By Lindsey Mattila (CMC ’17)
As independent watchdogs protecting citizens against governments and corporations, NGOs play a vital role in a maintaining a flourishing civil society. They provide information, deliver essential services, and advocate for equitable rights. NGOs balance society’s most powerful and checks the influence of powerful figures like China, India, and Russia.
This is why many are concerned for the fate of civic culture in those countries, all three of which have been quietly implementing bans to restrict the activities and funding of NGOs. Each of these governments justifies the increased control in the name of state sovereignty, better transparency, and national security, but many believe the true motivations are more sinister.
This year, China passed two laws pertaining to NGOs: the Charity Law and the Overseas NGO Law (April 2016). The Charity Law defines the scope of the philanthropy sector and regulates establishment, activities and assets of relevant organizations.[i] The Overseas NGO Law requires that foreign NGOs register with the Ministry of Public Security, agree to random checks by the police, and also requires a Chinese business sponsor.[ii] The latter, which will go into effect on January 1, 2017, will affect upwards of 7,000 NGOs, many of which are already facing difficulties in finding a sponsor.[iii] Organizations that advocate for ethnic equality, workers’ rights and religious freedom are among the most burdened. This is all part of an effort to cut down on NGOs that threaten “China’s national interests” or “ethnic unity.”[iv] If NGOs do not fully comply with these new laws, the Chinese government can issue a 5-year ban on their activities.
China is not the only one with this new mentality that NGOs are more of an enemy to the state than an aid. India has begun cracking down as well by cutting off Greenpeace India’s foreign funds.[v] These cutbacks are made legal by India’s Foreign Contribution Regulation Act which tries to minimize the amount of funds going to NGOs from foreign corporations, even though Greenpeace funds came mostly from civilian donations.[vi] Researchers are speculating that India’s intentions have less to do with manipulating public opinion and more so to do with removing environmental and land-acquisition hurdles which would potentially boost India’s economy.
Russia’s stance on NGOs is the most concerning. In 2012, the government passed legislation requiring organizations that receive foreign funding and that engage in “political activity” to register as “foreign agents.”[vii] When registered as a foreign agent, the NGO can be subjected to random searches, regulations, and worst of all, closure. Almost all NGOs are threatened by this legislation, since the state’s definition of political activity is very vague and can include any attempt to influence public opinion or the results of an election, which is essentially any and NGO activity.[viii] When organizations refused to register for fear that the term still carried negative connotations of espionage, the government then passed a law allowing the state to register the NGOs without their consent.[ix]
Although these new bans are questionable since they practically restrict any government opposition, the reactions of countries that have foreign organizations involved in their domestic politics highlights governmental concerns over state sovereignty. Recent developments constitute a huge step backwards for NGOs in terms of how they are perceived in international affairs. Unfortunately for NGOs, the new laws are just another roadblock in their attempts to engage in more effective advocacy in the international realm.
[i] Civic Freedom Monitor: China. International Center for Non-Profit Law. June 20, 2016.
[ii] Edward Wong, “Clampdown in China Restricts 7,000 Foreign Organizations,” New York Times, April 28, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/29/world/asia/china-foreign-ngo-law.html?_r=1
[iii] Edward Wong, “Clampdown in China Restricts 7,000 Foreign Organizations,” New York Times, April 28, 2016.
[iv] Tom Phillips, “China passes law imposing security controls on foreign organizations,” The Guardian, April 28, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/apr/28/china-passes-law-imposing-security-controls-on-foreign-ngos
[v] Rama Lakshmi, “India’s crackdown on NGOs receiving foreign funding prompts U.S. criticism,” The Washington Post, May 6, 2015. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/indias-crackdown-on-ngos-receiving-foreign-funding-prompts-us-criticism/2015/05/06/f65ec68a-f3f2-11e4-bca5-21b51bbdf93e_story.html
[vi] “India cracks down on Greenpeace and foreign NGOs,” Aljazeera, May 27, 2015.
[vii] “Russia: Government Against Rights Groups,” Human Rights Watch, August 16, 2016. https://www.hrw.org/russia-government-against-rights-groups-battle-chronicle
[viii] “Putin signs NGO bill exempting charities from Russia’s ‘foreign agents law’,” RT, June, 3 2016.
[ix] “Russia: Government Against Rights Groups,” Human Rights Watch, August 16, 2016.