As the U.S. retreats from global leadership, will the European Union become the world’s new watchdog? First, E.U. leaders continued to hammer Hungary over new legislation restricting foreign-funded NGOs. Then, human rights advocates cheered a ruling on Tuesday against Russia’s anti-gay laws by the E.U.’s top human rights court.
With fresh developments in the worrying clamp down on civil society abroad, from Egypt to Russia, it was heartening to see the court rule in favor of three gay activists, as reported by the New York Times, especially after gay men were reportedly rounded up and tortured in Chechnya, a federal subject of Russia:
The prohibition, codified in national law in 2013, has been seen as a central plank of President Vladimir V. Putin’s nationalist message, one that has positioned Russia as a defender of Christian and traditional values, and the West as decadent and godless.
Ruling in favor of three gay activists, the European Court of Human Rights found that “the very purpose of the laws and the way they were formulated and applied” was “discriminatory and, over all, served no legitimate public interest.” It ordered Russia to pay the men a total of 43,000 euros, or $48,000, in damages.
However, it’s doubtful the ruling will result in real change, according to the Times:
Russia ratified the European Convention on Human Rights in 1998. The court, which is charged with interpreting the treaty, which took effect in 1953, has often castigated the country. The ruling is binding, but as with much else in international law, there is not a strong enforcement mechanism.
Meanwhile, even after the E.U. warned Hungary over its “serious deterioration of rule of law and democracy” in a resolution last month, Hungary’s parliament approved new restrictions last week on foreign-funded NGOs, according to Al Jazeera:
The legislation, drafted by Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government and pushed through by the ruling Fidesz on Tuesday, compels groups that get more than $26,200 a year from abroad to register with the authorities and declare themselves as foreign-funded, or risk closure for non-compliance.
The government said the measures were aimed at improving transparency, as well as fighting money laundering and “terrorism” funding.
The U.S. then entered the fray with what the Economist described as an “unusually strong statement” from the American embassy in Budapest comparing Hungary to Russia and China, while Hungary fired back that the U.S. State Department was being misled by George Soros-funded organizations.
As NPQ has reported, it’s unlikely that the E.U.’s resolution will result in the suspension of Hungary’s voting rights in the European Council.
An Amnesty International staff member in Hungary promised that the nonprofit will resist:
On the face of it, the Law on the transparency of organizations funded from abroad carried by the Hungarian parliament today with a comfortable government majority might look fairly benign. The title of the law suggests it is aimed at increasing transparency, while authorities claim it is important in the fight against money laundering and international terrorism.
But when examined more closely, this veneer of respectability quickly falls away. In effect, the law is a thinly disguised attempt to stigmatize non-governmental organizations that receive foreign funding and hamper their vital work.
NPQ has reported on stricter regulations for “foreign-backed” NGOs in many countries over the past decade, including, most recently, Egypt. How will nonprofits in countries like Hungary resist—and stay resilient? There are quite a few cases to draw lessons from, according to a groundbreaking new study from Saskia Brechenmacher of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, called “Civil Society Under Assault.”
Brechenmacher notes that “between 2014 and 2016, more than 60 countries restricted citizens’ freedom of assembly and civil society’s ability to access funding.”
Funding restrictions have proven particularly stifling. In Russia and Egypt, many civil society groups have backed away from foreign funding in fear of stigmatization and judicial harassment… independent NGOs face a difficult domestic funding landscape, particularly if they want to continue working on policy and rights issues.
In Ethiopia, hundreds of organization decided to abandon rights-based programming and shift their focus toward politically neutral capacity building and local service delivery in order to preserve their access to foreign support… Others have tried to raise money from domestic sources—often with limited success. Private sector donors in all three countries remain reluctant to fund civic activities that could attract the ire of state authorities.
Similar to the American nonprofit landscape, Brechenmacher argues that “organizations that can draw on volunteers or complement their activities with income-generating work have generally proven most resilient.”
Here are other ways these organizations cope:
- Faced with escalating restrictions, some traditional NGOs have begun moving toward alternative organizational structures.
- Groups are exploring new funding models that could generate greater community buy-in; some have transferred their advocacy activities to non-institutionalized initiatives while doubling down on legal defense and monitoring work. Others have relocated abroad or continue their activities virtually.
- Citizens form new volunteer initiatives to address service delivery gaps and community concerns, and—to the extent possible—use cultural activities and virtual platforms to organize around shared interests.
The consequences are distressing despite the efforts of these organizations and pushback against restrictions from Western governments including the European Union. “The weakening of traditional civil society organizations leaves key gaps in the monitoring and reporting on government abuses, the representation of marginalized communities, the dissemination of alternative policy proposals, and the overall vibrancy of public debate,” Brechenmacher writes.—Anna Berry