By Daniel Calingaert, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Daniel Calingaert is executive vice president of Freedom House. The views expressed are his own.
The use of chemical weapons in Syria and brutal crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which has claimed more than 1,000 lives, are deeply disturbing events, yet they are just the most glaring examples of a widespread assault on freedom taking place in countries around the world. At times this assault grabs news headlines, as when Russia’s law against “homosexual propaganda” prompted international criticism or a prominent dissident is put on trial. More often, savvy autocrats misuse laws and administrative procedures to subtly restrict civil society groups and silence their critics.
There are plenty of examples. A crackdown on civil society in Azerbaijan has intensified in the lead-up to presidential elections there next month. Authorities have broken up peaceful demonstrations, increased almost 100-fold the fines for involvement in unsanctioned protests, arrested youth activists and journalists, and prosecuted critics on trumped-up criminal charges, such as narcotics possession.
Uganda’s parliament passed a Public Order Management Bill that requires police approval for any gathering of more than three people where anything of a political nature is discussed and authorizes police to use deadly force against protestors who resist arrest. In Bangladesh, meanwhile, security forces have killed an estimated 150 protestors since January and detained the prominent human rights defender Adilur Rahman Khan, who was documenting the cases of 61 people allegedly killed by security forces in May 2013.
Beyond the headlines, new measures and existing laws are being misused to stifle the creation, operations, and funding of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in dozens of countries. These laws are meant to provide some semblance of legitimacy to the efforts of authoritarian rulers to stop independent groups of citizens from protesting environmental degradation, exposing corruption, encouraging participation in elections, or otherwise trying to improve society and hold the government to account.
The restrictions on foreign funding of NGOs are particularly pernicious. They run the gamut from requiring government approval for specific projects, as in Sudan, to branding internationally funded NGOs as “foreign agents” in Russia or, in Ethiopia, preventing NGOs from engaging in human rights activities if they receive more than 10 percent of their income from foreign sources, which has decimated local human rights groups. Introduced under the guise of protecting sovereignty or increasing transparency, restrictions on foreign funding in fact aim to choke off the resources that sustain civil society organizations and are a clear violation of international norms.
Several authoritarian governments – of Egypt United Arab Emirates, Russia, and Bolivia – have shut down U.S.-funded democracy support programs, with hardly a whimper of protest from the U.S. government. These moves follow a clear pattern of dictatorial regimes replicating each other’s worst practices, exporting repression, and challenging established international norms and institutions that protect the freedom of association.
How should the United States respond? First, we need to call it what it is – a global assault on fundamental freedoms – and counteract it vigorously and systematically. Rather than leave the response to mid-level officials, it needs to rise to the attention of our top leaders before it degenerates into more cases of mass violence. President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry should personally call out foreign governments for violations of basic rights beyond the most egregious cases.
Second, we should keep human rights high on the agenda in our relations with all authoritarian governments. The soft-pedaling of human rights, for instance with China and Russia, hasn’t brought us significant gains. Instead, it sent a message to these governments that human rights is a low priority and to citizens struggling to defend their rights that they can’t expect much help from the United States.
Third, where we have leverage, we must use it. The Egyptian military is unlikely to heed our calls for restraint if the most they lose for slaughtering civilians is four F-16s and a military exercise. Similarly, the Ethiopian government has no incentive to loosen its choke hold on civil society when the U.S. government gives it a complete pass and acts as if it doesn’t gain as much or more than us from collaboration against violent extremists in the East and Horn of Africa.
We can stay true to our core values as we continue to engage with authoritarian governments, in both collaborative and complicated relationships. But we need to undertake a concerted response to the global assault on freedom – and promote both our values and interests by supporting peaceful democratic change.