Around the world, non-governmental organizations, or N-G-Os, have played a key role in addressing societal problems and helping governments to be more transparent and responsive to the needs of citizens. Yet some governments are attempting to intimidate N-G-Os and restrict their activities or shut them down.
Barry Lowenkron, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, spoke out against this disturbing trend. In testimony before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he pointed out that some governments are "developing and using tools to subvert, suppress and silence" N-G-Os. "They invoke or create restrictive laws and regulations," Mr. Lowenkron said. "They impose burdensome registration and tax requirements. Charges are vague, such as 'disturbing social order,' and implementation and enforcement are arbitrary, fostering a climate of self-censorship and fear."
The Chinese government has set regulations which effectively prevent the development of truly independent N-G-Os. Groups trying to register as N-G-Os in China must first find a government agency sponsor, demonstrate they have at least fifty members, and pay the equivalent of twelve thousand dollars to register – which is prohibitively expensive for many. Moreover, applications can be refused without cause.
Meanwhile, groups which attempt to meet and organize without such legal standing run the risk of having their meetings broken up as "illegal gatherings" or being outlawed as "illegal organizations." Activists attempting to found independent advocacy groups have faced harassment and detention. Reportedly concerned about the role that N-G-Os ostensibly played in the peaceful democratic movements in such countries as Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan, the Chinese government has also ordered an investigation into the activities of both foreign and domestic N-G-Os operating in China. It also established a task force to monitor the activities of N-G-Os, especially those with links overseas.
As Assistant Secretary of State Lowenkron pointed out in his testimony, “The contributions of N-G-Os are crucial in addressing a host of domestic and international challenges. Restricting the political space of N-G-Os only limits a society’s own political and economic growth.”
As President George W. Bush has said, "Freedom, by its nature, must be chosen, and defended by citizens, and sustained by the rule of law and the protection of minorities." In supporting and defending the work of N-G-Os, the United States is helping people around the world shape their own destinies in freedom.
The preceding was an editorial reflecting the views of the United States Government.