGOs.”
“As they persist in refusing to accept any questioning of their political system as well as the legitimate demands of human rights NGOs, repressive regimes are creating and maintaining an amalgam between defenders and political opponents.”
But rather than simply banning an NGO and risk incurring political backlash, many countries use multiple obstacles to block access to funding, the report said.
“In so doing, they draw on a sophisticated arsenal of restrictive legal, administrative or practical measures that are less visible than other forms of human rights abuses, and therefore are less likely to incite international condemnation,” it said.
Freedom of association
OBS said many countries in Asia deny NGOs the right of association either through an outright ban or the application of expensive and bureaucratic registration procedures.
In Cambodia, the Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC) has been waiting to be registered since 2000, it said.
In other countries, legislation establishes an explicit relationship between the “illegality” of an NGO—such as the group’s failure to register—and the criminalization of members who contribute to its funding.
Under Burmese law, people who are deemed members of an “illegal association” and who take part in its meetings, contribute to its funding or participate in its activities are subject to fines and prison sentences of between two to three years.
The cost of registration can also be a barrier to the creation of an NGO, the report said.
Receiving authorization through Burma’s Ministry of Internal Affairs is an arduous process that starts at the municipal level and ends with the central government and can cost up to 500,000 kyat (U.S. $580)—an often unaffordable expense for a small NGO.
“The obligation to register is in addition to the criminalization of unregistered NGOs,” it said.
“The procedures and criteria for being given authorization are unclear, and the vague nature of the appeal procedure leaves the NGOs concerned with little room for maneuver to contest the authorities’ decisions.”
The OBS said that in China, NGOs are subject to an “extremely unwieldy” system of registration, which allows authorities to exercise tight control over them.
“Some groups consequently chose to work without official status, or they opt for legal forms other than the status of NGO, with the accompanying problems this may entail,” it said, adding that no independent human rights NGOs are currently officially registered in the country.
Other restrictions to NGOs can include arbitrary application of the law, exclusion of certain areas of NGO activities or those who benefit from them, obstacles to opening a bank account, or the criminalization of some organizations, the report said.
OBS said governments which practice such restrictions must move from “a system wherein the State assumes the right to control access to funding to one wherein the State fulfils its obligation to support, directly or indirectly, the funding of civil society activities.”
But it acknowledged that the leaders of many countries still do not recognize the crucial role NGOs play in society, and called on donors and rights defenders to work together with the states concerned.
It urged states to respect the freedom of association and to review legislation regulating the establishment, registration and operation of NGOs, as well as to acknowledge their right to solicit, receive and utilize funding.
The group recommended that donors meet between themselves to define a common strategy and formulate concrete responses in cases where their beneficiaries are faced with problems of access to funding. It also suggested that donors include the topic of funding NGOs in bilateral and multilateral discussions.
OBS said that NGOs affected by funding restrictions should alert relevant United Nations mechanisms, analyze restrictions on access to funding in light of international law regarding limitations on the right to freedom of association, and to develop strategies to maximize opportunities to access funding sources at the local level.
Reported by Joshua Lipes.