Global Crackdown on Nongovernmental Agencies a Major U.S. Concern

By Jane Morse
USINFO Staff Writer

Washington - Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) increasingly are suffering under repressive governments, and the United States is intensifying its efforts to reverse this destructive trend, says Paula Dobriansky, State Department under secretary for democracy and global affairs.

Dobriansky spoke during the April 5 press briefing in Washington for the State Department’s annual report Supporting Human Rights and Democracy: The U.S. Record 2006.  She noted that this year’s report highlights the fact that “in spite of international commitments, we are witnessing a crackdown by some governments on NGOs and other civil society actors.”

A number of governments, Dobriansky said, “have passed or are selectively applying laws against NGOs and civil society groups in an attempt to restrict freedom of expression, association and assembly.”

In response, the United States budgeted more than $1.2 billion in human rights and democracy programming for fiscal year 2006. These programs are aimed at promoting free and fair elections and defending human rights, the right to worship freely and the right of workers to organize, Dobriansky said.

Barry F. Lowenkron, the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, noted that U.S. programs to support human rights and democracy are tailored to meet the challenges of each particular country and region.  Some U.S. aid goes to supporting NGOs that promote democracy and human rights, he said.  Other U.S. aid goes to support broadcasting or foster exchanges.  In every case, he said, U.S. support sends a clear message that the defenders of democracy and human rights are not alone.

In 2006, Secretary of State Rice released 10 guiding principles regarding the treatment of NGOs by governments, in recognition that NGOs, in the language of the report, “are essential to the development and success of free societies and that they play a vital role in ensuring accountable, democratic government.”

These principles, Lowenkron said, have been sent out to U.S. embassies worldwide for further dissemination.  “We hope that our contribution of the 10 NGO principles will help to rally worldwide support for embattled NGOs,” he said. 

Another Bush administration initiative launched by Rice in 2006 is the Human Rights Defenders Fund.  This fund, Lowenkron explained, enables the State Department to quickly disperse small grants to human rights defenders facing “extraordinary needs” as a result of government repression.

The State Department each year submits the Supporting Human Rights and Democracy report to Congress, as called for by the Foreign Relations Authorization Act of 2003.  Its release, by law, follows that of the annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, which, for the year 2006, assessed the human rights practices of 196 countries.

The report documents the various tools applied by the United States to support indigenous democratic reform efforts across the globe.  U.S. support is focused on the “core components” of a working democracy and the ability of human rights to be protected. These core components are free and fair elections, transparent and accountable institutions operating under the rule of law, and a robust civil society and independent media.

A transcript of Dobriansky’s remarks is available on the State Department’s Web site.

For additional details, see the Rice’s preface to the report and the report’s introduction, including the guiding principles.

The full text of the report is available on the State Department Web site.