Combatting the Closure of Space for Civil Society in Eurasia

Robert Berschinski
Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Yale University's Jackson Institute for Global Affairs
New Haven, CT
April 21, 2016

Good afternoon. Students showing up to hear a speaker on a Friday, of a holiday weekend no less? Things have really changed at Yale since I was last here. Thank you all for coming out, and thank you to the Jackson Institute for hosting me. It’s great to see this institution that hadn’t yet come into being way back in my day. And it’s great to be back to a place where people come to hear you talk not because they have to, but because they want to. And for the free sandwiches.

I wanted to focus my opening remarks today on the core theme of the Human Rights Report the State Department released last week – the striking, systemic, and global attack on civil society being undertaken by governments around the world, and what we in the U.S. government are doing to fight back against this trend.

The Country Reports on Human Rights Practices – or Human Rights Report or “HRR” for short – is the 2.3 million word tome that the State Department, led by my bureau, puts out annually as mandated by Congress, that documents human rights conditions in each of the world’s 199 countries and territories.

This year marked the HRR’s 40th anniversary. When Secretary Kerry and my boss Tom Malinowski, the Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, addressed the press at the Report’s launch last week, Tom made the point that the HRR serves two purposes, both predicated on the idea that a comprehensive account of the facts concerning human rights in countries around the world is incredibly important.

The first of these purposes is that the HRR is an incredible tool for the U.S. government, as the reports are read very closely by governments and activists alike. If you think that what U.S. diplomats say doesn’t matter, if you think the world doesn’t care what we think, the HHRs will disabuse you of this notion. Governments really care. The amount of feedback, public and private, we get on them is voluminous. Some governments dissect their report word by word. Others make formal protests to us. Still others have launched semi-comical annual responses.

In China this year, as in years past, the government responded by issuing its own report on the human rights situation in the United States. China’s report was based – unsurprisingly, but ironically – on the extensive reports in the U.S. media about various issues of serious concern in our society, such as gun violence, income inequality, and racial discrimination. While we might quibble with how some of the facts were presented in China’s report, we welcome the reciprocation, and dialogue on these issues. And we look forward to the day when reporting on similar information is publicly available in China.

Not to be outdone, a Hungarian Member of the European Parliament complained publicly that the HRR demonstrated “morbid bias against and lies about Hungary,” and asked “On what grounds does the highly respected government of the United States give grades to the other countries of the world like a screaming task master, spinning a bunch of keys around his fingers, who reeks from perspiring in a nylon robe?”

If you can understand the subtle subtext of this message, you are ready to take the foreign service exam.

The second, and perhaps equally valuable role of the HRR is that by establishing the facts, the reports help keep those of us who work for the U.S. government honest with ourselves. Part of the reason I wake up every day excited to go to work is that the State Department is like a high-stakes debating society. Every day I challenge some of the smartest policy minds in the country on what our government should do to advance U.S. interests and universal values around the world, and they challenge me. But debates only work when all the participants can agree on the basic facts, even when, as is often the case, they’re inconvenient. The Human Rights Report provides those facts.

I mention all of this as prelude to say that in the HRR’s 40th year, we decided to dedicate this year’s introduction not to a litany of issues, but to a single issue that has increasingly become the issue with respect to how citizens of countries around the world interact with their governments.

What we’re witnessing right now, a trend at least a decade in the making, but that accelerated in 2015, is a high-stakes battle between, on the one hand, ordinary people who have never been more able to engage one another, access and share information, and organize to make their countries more prosperous and just; and on the other, governments that fear this trend, are learning from one another, and are going to extraordinary lengths to strangle civic activism.

This is a global phenomenon, but as the official responsible for human rights in Europe and South and Central Asia, I’m going to focus primarily on the former communist world from Central Europe to Central Asia in discussing it here with you today.

If you’re looking for democratic progress, this may not be your preferred region. Freedom House recently judged that the aggregate Democracy Score for the landmass east of Germany and west of China has declined every year for the past 12 years, as autocrats have consolidated power and begun to innovate in how they hold down their citizens from the Danube to the Central Asian steppe.

Russia under President Vladimir Putin, particularly since he re-assumed the Russian presidency in 2012, has led the charge of resurgent authoritarianism and attacks on the international human rights system. In July 2012, Putin enacted a law meant to “Regulate the Activities of Non-profit Organizations Performing the Functions of a Foreign Agent." The so-called “foreign agent” law requires NGOs that receive foreign funding and participate in undefined “political activity” to register as “foreign agents.” The use of the term “foreign agent” is a deliberate choice; the phrase carries a distinctly traitorous connotation harkening back to the Stalinist era.

The Russian “foreign agent” law wasn’t a government’s first attempt to restrict civil society – following the post-Cold War explosion in organized civic engagement during the 1990s, governments around the world began to react to post-9/11 terrorism and the so-called “color revolutions” in the early 2000s by clamping down on human rights and fundamental freedoms.

What made the “foreign agent” law important, innovative, and devastating was that it purposely sought to constrain domestic groups by stigmatizing and choking off international funding. And countries across Eurasia and around the world soon followed suit.

Each of the five Central Asian countries has passed or is in the process of considering some form of NGO regulation law.

Uzbekistan, a country that severely limits virtually all forms of independent civic activity, requires organizations to notify the government in writing of all their activities, and even to seek prior government approval for every meeting they schedule with any foreign organization.

Turkmenistan, similarly a stiflingly repressive state, requires prior government approval of every foreign contribution made to NGOs, effectively sealing off the few and beleaguered non-state-controlled domestic groups from international support.

Tajikistan has established burdensome reporting requirements for NGOs, and authorities have selectively used them to spring surprise inspections and impose heavy administrative fines, particularly on human rights organizations.

In December of last year, Kazakhstan, a country that has made impressive quality of life gains since the break-up of the Soviet Union—in large part due to its oil export revenues, but also on the strength of its civil society—passed a law that imposes onerous reporting requirements on public organizations. The new regulations require NGOs to provide the government with extensive details about their activities, funding sources, and personnel, all of which could subject them to politically-motivated enforcement.

The parliament of Kyrgyzstan, by far Central Asia’s most robust democracy and the country with the most active civil society in the region, has debated its own NGO law for nearly a year. When first introduced in 2015, Kyrgyzstan’s draft law was modeled explicitly on Russia’s “foreign agents” legislation. In the face of significant domestic and international engagement, including from the United States, the Kyrgyzstani parliament has more recently dropped the “foreign agents” approach, as well as most of the draft law’s most onerous reporting requirements.

Moving west across the Caspian, the government of Azerbaijan has in recent years launched a crackdown on human rights defenders, opposition party figures, journalists, and other civil society actors. These politically motivated arrests and investigations of groups, combined with laws that make it nearly impossible for NGOs to register or to receive foreign assistance, have placed severe constraints on a once viable civil society sector. Following intensive engagement from the United States, the government of Azerbaijan has released over a dozen of these individuals from prison in recent months, and we are continuing to push for more progress.

Belarus, Europe’s post-Soviet dictatorship, has long restricted any semblance of expression, association, and assembly outside of that sanctioned by the State. Here too, NGOs must adhere to burdensome registration requirements, and, if granted official status under Belarus’ politically-driven registration system, must report all outside funding to authorities.

Last, I want to mention Hungary, an EU member state and NATO ally that launched a crackdown on NGOs in 2014, with a focus on groups receiving funding from Norway. While Hungary has ended its investigations into these groups following heavy engagement from the U.S. and European governments, the campaign created a chilling effect on the whole sector. Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a democratically elected leader who has not hidden his interest in walking back elements of Hungary’s post-Communist democratic system, has described civic organizations in Hungary as, among other things, paid “foreign agents.”

The phrase “foreign agents” brings me back to where I started, with Russia.

Since 2012, the list of NGOs that the Russian government has designated as so-called “foreign agents” has risen to over 120, including most of Russia’s most prominent civil society organizations. A new statute passed around a year ago, the so-called law on “Undesirable Foreign Organizations,” has already led to the banning of five significant foreign donor organizations, and a decision by two foundations that were major funders of Russian civil society to cease their operations. These include not only globally respected organizations like the National Endowment for Democracy, the Open Society Foundations, and the MacArthur Foundation, but also the U.S.-Russia Foundation, which was jointly established by President Bush and President Putin at the 2008 St. Petersburg G8 Summit.

Still not evidently satisfied, the Russian authorities are currently working to expand the already overly-broad definition of “political activity” under the “foreign agents” law in such a way that it could apply to any group that organizes public meetings or rallies, or even public discussions or performances. This in the context of a list of “foreign agents” that the Russian government tells its people to fear and despise that has already reached tragicomical proportions – included alongside groups that advocate against torture and monitor elections are a number of environmental organizations and at least one photography club.

What all of these governments have in common is that they feel threatened by people coming together in ways the governments can’t control, a dynamic exacerbated in the Eurasian context by worsening economic conditions, particularly for oil- and gas-dependent economies like Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, as well as those countries whose economies indirectly rely on Russia’s, such as Belarus and Tajikistan.

Because it’s difficult even for autocrats to explain that they’re disempowering their citizens in order to increase their own hold on power, or to continue their corrupt practices, these countries also trot out a well-worn litany of reasonable sounding excuses for actions against NGOs. I’d like to detail a few we hear often:

The first is that “foreign-funded NGOs threaten national sovereignty.”

This is a critique worth addressing head on, since I think too often we in the human rights business wave away the myth propagated by authoritarians that those that fund groups must be controlling them.

The bottom line is that we don’t control the groups that we fund. But don’t take my word for it. Any foreign government official who wants to follow me around for a day is welcome to do so. What he or she would find is that I spend a good bit of time engaging with NGOs that are quite critical of U.S. policy. They’re critical of things like Guantanamo and drones, and who we provide military assistance to, and sometimes even what foreign government officials we meet with. Some of these conversations are hard, but I welcome them, because ultimately these criticisms make U.S. policy better. And they aren’t just private, of course – read any paper and you’ll see robust criticism of government policy from civil society on both U.S. domestic and foreign affairs.

And in spite of what some authoritarians would like their citizens to think, supporting civic organizations isn’t about fomenting color revolution, but it is about providing people with the means to exercise their universal rights, because it’s in the U.S. national interest for countries to maintain the stability, security, and prosperity that comes when all people are able to have a voice in how they’re governed. As a corollary, I want to add that one of the ironies of the “national sovereignty” argument is that many of the repressive governments who like to say that foreign funding of people erodes sovereignty are more than happy to accept foreign dollars themselves for other purposes.

The second excuse is that “the United States also regulates foreign funding of its civil society groups,” and its close cousin, that regulation is “all about increasing transparency.” I hear this argument a lot. I’ve personally heard foreign senior officials tell Secretary Kerry that the new law governing civil society in their country is based on the U.S. Foreign Agent Registration Act, or FARA, and I’ve spoken to advocates who tell me that their governments like to cite FARA as the purported model for their own domestic legislation.

For those unfamiliar with it, the FARA is a transparency measure – it’s a law that applies to people or organizations working under the direction or control of a foreign government or political party, who represent that government or party’s interests in the United States. FARA governs an extremely narrow class of actors, and has little to do with the raft of anti-NGO laws cropping up around the world.

FARA, for instance, does not apply to foreign funding of NGOs operating in the U.S., even those that engage in advocacy work. A fact we cited in the Human Rights Report on this topic is that the EU funds civil society groups that lobby for various causes within the United States, including abolition of the death penalty and U.S. membership at the International Criminal Court. Because these groups don’t work under the direction or control of the EU, however, the FARA isn’t applicable to them.

U.S.-based groups that do report under the FARA, however, include prominent DC-based lobbying firms that represent the interests of governments like Hungary and Azerbaijan. As far as transparency goes, I would argue that it’s a good thing that when a lobbyist approaches a U.S. government official, that official knows that the lobbyist is being paid to represent these governments. I would add that notwithstanding their activities in the United States, both of these governments have been known to use language coloring grass roots activists in their own countries as traitors because they take money from foreign foundations.

And third and last, from every corner we hear that “controlling civil society is necessary to fight terrorism.” As we know well within the United States, matters of ensuring security while respecting civil liberty are often difficult, and combatting terrorism takes, among other things, good intelligence, law enforcement, and the means to stop illicit finance. But not only is the assertion that restricting freedoms of expression, association, and assembly key to countering terrorism incorrect, it’s virtually always also counterproductive. What a robust civil society provides, among other things, is a means for citizens to peacefully address grievances and feel that their views are being heard, which diminishes the allure of those who advocate violence as the only viable means of change.

The weakness of these arguments for repressing civil society aside, the data unfortunately don’t lie. Across Eurasia and in virtually every region of the world, states—and for that matter, non-state actors like Da’esh—are closing space for proponents of government accountability, the rule of law, and the ability of citizens to organize with one another to do things like fight poverty, increase tolerance, reduce corruption, and promote environmental protection or the arts.

If there’s a silver lining to this situation, it’s that much of what we’re witnessing isn’t so much an indication of democracy in retreat, but a counterattack against a rising chorus of citizens asking for governments that represent them, doesn’t steal from them, and answer to them.

The Obama Administration is doing all that it can to roll back the tide of repression under the President’s Stand with Civil Society initiative. We put this policy into action across the U.S. government in a number of important ways:

First, we advocate privately, often at the highest levels, with governments that seek to silence the voice of their citizens, making the same case to them that I’ve made today, that often their actions on matters like counter-terrorism run exactly counter to their interests -- that by suppressing non-violent expression, they offer space to more radical voices, including those that advocate violence as the only available outlet. Often, clearly, these recommendations fall on deaf ears. But not always – in some cases the combined voices of foreign governments, including the U.S., and domestic citizens have had a significant influence.

Second, we speak out publicly. Through statements from our embassies, from Washington, and at the UN and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, our diplomats make clear to governments and people alike that the United States rejects efforts to silence peaceful organization and dissent.

Third, we demonstrate our support for civil society through our actions. Everywhere our diplomats go, they meet with activists, journalists, human rights defenders, and political prisoners. These actions don’t necessarily lead to immediate change, but I’ve personally experienced the significant positive effect it can have on a person or a group to tell them that the United States knows who they are and supports them in their work.

Fourth, we coordinate closely with likeminded governments and work through multilateral bodies, including the UN and OSCE, and the Community of Democracies and the Open Government Partnership. At the UN, space for civil society is being challenged in every negotiation, every conference, and, unfortunately, in the very committee, the NGO Committee, which is meant to oversee access by civil society to the UN system. In response, the United States and our likeminded partners do yeoman’s work in New York and Geneva to fight to allow NGOs to participate in activities and conferences that would not succeed without their insights.

On a related note, soon after deciding to join the Human Rights Council in 2009, the United States led the effort to create the first ever UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Association and Peaceful Assembly. The current person in that job, Maina Kiai, a Kenyan academic and activist, has done a terrific job of cataloguing the threats to and constraints on civil society, and offering recommendations on how to overcome them.

Fifth, where we can, we continue to fund organizations that want and need our support. The U.S. government currently spends roughly $400 million per year on assistance programs that support civil society and independent media, of which around $80 million is spent in Eurasia. Unlike what certain governments say, or maybe even believe, we don’t do this in secret. Recently, Julian Assange of Wikileaks fame “uncovered” the fact that USAID funds one of the roughly 100 investigative journalism groups that worked on the so-called “Panama Papers.” The way he found this explosive bit of news was that the organization in question posted the USAID logo at the bottom of its webpage. So we’re not exactly running a covert operation. What we are doing is following the lead of activists and organizations, even in some of the world’s most repressive countries. When these groups tell us that they need support in order to continue their work, we try to support them. It’s that simple.

Finally, just like the governments that are exchanging “worst-practices,” we’re innovating. We’re coordinating with other donors, pooling funds, and initiating public-private partnerships.

We’ve adjusted operating procedures, and applied best practices developed over years of implementing programs in high-risk environments, while also ensuring the safety of our beneficiaries and reducing their risk of exposure. I’ll give just a couple of examples that highlight what my bureau at the State Department has worked on, but I want to stress that this is only a snippet of the good work done at State, USAID, and elsewhere.

Since 2011, we have come together with 16 other like-minded governments to provide emergency financial assistance to NGOs that come under threat or attack for their work, even in the most closed societies, through a project called Lifeline: Embattled Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) Assistance Fund. In addition to pooling and coordinating funding, Lifeline is unique because it allows groups that come under pressure to take immediate steps to get back to their work -- from adding security cameras and other measures to make offices physically safer, to paying medical bills and even funding temporary relocation. The Lifeline consortium has used the mechanism to assist over 800 civil society organizations in 98 countries and territories.

To contest governments trying to clamp down on citizens’ online rights of expression, again together with other governments, we’ve formed a group we call the Digital Defenders Partnership. Since its inception in 2012, the Partnership has provided direct emergency support to over 50 organizations and over 200 individuals facing digital emergencies, such as a Distributed Denials of Service or malware attacks. The Partnership has provided almost 350 organizations with small grants that have allowed them to assess and, where necessary, strengthen the security of their digital systems. It has funded digital security training for over 700 individuals, and provided almost 7 million people hardware or software to boost their digital security.

We have joined with several like-minded governments and foundations to develop a new center based out of Prague to help civil society in Eurasia. The Prague Civil Society Centre is particularly focused on assistance related to new information and communications technologies, and facilitates peer-to-peer ties between organizations and activists across the contested areas of Eurasia.

And we’ve established a private-public partnership with over 20 government and non-government entities called the Global Equality Fund, which supports efforts to protect and promote the human rights of LGBT persons worldwide. My bureau—DRL—initially seeded the Global Equality Fund with $2 million dollars, and we grew that into a pool of $30 million worth of programming from partners that have helped people in more than 80 countries.

With these tools and many others, I remain optimistic, and so are many of the people with whom I work. I’m not really a quotes guy, but one that has always stuck with me is the famous Martin Luther King quote, borrowed from abolitionist Theodore Parker, and often cited by President Obama, that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Those are beautiful words.

In some of the places I work, the bend of the arc of justice is pretty difficult to see right now. But I’ve found that helping find it is a great reason to get up in the morning, a great reason to be interested in 21st-century diplomacy, and a great reason to take what you’ve learned at Yale and apply it to making the world a better place.

So I hope to see many of you out there with me fighting the good fight in the years to come.

Thank you.