Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Why fighting terrorism at the expense of civil society can never be effective

An autonomous and vibrant civil society is an essential element of democracy. It is also a manifestation of and a crucial safeguard for the respect of human rights and fundamental freedoms. However, following the terrorist attacks in the US, Spain and the UK, many policy-makers, including the EU, have increasingly restricted the autonomous space available to civil society. Although this is done in the name of fighting terrorism and promoting security, many of these policy responses are ill conceived, insensitive and simply counter-productive. Thus, rather than making us more secure, they restrict actors that are fundamental in the fight against alienation, exclusion and radicalisation – the stuff that ultimately provides the breeding ground for terrorism. This "tightening of the system" can be felt in the Global South as well as in the Global North.

Following the "model" of the US, the EU has drawn up a list of "terrorist organisations and persons" in 2001, and has frozen their assets. It is not clear how organisations are selected for this list, and even less how they would get off it.

Moreover, the EU (also in line with the US and others) has singled out the non-profit sector as being at great risk of being abused by finance terrorism. This is done despite the lack of any substantial evidence to show that it is a genuine risk. To counter this perceived "risk" the EU is drawing up a Code of Conduct for the non-profit sector which aims to protect the sector from abuse by terrorist organisations. (An early draft included indicators that would have considered even the European Commission to be "at risk" – for example, one indicator was that an organisation’s website had not been updated in the previous 12 months. Anyone familiar with the EuropeAid website will know what I mean!) This Code is to be further elaborated by a Contact Group that will be set up by the Commission in the coming months. It will be composed of 15 members from the non-profit sector and would be an important space for NGDOs to engage in.

The effects of these developments on civil society organisations (CSOs) are numerous and serious:
  1. They are creating a culture of suspicion towards the entire NGO sector. The sector is increasingly presented as part of the problem and not part of the solution. This is particularly damaging for a sector that is based on trust. Loss of trust will have serious repercussions on the effectiveness of NGOs as well as their financial resources.
  2. Research conducted in the US suggests that counter-terrorist measures (CTMs) also lead to a decrease in funding to the developing world, particularly to crisis situations (e.g. Palestine). Organisations simply consider it too risky to engage. This shows that CTMs can be counter-productive as they undermine work by some NGOs that is essential in the fight against terrorism, as we know that desperation and poverty easily play into the hands of radical groups.
  3. Focus on NGOs, particularly Islamic organisations, increases the sense of alienation of these groups in Europe instead of using their strategic positions to increase trust, foster a sense of belonging, and thus decrease the risk of radicalisation.
  4. CTMs enforced in the EU and the US have arguably also encouraged other governments, often already repressive and totalitarian in nature, to tighten their systems. The most striking examples are Russia, Sudan, Peru and Zimbabwe, where terrorism and general national security concerns were used as a rationale for restricting civil society. CSOs in these countries are thus facing a very serious double burden due to CTMs. First, they are forced to operate in an extremely restrictive and often dangerous environment. Second, they are increasingly starved of financial and moral support from CSOs in the Global North that are too scared to cooperate with them.
As NGDOs, we should also be concerned about the increasing infringement of security and terrorism issues on development aid. Although any kind of conflict (including terrorist-related conflict) is damaging for development, it is imperative that the main purpose of aid remains the alleviation of structural poverty. Measures to promote security and CTMs must be funded from additional budgets. Moreover, provision of development aid must not be made conditional on the enactment of CTMs in recipient countries, as is currently done by the European Commission’s Governance Profile.

NGOs are the manifestation of an open and vibrant society. They play an important role in working with and between different communities and in the fight against radicalisation. NGOs should therefore be seen as part of the solution and treated as such. Only if this is done can we move closer to building the inclusive, democratic and peaceful world that we claim to be defending.

Maxi Ussar is a consultant working for Cordaid. For further information please

Source: CONCORD Flash - April 2007.

See also Euforic dossiers on EU cooperation and civil society.