POMED Notes: The Global Pushback against Restrictions on Freedom of Association
On Tuesday, Freedom House hosted a panel discussion on the state of freedom of association and freedom of expression both in the Middle East-North Africa region and in Southeast Asia. T. Kumar of Amnesty International and Stephen McInerney of the Project on Middle East Democracy sat in on the discussion from Washington, and were joined via phone by Nalini Elumalai of SUARAM in Malaysia and Aref Jaffal of the Arab World Democracy and Electoral Monitor in Palestine. Lisa Davis of Freedom House moderated the event, and began the conversation by discussing the global regression of the freedoms of association and expression that Freedom House has charted over the last six years. Mixed in with this decline, however, Davis added that they have also seen the unprecedented mobilization of the Arab Spring that set off a wave of popular demonstrations around the world.
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Kumar and Elumalai both then discussed regressions in Southeast Asia, specifically the curtailing of the freedom of civil society groups and non-governmental organizations. Elumalai spoke on how many of the recent laws limiting these freedoms have been framed by governments as conforming to international standards, when in fact they are just the opposite. Kumar also noted that restrictions on civil society in Southeast Asia are most severe when it involves politically sensitive issues, and so he called on groups to remain apolitical.
McInerney then followed saying that many of the disturbing trends occurring in Southeast Asia were equally present in the Middle East, particularly the crackdowns on civil society and the attempts to frame regressions as reforms. McInerney went on, however, to say that this tension between civil society and governments had existed prior to the Arab Spring, but that the initial hope in early 2011 that there would be major improvements has largely faded. In Egypt, McInerney argued that human rights groups are under more pressure now than under the Mubarak regime since the military has seen civil society groups as a threat since the revolution. The lack of major outcry by the U.S. in these instances, in McInerney’s view, has led other countries across the region to undertake similar crackdowns. McInerney also highlighted Tunisia and Libya as two bright notes, but added that the Egypt NGO crisis has tainted the perception of civil society groups in Libya. Since civil society was effectively non-existent prior to the revolution, many Libyans first real encounter with NGOs was through coverage of the Egyptian crisis
Jaffal then discussed his initiatives in the region as part of the Freedom House campaign, which includes elucidating announced and unannounced government policies on the freedoms of expression and association, as well as developing the legal framework to protect these rights. Overall, Jaffal recommended that countries in the Middle East work together and with the broader international community to develop a model to define and protect the freedoms of expression and association.
In response to a question on the effect of U.S. aid money on these rights, Kumar called on Congress to enact conditions selectively on governments who restrict civil society. While the U.S. should carefully choose its battles, Kumar argued that better use of conditions would help a great deal.