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No reason to stifle CSOs

September 13, 2018

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THERE are strong reasons why the Securities and Exchange Commission of Pakistan should review its decision to bar civil society organisations (CSOs) from doing any political work.

If political work means functioning like a political party and seeking elective offices, a CSO — or an NPO (a non-profit organisation, the new term in circulation) — cannot possibly do that. But officials belonging to various branches of the executive have a tendency to prohibit all activities that can have a political purpose. They have little tolerance for organisations that uphold women’s rights, from protection against violence to right to cast votes in an election.

Fortunately or unfortunately, everything that a rights organisation does has a political dimension. Defending people’s right to life, liberty and security is political work. So are activities in defence of the freedom of speech, association and assembly, or demands for employment, girls’ education or safe drinking water. It is possible the authorities are less worried about the raising of such issues than about the criticism of the administration’s failure to deal with these problems.

However, no state that swears by basic democratic norms can object to impartial criticism of its failure to honour citizens’ rights. To overcome this difficulty, extremely repressive measures are being justified in the name of security or the need to fight terrorism. A new factor contributing to the administration’s irrational hostility towards CSOs is the urgency of meeting the demands of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) to check and prevent the financing of terrorism.

Repressive measures are being justified in the name of security or the need to fight terrorism.

The task involves keeping an eye on CSOs with a view to protecting them from getting involved with terrorist outfits or being exploited by them. It seems that the Pakistan establishment has joined democratically weak countries that are using FATF recommendations to complete their agenda of strangulating their respective civil societies. Pakistan’s state and society both could suffer incalculable harm if this were to happen.

There is a need to clearly understand what Pakistan is required to do within a year or so to avoid being blacklisted by FATF. Briefly put, the task is:

  1. Pakistan is required to adopt a targeted risk-based approach that allows for diversity in civil society, in order to identify which NPOs are most likely to be at risk of terror financing; and this must be demonstrated through carrying out a formal risk assessment exercise.

  2. To assess the effectiveness of laws and regulations which apply to the identified ‘at risk’ NPOs.

  3. To take effective measures to mitigate any outstanding terror financing risk to NPOs.

  4. To do nothing which disrupts or discourages legitimate NPO activities.

  5. To develop a relationship with the sector, conducting the necessary outreach to enable NPOs’ compliance with regulations and encouraging research activities.

The disconnect between what FATF is asking Pakistan to do about helping civil society escape being trapped by terrorist groups and what the establishment is doing to civil society by placing it at the mercy of the National Counter Terrorism Authority is quite evident. Instead of concentrating on NPOs at risk and developing a healthy partnership with organisations that are legitimately promoting human rights and strengthening democratic practices by upholding the freedom of expression association and assembly, the custodians of power are trying to deny the latter any space — as if CSOs are the sole conduit for terror financing in Pakistan; they can easily be distinguished from groups that train terrorists and collect money from a variety of sources.

The attention of all those who view CSOs as pests and want to strangulate them as well as their defenders is drawn to a study titled The Impact of International Counter-Terrorism on Civil Society Organisations: Understanding the Role of Financial Action Task Force. The study is the work of Bread for the World, a Dutch humanitarian organisation. The reason given for undertaking the study is the organisation’s finding that for several years the space for civil societies has been shrinking — some observers report it is disappearing altogether — across the world. More and more countries are establishing legal frameworks that make civic engagement almost impossible. “CSOs may have their registration withdrawn or their bank accounts frozen,” says the study. It adds: “Bans on foreign financing are becoming increasingly common.”

According to the study, some countries justify restrictions on CSOs on grounds of terrorist or other threats to security or under Recommendation 8 of FATF. However, the study argues that international organisations, evaluations and decisions must have no negative impact on human rights and civic space, and “they should not provide a justification for less democratic and oppressive governments to introduce restrictive laws and regulatory environments for CSOs”.

The report includes case studies to demonstrate how FATF has promoted restrictive regulations for NPOs in Bangladesh (‘Restricting the work of civil society’), Bosnia & Herzegovina (‘Parliament rejects proposed NGO laws, FATF adds B&H to the black list’), Brazil (‘Counter-terrorism law criminalising social movements opposed by UN, demanded by FATF’), Cambodia (‘New law threatens the very existence of free and independent civil society’), and India (‘From US-led FATF courtship, the systematic silencing of dissent’).

The report also carries an introduction to the Global Coalition of NPOs on FATF for “eliminating the unintended consequences of FATF policies on civil society”.

It is also necessary for the government to avoid noncompliance with the resolutions of the UN Human Rights Council and the UN General Assembly calling for due protection for the rights of civil society organisations, especially their rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly. The government must also pay heed to the Human Rights Council’s resolution of March 21, 2013, that affirms the right of human rights defenders to access funding from foreign countries and ensure that “no law should criminalise or de-legitimise activities in defence of human rights on account of the origin of funding”.

With policies and postures Islamabad cannot defend on merit, there is no wisdom in mocking the UN.

Published in Dawn, September 13th, 2018