Uncivil society: the rise of militarized NGOs

naimWho 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.

Afghanistan fraud charges ‘may jeopardize democratic transition’




Afghanistan‘s presidential election has been plunged into crisis after one candidate demanded a halt to vote counting, suspended cooperation with election authorities and called for a UN commission to mediate over “blatant fraud”, The Guardian reports:

It was an unexpectedly strong challenge to an election that had initially been celebrated as a qualified success, with high turnout in both the first round and a 14 June run-off, despite Taliban threats and violence.

Former foreign minister and mujahideen doctor Abdullah Abdullah had already signalled that he was unhappy about preliminary turnout figures for the second round, and wary of large leaps in voter numbers in the strongholds of his rival Ashraf Ghani, a former finance minister and World Bank technocrat.

The Free and Fair Election Forum of Afghanistan (FEFA) spokesman Fahim Naime called on the electoral commissions and presidential candidates not to harm the election process, Deutsche Welle reports.

“We call on the IEC and Abdullah Abdullah to resolve this issue as soon as possible, because as time passes the crisis deepens. If it continues this way, we might reach a point where the commissions won’t be able to resolve these problems,” Naim told DW. He also called on the IEC to take steps in order to restore trust with Abdullah Abdullah.

“In the meantime the candidates should respect the votes of the people and not take such actions that can harm the election process,” Naime said.

Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, says in a DW interview Abdullah has made a dramatic accusation while presenting no substantive evidence. In order to uphold the integrity of the electoral process, Kugelman adds, Afghan election officials probably won’t start to investigate these allegations until the vote counting process has concluded.

An election observer mission from the US-based National Democratic Institute [a core institute of the National Endowment for Democracy] concluded two days after the poll that “the problems it observed did not appear to be widespread or systematic”.


Growing concern over rights activist Mbonimpa – ‘Burundi’s Mandela’


Credit; Front Line Defenders

Credit; Front Line Defenders

A coalition of NGOs in Burundi today filed four complaints before the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) to challenge the power of Prime Minister Pierre Nkurunziza on cases of extrajudicial killings committed between 2010 and 2012.

The extrajudicial killings of Jackson Ndikuriyo, Audace Vianney Habonarugira, Médard Ndayishimiye and Jean-Claude Ndimumahoro have never been solved by the competent authorities.

“These opponents were killed between 2010 and 2012 but to date, there is no record of these cases in the courts,” complains Pacific Nininahazwe, head of the Forum for Awareness and Development (FOCODE), one of four Burundian NGOs which filed the complaint

Human rights defenders already fear for their safety “especially in this pre-election period, characterized by intimidation against regime opponents and defenders of human rights,” said one activist in Burundi.

The activist alluded in particular to the May 15 arrest of Pierre Claver Mbonimpa (above), known as the “Burundian Mandela,” who is accused of “threatening state security” for saying that young members of the ruling party were armed and sent into eastern DRC to attend military training.

Human rights groups are expressing concern over the fate of Mbonimpa, chairman of Burundi’s Association for the Protection of Human and Prisoners’ Rights [APRODH].

Samantha Power, the US Ambassador to the United Nations, this week tweeted “#Burundihuman rights leader Pierre Mbonimpa has been jailed for 35 days—his govt continues to deny him a trial. Must be given justice ASAP.”

The mayor of Bujumbura has banned a support march staged by civil society scheduled for 16 June on the grounds that it was “insurrectionary in nature.”

“We are increasingly observing a poor understanding and misinterpretation of the law regulating public demonstrations and meetings,” said Vital Shiminimana, delegate general of the Forum for the Strengthening of the Civil Society [FORSC], responding to the ban. “We consider that some authorities are even not able to interpret the law that they are yet expected to interpret. They have a tendency to suggest that all public demonstrations are insurrections.”

APRODH is supported by the National Endowment for Democracy.

China: harsh sentences for anti-corruption activists

China-_Tre_Activists_-_Liu_-_Wei-LiNew Citizens’ Movement activists Liu Ping and Wei Zhongping were each sentenced to six and a half years in prison on Thursday, while a third, Li Sihua, received a sentence of three years, China Digital Times reports.

The New Citizens advocate causes such as asset disclosure by officials and education rights for migrants’ children; these judgments are the latest in a series against members of the movement, which has been systematically dismantled over the past year. From Patrick Boehler at South China Morning Post:

The Yushui District People’s Court in Xinyu found all three defendants guilty of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”. Liu and Wei were also found guilty of “gathering a crowd to disrupt public order in a public space” and “using an evil cult to undermine law enforcement”.

The Xinyu verdicts are the harshest reported so far in a nationwide crackdown on the New Citizens Movement that started last year.

[…] Local authorities in Xinyu have long considered the three “thorns in their eyes”, said Maya Wang, a Hong Kong-based researcher for Human Rights Watch. “The local authorities have essentially used the current crackdown as an opportunity,” she said. [Source]

The charges of “using an evil cult” refer to messages Liu and Wei sent about the trial of a Falun Gong practitioner in 2012. A press release from Amnesty International reported that some of the charges had been changed without proper notice:

The court changed the charge from “illegal assembly” to the more heavy charge of “picking quarrels and creating troubles” six months after the trial and just days before the sentencing. This sudden change meant that Liu Ping’s lawyers, Si Weijiang and Yang Xuelin, were only informed of the date of the sentencing two days in advance. This violates the legal requirement of three days’ advance notice, and forced the lawyers to be absent at the sentencing due to other court appearances. [Source]

The three’s trial in Xinyu in December—their second, after they aborted the first by dismissing their own lawyers in protest—was marked by pandemonium outside the courthouse. Defence lawyers including Pu Zhiqiang, himself recently arrested, reported that hundreds of “government-appointed thugs” surrounded them, shoving and hurling insults. (A subsequent directory from the State Council Information Office ordered that “all online news on the case of Liu Ping and the rest […] especially news related to the comments and actions of their lawyers” be deleted.) The New York Times’ Didi Kirsten Tatlow reported on Wednesday that local authorities had taken a heavy-handed approach ahead of the sentencing as well….

“This is a crazy retaliation, a shameless retaliation, which has no connection with the law, the legal system or rule of law,” the New Citizens Movement said in a statement on its website. “This is not just a retaliation against Liu Ping, Wei Zhongping and Li Sihua but retaliates against and dishonors the rights of citizens.”

“The harsh sentences are just the latest moves in the politically motivated crackdown on the New Citizens’ Movement,” William Nee, a China researcher at Amnesty International in Hong Kong, said in an e-mailed statement. “They are prisoners of conscience and should be released immediately and unconditionally.”

China Digital Times is supported by the National Endowment for Democracy.

‘Syriaq’? Sea change in the desert

laith kubbaThe National Endowment for Democracy’s Laith Kubba (left) discusses the insurgency of Islamic militants in Iraq, and the response from the United States on this BBC podcast (scroll down).

The extremist group ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) is not acting alone in Iraq but is part of a de facto alliance of other disaffected Sunni opposition groups, including former Baathist army officers and civilians, writes Paul Salem, Vice President for Policy and Research at The Middle East Institute. And that is what makes the changes to the political map more lasting. The fortunes of ISIS might rise or fall, but the Sunni population of Iraq, like much of the Sunni population of Syria, has made a decisive break with the Shiite- (or in the case of Syria, Alawite) dominated central government.

Sunni opposition groups in Syria and Iraq, with backing from regional players, have been battling to topple the regime in Damascus, and to topple Maliki or at least regain a meaningful share of power in Baghdad. Having failed in both goals, ISIS has effectively shown another way forward: to forget about Damascus and Baghdad for now, forget about the Sykes-Picot borders and create a new political space out of the parts of Syria and Iraq that their capitals do not control–a large and viable political territory with major historic cities, trade routes, oil resources and borders potentially abutting Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. For now, let’s call it Syriaq. In this, they might be emulating the Kurds, who long ago decided to concentrate on controlling their own areas rather than relying on politics in the capital.

Whether controlled fully by ISIS or eventually by a coalition of Sunni groups, this new political space is likely to be part of the Middle East map for the foreseeable future. It might harden into a robust proto-state as has happened in the case of Iraqi Kurdistan, or might be a transitory political reality that is effective as a bargaining rod and melts away again if new and meaningful political deals are struck in Baghdad and Syria.

There is no doubt that most Iraqis and Syrians–Sunnis included, of course–want to be part of the national political institutions of Iraq and Syria, respectively. Assad in Syria has made it quite clear that government is his and certainly not for sharing. And although most Sunnis were part of the political process when the Americans left in 2011, Maliki has systematically excluded them (and Iraqi Kurds) since then and pushed them to more desperate options.

Theoretically, there might be a way to roll this back in Iraq through the formation of a broad national unity government with strong Sunni and Kurdish representation. However, the response from the Maliki government and its supporters has been basically the opposite. Maliki has doubled down on his consistent sectarian rhetoric, Iran has responded by sending military reinforcements, and even Grand Ayatollah Sistani, who has been a beacon for maintaining national unity, called for Shiite conscription rather than national reconciliation. One has to conclude, that for the immediate future at least, Iraq has ceased to exist as a political reality.