STOCKHOLM – The Community of Democracies has launched a new two-year project in conjunction with the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful association and of assembly aimed at enhancing space for civil society, focusing on the right to access financial resources.
The project, “Protecting Civic Space and the Right to Access Resources”, was officially launched in Stockholm, Sweden, on Feb. 24, 2014. The project is funded by the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The centerpiece of the project is a series of regional dialogues led by UN Special Rapporteur Maina Kiai and members of his team, to be conducted with the participation of local and regional civil society groups. Separate consultations will also take place with the governments of or more countries in each region.
Regional dialogues will take place in Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa, the MENA region and Latin America throughout 2014-15. The first dialogue is tentatively scheduled for later this year.
“Across the world, governments are moving rapidly to squeeze civil society out of its rightful place in the public sphere,” Kiai said. “Many of them see civil society as a competitor, challenging their authority. And they are attacking from all angles, including trying to cut off their ability to seek, receive and utilize resources.”
In recent years, CSOs have faced increasing restrictions on their ability to solicit, receive and utilize financial resources, and issue documented in Kiai’s report to the UN Human Rights Council in April 2013. Groups working on human rights have been particularly targeted.
For example, in Ethiopia the 2009 NGO law bars nongovernmental organizations working in rights-based areas from receiving more than 10% of their funding from foreign sources. The law has caused the number of registered civil society groups to shrink by 60% just a year after its implementation, and has essentially eliminated all independent rights-based groups.
Kenya attempted to introduce similar restrictions at the end of 2013, proposing to cap foreign funding for all Kenyan public benefit organizations (a category that includes NGOs) at 15% of their total budget. The legislation was narrowly defeated, but may rear its head again.
And in 2012, Jordan suddenly denied “permission”, without explanation, for a civil society organization to receive foreign funding for its work helping migrant workers.
“States are obliged to facilitate, not restrict, access to funding so that associations can effectively take part in democratic and developmental processes, just like businesses and governments,” Kiai wrote in his 2013 report to the Human Rights Council.
The dialogues will focus on key challenges that CSOs face in accessing resources, as well as on recommendations and strategies employed to overcome these challenges. The results of the dialogues are expected to be presented in a preliminary form at a final conference in 2015. Proposed recommendations could be reflected in a future report by the UNSR and possibly in a Human Rights Council draft resolution.
“The ability to seek, utilize and receive financial resources is essential for the survival of every sector, not just civil society,” Kiai said. “Most governments would not dream of interfering with the private sector’s ability to access investment. Imagine a law that required ministry-level approval before a company could accept funds from a new investor. It’s unthinkable, so why is it acceptable in the context of civil society funding? The difference in treatment is stunning.”
Following the project launch, SIDA also hosted a two-hour public seminar on “Creating Space for Civil Society.” The seminar featured presentations from Maina Kiai, Doug Rutzen (President and CEO of the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law), Thomas Hughes (Executive Director of Article 19) and Amb. Maria Leissner (Secretary General of the Community of Democracies).
Photos from the event are available by clicking the photos accompanying this article, or by clicking here.
An infosheet summarizing the project is available here.
The UNSR-Community of Democracies “General Principles on protecting civic space and the right to access resources” is available at this link.