Is ISIS really going to attack Malaysia?

Double threat

Fear was behind many of the significant human rights developments in the past year: fear of torture and death in Syria and other conflict areas. And oppression forced millions of people to flee their homes. In Europe and elsewhere, fear of the social consequences of the influx of asylum seekers led many governments to close their gates. Fear of new terrorist attacks prompted leading politicians to restrict rights and to make refugees or Muslims the scapegoat. Various autocrats were afraid of being held accountable by their people. The result has been unprecedented global crackdown on people's ability to band together and make their views heard.

In Europe and the USA, the polarizing rhetoric of “us versus them” moved from the political fringes to the center of society. Outright Islamophobia and the shameless demonization of refugees became the currency of an increasingly assertive policy of intolerance.

These trends threaten human rights in two ways, one well known, the other less noticeable. The threat posed by the regression in human rights with which many governments are responding to the influx of refugees and the decision of the self-proclaimed “Islamic State” (ISIS) to attack targets outside the Middle East is evident. The less obvious threat is that more and more authoritarian governments are trying to chain civil society. This applies in particular to groups in civil society who critically observe the behavior of their government and address it publicly.

Western governments threatening human rights curtailment include some of the human rights movement's closest allies to date. Your voice is urgently needed to counter the far-reaching efforts to suppress civil society in many countries around the world - because this calls into question the protection of human rights and human rights themselves.

Assignment of blame against refugees and Muslims and missed opportunities in the fight against terrorism

Around one million asylum seekers fled to Europe by sea last year, but they are only part of the more than 60 million people who have fled the world as a result of war and oppression. This marks the highest level since World War II. The most important driving force behind this development was the brutal conflict in Syria. This was partly due to the atrocities committed by ISIS and other armed groups, but above all to the actions of the government of Bashar al-Assad, which indiscriminately attacked civilian population centers in the opposition areas. Around 4 million Syrian refugees initially fled to neighboring countries, more than 2 million of them to Turkey and one million to Lebanon, where refugees now make up almost a quarter of the total population.

The approximately one million people who came to Europe last year only make up a fraction of the respective country's population - around 1.25 percent in Germany, where, given Angela Merkel's remarkable leadership and welcoming attitude, most refugees sought refuge. In relation to the entire EU population, this proportion is 0.20 percent if there is a redistribution of refugees in Europe.

Even before the ISIS attacks in Paris in November, in which at least two assassins were used who infiltrated the refugees into Europe, the uncontrolled and sometimes chaotic influx of refugees across Europe had caused deep concern. As a result of the attacks, the EU intensified its countermeasures: new barbed wire fences were erected and new restrictions on border traffic were imposed, while fears and Islamophobia arose. The EU promised Turkey € 3 billion in aid to curb the flow of refugees. These steps are in line with the EU's longstanding goal of shifting responsibility for refugees onto others. This is in contradiction not only to the conventions for the protection of refugee rights, which the EU has ratified, but also to the historical experience of many Europeans who themselves benefited from refugee protection while fleeing National Socialism or Communism.

Europe's concerns that the new refugees may pose a terrorist threat are little more than a dangerous diversion from home-grown violent extremism. This is supported by the fact that the Paris attackers were predominantly Belgian and French citizens. The roots of radicalization are complex, but are also linked to the social exclusion of immigrant groups, the persistent discrimination, hopelessness and despair that are ubiquitous on the outskirts of some major European cities, and the divergence of expectations and perspectives among successive generations.

For some people - and a few are enough - these circumstances can lead to a willingness to engage in political violence. A central component of the social discourse should therefore be the question of how these challenges can be met; not to mention how to solve the related and wider problems of inequality and unemployment.

Instead, the public debate was filled with voices of hatred and fear of “Muslims”, who are often equated with “refugees”. The main reason why these messages must be rejected is because they are false. In today's world of hassle-free air travel and rapid social change, Muslims are a part of virtually every living society. Like everyone else, you shouldn't have to contend with discrimination.

To denigrate entire population groups because of the acts of individuals, this has a counterproductive effect on efforts to prevent terrorism. Because it is precisely this divisive and alienating response to terror that its masterminds need in order to attract new recruits. At the same time, it undermines the willingness to cooperate with law enforcement agencies, which is essential to preventing terrorist attacks.

Through their social and neighborly environment, Muslims are often the ones who are most likely to learn of a terrorist threat anchored in radical Islam. In this way they are best equipped to dissuade others from acts of violence and to report potential perpetrators of violence. Whoever denigrates Muslims across the board risks dissuading them from this important form of cooperation with the police.

We should learn from the shameful and nonsensical US response to the September 11, 2001 attacks, not just in terms of the notorious methods of torture, the disappearance of suspects in secret CIA prisons and the long-term without trial detention in Guantanamo Bay. But we should also look at immigration laws and the rules governing the statute of important witnesses (Material Witness Statute), whereby foreign nationals were detained on the basis of their religion or ethnicity, deliberately evading criminal procedures.

Throwing human rights overboard or scapegoating people with a certain religious or social profile not only harms those affected, but also alienates them from the fight against terrorism. This is the opposite of what is needed. A wise anti-terrorism policy - as many painful experiences have taught us - must respect human rights.

Refugee protection also protects the host countries

Since the refugees and asylum seekers after their desperate flight from crime and endless violence in countries like Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Eritrea have little chance of getting adequate work, housing, education and a clear legal status in the neighboring countries, most of them have any Means right to get to Europe. So the question is not whether, but how these people get to their destination: on an orderly route that would allow security checks, or on the chaotic route via smugglers.

As a result of European politics, the refugees have so far had little choice but to risk their lives on the high seas in order to get a chance for asylum. As long as uncoordinated boats land on the Greek islands, it will hardly be possible to systematically check those arriving and intercept alleged terrorists.

A safer and more humane alternative would be if the EU expanded the admission of refugees and issued humanitarian visas on a larger scale in the first places of refuge, for example in Lebanon or Pakistan.

The UN refugee agency UNHCR could, provided it receives adequate support, develop its capacity to screen refugees and pass them on to the host countries. Through expanded admission programs, Europe could signal that it will not suddenly close its doors and that there is no need to get on a rickety boat as quickly as possible and cross the Mediterranean, where around 3,770 people drowned last year, a third of them children. Well-organized registration and screening of refugees would also serve the safety of Europeans.

The establishment of application centers in neighboring countries would also enable redistribution to non-European countries. This not only affects traditional host countries such as the United States, Canada and Australia, but also the Gulf States and Russia, which have to do more than before.

Not every asylum seeker will follow such an orderly route. Nor should people be forced to do so in principle. The success of such measures will mainly depend on how generous they are: the more refugees see it as a reasonable chance of resettlement without spending years in refugee camps, and the sooner they can lead a normal life during the waiting period, the less likely they will be choose the life-threatening alternative. A practicable admission program would help curb the flow of irregular refugees, which is currently overwhelming the border controls on the coasts of southern Europe.

In most cases, asylum seekers who have managed to get to Europe via Greece or Italy travel further north. There they encounter similar chaotic conditions. The sluggish implementation of the EU's organized resettlement plan, together with the ongoing construction of border fences based on the Saint Florians principle by countries such as Hungary, Slovenia and Macedonia, has led to a huge uncontrolled flow of refugees, which is a gift for all those who want to evade the control of the security forces.

If all EU states implemented their commitments to accept asylum seekers and jointly offer a regulated admission procedure, this could enable more effective security controls and offer asylum seekers an incentive to take part. This would be a first step towards a common responsibility shared by all EU states, which is indispensable for a common EU asylum system and the avoidance of excessive demands on individual EU states. Such an option could also help to replace the current Dublin rules. They place all responsibility for asylum seekers with the countries of first reception, which include some of the least able EU member states.

Europe is not alone with its counterproductive refugee policy, especially with regard to refugees from Syria. In the US, too, some officials and politicians denigrate Syrian refugees as a security risk, even though the few Syrians who are allowed to enter there go through an in-depth two-year screening process with repeated interviews, background checks by several US authorities, and biometric data collection. This is unlikely to be an attractive option for potential terrorists. They may prefer to enter as students or tourists, which is associated with far weaker controls. Of all the groups of people who enter the USA, refugees are screened the most intensively.

Nevertheless, 30 US governors attempted to ban the admission of Syrian refugees into their states. There was even talk of denying entry to Muslim non-US citizens across the board, although this idea met with widespread rejection. Canada reacted quite differently under the leadership of its new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: It accelerated the admission of 25,000 Syrian refugees, who were spread across all 10 provinces and most of them were warmly welcomed. The prime minister even greeted the first refugees personally at the airport. In doing so, he campaigned for a respectful approach and rejected fear and mistrust.

Mass Surveillance vs. Smart Answers to Terrorism

Politicians on both sides of the Atlantic used the terrorist threat not only to scapegoat refugees. They also saw this as an opportunity to expand their already powerful surveillance apparatus even more.

In the US, CIA Director John Brennan used the Paris attacks as an argument against the latest technical and legal restrictions on the mass collection of telephone metadata by the secret services, which were still moderate in view of the extent of mass surveillance revealed by Edward Snowden in 2013.

Two independent control bodies, which had access to secret information, unanimously found that metadata had not contributed significantly to the thwarting of a terrorist attack in any single case, even though massive privacy intrusions had taken place during its collection.

FBI Director James Comey took the Paris attacks as an opportunity to revive plans to oblige Internet companies to incorporate so-called "back doors" into even their strongest encryption methods.

Many companies have been working to develop more secure systems since the public dismay over the Snowden revelations. But there are no back doors that can only be used by “the good guys”. They inevitably also help criminals to threaten critical infrastructure or to endanger the confidential communication of ordinary users. Terrorists are likely to find their own encryption methods anyway, which are not available on the mass market.

European public officials also seemed tempted to expand the scope of mass surveillance. For example, France passed a new secret service law that strengthened the authorities' powers to spy on masses, and similar measures are underway in Great Britain. In numerous attacks in Europe, however, the perpetrators included people who were known to the police but who were not further investigated due to a lack of resources.

French President François Hollande seemed to recognize this problem when he promised to hire 8,500 new police officers to investigate, instead of just piling up new mountains of data without the means to analyze them. Nevertheless, after the attacks in Paris, France also approved potentially arbitrary police methods: for example, President Hollande declared a state of emergency and thus enabled the security forces to search and arrest without a warrant.

The lack of a judicial review makes selective identity checks many times more likely - in this case selective checks on young Muslim men. For some time now, police controls based on such suspect profiles have been particularly harassing those parts of the population with whom contact should actually be cultivated in the interests of preventing violence.

Strengthening civil society through social media

While Europe and the US are concerned about alleged links between the refugee issue and terrorism, many authoritarian governments are worried about the interaction between civil society and social media.

A dynamic civil society helps government serve its people. It is difficult for a single citizen to reach a large audience. However, when many citizens join together in a civil society association, this strengthens their voices and enables them to influence the government.Civil society, i.e. the entirety of all non-governmental associations and organizations that allow the population to unite for shared causes, is an indispensable part of any democracy worthy of its name. Independent and effective civil society associations ensure that governments build schools, secure access to health care, protect the environment and take a variety of other measures that serve the civil society's perception of the common good.

Many a functionary does not see suggestions from the population as a guide for their policy, but as a threat. When decision-makers are preoccupied with their own advancement and that of their relatives and cronies, the last thing they want is to expose an empowered public that coordinates and pools resources to investigate corruption, mismanagement, and incompetence in government criticize and eliminate.

In another area, in which many autocrats have actually got rid of any semblance of democracy, they still need a democratic facade today in order to at least pretend to preserve the prerequisites for legitimacy. Just as the autocrats have learned to manipulate elections in order to ensure their political survival, so today they try to prevent a responsible public from thwarting their autocratic plans between elections. By depriving civil society of any leeway, they stifle their efforts to criticize or even question their selfish regime.

In recent years, social media have reshuffled the cards in this contest between state and society. Just a few years ago, civil society relied on traditional media to make itself heard. The finite number of traditional news media in any given country made censorship easier.

Thanks to the rise of social media, anyone can bypass traditional media today and reach countless people without a journalistic intermediary, especially where social media is easily accessible on mobile devices. This has significantly strengthened civil society's ability to be heard and demand change. However, the consequences of the rise of social media are not invariably positive: their users also include provocateurs and trolls who are instigated or even paid by governments to support official propaganda. Still, having a public that can voice their concerns through social media is an important addition to the mainstream media when it comes to questioning the official line.

This development manifested itself most dramatically in the uprisings in the Arab world that broke out in late 2010, in the Maidan revolution in Ukraine in 2014 and in the Occupy Central movement in Hong Kong. Each of these events demonstrated the synergy between a dissatisfied public and a civil society capable of getting people onto the streets through social networks.

However, the interaction between civil society and social media also came to fruition in less spectacular ways. From China to Venezuela to Malaysia, it has forced governments that prefer to rule unreservedly and from above to face public pressure and increasingly account for their citizens.

Oppression, corruption or sheer indifference have a weaker stand if they can be challenged by a well-connected and coordinated society.

The autocrat's answer

Unwilling to accept such a restriction of their rule by the people, the autocrats fought back and thus set in motion a momentous, self-reinforcing development. Authoritarian governments have learned from each other, refined their methods, and shared their insights. And they launched the most far-reaching offensive against civil society in decades.

The typical instruments used by autocrats today are, on the one hand, the attempt to deny civil society associations their right to raise funds abroad if there are no domestic sources, and, on the other hand, to make them incapable of acting with flexible regulations. This threatens the desire for a government that represents its population better, which social media has promised its mature users as a possible reality.

However, taking note of this worrying trend does not mean declaring civil society dead. With the same enormous potential with which mature populations have driven their deeply insecure autocrats to try to bring society back into a fragmented, docile form, they can also strike back. It is still uncertain who will prevail in this duel between the peoples 'pursuit of accountable governments and the autocrats' greed for unleashed rule.

The decisive third parties in this dispute are the governments that acknowledge the principles of human rights as the basis of democratic rule. Their willingness to adhere to principles and not succumb to the temptation to accommodate rich or powerful autocrats can determine whether dictatorships or legal representative governments prevail. But as long as Western powers violate human rights when dealing with refugees and fighting terrorism, their ability to protect the overarching catalog of human rights remains compromised.

Reasons of secrecy

Even on a superficial level, efforts to suppress civil society seem to be led primarily by governments that have something to hide. Depending on who is responsible for the violations, it could be government misconduct that the authorities would rather not address, evidence of misconduct that should be kept secret, or an issue that should be removed from the agenda. As governments harass civil society to evade their accountability, the issues they suppress are a good indicator of their deepest fears.

China and Russia, arguably the two most influential actors in this context, are good examples of this. In both cases, the governments tacitly made a pact with the population: In return for strictly limiting political participation, they promised rapid economic growth and improved opportunities for personal development. Today, both governments are struggling to honor their end of the deal.

This is partly because the lack of public scrutiny has led to bad economic policy decisions. The Russian elite took in oil and gas revenues without diversifying the hydrocarbon-dependent economy that a critical public might have demanded. Given the sharp drop in oil and gas prices and the sanctions following the Kremlin's military activities in Ukraine, the economic situation became increasingly delicate.

In China, the same symptoms that ailing the political system are also holding back economic growth. These include the impulse to gloss over apparently controversial information, for example on the reaction to the stock market crash in August, the dependence on a judiciary that acts as the Communist Party's henchman instead of judging independently about contractual disputes and other disputes, and an anti-corruption campaign that also serves as a political cleansing operation.

This top-down policy, which cannot be checked by an independent public debate, has led to an economic slowdown, if not to a recession. While dwindling wealth casts doubt on the performance of those in power, the Russian and Chinese governments are acting more repressively than they have been in decades.

The Kremlin, first in response to the protests against Putin in 2011 and 2012 and later as it fomented nationalism to promote his vision of a new Russian identity, stepped up with increasing intensity against Russian civil society, one of the the most important products of the dissolution of Soviet rule. In this poisoned climate, it is easier for the Kremlin to divert attention from the growing problems of the Russian economy to other issues.

The Chinese government does, to some extent, recognize the need to meet the growing expectations of the population. But while she speaks of the rule of law and selectively indicts individual officials of corruption, she arrests lawyers and activists who have the courage to advocate these goals outside of state control. And it goes without saying that the judiciary manipulated by the government lacks the rule of law. Rather, Beijing's selective approach to corruption undermines the urgently needed establishment of an independent judicial system. Similar tendencies can also be seen in other areas.

Behind the efforts to suppress civil society are often officials who try to save themselves from the threat of criminal prosecution or other sanctions for their illegal activities:

  • Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the former prime minister and current president of Turkey, launched the toughest measures against civil society in at least a decade after mass protests against his increasingly autocratic governance. He stepped up the pace when tapes became public that suggested he and his family were involved in corruption cases. When his party, which has ruled for three legislative terms, failed to win an absolute majority in the June elections, the president responded with raids on the media and political opponents. When the elections were repeated in November, Erdoğan's party ultimately emerged victorious.
  • In Kenya, senior officials attacked civil society groups advocating prosecution by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for suspected masterminds of post-election violence, including Vice President William Ruto. Kenya also targeted groups that had documented human rights violations by the security forces in connection with anti-terrorism operations. The missions were in response to the fact that there had been more attacks with firearms and grenades in different parts of the country.
  • In response to the arrest warrant issued by the ICC in March 2009 against the Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, Sudan expelled numerous aid organizations active in Darfur from the country and banned groups that had publicly campaigned for justice and human rights.
  • In South Africa, the government of President Jacob Zuma took action against an organization that had successfully brought an action against the government receiving Bashir and ignoring ICC arrest warrants.
  • In the face of growing international outrage over the expansion of illegal settlement construction, Israel passed a law that could be used to punish civil society organizations and individuals who call for economic or other ties to be severed with the Israeli settlements or Israel. Last year, the Supreme Court found the law largely admissible.

Other governments took action when elections or a limitation of the term of office threatened their hold on power:

  • When there were widespread protests in Burundi against the decision of President Pierre Nkurunzizas to seek a constitutionally questionable third term, the government cracked down on civil society. The country's leading human rights activist, Pierre Claver Mbonimpa, was shot and seriously injured. Two of his closest relatives were killed in separate incidents.
  • Human rights defenders and youth democracy activists have been detained, beaten and threatened in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They had organized peaceful demonstrations and criticized the possible extension of President Joseph Kabila's term of office, which would have exceeded the constitutional limit of two terms in office. Government officials alleged completely unfounded that the activists planned "terrorist activities" or a "violent uprising". The security forces used deadly force to break up peaceful demonstrations by the group.
  • Venezuela's President Nicolás Maduro had critics and civil rights groups harassed, arrested and demonized in the months leading up to the general election. Maduro suffered a defeat in the elections, which most observers attributed to his poor economic policies.
  • The Ecuadorian police acted with excessive harshness against citizens who demonstrated against a planned constitutional amendment. The amendment was intended to allow the president to be re-elected indefinitely. As a result, President Rafael Correas did not have the abusive police officers investigated, but instead congratulated them on their “professionalism”.

Some governments also want to exploit raw material deposits without public participation or independent control of any kind:

  • Oil-rich Azerbaijan arrested leading civil rights activists in order to prevent unrest over the obvious corruption and mismanagement in the state apparatus. Europe was apparently too busy buying oil and gas from the country and luring it away from Russia's influence to criticize the incidents in any meaningful way.
  • In Uzbekistan, where government officials personally benefit from the income from the cotton sector, the authorities targeted people who tried to document and expose the forced labor in the cotton fields. The World Bank increased its investment in the Uzbek cotton sector and only raised its concerns in closed talks of questionable utility.

Behind these various motives for repression of civil society stands the autocrats' conviction that structured public debate corresponds to a political threat. Their regimes seem to think it better to restrict people's freedom of association than to run the risk that their dissatisfaction will meet with broad resonance.

This fear of free public debate has spawned a number of methods that restrict or paralyze civil society. In addition to threats, violence, arbitrary detention and fabricated charges, this also includes two increasingly common approaches: restricting the right to solicit financial support from abroad and imposing arbitrary and repressive regulations.

Restricting the right to solicit financial support

In many economically weak countries there is a lack of donors who can support civil society organizations with larger donations. Even when individuals are wealthy enough to make such donations, autocrats often dissuade them by targeting their business interests. The threat of a tax audit, the non-issuance of necessary permits or the curtailment of public contracts is usually sufficient to dissuade those affected from making financial contributions to groups critical of the government.

When potential donors at home are frightened or do not have the necessary funds to contribute larger sums, civil society associations naturally exercise their right to solicit support abroad. This right has now become the preferred target of repressive governments. They are trying hard to stop foreign donations to associations that work for the protection of human rights or for more accountability in the government.

India, regardless of its democratic traditions, has been practicing this method for some time under the Foreign Grant Regulation Act. This obliges civil society associations to obtain official approval before they can accept donations from abroad. The willingness of the government to approve such donations is evidently less, the more “sensitive” the work of the group in question is. While associations that offer care services can operate relatively undisturbed, the work of human rights groups is often restricted. Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, environmental organizations in particular came under fire because they allegedly opposed official development programs.One targeted activist was known for her work on the 2002 riots against Muslims in Gujarat, in which Modi, then as prime minister, was allegedly involved.

Russia is also aggressively using such restrictions. It initially branded organizations that receive donations from abroad as "foreign agents" (which has the unsightly connotation "traitors" or "spies" in Russian), and then blocked certain foreign donors as "undesirable foreign organizations" under threat of punishment for everyone who cooperates with them.

Other former Soviet republics are now imitating Russia's actions. For example, Kyrgyzstan's parliament is advising on its own law on “foreign agents”, which is closely based on the Russian model. Kazakhstan introduced a legal obligation to process grants to civil society organizations through a government-appointed "mediator" who can decide at its own discretion about the distribution of the funds. Belarus requires the registration of all foreign donations with an authority that can block any donation if its intended use is not on a limited list of officially approved areas of application. Azerbaijan launched criminal investigations into some of the most important foreign donors, frozen the accounts of dozens of their recipients, imprisoned key figures in the human rights movement, and introduced a license requirement for every foreign donor and every sponsored project.

In China, some of the major civil rights groups, especially human rights organizations, rely heavily on outside donations. The government is expected to pass a new law on foreign NGOs in the near future that will allow it to more fully control foreign sources of money. This would particularly affect organizations that do not offer care services, but rather engage in political lobbying.

Alongside India, Ethiopia also pioneered such methods when in 2009 it limited the proportion of foreign donations to 10 percent of the total budget for all organizations dealing with human rights and governance. This was tantamount to closing most of the monitoring organizations. In Kenya, the government is considering introducing a similar cap of 15 percent on the grounds that proponents of the ICC investigation are pursuing a "foreign agenda."

Angola only allows donations from foreign donors with the approval of the relevant government agency. In Venezuela, the Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that any organization that receives donations from abroad can be prosecuted for "treason". In the National Assembly, a majority loyal to the government decided to ban international support for associations that “defend political rights” or “oversee the performance of state organs” - a frank testimony to their fears. In Morocco, five civil rights activists have been charged with “endangering internal security” for using foreign funds to organize a seminar to promote citizen journalism using a smartphone app.

Justifications for repression

Autocrats like to justify their decision to restrict civil society groups' access to foreign donors with nationalist rhetoric: "How dare these foreigners interfere in domestic affairs?" The same governments that are eager to attract foreign investment and international trade deals criticize civil rights groups who recruit donors from abroad.

Many governments welcome foreign financial aid as long as it flows into their own pockets or to organizations that provide utility services. Some of them get involved in debates abroad that they do not allow civil society at home to do.

These contradictions cannot be resolved by arguing that civil society interferes inappropriately with state affairs. In the private sector, it is part of everyday life for companies to lobby in order to influence laws and regulations in their favor, or to take part in debates on state activity. Foreign financial aid often flows into the provision of essential government services. Compared to the money that flows into the country through investments, trade or development aid, the need for donations by civil society associations is negligible.

So why do you target civil society only? Because it is able to mobilize the population to criticize government mismanagement, especially when its message is multiplied via social media. Where the media has already been silenced, as is usually the case in these authoritarian scenarios, civil society is the only actor who can urge public officials to act not in their own interests but in the interests of the citizens. Any attack on the right to solicit donors abroad is in fact an attack on a coordinated attempt to hold the government accountable.

Governments justify the decision to deprive civil society groups of their right to raise funds abroad in a number of ways. Often they compare their restrictions with those that apply in established democracies. In some democracies, for example, political candidates are prohibited from funding their election campaigns with foreign funds.

But the restrictions that prohibit civil society associations from accepting funds from abroad go well beyond the context of the elections. They limit the ability of civil society to organize and take a stand on a wide range of issues unrelated to upcoming elections.

This cannot be justified with international human rights norms or any other understanding of democracy, as UN Special Rapporteur Maina Kiai made clear in a recently published report. Free public participation is essential so that citizens can contribute in a more differentiated way than through the occasional act of voting. This is the only way they can take a position on the various topics that are on the agenda outside of the election campaign and make their views heard.

Laws in force in democracies, such as the “Foreign Agents Registration Act” in the USA, are used to justify the autocrats' attempts to justify them. This obliges every person who acts on behalf of a foreign government to register as an agent. However, this only applies to natural or legal persons who actually act as representatives of a foreign government or under its direct control. Donations to civil society organizations are practically never associated with such direct instructions. There is no representative relationship here that would justify special disclosure, let alone a ban. In many cases, the donors are not governments anyway, but private individuals or private foundations.

Some governments, for example in Cambodia, Egypt, Tajikistan and India, justify restrictions on foreign donations to civil society organizations as a need to fight terrorism. Countries such as China, Pakistan and Bangladesh also put their bills restricting foreign donations in direct relation to the terrorist threat. However, since terrorist groups can just as easily use cover firms to finance their crimes, the special treatment conceals other concerns.

Ultimately, the irony is that the same governments that make it difficult for civil society associations to get funding from abroad spend enormous sums of money themselves on lobbyists or PR firms to polish up their own prestige in the world. Russia, China, Egypt and Azerbaijan spent several million dollars in Washington alone to give their repression a good-natured face while bleeding to death their own civil society, which is trying to alleviate this repression. The extent to which cross-border donations are viewed as a worrying influence on public discourse seems to depend on whether the money is used to question or support the official line.

All in all, efforts to restrict civil society's access to foreign donations are not about transparency or good governance, but about preventing coordinated scrutiny of government affairs by - given the lack of, or intimidating, donors in the Domestic - only remaining independent sources of money blocked.

If these governments really wanted to protect society from foreign funds, they would have to lapse into the seclusion of North Korea. In fact, however, they are trying to create a selective blockade that allows investment and financial aid to pass through for their own benefit, while blocking funds that could be used to hold the government accountable. Any distinction made by the government between commercial and charitable funds, or between financial aid to the state and donations to civil society organizations, should be recognized for what it is: the attempt to protect citizens' freedom of expression and association, and thus their advocacy of accountability Inhibit governance.

Death by regulations

In addition to throttling the flow of money, autocrats are also trying to paralyze civil society with ever new laws and regulations. Such rules have the advantage of appearing ordinary, routine and apolitical. There is actually nothing wrong with some regulations, such as the obligation to keep honest and transparent bookkeeping, to comply with labor law or to register with the authorities. However, autocrats who want to stifle civil society abuse legal regulations for much broader purposes, namely to undermine the independence of civil society associations.

One common method is to claim that civil society is jeopardizing some vaguely defined conception of the common good. This typically includes maintaining the government in power or continuing actions that serve an influential clientele.

  • Russia criminalized revelations of military casualties in “special operations”, which incidentally also included the Kremlin's military actions in eastern Ukraine. Critics of the Russian annexation of Crimea also faced criminal prosecution.
  • China passed a series of homeland security, cybersecurity and counterterrorism laws that mix peaceful criticism with threats to national security. The bill on foreign NGOs nebulously promises to prevent civil society associations from jeopardizing “China's national interests”, “the public interest of society” or “public order and morality”.
  • Kazakhstan made "inciting social, national, clan or class or religious disagreement" a criminal offense, which the government repeatedly used to silence critics.
  • Hungary brought charges of “fraud” against organizations working on corruption and human rights issues.
  • Turkey arrested journalists and shut down media outlets who had shown a willingness to investigate state corruption, to question government policies or to report evidence of arms deliveries to Syrian opposition groups.
  • The Ugandan parliament passed a law that - if it comes into force - provides for up to three years imprisonment for the leaders of independent associations whose organizations violate far-reaching and vaguely worded “special obligations”, such as the prohibition of acts that “serve interests Uganda or the dignity of the Ugandan people ”.
  • In Sudan, critical journalists and civil society activists face charges of “crimes against the state” which, if convicted, result in the death penalty.
  • Cambodia closed associations that "endanger peace, stability and public order or harm national security, national unity or the culture and tradition of Cambodian society".
  • In Morocco, a court ordered the closure of an association that campaigned for the rights of residents of the Ifni region because the group had damaged Morocco's “territorial integrity”.
  • Ecuador's President Rafael Correa authorized his government to disband associations that “endanger public peace”. The government used this power to shut down an environmental group that had spoken out against drilling for oil in the ecologically sensitive Amazon basin.
  • Bolivia's President Evo Morales authorized his government in 2013 to dissolve any civil society organization whose legal representative is being prosecuted for acts that “undermine security and public order”.

In view of the intensified efforts of Western governments to combat terrorism, other states have developed a skill in redirecting criticism of their harsh actions against civil society with unclear statements about the threat of terrorism.

  • Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood - and the threat it posed in the voting booth - was really about fighting terrorism. Al-Sisi's approach is supported by the Gulf monarchies with billions. The royal houses are very afraid of a movement that combines the political Islam, for which they are supposed to advocate, with free elections, which monarchs detest.
  • Kenya added two human rights organizations to its list of alleged sponsors of terrorism who had documented crimes committed by the security forces in counter-terrorism operations. The accused groups had to go to court to get acquitted of alleged links to terrorism and to have their accounts unblocked.
  • In China, a law is being discussed which also includes "thoughts, statements or behavior" in the definition of terrorism which are intended to "influence the shaping of national politics". The draft also contains a blanket ban on “other terrorist activities”, which can be used to interpret any activity as a terrorist offense.
  • Brazil is considering introducing an anti-terror law that contains overly broad and unclear wording that defines “advocating terrorism” as a criminal offense without any further clarification. The law contains another provision that could be used to prosecute protesters who “take over” streets and buildings.

Behind these attempts to fix civil society associations to the official notions of the common good lies a misunderstanding of the role of civil society. In a society that respects the law, everyone should be free to join forces to advance their own vision of the common good. They should only be inhibited by such restrictions that prevent direct harm to third parties. Many of these goals will be different from the government's intentions, but that is exactly what it is all about. A government is most likely to meet the needs of its people when it is free to discuss what those needs are and how they can best be served. The fact that people come together to emphasize their points of view is an indispensable part of this process, regardless of the variations and permutations in which such associations are formed.

When governments with vaguely worded laws about the common good or national interests try to put civil society on the chain, they narrow the spectrum of public debate. This takes place both through state censorship and through the self-censorship of the population groups who try to understand which statements and actions are allowed. This not only violates the rights of those who form associations and want their views to be heard. It also results in the government serving the private interests of its leaders and their most powerful allies rather than the people.

Homophobia comes in handy

An increasingly popular method of suppressing civil society is to act against associations of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people or against people who stand up for their rights.Many repressive governments argue analogously to their rejection of foreign donations by claiming that lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people are alien to their culture and an appearance imposed by the West.

Of course, no western country "exports" gays and lesbians, who have existed in every country since time immemorial, even if their visibility is largely a product of the prevailing levels of oppression. The only thing that is actually imposed are the dominant views on gender roles and sexuality that the government dictates to a vulnerable minority.

As with the more general attacks on civil society, attacks on LGBT groups appear to be most intense where there is the most urgent need to divert attention from other issues. The vocal advocates of repressive LGBT laws worldwide - Vladimir Putin in Russia, Yoweri Museveni in Uganda, Nigeria's ex-President Goodluck Jonathan and Yahya Jammeh in Gambia - are under political pressure because of their poor governance. Presenting yourself as the guardian of “traditional values” is a convenient way of avoiding discussions about your own misconduct. However, since this trick does not work in the long term, state homophobia is often just the prelude to more far-reaching measures against civil society - the proverbial canary in the coal mine.

Closed societies

It is not enough for the strictest autocrats to set strict limits on civil society. They prohibit or completely destroy them. In countries like North Korea, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Eritrea or Rwanda, there is practically no independent civil society any more. Coordinated statements on the behavior of the government are out of the question. In many other countries such as Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates and Belarus, the establishment of a civil society association that holds the government accountable leads directly to prison.

Many of the regimes that lead the way in the suppression of civil society are nevertheless trying today to present themselves as democratic and accountable and thus to enjoy the associated advantages - without, of course, allowing any real control of their actions by civil society associations. These governments also most often use restrictions on foreign donations and vaguely worded regulations as a pretext for their repression. Governments whose understanding of democracy is based on respect for human rights should make it clear that they see through these pretexts and that the end of oppression is a prerequisite for normal relationships.

Human rights as a way out

Since the global community is increasingly networked thanks to simpler means of transport and communication, human rights problems can rarely be viewed in isolation in relation to a single country.

Atrocities in Syria and Afghanistan trigger refugee crises in Europe. Elsewhere, Europe's reaction or the lack of an appropriate reaction affects the development of societies in which people of different cultures, religions and sexual orientations are respected. The simplification and democratization of modern communication through the Internet, and especially through social media, are challenging governments around the world to be more active and comprehensive in their accountability to the people.

With the turmoil in the world today, it will not be easy to meet this challenge. Change can seem threatening, be it to a community nostalgic for memories of greater homogeneity, a nation facing growing insecurity, or a dictator desperately clinging to power.

If we want to build societies that respect each and every one of their members, states that find the best strategy for their defense, or governments that serve their people as efficiently as possible, then the wisdom enshrined in international human rights standards is an indispensable guide .

Whoever reveals this wisdom is walking on thin ice.

Kenneth Roth is the executive director of Human Rights Watch