Harsh restrictions on the freedom of civil organizations are on the rise ― a trend that those organizations refer to as “shrinking political space.”

They take the form of not only severely curtailed work space but also the more troubling aspect of intimidation, persecution and even murder of staff and activists.

The Geneva-based ACT (Action by Churches Together) Alliance ― which includes the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) ― is one of the first agencies in the world to bring this repression to light, with the release of “Shrinking Political Spaces,” a dossier of evidence that aid and development organizations are being hounded.  

The phenomenon is global, with more and more reports by ACT Alliance members and partners emerging over the last 12 months. The report makes recommendations for quashing such repression. 

It recounts extreme cases of repression in countries ranging from Brazil, India, Indonesia, Peru and Malawi to Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, Paraguay and Zimbabwe ― showing that stable democracies are as guilty as authoritarian regimes of squeezing the political space in which humanitarian organizations can work.

When violence against the Honduras gay community culminated in the murder of activists in late 2008, indications ― many compiled by humanitarian groups ― pointed strongly to the country’s security forces, who had apparently acted with the implicit consent of authorities. 

Later, in early 2009, the government of Honduras passed a law significantly restricting freedom of association and making it harder for new organizations to register themselves. 

The report says that repressive governments are increasingly hindering or even halting the work of organizations through campaigns of restriction, prosecution and harassment. Even under democratic governments, such as those of India or Brazil, organizations find it more and more difficult to fulfill their mandate.

Discussions about topics likely to antagonize some governments, such as justice, land rights or minority rights, are often demonized or stigmatized, ACT Alliance officials say. 

“It all adds up to one thing. Civil organizations working to defend human rights are being targeted by governments and squeezed in many ways,” says ACT’s Suvi Virkkunen. 

Oppressive governments know who’s doing what and are restricting where and how they work. In an increasing number of countries, social struggle is deemed a criminal offense., Virkkunen says.

“This is about local people working for human rights and their survival. Governments must stop seeing civil society as a threat,” Virkkunen says. 

ACT Alliance general secretary John Nduna says ACT is pushing for change through two channels. Firstly, the United Nations’ human rights system, which has a new special rapporteur on freedom of assembly who, it is hoped, will pay more attention to the problem of shrinking political spaces. 

The second approach is to petition donor governments to make sure humanitarian organizations are included in talks with their governments on where and how they operate, Nduna adds. Only then can they begin to ensure people are not killed or persecuted for criticizing the government or holding views different from those of mainstream society. 

“The hypocrisy is that some donor governments talk about the importance of civil society and human rights, development and ownership but at the same time can see that the space for actors trying to work is just not there. Where is the action to counter that trend?” says Nduna. 

ACT recently took these views to a meeting in Cambodia that set standards for the minimum political and social freedoms civil organizations need to function. The talks set the stage for a high-level meeting in South Korea in November, at which governments, UN and civil society will be asked to agree to these principles. 

Information for this story furnished by the ACT Alliance.