By Somar Wijayadasa*
At a time when United States-Russia relations continue to deteriorate, Russia has blacklisted seven U.S.-based non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as being “undesirable” on its territory.
This cannot be ruled as another manifestation of President Vladimir Putin’s Cold War-style paranoia as this happens in hundreds of countries around the world.
In the past year, Armenia, India, Egypt, Cambodia, Russia, China and Uganda are among the countries that enforced draconian laws to regulate NGO activities – mostly on suspicion of foreign governments interfering in their internal affairs.
Recently, Israel passed laws targeting NGOs that receive funding from abroad. Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu said the public needed to know when foreign states were “meddling” in its internal affairs. He said that “the law’s approval will increase transparency, contribute to creating a discourse that reflects Israeli public opinion, and will strengthen democracy”.
The most notable ouster from Russia was the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), in 2012, on charges of trying to “influence the political process through the distribution of grants” to anti-Putin political groups.
This probably came as retribution after a wave of massive anti-Putin political protests before and after his presidential election, and also the infamous “Pussy Riot” that caused a world-wide anti-Putin propaganda campaign.
Raising concern about outside political interference, Putin said: “I object categorically to foreign funding of political activity in the Russian Federation … not a single self-respecting country allows that and neither will we.”
Russia adopted NGO legislation, in April 2008, as it feared that foreign-funded NGO’s are fomenting revolution in Russia, just as many believe they did successfully in Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan.
Another so-called “foreign agents” law passed in 2012, requires NGOs to register as foreign agents if they receive funding from abroad and engage in political activities.
Before signing that law, Putin told the Russian legislators: “Don’t be afraid of democracy. We must understand that democracy is different from a state of anarchy. Of course democracy implies a rule of law. [If we] fail to comply with existing national laws, democracy cannot exist.”
Last year, Putin tightened the noose further by signing the “Undesirable NGOs” Law which empowers the Russian government to sanction any group as “undesirable” if it is deemed to undermine Russia’s constitution, defence and national security.
Twisting Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, I asked my erstwhile UN colleague who later became a member of the Russian Parliament: “Do you agree that passing all these stringent NGO laws as punishment fit the crime committed by foreign governments funding and involvement in NGOs?”
His agitated response was a resounding “Absolutely yes”. He added: “Did you forget the Arab Spring revolutions, Maidan in Ukraine, the Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong, ethnic tensions in China? And who is causing all these in the name of democracy and freedom of speech?”
He further reiterated, “Russians and Chinese don’t need foreign funding to develop their countries”. “These foreign fundings,” he said,“are covert operations to brainwash our people to revolt against democratically elected governments to cause regime changes.”
It is precisely for this reason that more than one hundred countries from Algeria to Zimbabwe have already ratified legislation to register and monitor NGOs – thereby, to prevent foreign funding to domestic NGOs that exert undue influence on domestic policy.
These countries accuse the United States and European countries of using NGOs to support political unrest in the guise of supporting democracy, rule of law and human rights protection.
At a time of advanced communication capabilities when a political agitator can momentarily summon tens of thousands of people to stage a mass demonstration, Governments have every right to regulate NGO’s, and be vigilant at all times to ensure that they only engage in legitimate activities, and not violate the country’s national security.
The purpose of rigid NGO legislation is quite explicit: it is to prevent foreign subversion of domestic politics.
In 1945, Article 71 of the United Nations Charter provided for the formation of NGOs in consultation with the Members of the United Nations concerned. And, since then, the UN has been a staunch supporter of NGOs.
NGOs proliferated after the second World War as most countries needed humanitarian assistance to uplift the masses from unemployment, poverty, malnutrition, health issues and repair war-damaged infrastructures.
The World Bank defines NGOs as private organizations that pursue activities to relieve suffering, promote the interests of the poor, protect the environment, provide basic social services, or undertake community development.
In keeping with the noble mission of the United Nations, millions of NGOs around the world continue to deliver humanitarian services in emergency situations, promote grassroots economic development, and provide much needed assistance in health, education and poverty alleviation.
UN accreditation rules theoretically require a “democratically adopted constitution”, “representative structure” and an “appropriate mechanism of accountability” but are largely devoid of timely enforcement powers.
Many countries find that some NGOs are highly problematic in their conduct, funding, and connection to governments, program mission and methods of work.
Some dubious NGOs have been front groups, weapons promoters and corporate lobby associations. It is now evident that western donors have historically used NGOs to exploit economic opportunities in poor countries, to counter hostile political ideologies and to aid terrorism against legitimately elected democratic regimes – as Norway was accused of doing in Sri Lanka.
The global crackdown on NGOs unfortunately is coming at a time when many parts of the world are beleaguered with wars, refugees, hunger, unemployment, economic and health crises.
Since it is usually the NGOs that provide first-line assistance to the needy, any legal implications and decreased resources could be an impediment to providing these vitally needed humanitarian services.
NGOs raise billions of dollars each year but they function without budgetary and governance oversight, and there is no accepted benchmark for evaluating the effectiveness of NGOs in their stated missions.
For example, the Indian Ocean tsunami (2004) and the deadly earthquake in Haiti (2010) generated over $8 billion and $10 billion dollars, respectively – for disaster relief activities including medical care, shelter, food, and clothing for survivors.
But many unscrupulous NGOs, individuals and politicians reportedly pocketed billions of dollars because these countries lacked regulatory, legal and enforcement procedures.
For example, Colombo Telegraph of 26 December 2014 wrote that according to “Mahinda Rajapaksa (the former President of Sri Lanka) Who Stole 83 Million Rupees Of Tsunami Funds Is A Callous Thief”.
To avoid misappropriation of funds and also to avoid suspicion of subversive activities, foreign governments can provide funding through a Government established department or through a watchdog group to collect and channel foreign funding to NGO’s as it is effectively done now in several countries.
All NGOs should adapt ways to avoid suspicion and prosecution by strictly adhering to the mandates they have provided to the donors and clients, and above all maintain transparency and accountability.
It is time for both the NGOs and foreign governments to take a hard look at their mandates, their core values, and change how they operate. If not, these restrictive NGO laws taking hold around the world would have a profoundly detrimental impact on their legitimate services on behalf of the needy.
*Somar Wijayadasa, an international lawyer, was a UNESCO delegate to the UN General Assembly for ten consecutive years from 1985-1995, and was Representative of UNAIDS at the United Nations from 1995-2000.