The Associational Counter-Revolution

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p27 articles
www.alliancemagazine.orgAllianceVolume 11 Number 3 September 2006
A number of countries have enacted or proposed laws
that significantly restrict the activities of civil society
organizations (CSOs). Such countries tend to exhibit
one or more of the following characteristics:
They have a ‘closed’ or command economy
(China, Cuba) or are governed by leaders with
autocratic tendencies (Libya, Zimbabwe).
There is political dissension in the country or
a neighbouring country that is perceived as
threatening the current regime or incumbent
party (Sudan, Ethiopia).
There are concerns about religious
fundamentalism (Egypt).
Similar legislation or practices have been
introduced elsewhere in the region (various
countries in the former Soviet Union and the
Middle East). In some cases this almost amounts
to an ‘exchange of worst practices’.
They have a history of human rights abuses
(North Korea).
They are concerned about ‘foreign influence’
In many countries, this trend almost certainly
springs from the perception that CSOs played a fun-
damental role in the recent ‘colour’ revolutions in
Georgia and Ukraine. Indeed, ICNL’s research has
shown that governments often enact restrictive CSO
legislation before elections. In addition, the US
Administration’s focus on ‘democracy promotion’
has created concern about foreign funding of civil
society. As Thomas Carothers states, ‘Some autocratic
governments have won substantial public sympathy
by arguing that opposition to Western democracy
promotion is resistance not to democracy itself, butto American interventionism.’
2As such, it seems that
autocratic leaders have sensed a political window of
opportunity to crack down on civil society.
We must also recall that governmental restrictions
on private initiative are nothing new. Authoritarian
governments throughout history have sought to
limit the space for civil society. Combined with pre-
existing constraints, the current backlash threatens
the growth and vibrancy of civil society.
Common legal barriers to civil society
Increasing government restrictions have posed ob-
stacles to the ability of both foreign and domestic
CSOs to form, operate and sustain themselves.
Limited rights to associate and form CSOs
In the most restrictive environments, governments
effectively deny the right to associate by granting it
on extremely limited terms. Saudi Arabia, Libya,
Cuba, China and Vietnam fall into this category. In
other countries, governments often closely control
the registration process. Governments may insist that
all groups, however small or informal, must register,
or they may make registration difficult.
Tactics include excessive government discretion over
the registration process, making registration expen-
sive, inconvenient or burdensome; excessive delays in
making decisions; and requiring re-registration every
few years.
In Azerbaijan, Ethiopia and Algeria, regulations
governing the registration process are vague and
leave great discretion to registration officials. As
a result, CSOs are sometimes denied registration
or experience long delays.
In Belarus, the government has in recent years
adopted a series of laws restricting both public
gatherings and CSO activity. As a result, the
government has significant discretion over the
opaque registration process. Applicants can wait
more than a year, only to be denied registration
without explanation.
Inability to obtain foreign funding
For some years, ICNL has warned of an increasingly
concerning trend, namely the use of foreign funding
restrictions to restrain civil society. In Eritrea, for ex-
ample, legislation introduced in 2005 restricts the
ability of international agencies to directly fund local
CSOs under most circumstances. In Uzbekistan in
2004, the government required CSOs to deposit for-
eign grants in one of two government-controlled
In the early 1990s, an ‘associational revolution’ (to quote Lester
Salamon’s phrase) swept through Central Europe and the former
Soviet Union. Recently, however, there are signs that a counter-
revolution is under way and spreading globally. A recent study by
the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL) found that
countries in all regions have used the law to constrain civil society.
In this article, we summarize ICNL’s survey of challenges; a
forthcoming ICNL study will examine possible responses.
The associational
Douglas Rutzen and Catherine Shea
Douglas Rutzenand
Catherine Sheaare
President and
Programme Director,
respectively, of ICNL.
Emails and

banks. This effectively obstructed the transfer of the
vast majority of foreign grants to CSOs.
Also in 2004, Zimbabwe proposed a bill to prohibit
local CSOs engaged in ‘issues of governance’ from
accessing foreign funds and foreign CSOs involved in
these activities from registering. In the event,
Mugabe declined to sign the bill,
but there is concern that it will be
revived. Zimbabwe recently sug-
gested a similar proposal at the
inaugural session of the new UN
Human Rights Council.
Arbitrary or discretionary termination and
Some countries retain substantial discretion to shut
down CSOs and use this to quash opposition groups.
In 2003 and 2004, Belarus government officials
dissolved a significant number of leading CSOs. Sim-
ilarly, Egypt’s Law 84/2002 permits the supervising
ministry to shut down an organization at any time on
the grounds that it is ‘threatening national unity’ or
‘violating public order or morals’ – both broad and
ambiguous criteria which give the government sub-
stantial discretion to terminate CSOs.
Arbitrary and stringent oversight and control
Once a CSO has been registered, governments may re-
strict their activities through unchecked oversight.
Failure to comply with government demands may
lead to daunting sanctions and penalties. In Turkey,
until recently, the authorities had the right to send
representatives to the meetings of associations, thus
chilling any sort of advocacy activity. With the assis-
tance of TUSEV, Turkish officials, ICNL, the EU and
other partners, this law was recently amended. Again
in Belarus, in 2003, a number of CSOs ceased opera-
tions due to harassment from government officials.
In 2004, the government reportedly inspected and
issued warnings to 800 others, and in some instances
papers were confiscated.
Criminal penalties against individuals.
In some countries, individuals who are found re-
sponsible for certain CSO activities can be held
criminally liable. In Egypt, Law 84/2002 imposes
severe individual penalties, including up to three
months in prison and a fine of up to 1,000 Egyptian
pounds, for conducting CSO activity, affiliating with
a foreign CSO network or association, or merging
with another association without MOSA approval.
The news is not all bad, however. Turkey and Mexico,
for example, have recently enacted more positive re-
forms, while CSOs throughout the world have at
times been able to successfully counter these repres-
sive government tactics. ICNL is cataloguing these
strategies and plans to disseminate them to a wider
audience. While not every strategy is effective in
every country or circumstance, together they consti-
tute a useful array of tools to protect basic rights
against government incursion. Moreover, there is
some solace in the words of C Wright Mills, who once
said: ‘Every revolution has its counter-revolution –
that is a sign the revolution is for real.’
The associational counter-revolution
AllianceVolume 11 Number 3 September
Having taken part in Turkish CSO law reform e≈orts, the ‘counter-revolution’
is an issue of particular concern and relevance for me, especially with
regard to if and how civil society can counter this trend. Reading this article,
I had flashbacks from a workshop Douglas Rutzen and I organized at the
recent CIVICUS World Assembly in Glasgow, which discussed this specific
A proposed slate of restrictive legal provisions (including most issues
mentioned in this article) were presented to two groups. One group took
on the role of government o÷cials and was tasked with defending the
restrictions. They prepared a convincing list of justifications, including
national security and public order concerns. A CSO group (among them CSO
law reform experts), tasked with opposing the reforms, made a poignant
case for civil society’s significance but was unable to demonstrate how
these provisions would negatively a≈ect civil society. Nor were they able
to propose alternative solutions to address the concerns that had led to
the provisions in the first place.
We were all struck by the stark reality that without unity, clarity of message
and an astute strategy, civil society will be unable to reverse the counter-
revolution. CSOs must be able to obtain a better understanding of the
government perspective in order to develop alternative solutions and avert
proposals that will be more damaging to civil society. This presents an
urgent call to arms, not only to CSOs to consider new tactics and strategies,
but also to groups such as CIVICUS to rally support, and to organizations
such as the UN and the EU to facilitate inter-governmental dialogue and
discourage regressive legislation.
With apprehensive yet hopeful sentiment, I wish us the best of luck in this
Comment Filiz Bikmen
1 The information in this article
is based on a comprehensive
study conducted by ICNL
entitled Constraints on Civil
Society, published January 2006.
It has led to the publication of
numerous other materials,
including ‘The Assault onDemocracy Assistance’, in The
Journal of Democracy, April/May
2 Thomas Carothers, ‘The
Backlash Against Democracy
Promotion’, in Foreign Affairs,
March/April 2006.
‘Every revolution has its
counter-revolution – that
is a sign the revolution is
for real.’