The world was outraged when a 14-year-old girl in Pakistan was shot in the head last week simply for being an ardent advocate for the right of girls to an education. Unfortunately, Malala's case is not an isolated one. In most parts of the world today, individuals and organizations working to advance social, political, and environmental justice face imminent danger as a result of their work. In the past two months alone, a 70-year-old activist in Cambodia was sentenced to 20 years in prison because he challenged the government's policy of confiscating local land for powerful corporate interests; in southern India, police used live ammunition on villagers protesting against a proposed nuclear power plant; a human rights lawyer opposing the creation of special economic development zones was shot dead in Honduras; and in the United Arab Emirates, an outspoken critic of inhumane treatment of political prisoners was assaulted in the street twice and faced government surveillance.
Around the globe, mounting evidence indicates that the international community is failing in its responsibility to ensure the conditions necessary for civil society activists to conduct their work freely, without fear of retaliation from the government or other actors. These conditions include the basic freedoms of expression, association, and assembly, which are enshrined in international human rights covenants and the constitutions of almost every country.
The current proliferation of restrictive laws, regressive public policies, and incidents of active persecution of human rights defenders is a matter of deep and abiding concern for humanity. Indeed, the recent trend of attacks against nongovernmental organizations, trade union activists, investigative journalists, bloggers, and concerned citizens -- highlighted by CIVICUS in its State of Civil Society Report 2011 -- has ramped up further in 2012.
Since the beginning of the year, civil society activists have been imprisoned through sham trials in Bahrain, Ethiopia, Russia, and Vietnam. They have been murdered in Bangladesh, Honduras, the Philippines, and Syria. Protesters and government critics have been physically attacked or tortured in Angola, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Israel, Peru, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkey, and Zimbabwe.
In Colombia, Egypt, and Uganda, governments appear to be tacitly encouraging such hostility, as religious fundamentalists, organized crime groups, and militias attack women's rights activists, gay rights advocates, and anticorruption and land rights campaigners. In places such as Iran, Rwanda, and Turkmenistan, the independent civil society sector has been forced into exile. Sadly, these are just a few illustrative examples of the highly disabling environment for civil society.
As hard-won civil liberties are being rapidly eroded worldwide, civil society is increasingly looking to democratic governments not just for solidarity, but to champion a reversal of the global assault on peaceful dissent. For the next U.S. administration, the current situation presents a critical opportunity to demonstrate America's commitment to human rights protection and democracy promotion, both of which are key pillars of U.S. foreign policy. The following are some recommendations from civil society to the incoming administration.
First, the gains made under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's Strategic Dialogue with Civil Society should continue to be consolidated, including through: (i) U.S. support for the UN resolution on freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and for the UN special rapporteur on those issues; (ii) support for a component acknowledging the role of an enabling environment for civil society within the global compact on aid and development effectiveness that was agreed to in South Korea at the end of 2011; (iii) strengthening of a fund to provide emergency support to civil society organizations under threat; and (iv) public pronouncements and diplomatic support for civil society, including through the Community of Democracies Working Group on Enabling and Protecting Civil Society.
Second, the U.S. government should take the lead in law and policy reform by initiating an inclusive global dialogue on balancing the protection of fundamental human rights with national security considerations. The invocations of counterterrorism and national security priorities by the United States and other established democracies since 2001 have not only led to human rights infringements in those countries, but have also been cleverly repurposed by authoritarian governments to suppress domestic political opponents and civil society groups.
Third, appropriate measures should be taken to prevent rights abuses by the corporate sector through a focus on policies and regulations that advance the UN Framework on Business and Human Rights. In many of the countries where civil society is under severe threat, vested corporate interests have managed to co-opt political leaders and state institutions to advance agendas that go against the public interest. Civil society groups that work to expose the nexus between unscrupulous businesses and corrupt government officials remain at high risk.
Fourth, the U.S. government can play a crucial role in encouraging emerging political and economic powers to champion human rights and civil society as a cornerstone of their diplomatic and development relationships with other countries. The United States has much experience to offer in this regard.
Lastly and significantly, the next U.S. administration should end the practice of selectively censuring regimes that violate human rights standards. Many commendable efforts by the U.S. government in certain countries are undermined when human rights abuses by strategic partners in other states are overlooked. President John F. Kennedy dreamed of peace not only for Americans but for all men and women around the globe. Thousands of civil society activists in the far corners of the world are pursuing that same dream, often in highly disabling and dangerous situations. It is only fitting that they have the support of the American people.
Mandeep Tiwana and Netsanet Belay work at CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation, a global movement dedicated to strengthening civil society and citizen action around the world. CIVICUS is headquartered in Johannesburg and has members and partners in over a hundred countries.
This blog is part of the series "Ten Critical Human Rights Challenges for the Next President," sponsored by Freedom House. The series will feature renowned experts writing on some of the top human rights issues that should be addressed by the presidential candidates and the next administration. As the candidates participate in policy debates we look forward to a lively discussion of these and other important foreign affairs issues facing our country. For the full series please visit the Freedom at Issue Blog.