Liberty or Security: Do Civil Society Restrictions Limit Terrorism?

By Jeong-Woo Koo and Amanda Murdie

Around the world, there is an outbreak of vague, repressive, and overreaching legislation that represents a serious threat to civil society’s operations and influence. Because they often seek to protect human rights and hold governments accountable, civil society organizations are often a thorn in the government’s side, and therefore can face enhanced repression and legal restrictions. Restrictions on foreign funding, reporting practices, and other operational activities have recently increased in both authoritarian and democratic regimes. These restrictions are often justified by a regime for their supposed security or counterterrorism benefits. These laws create a “closing space” for civil society actors and organizations to operate. The phenomenon is also coined as “the backlash against civil society” because the authority of civil society—once highly regarded as a key pillar of democratic governance—has abruptly come into question. The trend can be traced to the mid-1990s but became full-fledged during the 2010s, affecting not only authoritarian regimes but also hybrid democratic countries. The trend toward systematic repression of civil society through the use of counterterrorism legislation was undoubtedly spurred by the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the following worldwide measures to fight the war on terror.

There are many examples of these restrictive laws, often justified for reasons of national security.  In 2016, Bangladesh passed the Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Bill, a law requiring civil society organizations (CSOs) to provide the government with detailed information on all activities and outside funding. Human rights organizations, like Human Rights Watch, decried the law as “stifling freedom of expression,” designed to make an “authoritarian regime proud.” However, drafters of the act claimed in 2014 that it was intended “to eliminate militant and terror financing and ensure a terrorism-free Bangladesh by 2021.” Similarly, in 2017, the Hungarian government passed the Transparency of Organizations Supported from Abroad Bill, requiring organizations that receive more than a certain amount of money from abroad be placed on a special list or face closure. While human rights organizations and the United Nations criticized the law as “curtail[ing] the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly in Hungary,” proponents of the law justified it as a necessary step to ensure security and limit the threat of terrorism in the country.  Further, Russia’s “Foreign Agent Law” enforced in July 2012, requiring nonprofit organizations to register and declare themselves as foreign agents, was justified to combat money laundering and the financing of terrorism. These laws are similar to steps taken in Ecuador in 2013 and attempted in Nigeria in 2017. The key rationale behind these negative measures was closely linked to counterterrorism and security reasons. In fact, some researchers situate such measures within the other broad trend of global counterterrorism, even though counterterrorism refers to a wider regulative process, including redefining crime and changing criminal code, than scrutiny of NGOs activities (see the CSIS database of legislation of terrorism on the definition of terrorism). Nonetheless, their reasoning confirms and strengthens our logic linking power holders’ motivation to restrict NGOs activities to fighting terrorism.  

Are these justifications correct? Do restrictions on NGOs help limit the threat of terrorism? Do the legal measures have desirable policy outcomes in preventing terrorist incidents? If not, what does it tell us about the genuine motivations as to why authoritarian leaders or the leaders in managed democracies worldwide bother restricting civic space? What implications can be drawn for civil society advocacy and policy-making?

A new paper presented at the 2018 Meeting of the International Studies Association provides some tentative answers to these questions. The paper, by Jeong-Woo Koo (Sungkyunkwan University) and Amanda Murdie (University of Georgia), examines whether the counterterrorism rhetoric that regimes often use to justify attempts to close civil society space really do limit terrorist attacks. Using state-of-the-art statistical techniques and looking at most countries in the world from 2009 to 2016, the authors find no evidence that legal restrictions on civil society reduce the number of terrorist attacks within that country; the effects of both the number of restrictive legal measures and the sheer existence of such measures didn’t achieve statistical significance. Their results remained robust even after controlling for the factors associated with various national economic and political characteristics, including GDP per capita and the level of democracy.

These findings corroborate that civil society restrictions are not an effective counterterrorism measure—which is important evidence of activists and donors to know. Although a regime may use this argument to justify their actions, the evidence does not indicate that civil society restrictions work to make a country safer from terrorist threats. Legal restrictions on NGOs, in fact, had profound effects on crippling the capacities of civil society by constraining their resources, lowering their legitimacy, and separating them from local constituencies, but failed to achieve the outcomes of enhanced security. Though early warnings from global advocacy groups and government leaders that restrictive NGOs laws intend to muzzle dissidents, policymakers and public opinion tended to condone such legal initiatives often invoking the fear of illegal migrants and other security concerns. Although some policymakers and citizens may want to stifle dissent, others might not have been as supportive of NGO restrictive legislation if they had known that the security rhetoric doesn’t achieve expected outcomes. Nevertheless, there is an increasing public awareness of pernicious consequences of restrictive NGOs initiatives, dubious about and further challenging the motivations underlying the initiatives.  

Then the real question becomes what might be alternative paths leading to the protection of a country against future terrorist attacks? Consistent with existing work by counterterrorism experts, the authors find that limiting police and security forces from beating, torture, killing, and arbitrary arrests help create an atmosphere where individuals with knowledge of threats will turn information in. Countries that are able to garner the trust of populations in their borders might have better access to key information about potential terrorist incidents and thus preempt terrorist attacks more effectively. Additionally, limiting physical integrity abuses by police and security forces complicates the ability for terrorists to blend into locals and to mobilize them for their causes. Terrorist groups would find it difficult to make the claim that they seek to address and relieve locals' grievances through the use of violent means, given that governments refrain from violence. For example, terrorist groups in Indonesia took advantage of the political repression carried out by Suharto regime towards local Muslim activists, who naturally became the main target of terrorist groups.

Terrorist narratives often fuel personal and societal grievances of local people as well as terrorist sympathizers of which a sizable number indeed joins terrorist camps. Strengthened bonds and level of trust between governments and citizens minimize the chasms through which terrorists lure locals deep into their goals and purposes. It is often the case that governments and local terrorist groups engage in a tug of war waged to win the hearts and minds of citizens who could serve as key informants and/or supporters of each camp. Governments’ efforts to improve on the level of human rights practices would provide clear benefits for the local population to join antiterrorist campaigns. Scholars provide Israel and Turkey as illustrating examples of how improved treatment of local religious and ethnic groups, as opposed to repressing them, led to a reduction in terrorist incidents. Repression by Turkish government toward the Kurds seems to have propelled more terrorism in the country.

Since it is often civil society organizations that are speaking out against human rights abuses and emphasizing the need for governments to better address local grievances, it becomes well- established that civil society restrictions may actually exacerbate the risk of future terror rather than suppressing it. Civil society needs to be viewed as an important partner the government can work with to fight on the war on terror. The view in the paper accords with the assertion made by Maina Kiai, the UN Special Rapporteur to the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association that civil society organizations indeed play an instrumental role in reducing the threat of terrorism, rather than contributing to it. They have swiftly recognized the risk of the exposure to the lure of terrorists, yet have successfully managed the risks. Political elites in the countries with restrictive NGOs regulations must be urged by key influencers of the international community to reconsider their policies and re-conceptualize their relations with civil society to better address terrorist threats and enhance the country's respect for human rights.


The authors:

Jeong-Woo Koo is Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul, Korea, Director of the Sungkyunkwan Center for Human Rights and Development, and Manager of SSK Human Rights Forum.

Amanda Murdie is the Dean Rusk Scholar of International Relations and Professor of International Affairs in the Department of International Affairs at the University of Georgia.