UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay: New restrictions on NGOs are undermining human rights
GENEVA (25 April 2012) – UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay on Wednesday expressed deep concern about current or recent moves in a number of countries to curtail the freedom of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other civil society actors to operate independently and effectively. Pillay noted that freedom of association is under increasing pressure in many countries across the world. “Freedom of association is the lifeblood of NGOs,” she said. “Systemic legal or administrative attempts to curtail their activities can be very damaging.”
The High Commissioner cited recent or proposed new laws and other measures in a number of countries which, to varying degrees, place new restrictions on the right to freedom of association, noting for example that in February provincial authorities in Zimbabwe ordered the activities of 29 NGOs to be suspended.
“Civil society -- including NGOs, trade unions, human rights defenders, academics, journalists, bloggers and others -- plays an absolutely crucial role in ensuring that human rights are protected in individual states,” the High Commissioner said. “A dynamic and autonomous civil society, able to operate freely, is one of the fundamental checks and balances necessary for building a healthy society, and one of the key bridges between governments and their people. It is therefore crucial that NGOs are able to function properly in countries in transition, as well as in established democracies.”
“Civil society actors help mobilize people to become involved in decisions that affect their lives. That is why the United Nations sets such store by their contributions, both in policy-making and in field operations,” Pillay said. “If their contribution is weak or restrained, the needs of ordinary people are too easily sidelined, and in particular the needs of the people most discriminated against in any given society.”
Pillay expressed alarm at recent or ongoing attempts in a number of countries to tighten control over NGOs by restricting their sources of funding, and in particular foreign funding on which many very effective civil society organizations rely heavily.
In Belarus, an amendment to the Criminal Code was adopted in October 2011 by the Parliament, establishing criminal liability for receiving foreign grants or donations in violation of Belarusian legislation. It is believed this will substantively limit the operations of NGOs. In addition, a number of other amendments were introduced to at least eight other legislative acts which may further restrict the functioning of civil society organizations.
“NGOs must be able to operate free from executive interference,” the UN Human Rights chief said. “They must be consulted and included in policy decisions, particularly when a state is undergoing major transformational or transitional processes. And they must not be penalized for criticizing or questioning state policies and processes. Governments need to understand that collaboration with civil society is not a sign of weakness. It is the way to build a better, more inclusive, society – something all governments should be trying to do, and something they cannot manage on their own.”
“Fortunately, in many countries – including some emerging democracies – civil society is allowed to function to the best of its ability, as part of a collaborative effort with government and international institutions such as my own. In Tunisia, for example, the UN Human Rights office is now able not only to establish a presence for the first time in its history, but also to build a close and vibrant relationship with both the Government and the country’s burgeoning civil society sector,” Pillay said.
“It is normal for there to be occasional tensions in the relationship between civil society organizations and the authorities, but it is unnecessary for these to descend into suspicion, antagonism or – on the part of the authorities – outright repression,” the High Commissioner said. “In the long term, there is nothing gained and a great deal that is lost when states attempt to stifle civil society.”