Who invaded Crimea? Civil society. Who has occupied government offices and police headquarters in eastern Ukraine, bringing massive instability to that region? Civil society. Who is fighting the governments of Bashar al-Assad in Syria and Nouri al-Malaki in Iraq? Civil society. And who are the colectivos confronting Venezuelan student protesters? Civil-society activists, of course, the Carnegie Endowment’s Moisés Naím writes for The Atlantic:
The reality is that these groups, “movements,” and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are appendices of their governments and draw their “activists” from the armed forces, security services, and government militias. They carry out their repressive deeds disguised as “civil society,” in an attempt to mask the behavior of governments that want to avoid being recognized by the international community for what they really are: autocracies that violate global norms, trample human rights, and brutalize their critics. They have even earned their own acronym—GONGOs—for “Government-Organized Non-Governmental Organizations.” Their rise is forcing us to rethink our benign definitions of NGOs and civil society to accommodate armed groups of civilians and even, most provocatively, terrorists.
In some ways, there is nothing new about this phenomenon: the deployment of “militias,” “paramilitaries,” and “mercenaries” is as old as warfare itself, and their use in proxy conflicts between nation-states is also a longtime practice, notes Naím, a member of the board of directors of the National Endowment for Democracy.
What’s different now is that globalization and the spread of democracy have empowered civil society around the world as never before, which in turn has contributed to the proliferation of NGOs.
Moisés Naím is a contributing editor at The Atlantic, a senior associate in the International Economics Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and the chief international columnist for El Pais and La Repubblica, Spain’s and Italy’s largest dailies. He is author of more than 10 books, including, most recently, The End of Power.