Champions of Democracy Under Attack: The Silence is Deafening

There’s a troubling trend underway across Asia and Canada that’s seeing NGOs—key champions of democracy—under attack by various governments. And the justification for this scrutiny and muzzling appears to be that governments don’t appreciate that activists are raising voices on issues that may not align with government policy and priorities.

If you thought that this is an issue just amongst totalitarian regimes, you’d be wrong. Some of the world’s most vibrant democracies are key perpetrators.

Oh, Canada! What Happened?

In Canada, home to Junxion’s Vancouver office, the Conservative government of Stephen Harper has subjected various influential NGOs that focus on issues like tar sands development and poverty to rigorous audits by the Canada Revenue Agency. This has occurred at the same time it has silenced its own scientists from speaking publicly about climate change.

The government has also rammed through Bill C-51, a controversial anti-terrorism law that that the Canadian Civil Liberties Association has called to be withdrawn due to “serious human rights shortcomings.” According to Sukanya Pillay, the association’s executive director and general counsel, “Bill C-51 contains serious threats to liberty, security of person, fundamental freedoms, due process, and privacy rights, and there has been no evidence that it is necessary to protect Canadians.” Human Rights Watch says it will “imperil fundamental rights enshrined in both Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms and international law.” It’s another blunt tool to muzzle civil society.

In fact, it’s gotten so bad that Canadian civil society groups have brought their challenge to the bill to the UN human rights committee, which is conducting a periodic review of Canada’s international rights obligations this week. So much for Canada’s historic reputation for being a model pluralistic and democratic society.

Meanwhile in India…

In Asia, a tsunami of anti-NGO actions and laws is also sending a chill across civil society organisations. In India, “the world’s largest democracy,” and home to Junxion India, the Home Ministry has recently:

  • Taken a series of actions against various NGOs including Greenpeace, and two NGOs run by a social activist who has raised concerns about Prime Minister Modi’s role in deadly riots in 2002 against Muslims in Gujarat
  • Cancelled the registration of more than 10,000 NGOs
  • Put the Ford Foundation on its “watch list” for allegedly violating provisions of the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA).

The Indian government has even targeted Caritas Internationalis, a charitable arm of the Vatican, which is now under the microscope for indulging in “anti-India activity,” including launching protests against a nuclear power project and allegedly funding political activities that are against the norms of the FCRA. What’s more, in mid-June the government proposed a series of amendments to the FCRA to strengthen its scrutiny of financial transactions involving NGOs.

According to a report in, a respected online business publication, Sumit Ganguly, director of the Center on American and Global Security at Indiana University in Bloomington says, “These tactics are more reminiscent of the Soviet Union or current day People’s Republic of China, rather than a country that takes pride in its democratic institutions and its commitment to civil liberties and personal freedoms.” Sounds surprisingly like criticisms against Canada’s actions.

Suppressing Civil Society, One Country at a Time

Beyond the Indian subcontinent, NGOs in democracies and authoritarian regimes alike are also being hounded or restricted. As The Economist reports, “Hostility to NGOs is not new, nor is it unique to Asia. But it is getting more intense and pervasive in the region—including among democracies. Tighter regulation is leading to a clampdown on outfits that governments dislike.”

The list of countries tightening the screws is long: Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, Kyrgyztan, Laos, Pakistan, Russian, Sri Lanka and Tajikistan. They are targeting groups that promote “Western values” like election transparency, gay rights, prison reform or abolishing the death penalty. They also have their sights on leftist or environmental groups that are seen as a barrier to growth and development. Some countries also take issue with the fact that some charities are linked to unwelcome religions, including Christianity and Islam.

As frightening and disappointing as these efforts to silence diverse voices are, they present a double-edged sword. As The Economist article concludes, “…in the long run, such harassment only rallies political opponents. And as countries grow richer and aspirations rise, NGOs will grow only more influential in helping to promote social equity and civil rights. Those now advocating tighter scrutiny of activist outfits may come to regret it. …. Battering-rams, after all, have two ends.”

Peter ter Weeme is a Principal at Junxion, and a long-time activist on issues of equity, justice and civil society.

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