Freedom under assault across the globe
September 20th, 2013
01:42 PM ET

Freedom under assault across the globe

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.

More from CNN: CNN Freedom Project

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.

More from GPS: Russia's civil society crackdown

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.

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Topics: Human Rights

soundoff (8 Responses)
  1. Gebs

    Yet once again CNN, you only publish pro-Islamist articles and then declare that "The views expressed are his own" ??? In Egypt's case, I would agree that terrorism is under assault not "freedom under assault". If you love the fanatic Muslim Brotherhood and you think that they stand for freedom then shelter these terrorists in your own country.

    September 20, 2013 at 2:45 pm | Reply
    • CRBG

      Very true.

      September 21, 2013 at 11:32 pm | Reply
  2. john smith

    America is the root of all terror. America has invaded sixty countries since world war 2.
    In 1953 America overthrow Iran's democratic government Mohammad Mosaddegh and installed a brutal dictator Shah. America helped Shah of Iran to establish secret police and killed thousands of Iranian people.
    During Iran-Iraq war evil America supported Suddam Hossain and killed millions of Iranian people. In 1989, America, is the only country ever, shot down Iran's civilian air plane, killing 290 people.
    In 2003,America invaded Iraq and killed 1,000,000+ innocent Iraqi people and 4,000,000+ Iraqi people were displaced.
    Now America is a failed state with huge debt. Its debt will be 22 trillion by 2015.

    September 21, 2013 at 5:50 am | Reply
  3. Josh

    Islamic Muslim Terrorist organizations in the US such as the "Holy Land Foundation" have been shut down because they are known to send funding to Jihadi organizations which sponsor training Muslim terrorists all around the world.

    September 21, 2013 at 4:58 pm | Reply
  4. CRBG

    I wrote a comment giving examples of Muslim Brotherhood's terrors in Egypt, their abuse of what Mr. Calingaert calls "freedom", but I see that the moderators did not publish it....not yet, anyway. If my comment remains suppressed, then it will confirm to me that CNN views the MB as "freedom fighters" and will suppress evidence/comments to the contrary.

    September 22, 2013 at 12:13 am | Reply
  5. j. von hettlingen

    Indeed, it's worrying how various authoritarian countries suppress the freedom of expression and silence critics and dissidents.

    September 23, 2013 at 10:34 am | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      Total freedom is sometimes a disillusionment in the West too. The British Guardian had been harassed by the British NSA after having disclosed Snowden's files.

      September 23, 2013 at 10:38 am | Reply
  6. Sam Boston

    I am getting really sick of this biased coverage, CNN. The crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood is a crackdown on terrorism, not freedom. How about you stop your crackdown on al qaeda in the name of freedom too?

    October 27, 2013 at 9:59 pm | Reply

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