Civil society organizations and human rights defenders who speak out against unjust laws and government practices, challenge public opinion or those in power, and demand justice, equality, dignity and freedom, are being increasingly targeted. Around the world, groups working to promote or defend human rights are smeared, stigmatized, put under surveillance, harassed, threatened, prosecuted on spurious charges, arbitrarily detained and physically attacked; some human rights defenders are even killed and forcibly disappeared simply for the work they do.
In this context, this report shows that an alarming global trend has surfaced over the last decade in which states are introducing and using laws to interfere with the right to freedom of association and to hamper the work of civil society organizations and individuals who participate in them. The pace is accelerating: in the last two years alone almost 40 pieces of legislation have been either put in place or are in the pipeline. Various provisions impose barriers at all stages of these organizations’ existence, and allow the authorities to closely monitor them. This happens particularly at the point of registration, but also when they plan, conduct and report on their activities, when they seek and receive funds, and when they carry out public campaigning and advocacy. At least 50 countries have put in place such laws in recent years.
Those who criticize the authorities in those countries, or who express views which are at odds with dominant political, social or cultural opinions, are at special risk. Too often, they are forced to “tone down”, self-censor, or scale back their activities, dedicate their limited resources to excessive and unnecessary bureaucratic requirements, and may be excluded from funding opportunities. In the worst cases, civil society organizations are shut down and individuals criminalized and jailed simply for organizing to defend human rights.
Restrictive legislation reflects the broader political and cultural trends in which toxic narratives demonize “the other” and breed blame, hatred and fear,1 creating a fertile ground for the enactment of such laws; and justifying them in the interests of national security, identity and traditional values. In practice, they often silence critical and diverse views and opinions and inhibit the ability of organizations and individuals to scrutinize governments.
The phenomenon is evident in all regions. In some countries leading politicians and government officials are increasingly adopting a nationalist, anti-immigration and “anti-foreign” discourse to delegitimize opponents or scapegoat minorities. States are adopting similar legislation in their drive to silence independent and critical voices in civil society. Politicians are fuelling negative narratives to discredit civil society organizations or human rights defenders, for example those who defend refugees’ and migrants’ rights or who promote diversity.2 The narratives are creeping into the public discourse and creating a hostile environment for those defending and promoting human rights.
The justifications for draconian restrictions are as diverse as the countries in which they are implemented. Such justifications include national security, concern about foreign interference in national affairs, the need to protect national identity, traditional values and morals, religious beliefs, economic development and other imperatives.
The practical obstacles posed by restrictive and arbitrary laws, and the climate of fear and suspicion surrounding civil society organizations and human rights defenders, discourages others from demanding human rights and makes it increasingly difficult to maintain an open and healthy space for civil society.