The Role of Non-Governmental Organizations in the Development of Democracy (Part 2), By Barry F. Lowenkron

Today, all across the globe, NGOs are helping to establish and strengthen democracy in three key ways:

* First, NGOs are working to establish awareness of and respect for the right of individuals to exercise freedoms of expression, assembly and association, which is crucial to participatory democracy. * Second, NGOs are working to ensure that there is a level playing field upon which candidates for elective office can compete and that the entire elections process is free and fair. * Third, NGOs are working to build and strengthen the rule of just laws and responsive and accountable institutions of government so that the rights of individuals are protected regardless of which persons or parties may be in office at any given time.

These efforts by NGOs mirror the discussions I have had with Secretary Rice on democracy promotion in which she outlined the three main areas that inform our democracy activities: electoral — the right of assembly, free speech and all other elements that constitute representative democracy; the importance of good governance — a government by the people that is accountable, transparent, and willing to accept constraints on power and cede it peacefully; and a flourishing civil society. NGOs play a vital role in all three areas.

U.S.-based NGOs such as the National Endowment for Democracy, the Center for International Private Enterprise, the American Center for International Labor Solidarity, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, the International Republican Institute, IFES and Freedom House actively promote democracy across the globe. This type of activity is not unique to the United States. The German political Stiftungen served as models for the creation of the NED family in the 1980s. The British Westminster Foundation is a leader in democracy promotion. The Danes promote worker solidarity and labor rights. The Czech Aide to People in Need actively supports human rights. All of these efforts are conducted openly and transparently and are consistent with international standards and practices.

The Push-Back Not surprisingly, there are those in power who do not welcome NGOs and other agents of peaceful, democratic change. After all, the work of NGOs may vary widely, but what they all have in common is enabling individuals to come together to create an independent voice distinct from, and at times in disagreement with, the government’s views.

Mr. Chairman, I experience this every day as Assistant Secretary when I meet with NGOs who want to discuss the U.S. Government’s human rights record here and abroad. I often agree with NGOs. At times, I disagree with them. But I never view them as a threat to our democratic way of life. Indeed, their contribution to our debate on America’s role in the world can only strengthen our democratic ideals at home and advance them abroad.

Other governments, however, feel threatened by their work. In many countries, we see disturbing attempts to intimidate NGOs and restrict or shut them down. The recent assessment of the National Endowment for Democracy captures this growing challenge. The conclusions are sobering. States are developing and using tools to subvert, suppress and silence these organizations. They invoke or create restrictive laws and regulations. They impose burdensome registration and tax requirements. Charges are vague, such as “disturbing social order,” and implementation and enforcement are arbitrary, fostering a climate of self-censorship and fear. Governments play favorites, deeming NGOs “good” or “bad”, and they treat them accordingly. NGOs deemed “good” are often ones created by governments themselves — Government Organized NGOs or “GONGOs.” The Tunisian government established a GONGO staffed by members of its intelligence service to attend conferences and monitor what is being said about the government. China sends GONGOs to UN NGO functions to defend China’s human rights policies.

When states find that their efforts to pass or apply restrictive laws and regulations against NGOs are not enough, they resort to extralegal forms of intimidation or persecution. Often these regimes justify their actions by accusations of treason, espionage, subversion, foreign interference or terrorism. These are rationalizations; the real motivation is political. This is not about defending their citizens from harm, this is about protecting positions of power.

 we need to defend human rights and democracy promotion. To do so, we need to defend the defenders. In short, we need to push back. Let me suggest seven ways:

First, we need to speak out. We must be prepared to counter what I call the NGO “Legal Equivalency” argument made by governments that unduly restrict NGOs, namely that since all countries regulate NGO activity in some fashion, criticism is unwarranted. For example, there is a difference between giving NGOs the opportunity to register for non-tax status, and demanding that NGOs register to simply function. Most countries, including ours, only require notification of registration, not permission from authorities, in order to operate as a formal, legal entity.

We must not succumb to arguments that the prime reason that governments which impose burdensome registration and other reporting requirements on NGOs is to combat terrorism or other criminal behavior. All governments have a responsibility to protect their populations from acts of terrorism and crime, and it is of course appropriate to subject NGOs to the same laws and requirements generally applicable to all individuals and organizations. At the end of day, however, a burdensome registration and reporting process is unlikely to sway determined terrorist organizations, but very likely to weaken legitimate NGOs.

We must counter false charges that US activities tied to NGOs are led covertly by the United States and other democracies. We must reiterate that our support is out in the open and that thousands of NGOs never even approach our government. And when they do, it is more likely than not that they are pressing us on our own behavior, or on individual cases, and not soliciting funding.

Second, we need to ensure that NGO protection is an integral part of our diplomacy. We must highlight the protection of NGOs as a legitimate issue on our government-to-government agenda. This spring, when Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov came to Washington, Secretary Rice had an extensive discussion with him on our NGO concerns, a discussion in which I participated. The Secretary raises our concerns in her bilateral meetings as do I and many of my colleagues at the State Department. When I travel, I insist on seeing NGO representatives, as does the Secretary.

We must also continue to multiply our voices. Time and again NGOs have told me that their work would be further protected if others would join us. Russian NGOs were heartened that, just prior to my arrival in Moscow in January, German Chancellor Merkel paid an official visit and not only spoke out in defense of NGOs but met with them to hear first-hand their concerns. In the case of China, my Bureau has taken the initiative to develop a coordinated approach among all members of the so-called Bern process — the process that brings together all countries which have human rights dialogues with China. We meet twice yearly, to exchange lists of political prisoners, to compare best practices, and to monitor Chinese behavior toward NGOs.

Third, we must expand the role of regional organizations in protecting NGOs. Acting in defense and support of NGOs on a bilateral basis is essential, but it is not sufficient. NGOs are a global phenomenon; they are facing pressures in countries in every region. I believe that there is greater scope for us to partner with leading regional democracies and to work with regional organizations to defend and support the work of NGOs.

The OSCE and the European Union have adopted some of the most advanced provisions regarding the role and rights of NGOs, as well as guidelines on how they can interact and participate in OSCE and EU activities. In the OSCE context, the role of NGOs in pressing for adherence to democratic standards and practices including monitoring elections remains vital. We will do all we can to ensure that the defense and promotion of human rights and democratic principles remain central to OSCE’s mandate. Every quarter I hold consultations with the EU on a host of human rights and democracy issues worldwide. These consultations are also a good vehicle to take up the cause of NGO protection.

The OAS has formal structures for NGO participation and Secretary General Insulza has said that he seeks greater engagement by civil society organizations. Last month, I held a roundtable with a diverse group of NGOs from Latin America. The NGOs were in Washington to attend an OAS ministerial. We intend to build on that dialogue: through the OAS and among the NGOs themselves as they press for implementation of the OAS Democratic Charter.

NGO engagement with the African Union remains limited. However, prior to the AU Heads of State Summit July 1-2 in Banjul, the AU will host a Civil Society Forum and a Women’s Forum. Later this year I hope to travel to Addis Ababa to meet with the AU and place protection of NGOs on our agenda

ASEAN has formal guidelines for NGO participation in its activities. To date, the NGOs affiliated with ASEAN do not tend to have a democracy or human rights focus, but operate in other fields such as business and medicine. ASEAN’s recent steps to press the regime in Burma is an encouraging sign that countries in the region are beginning to recognize that the protection of human rights, and of human rights defenders, is a legitimate issue, and not one to be dismissed as interference in the sovereignty of its neighbors. We will encourage ASEAN to take further steps on this path.

Fourth, we must maximize global opportunities to raise concerns about the treatment of NGOs and take coordinated action in their defense. We will work to that end with like-minded members of the new U.N. Human Rights Council. I would note that in negotiating the creation of the Council, the United States successfully insisted that NGOs must retain the same access to the new body that they had to its predecessor.

The UN Democracy Fund, proposed by President Bush in September 2004 and launched in September 2005, is another important instrument for supporting NGOs. The Fund will support projects implemented by NGOs as well as governmental and multilateral entities. Recognizing the important contributions that NGOs make, the designers of the Democracy Fund ensured that two of the 17 members of the Fund’s Advisory Board are NGO representatives. To date, 19 countries have contributed or pledged approximately $50 million to this voluntary Fund. The United States has contributed $17.9 million to date, and the President’s Budget has requested an additional $10 million to support the Fund in FY 2007. We have successfully pushed for the Fund to focus on support for NGOs and other elements of civil society in states transitioning to democracy, complementing existing UN programs on free and fair elections and the rule of law.

The Community of Democracies and the collective action of its members can be an important focal point within the international community and international organizations in helping sustain and protect NGOs across the globe. The time has come to institutionalize the Community itself, and to use its members to press for fundamental freedoms, including with regard to the protection of NGOs.

Fifth, we must protect and nurture new organizations that allow NGOs to flourish. Here let me single out the Middle East. The Forum for the Future was established in the summer of 2004 at the G-8 Summit in Sea Island, Georgia. In partnership with the countries of the Broader Middle East and North Africa, the Forum seeks to advance political, economic, and educational reforms in the region. From its inception, we have pressed for inclusion of NGOs indigenous to the Middle East. At the first meeting of the Forum in Rabat in December 2004, there were five NGOs. By the time I accompanied Secretary Rice to the second meeting, held in Bahrain a year later, the five had grown to 40. At the conference, leaders of these NGOs participated, pressing an agenda of political reform, economic opportunity, educational advancement, and gender equality.

Among those serving on this civil society delegation in Bahrain were representatives from the Democracy Assistance Dialogue (DAD) — a dialogue led by the Italy, Turkey, and Yemen as well as three NGOS from each country. The DAD presented the outcomes of discussions and debates held over the course of the year between civil society leaders and their government counterparts. The growing DAD network includes hundreds of civil society leaders from the region. The level and depth of civil society participation at the Forum was historic and positive, and has set an important precedent for genuine dialogue and partnership between civil society and governments on reform issues.

At Bahrain all the participating countries agreed to establish a Foundation for the Future to help fund NGO activity. We did not agree on a Bahrain declaration of principles, however, because a number of countries wanted to include in that declaration language to constrain NGOs. In the end, the United Kingdom as G-8 co-sponsor that year, supported by us and others — walked away from the declaration. Our reason was simple: We could not cripple in the afternoon what we had created in the morning. I applaud the host of the next Forum, Jordan, for its unwavering commitment to a continued robust role for NGOs. We are already acting in concert with the Jordanian government and others to ensure that the NGO presence grows for the meeting this December.

Sixth, we must ensure that NGOs have the resources they need to carry out their vital work. Many NGOs look to a variety of funding sources, both government and private, to ensure a diverse support base. Many of them never approach the U.S. government for any funding at all.

A number of private, grant-making foundations specialize in supporting the work of other non-governmental organizations, and here I cite the MacArthur Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Open Society Institute and other well-known foundations. Organizations such as the independent, nonprofit Pew Charitable Trusts, the International Crisis Group, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and its Moscow Center often fund or produce reports on topics which contribute to public policy discourse on the development of civil society, conflict prevention and management, and other goals compatible with advancing freedom and democracy. We must continue to encourage more private sector support.

We in government can often provide the needed seed money for democracy promotion programs, or assistance to maintain on-going programs. This is a dynamic process that adjusts to new demands, shifting priorities, and different emphases. We must continue to seek out innovative solutions that merit our support, for example, programs that monitor and publicize attacks on NGOs, much as the MacArthur Foundation has funded the Berkman Center at Harvard University to monitor worldwide constraints on internet freedom.

I also want to express my appreciation to the Congress for its support of the Human Rights and Democracy Fund, a program managed by my Bureau. I call it the “venture capital” of democracy promotion for it gives us the flexibility to support innovative programming by NGOs targeted at key countries and issues. We are able to make hundreds of grants a year to organizations around the world addressing vital democracy and human rights issues.

All free nations have a stake in the strengthening of civil societies and the spread of democratic government worldwide, and we welcome and encourage contributions from other donor countries and institutions in support of the work of NGOs.

Seventh, we should consider elaborating some guiding principles by which we as a country would assess the behavior of other governments toward NGOs, and which we would take into account in our bilateral relationships. I would welcome consulting with Congress on the drafting of these principles. I would envision a short list of principles — no more than a page. They would be user-friendly in non-legalistic language. The principles would proceed from the premise that NGOs, as elements of a vibrant civil society, are essential to the development and success of free societies and that they play a vital role in ensuring accountable, democratic government. The principles should pass the “reasonableness test” in any open society. We would pledge our own adherence to the principles and we would of course encourage their embrace by other countries as well.

I do not see these principles as being duplicative of other efforts. The best word is still the plainspoken word, and in plainspoken words, these principles would distill the basic commitments to the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly enshrined in such documents as: the U.N. Universal Declaration on Human Rights and other international documents such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, relevant International Labor Organization Conventions, the Helsinki Final Act and subsequent OSCE Copenhagen and Moscow documents, and the European Convention on Human Rights and relevant documents of the Council of Europe.

Among the possible principles we could elaborate could be:

* That an individual should be permitted to form, join and participate in NGOs of his or her choosing in peaceful exercise of his or her rights to freedom of expression and assembly. * That any restrictions which may be placed on the exercise of the rights to freedom of expression and assembly must be consistent with international law. * That governments will not take actions that prevent NGOs from carrying out their peaceful work without fear of persecution, intimidation or discrimination. * That laws, administrative measures, regulations and procedures governing or affecting NGOs should protect — not impede — their operation, and that they should never be established or enforced for politically motivated purposes. * That NGOs, like all other elements of a vibrant civil society, should be permitted to seek and receive financial support from domestic, foreign and international entities. * And perhaps the most important principle of all, that whenever NGOs are under siege, it is imperative that democratic nations act to defend their rights.

Mr. Chairman, Members of the Committee, in closing I cannot emphasize enough the value of the continued active involvement of this Committee and of other Members of Congress in the worldwide defense and support of the work of NGOs. It greatly strengthens my hand when I meet with foreign officials to know that I have your strong bipartisan backing. It is profoundly important that you continue to demonstrate your support for NGOs and raise concerns about their treatment to foreign governments. And any efforts you could make to encourage your counterparts in the legislatures of other democracies to press these issues and to work in concert on them would be extraordinarily helpful.

As President Bush has said: “Freedom, by its nature, must be chosen, and defended by citizens, and sustained by the rule of law and the protection of minorities. America will not impose our own style of government on the unwilling. Our goal instead is to help others find their own voice, attain their own freedom, and make their own way.”

By America’s leadership in supporting and defending the work of NGOs, that is exactly what we are doing — helping men and women across the globe shape their own destinies in freedom, and by so doing, helping to build a safer, better world for us all. Thank you.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.