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How State Restrictions are Reshaping Civic Space Around the World

Courtesy of Thomas Hawk/Flickr. (CC BY-NC 2.0)

This article was originally published by IPI Global Observatory on 19 May 2017.

In April 2017, the Russian Ministry of Justice designated the Kola Ecological Center, a small environmental group in Russia’s Murmansk region, a “foreign agent.” The organization’s offense? It had advised regional authorities on nuclear waste handling and opposed plans to extend the run time of a local nuclear power plant—and, importantly, it had accepted Norwegian funding in the past. It now joins more than 150 Russian NGOs for whom the foreign agent label has led to crippling fines, onerous lawsuits, and, in the most extreme cases, liquidation.

Russia is not an isolated case. Governments around the world are cracking down on civil society activism. Pointing to threats of terrorism or the need to protect national sovereignty, they are erecting new barriers to the operations and funding of NGOs, harassing and demonizing civic activists, and criminalizing dissent through expansive anti-terrorism laws. Between 2014 and 2016, more than 60 countries restricted citizens’ freedom of assembly and civil society’s ability to access funding.

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Central Asia: A Dangerous Thirst

Photo: UNDP in Europe and Central Asia/flickr.

This article is included in our ‘Conflict Hotspots 2014’ dossier which can be accessed here.

On the grand scale, Central Asia’s water problems have been well documented since the fall of the Soviet Union. Journalists wrote of the apparently inexorable shrinking of the Aral Sea, once one of the four largest lakes in the world; by 2007, at a tenth of its normal size, it had split up into several smaller bodies of water. An excellent view of these broad shifts can be found at Aqueduct’s Water Risk Atlas.

Uzbek President Islam Karimov has warned of war if upstream countries Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan pursue power generation projects that might alter, or make open to political manipulation, the supply of water needed to irrigate Uzbekistan’s cotton crops. Public anger over a decline in basic services fuelled the unrest that led to the overthrow of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in April 2010. (See our report Decay and Decline.) Bakiyev sold water to Kazakhstan during a period of electricity shortages in his own country. Across the region corruption and neglect undermine confidence in government and contribute to political discontent. » More

Mediation Perspectives: Reframing the Charities and Terrorism Debate

Headline: Charity millions 'going to Syrian terror groups'

A recent headline in The Daily Telegraph. Photo: Howard Lake/flickr.

The UK’s Daily Telegraph ruffled a few feathers earlier this month by building a story around a few out-of-context remarks by the head of the UK’s Charity Commission to suggest that millions of pounds raised to assist victims of the conflict in Syria were being diverted to terrorist groups. The Charity Commission reacted swiftly to correct the story, pointing out that they possessed no evidence of any such diversions and that they work very closely with charities to minimize the risk that any could occur.

Fears of charitable donations being diverted away from their intended recipients are nothing new. Nor are accompanying fears that diverted money is ending up in the hands of people with less-than-good intentions. What is relatively new is how these fears are being addressed since the launching of the “global war on terror” in the wake of the 11 September 2001 attacks in the US.

Humanitarian organizations have long recognized that they have a responsibility towards both their donors and their beneficiaries to ensure that aid reaches the people it was intended for. Many organizations have developed their own systems of checks and balances to ensure that it does. However, it has long been recognized, both by donors and charities, that in conflict and emergency situations no system is perfect and there is always a risk that some aid is diverted or ends up in the wrong hands. What has changed with the dominance of a counter-terrorism discourse is that this risk of diversion has been defined as a security threat due to the fear that those wrong hands are terrorist hands. » More

NGOs, Piracy and Maritime Crime in Southeast Asia

Suspected pirate vessel in Malaysian waters. Image by US Navy / Wikimedia Commons.

Over the past two decades, piracy activities in Southeast Asia have been recognized as a serious threat to regional security. While states have played a leading role in fighting maritime piracy, anti-piracy nongovernmental organizations (NGOs)—ranging from industry and seafarer associations to think tanks and Track II scholarly networks—have also been influential in addressing this problem. These NGOs, especially the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), were able to successfully portray piracy as a threat to navigational safety, maritime trade, energy security, and a potential source of terrorism. The pressure exerted by NGOs on littoral governments in Southeast Asia resulted in greater state-to-state and regional military cooperation, as exemplified by the 2004 landmark maritime initiative between Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia—MALSINDO—to patrol the Strait of Malacca. Operation MALSINDO has been successful in curbing the number of pirate attacks and industry watchers assume that the current approach is working. » More

Russia: Online Petition Seeks to Increase Controls on Foreign-Funded NGOs

Podkontrol.ru, an online petition calling for stricter controls on foreign-funded Russian NGOs.

Back in early February 2012, Vladimir Putin published the fourth op-ed of his presidential campaign: a lengthy treatise titled “Democracy and the Quality of Government” [ru]. About 1,500 words deep into that article, Putin proposed that the Russian parliament should automatically consider the legislative applications of any online petition successful in gathering more than one-hundred thousand signatures. » More

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