Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Arab NGOs Getting More Active

By William Fisher

According to The National Center for Charitable Statistics (NCCS), there are currently over 1.5 million – edging up toward two million — nonprofit organizations in the United States.

Of these more than a million are 501(c)(3) organizations, which means they are tax exempt from Section 501 (c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. None of its earnings may inure to any private shareholder or individual. In addition, it may not be an action organization, i.e., it may not attempt to influence legislation as a substantial part of its activities and it may not participate in any campaign activity for or against political candidates.

Organizations described in section 501(c)(3) are commonly referred to as charitable organizations or NGOs—non-governmental organizations.

In the US, non-governmental organizations play a critical role in bringing human rights and many other humanitarian situations to the attention of lawmakers, the president and the executive branch of government – even the courts. These groups mobilize public opinion to put pressure on various parts of government to reach conclusions that will satisfy one charitable organization while disappointing another, or bring victory to a group of organizations acting as a coalition.

This is distinctly not the case in many other parts of the world. In the Middle East, in particular, NGOs are usually thought of as enemies of the government. The government is suspicious of NGOs because of the possibility that they will covertly receive foreign funds to carry out foreign agendas. They fear that NGO executives will provide cover for foreign intelligence agents. And they fear that the NGOs will launch unauthorized programs that will undermine the government’s direction. In Egypt, a group of well-established indigenous and foreign NGOs have been effectively closed down and are being prosecuted by the new Egyptian government.

In the Middle East and North Africa, nearly every government has a law governing NGOs and they are customarily highly restrictive – the government often has the power to stop programs before they start, to discontinue programs already underway, and to vet prospective Board and Staff members, and force resignations in either category.

Government interference substantially reduces the effectiveness of NGOs, and last week a large number of NGOs, under the aegis of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), were in Geneva to present their complaints to the members of the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC). CIHRS is able to provide observations and testimonies about the situation of rights in the Arab region through its interventions and reports to the HRC.
In Egypt in 2000-2001, U.S. AID established an MGO Training Center, dedicated to teaching men and women associated with NGOs how to do their work more efficiently and at less cost. It didn’t last long.

In preparation for this week’s session of the HRC, CIHRS has drafted five written interventions. Among the issues dealt with in these written interventions is the situation of human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, including their subjection to judicial harassment and other reprisals. The interventions also address the situation of human rights in Lebanon and Sudan, where the rights situations have deteriorated significantly, as well as the report of the Universal Periodic Review of Morocco, which failed to adequately address the severity of the rights situation in Western Sahara.

CIHRS is also scheduled to participate in a number of oral interventions at the HRC. It will address the rights situations in Egypt, Bahrain, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Syria and the occupied Palestinian territories.

These interventions will focus on the most prominent human rights violations witnessed in these countries, as well as the demands related to the implementation of some of the resolutions of the Council or its subsidiary bodies to improve conditions in those countries. CIHRS will also comment on the most evident violations against citizens and activists in these countries as described in the reports of fact-finding missions and of the Special Rapporteurs. For example, CIHRS is expected to present its observations regarding the report of the fact-finding mission to Syria as well as on the follow-up report of the UN Secretary General about the fact-finding mission on “Operation Cast Lead” in the Gaza Strip.
Special attention will be paid to the state of human rights in the Gulf states in general at an event held in cooperation with the Gulf Center for Human Rights and the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. This event will deal with the evident deterioration of the standards of human rights in these countries, seek to identify the nature of violations committed against rights defenders in the Gulf due to their work to protect human rights, and make recommendations in this regard.
CIHRS will also deal with human rights violations and conflict increasing in Lebanon as Conflict from Syria spills-over into Country, the ongoing crackdown on peaceful demonstrators, Human Rights defenders and journalists, in Morocco and the Issue of Western Sahara, and the case of a Saudi human rights defender who risks imprisonment for cooperating with the UN Human Rights Council

CIHRS will report on the “Alarming increase in repression and attacks against civil society in the Gulf region. It will tell the Minister of Justice, state and “Security reform requires political will, not additional repressive laws.”

CIHRS says it is also “deeply concerned by the unresolved issues surrounding the independence of South Sudan, including issues of border demarcation and cross-border trade, which are exacerbating the already severe humanitarian situation in the border states of South Kordofan and Blue Nile and the region of Abyei. We also express alarm regarding the fact that the Government of Sudan has denied international NGOs access to the areas affected by the armed border conflict in these regions, thus severely limiting possibilities for monitoring the situation of human rights in these states.

The organizations also report that aerial bombings of villages continue to be heard from refugees arriving in South Sudan from the two Border States, and internationally condemned weapons like cluster bombs have been allegedly found in civilian areas bombarded by government forces.

Recently, when tensions between the two Sudans intensified in April in the oil-rich area of Higlig, some 4,000 civilians in the area were forced to flee to refugee camps in South Sudan. According to the most recent estimates, approximately 665,000 people have been either internally displaced or severely affected by the ongoing conflict in these two states.
This continued violence has had the added consequence of preventing farmers from cultivating their crops for two seasons. The resulting food shortage has been exacerbated by new laws passed by the government of Sudan to prohibit all trade in the border areas. Such policies have in effect created a food embargo imposed by the Sudanese government on South Kordofan, especially in areas controlled by the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N), and constitute a violation of Sudan’s obligations to protect its citizens.

Moreover, restrictions to entry have been imposed on aid agencies, thereby preventing them from providing humanitarian relief to thousands of people trapped in the border regions by fighting between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-North (SPLA-N). As a result, hundreds of thousands of Sudanese in these states faced severe levels of food insecurity entering the second half of 2012.

Violence in Darfur similarly continues. Most recently, in early August 2012, a militia attacked the Kassab camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs), looting homes and markets and committing several extrajudicial killings, and the entire population of the camp – some 25,000 people, according to UN statements – was forced to flee to the wilderness where they struggle to survive without shelter. No serious investigations or protection strategies for the IDPs have been carried out.