India: Assault on NGOs is Emblematic of Global Crisis Curbing Human Rights Work

Amnesty International India
Bengaluru/ New Delhi: 21 February 2019 1:00 pm

Governments in India and across the world are increasingly attacking non-governmental organizations (NGOs) through laws that subject them and their staff to surveillance, nightmarish bureaucratic hurdles, and the ever-present threat of imprisonment, Amnesty International said in a new report released today.

Laws Designed to Silence: The Global Crackdown on Civil Society Organizations’ reveals the startling number of countries that are using bullying techniques and repressive regulations to prevent NGOs from doing their vital work. The report lists 50 countries worldwide where anti-NGO laws have been implemented or are in the pipeline.

“India has the dubious honor of being among those countries which suppress human rights work under the pretext of outlawing foreign “influence’”, said Aakar Patel of Amnesty India.  “The oppressive Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, which restricts how civil society organizations can access foreign funding, has often been used to curb dissent and immobilize human rights organizations that expose violations and speak truth to power.”

The FCRA was ostensibly introduced to address concerns about the risks to the “national interest” posed by foreign funding and foreign organizations. The law lists individuals and organizations that are barred from receiving foreign funds; it requires licenses to be renewed every five years and provides for suspension of licenses and freezing of bank accounts during investigations. In practice, it has been used to target organizations who criticize the government and demand accountability.

Organizations like Sabrang India, Lawyers Collective, Navsarjan Trust, and People’s Watch have been targeted under the FCRA. These organizations have criticized infrastructure and mining projects, sought justice for the anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat in 2002, and exposed violations against Dalit people. They have faced repeated questions about their work, threats of investigations and blocking of foreign funding.

In 2018, the Enforcement Directorate (ED) of the Indian Finance Ministry raided the offices of Greenpeace India and Amnesty India, and arbitrarily froze both organizations’ bank accounts. As a result, Greenpeace India had to reduce its staff and scale back its work on climate change. Amnesty India was also forced to reduce its workforce by 30%. Soon after the raid on Amnesty India, a smear campaign was launched on social media and among pro-government sections of the media long opposed to the organization’s work. Some media outlets claimed to have accessed secret government documents which cast Amnesty International’s operations in India as a dark web of intrigue.

This is a global trend. Amnesty International has documented how an increasing number of governments are placing unreasonable restrictions and barriers on NGOs.

“In many countries, organizations who dare to speak out for human rights are being bullied into silence. Groups of people who come together to defend and demand human rights are facing growing barriers to working freely and safely. Silencing them and preventing their work has consequences for everyone,” said Kumi Naidoo, Secretary General of Amnesty International.

In the past two years alone, almost 40 pieces of legislation that interfere with the right to association and are designed to hamper the work of civil society organizations have been put in place or are in the works around the world. These laws commonly include implementing ludicrous registration processes for organizations, monitoring their work, restricting their sources of resources and, in many cases, shutting them down if they don’t adhere to the unreasonable requirements imposed on them.

A global problem

In October 2018, Pakistan’s Ministry of the Interior rejected registration applications from 18 international NGOs, and dismissed their subsequent appeals, without giving a reason.

NGOs in Belarus are subjected to strict state supervision. Working for those NGOs whose registration request is rejected (often arbitrarily) is a criminal offence.

In Saudi Arabia, the government can deny licenses to new organizations and disband them if they are deemed to be “harming national unity”. This has affected human rights groups, including women’s human rights groups, who have not been able to register and operate freely in the country.

In Egypt, organizations that receive funding from abroad need to comply with stringent and arbitrary regulations. This has led many human rights defenders being banned from travel, having their assets frozen and prosecuted. Some could face up to 25 years in prison if convicted of receiving foreign funding.

Restrictive laws are also seen in many other countries such as the UK, Ireland, Australia and the USA.

“Amnesty International’s offices around the world have also come under attack. From India to Hungary, authorities have abused our staff, raided their offices and frozen their assets in a further escalation of their attack on local organizations,” said Kumi Naidoo.

Locked up for failing to comply

Many countries, such as Azerbaijan, China and Russia, have introduced further registration and reporting requirements for NGOs. Failure to comply means imprisonment. This restrictive regulation means NGOs are under constant scrutiny by the authorities. In China, new legislation tightly controls the work of NGOs from registration and reporting to banking, hiring requirements and fundraising.

In Russia, the government has labelled NGOs who receive foreign funding “foreign agents” – a term synonymous with “spy”, “traitor” and “enemy of the state”. The government applies this legislation so broadly that even an organization supporting people with diabetes was heavily fined, put on the “foreign agents” register and forced to close in October 2018. Medical, environmental and women’s groups have also come under fire.

Ripple effect

The repressive policies of the Russian government have caused a ripple effect reaching several other countries.

In Hungary, a number of NGOs are being forced to label themselves as “foreign funded” as the government seeks to discredit their work and turn the general public against them. Organizations failing to comply with these rules face high fines and ultimately the suspension of their activities. Organizations working in support of migrants and refugees have been purposefully targeted and their staff harassed after a new set of laws were passed in June 2018.

“We don’t know what is going to happen to us and other organizations, and what laws will be passed next,” said Aron Demeter, from Amnesty International Hungary. “Several members of our staff have been subjected to online trolling, abuse and threats of violence. Some venues refused to host our events and there were schools that refused to hold human rights education activities for fear of repercussions.”

In some countries, the attack on NGOs is particularly targeted against organizations that defend the rights of marginalized groups. Those promoting women’s rights, including sexual and reproductive health and rights, LGBTI rights, the rights of migrants and refugees and environmental groups are among the worst affected.

“No one should be criminalized for standing up for human rights. World leaders should be aiming to guarantee equality and ensure people in their countries have better working conditions, proper health care, access to education and adequate housing – not targeting those who demand them,” said Kumi Naidoo.

“Human rights defenders are committed to creating a better world for everyone. We’re not going to give up the fight, because we know how important this work is. World leaders reiterated their commitment to provide a safe environment for human rights defenders at the UN Headquarters in December 2018 during the 20th anniversary of the Declaration on HRDs. They must now ensure it becomes a reality.”

For more information please contact:

Nazia Erum
Email: [email protected]