Remarks by Deputy Assistant Administrator Dr. Sarah E. Mendelson at Civil Society under Assault: Global Repercussions and U.S. Responses

Thursday, September 12, 2013
Closing Space for Civil Society
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Freedom House

Good Morning!  Thank you David, and Elisa, old friends, for organizing this important event.  I am honored to be here with my other panelists, Admiral Blair, and the honored Special Rapporteur.

Before talking about closing space, I actually want to begin by talking about opening space; I believe these phenomena are inter-related.  And we need to understand that relationship, that dynamic as we think about what we do concerning the backlash. They say that when you join government as a political appointee, you spend down your intellectual capital. Not so in the 21st century.  Over nearly three and half years of serving in the Administration, I have been witness to, exposed to and learning about a revolution, and I don’t mean the Arab Spring.

I mean a revolution in how citizens are using technology to hold government accountable.  In Kenya, Indonesia, South Africa and many other places around the world, citizens are getting more information and demanding more information about how government delivers or does not deliver to their citizens. And they are using technology especially to talk about and monitor corruption. For example, “I paid a bribe” has moved from India to Kenya to Ukraine. They are using technology to track fraud in voting as we saw in Russia. So how does this connect to closing space?  This is the backlash, the empire striking back. The open revolution has another side; Sovereignty has eroded and for authoritarians and other abusers of human rights, this phenomenon is deeply threatening.  Power is shifting and dictators do not like that.  

Some facts: During the past year, USAID has experienced an unprecedented pushback to our work with Civil Society Organizations around the world, reflecting a disturbing broader trend in many countries toward closing civil society space. It is a global issue.  In the past two years, over 50 laws restricting registration, foreign funding, and limiting freedom of assembly have been passed, in every region in which USAID works, affecting CSOs in every development sector. This backlash against civil society has expanded to more and more countries; intensified, as seen by the draconian sentences handed down to courageous NGO activists in Egypt, including those with us today; and spread, to include not just democracy and human rights organizations, but humanitarian and other development NGOs. 

So, what have we been doing about it?  The Obama Administration has been working on an approach to make the defense of civil society a Whole of Government issue; bringing together USAID, the State Department, MCC, the Treasury Department, and USTR. President Obama and Secretary Kerry have made engagement with and support for civil society a hallmark of diplomacy and development policy.  I think you saw that last week with the President’s meeting with activists in Russia, and of course back in 2009 at the civil society summit.

Defending civil society’s access to sources of funding, both foreign and domestic is a high priority.  We have clearly communicated our U.S policy to all U.S. Embassies and USAID missions around the world that the U.S. Government reserves the right to work with civil society organizations even in situations where local laws are not in compliance with fundamental freedoms of association, expression, and peaceful assembly.

All U.S Embassies and Missions have been encouraged to meet regularly with civil society, in particular human rights defenders, and over 30 Embassies have established formal Strategic Dialogue Working Groups with local civil society organizations to provide a formal channel for civil society input and dialogue on topics including democracy and human rights, and women’s empowerment. The USG’s policy guidance is clear: Although the environment might be challenging and repressive in some places, our policy is to engage and to stand unequivocally in support of civil society around the world. 

For USAID, this is a development issue—restrictions on civil society negatively impact our ability to partner with local CSOs and support their work in every sector, including health, economic growth, women’s empowerment, humanitarian assistance, and democracy, human rights, and governance.   We simply cannot achieve any of our development goals if we do not have free and robust civil society to work with.  For that reason in our recently published DRG Strategy we write: “USAID is strongly committed to supporting civil society and standing up for fundamental rights, including the freedoms of association and speech, wherever they may be threatened.”

Because USAID’s work is so intrinsically tied to engagement with civil society, we are also often on the frontlines of this issue within the U.S. Government. So it should not be surprising that for the past year and a half, USAID has been working internally to more systematically learn and refine our own policies supporting civil society in restrictive environments.   I don’t have time to speak to all we are doing but let me point out a few highlights. Based on information from numerous Missions that we consulted on their experience with rapidly shrinking public space here is what we found:

Challenges related to legal restrictions on CSOs (such as restrictions on registration); Laws restricting foreign funding; Government pressure or attempts to manage the CSO sector; Public image and defamation issues; and dangerous threats to both physical and cyber security of CSOs and activists. This last issue is an especially poignant one; it takes us back to the murder of Natasha Estimirova in 2009 in Ingushetia.  It takes me back to the multiple police raids that have been described to me and in one case witnessed in Zimbabwe.

So, in light of these threats, USAID has formulated three basic principles to supporting civil society in restrictive environments and have in turn passed this information out to Missions. First, we focus on prevention, including monitoring developments aimed at restricting civil society through the legal framework or otherwise.  By tracking the legal environment, we can develop real-time diplomatic and assistance responses to threats to civil society.  These efforts, when done in a coordinated manner with like-minded governments, other donors, international financial institutions, and CSO partners themselves, have been effective in reshaping, mitigating, and in some cases, rolling back restrictive laws. 

Second, we focus on adaptation, aiming to be flexible and adapt our programs to help CSOs continue their work in the face of new regulations.  We assist CSOs to develop the capacity to manage new regulations, and support CSOs across all development sectors that might be affected by restrictive conditions. And finally, we continue supporting CSOs, even where space is severely restricted, often through regional platforms and with a focus on information security.

As we continue to shape and develop new, thoughtful approaches to tackle this issue of restricting space for civil society, we are increasing our dialogue with like-minded countries and partners.  I was honored to participate not long ago in a conversation about this issue in Brussels with our EU partners and another one in NYC with private philanthropists.  We need donor dialogue on this issue in addition to diplomatic engagement. 

Together with our State Department colleagues and other international public and private partners, we are developing innovative global and regional approaches that respond to this critical new 21st century challenge. We are exploring in some depth supporting or establishing global platforms that would enable innovation in civil society in numerous settings. And we are looking forward to working with additional donors and activists to raise the profile on the need for greater training and support concerning the physical security needs of activists.  The physical and cyber security needs of activists must be a high priority for all of us as we move forward.

Let me close by linking this back to the open revolution: To date, I go to many meetings where I see two completely separate communities and conversations going on: We have, on the one hand, a robust transparency and accountability community.  They helped spawn the open revolution.   And we have, on the other hand, the closing space community.  They are survivors of closing space.  These communities need to be engaging one another, and we hope to see this happen in NYC on the margins of UNGA, at the end of September, and at the Open Government Partnership Ministerial at the end of October in London.  I fear if we do not have these communities engaging one another, this will be the new divide replacing East/West or North/South.  And those living in closing space environments will be left behind in an information age.  Let’s work together to make sure that does not happen. 

The Liaison Capitol Hill, Washington, DC

Last updated: September 13, 2013

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