East Turns Stumbling Block For ‘Un’Civil Society

Indo-China | Diplomacy
“Doing good work does not give Civil Society groups immunity from laws,” said Finance Minister Arun Jaitley while defending the Indian government’s crackdown on foreign-funded NGOs. This, simply put, summed up the mood of the moment: That India, under the present-day Modi government, was no longer going to put up with illegality.
Oddly, the very critics of India’s laid back, chalta hai attitude towards law-breakers and life in general, were up in arms over the government’s attempts to curb illegality in funding and other activities perpetrated by a section of the Civil Society.

Foreign contributions have been coming to India for a range of activities. Disclosure of the nature of activities and the quantum, source of funding is also mandatory by law and failure to comply can lead to cancellation of the NGO’s Foreign Contribution Regulation license.

The Foreign Contribution Regulations Act (FCRA) has legal requirements that an organisation receiving funds, for a ‘particular’ purpose has to use it for that and file annual returns. It was found that many groups did not follow the procedures and action was being taken against them, he said.
India came under tremendous pressure from the US government over restrictions placed on multi-million dollar remittances by a Christian missionary organisation, Compassion International that claimed, on its website, that for strategic reasons it works with local churches to provide Christian teachings to children that it aids.

So, on March 15th 2017, Colorado-based Christian charity closed its operations here after 48 years, “informing tens of thousands of children that they will no longer receive meals, medical care or tuition payments”.

Incidentally, with Compassion International engaging in religious activities, the Ministry of External Affairs had offered the entity to re-register as a religious organization, on the lines of its activities, but the offer had been declined. That way, Compassion International could have been allowed to continue its work in India.

Incidentally, thousands of non-governmental organizations lost their licenses to accept foreign funds since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office in 2014. George Soros’s Open Society Foundations and the National Endowment for Democracy too were barred from transferring funds without permission from Indian security officials.

The law regulating the use of foreign aid has been in existence in India since long but the Modi’s government applied it for the first time, canceling the registrations of more than 10,000 non-governmental groups, mostly small ones, in 2015.

The group’s 500 Indian partners also having to shut down their operations included Bethesda Charitable Endeavors, which funds a community center in a town called Haldwani, in the Himalayan foothills. And the projected ‘stakeholder’ again being children ‘deprived of education’ which were predictably projected as ‘hit the worst’ by the Modi government.

The present-day government’s taking on the funding West isn’t exactly unique.

Putin Cracks Down On ‘Foreign-Funded’ Campaigns
After Putin’s return to presidency in 2012, in a second term, after months of large-scaled anti-government protests, the Russian government began tightening its regulatory control over civil society.

Foreign-funded groups undermining Russia’s national sovereignty and, concurrently, affecting the collective good were now being systematically discredited.

Russia, under Putin, embarked on efforts to fund and promote apolitical and pro-government organizations as socially useful while maintaining a strict state control over the entire sector. Putin also extended executive control and promoted a corporatist vision of the Civil Society thereby quashing its pseudo-altruistic demeanor.

In the 90s, it was primarily a group of Western donors who would support a small group of reform oriented organisations who formed Russia’s Civil Society. These organisations would usually hold the state accountable to global norms of governance yet would regularly and consistently reject any close collaboration with the government. Then, they would operate in isolation and collectively.

And then, Putin came to power in 2000. Then, he stressed on the need to build a strong civil society, but his vision was at direct conflict with the interest of independent groups which mushroomed after the collapse of the Soviet Union. These ‘independent’ groups were mostly funded by foreign entities and were directly alien to Russian society and culture.

It was after the 2004 Beslan school hostage crisis that Putin created the Public Chamber of the Russian Federation, an advisory body of 126 individuals appointed from various social and professional domains and entrusted with providing expert input on legislative proposals.

In mid-2000s, in response to the ‘Colour revolutions’ in Georgia and Ukraine, Russian officials stepped up verbal attacks on foreign-funded groups and initiated imposing legal constraints on civil society. In 2006, an NGO law gave authorities the power to deny registration to any organization whose goals and objectives “create a threat to the sovereignty, political independence, territorial integrity, national unity, unique character, cultural heritage, and national interests of the Russian Federation.”

For groups receiving foreign support, the Russian Federation implemented a host of reporting requirements and expanded the power of government authorities to interfere in the creation and operation of NGOs. The law was justified as Russia now found it necessary to foster greater transparency in the sector and encourage the development of domestic funding sources.

In order to strategically restrict foreign funding flows, Putin in 2008 issued a decree that reduced the number of foreign and international organizations allowed to give tax-free grants in Russia from 101 to twelve.

Russian officials used a 2002 law on countering extremist activity — defined broadly to include charges such as “inciting racial hatred” and “accusing a public official of acts of terrorism”— to inspect NGOs and investigate their activities. A case in point being, a criminal investigation into the functioning of Moscow-based Civic Assistance Committee - focusing on migrant and refugee rights - after a parliamentarian accused the group of giving cover to “ethnic criminal groupings.”
A lot of pro-government media outlets upped their campaign against foreign-funded NGOs portraying them as tools of Western intelligence services working to overwhelm the Russian government. The ‘independent civil society’ particularly with an agenda ‘perceived’ to ‘de-stabilise’, was being checkmated by Putin and successfully too.

In 2012, a new NGO law was fast-tracked through the Federal Assembly (the Russian Parliament) and came into force. The so-called Foreign Agents law required all organizations engaged in ‘political activities’ and receiving or planning to receive foreign funding to register with the Ministry of Justice as “carrying functions of a foreign agent.” The designated foreign agents were obliged to follow a new set of burdensome administrative requirements and could be subjected to surprise audits. They were required to identify themselves in all public communications, presentations, and publications.

And now, like in India, according to the law, organisations that fail to voluntarily register as foreign agents risk suspension for up to six months, while failure to comply with registration, auditing, and reporting rules can be punished with fines of up to 500,000 rubles. Predictably too, the law’s original definition of political activities was perceived by the West as extremely vague, raising concerns that “the provision could be selectively used against any organisation critical of the government”. The West conveniently overlooks the fact that failure to register and comply with legal norms was, finally, a felony in Russia.

And, in 2012, the Russian government ended all programs of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in Russia which operated in the country since the end of the Cold War, funding a multitude of public health and judicial reform programs while also providing support to civil society organizations.

The Russian government accused USAID of meddling in Russia’s domestic politics by funding election monitoring and other prodemocracy initiatives. And, in a few months the Federal Assembly followed up with the Dima Yakovlev law, which allows the suspension, without a court order, of U.S. funded organisations that participate in political activities or implement activities that represent a “threat to the interests of Russia.”

In response to widespread complaints, the Ministry of Justice produced a more precise definition of the term political activities, supposedly to reduce the scope for arbitrary enforcement. The amendment defined the political activities of NGOs so broadly encompassing any advocacy, public outreach, or research activity. A further amendment has ensured even funding received from a domestic NGO can be considered foreign funding if the donor organization in question has previously received external support—a measure that has dramatically broadened the circle of potential foreign agents.

China’s Tryst With Western NGOs Legendary
China has been accused of criminally detaining hundreds involved in defending human rights since time immemorial and not that it matters either. The 2016 annual report by Chinese Human Rights Defenders, an advocacy coalition of non-governmental organization maintains that security laws and rules for overseas NGOs give the Chinese state "draconian" new powers to "expand already strict control over independent organizations, including their funding sources, staffing, and activities”.

China has been targeting groups apparently “seeking to combat corruption, uphold Chinese law and improve the treatment of women”. A public campaign has been waged by the Chinese authorities against what they have called foreign and hostile forces, accusing the West, and the US in particular, of pumping money into China to foment unrest and destabilize society in the name of undermining the Communist Party.

The Chinese constitution says citizens "enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration." Contrary to Western allegations, authorities maintain they treated human-rights lawyers according to the law, in an effort, to prevent conspiracies that could drag China into chaos.

On the website of the Chinese Supreme People’s Court was posted a militaristic video featuring images of war and dead refugee children. "If one day China turned into what it looks like in Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, Turkey, what will our children suffer?" says the video, which has been watched more than 17 million times. The video is said to have listed dissident leaders and human-rights lawyers as "agents of Western powers."

NGO Imbroglio Even In Africa
Back in 2004, Africa's Kenya de-registered 510 non-governmental organisations (NGOs), including 15 accused of links with terrorism! The government had back then frozen their bank accounts and revoked the work permits of foreign employees. The move followed a heated debate in Kenya over a controversial new security bill aimed at fighting militants.

The al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabab group has been increasingly targeting Kenya for attack.They had been deregistered because of their failure to submit financial records.

Al-Shabab, which has been behind several attacks in Kenya, has pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda

Fifteen NGOs were suspected of money-laundering and financing "terrorism", some even linked to the 1998 twin bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and neighbouring Tanzania.

Latin America Not Far Behind
The Bolivia government’s 2015 attack on four research NGOs highlighteds the need for continuing debate around Bolivia’s extractivist development model.

Four NGOs, which have conducted important investigations on economic, social, labor, environmental, and agrarian issues in Bolivia for more than 25 years, were accused of “lying and political meddling” to advance the interests of foreign governments and corporations. And, that is only an indication of how the NGO reality unfurls back in Latin America.

And...Amnesty International Rues Bill in Australia
Amnesty International Australia’s External Affairs Director Claire O’Rourke just recently said, "Despite the welcome bipartisan announcement exempting charities from having to register under the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme, Amnesty International remains concerned about the potential impact on our work from the other Bill in the package.”

“The Espionage and Foreign Interference Bill in its current form could wreak enormous damage to Australian civil society.

“By making it a crime to hold the Australian government to account on human rights, this Bill will help shield government from accountability. These draconian laws proposed will make Australia more like the authoritarian countries this Bill is supposed to protect us from.

“It’s outrageous that Parliament is rushing through this Bill, without properly considering the ramifications for Australian freedoms.

“This Bill must be amended to include robust exemptions for charities, so they can continue to contribute to Australian civil society without fear of criminal charges.”