Westminster Hall debate: ‘protecting civil society space’

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)

I beg to move that this House has considered protecting civil society space across the world.

This issue is of some interest to me, as it is to all the right hon. and hon. Members who have turned up to participate in and add their thoughts to the debate. I will focus on three countries: Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. Other Members will focus on other countries of interest to them.

I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting the debate to me and my co-sponsors, the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and, on the Front Bench for the Scottish National party, the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady). It is good for the three of us collectively to have the opportunity to bring this subject before the House.

This debate came off the back of a meeting that I had here with Christian Aid and other bodies from Pakistan in September 2016, during a recess week. They presented a clear case about Pakistan and its religious minorities to me and some of my colleagues from the all-party parliamentary group on Pakistan minorities. I will introduce and discuss the three main issues.

Throughout the world, civil society space has been under significant pressure as restrictions on funding, barriers to registration, intervention in non-governmental organisations’ internal affairs and other forms of harassment have proliferated. The phenomenon of closing such spaces has a propensity to disrupt and paralyse the important work of such organisations, which is crucial to build and reinforce a peaceful and stable society. As I outline my case, I hope that hon. Members and the audience here, on television and elsewhere will grasp what we mean by protecting civil society space across the world.

Longer term, the closure of civil society threatens to weaken irreversibly the infrastructure of human rights movements, which, in turn, could endanger hard-won progress on human rights globally. That is an issue of great importance to me.

The nature of restrictions on civil society varies, but common elements of such laws include: targeting activists who scrutinise Government policies; increased scrutiny of NGO activities and sources of funding, which is all very investigative and focused on making life difficult for the NGOs; and, in some cases, the targeting of organisations that work on issues such as women’s rights, freedom of religion or belief, LGBTI or lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex rights, migrants’ rights, and the environment. Those are all critical and important issues in civil society throughout the world. It is important to retain such organisations.

Repressive practices are not limited to states such as Russia, Egypt or Pakistan: they are in danger of spreading across the world. Civil society experts have spoken of a contagion effect, whereby repressive laws introduced in one country are copied by its neighbours, who might think, “That’s the way to do it.” It is not.


The debate provides an opportunity to identify the many benefits of thriving civil society spaces and the innovative ways in which the UK can support them. Furthermore, we can raise the issue of the considerable pressures on civil society and of civil society’s important role as a driver for positive socioeconomic and political development, as well as for the promotion and protection of human rights.

Unfortunately, there is today an extremely worrying trend in many parts of the world: that those who stand up for those in need are themselves increasingly subjected to various forms of attack for doing so, including physical attack. Today, in this House, we need to stand up for human rights and liberties, such as people’s right to pursue their religious beliefs, not to suffer persecution and to worship their God.

As chair of the APPG on international freedom of religion or belief, I have heard of far too many people far too often being in desperate need of others to support and speak up for them. This is our chance to be a voice for the voiceless—to speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves and who might not know what we are doing. We do so because we want to and because we have a job to do in this House. Sometimes, all it takes is for something to be said for a difference to be made. That is what is so worrying about the restrictions on civil society: they are making it even more difficult to let people support, speak out and make positive changes for each other. That is what we should be trying to do.


The ebb and flow of information between legislators and civil society is an integral part of modern democracy. Moreover, sectors of civil society frequently possess deeper knowledge and expertise on some subjects than is readily available from Departments. It would be a gross error for the legislature or the Executive to hamper in any way the expression of the views of civil society. Civil society is protected through rights such as those to freedom of association, assembly, expression and religion or belief.

The role of NGOs is significant, but civil society goes beyond simply collective organisations of people. Hence, the definition of civil society must be expanded to include how people organise themselves today in the 21st century, because how it is done has evolved. As technology develops, people increasingly frequently utilise the internet to raise human rights and other issues online, as well as through social media and other platforms. It must be noted that none of those spaces in which civil society operates is immune from the pervasive measures being implemented throughout the world to restrict civil society.

The angle that I am coming from as I set the scene is that of freedom of religious belief and civil society. As everyone present probably knows, that right is an area that I am deeply passionate about and it is deeply linked to and affected by the closing of civil space across the world. When the Pakistan minorities APPG members and I met those NGO administrators and other people in September, I recognised that what they were describing was happening on the ground not only to them in Pakistan, but in other parts of the world.

The link with religious freedom can predominantly be seen in two ways. First, the closing down of civil society directly limits individuals’ ability to exercise their freedom of religion or belief, as civil society often includes people simply coming together to promulgate their faith or beliefs. The restriction of such activity directly contravenes article 18 of the universal declaration of human rights, which includes the freedom to manifest and practise religion or belief in public—it is right there. That is a clear example.

Tom Brake

The hon. Gentleman may be coming to this, but does he agree that two faith communities in particular are being heavily targeted? The Ahmadiyya Muslim community is at risk in places such as Pakistan and, more recently, Algeria, and the Baha’i faith is under threat in Iran.

Jim Shannon

I totally concur, and I will mention those communities. It is good to have a collective positive opinion on behalf of those people.

CIVICUS Monitor has analysed what drives violations of civic space. Government leaders have often taken drastic measures to prevent people from criticising their decisions, engaging in human rights monitoring or calling for their basic social or economic needs to be met. Civil society actors frequently say that “security concerns” were cited as the rationale for restricting their voices and actions. It is easy to do that—it is a simple way of controlling what takes place—but it is wrong if it is used for that purpose.

I turn to Pakistan, which I have a heart for; I know that many people in the Gallery have a heart for it, too, as do all the Members who are here. The shrinking of civil society space can be seen vividly in Pakistan, and it is having a detrimental effect on individuals’ freedom to manifest and observe their religion or beliefs. That is particularly troubling as civil society has played a key role in supporting the country to move forward in the face of adversity. NGOs in Pakistan have advocated for political processes when military dictators have made life difficult for political parties and made it hard for individuals or civil society to make other collective efforts.

Although many people are trying to move forward, some are trying to pull them back. NGOs have assisted Governments whenever public service delivery, developing democratic systems and responding to mega-disasters have become too challenging. We in this House have helped very constructively whenever disasters have taken place. The Minister was part of that process in his former role. NGOs have even provided a voice for the marginalised and kept human ideals alive. For example, 26 million Pakistanis and 1.5 million Afghan refugees are supported by international NGOs to meet their urgent needs for relief and recovery, as well as their longer-term needs for social and political development.

It is heartbreaking to hear reports of the worsening situation for civil society groups and human rights defenders in Pakistan. Those horrendous stories of specific victimisation and persecution are terribly difficult to hear, especially when we consider the many positive activities in which those people have engaged to help the country develop socially and economically.

In a written statement to the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2015, Christian Solidarity Worldwide highlighted the threats against and intimidation of human rights defenders in Pakistan, which is a highly divided and polarised society. They face constant threats and intimidation from multiple sources, including state and non-state actors, religious and political groups, local communities, district administrators and the police. CSW said:

“The volatile security situation, growing religious fundamentalism, and complex political circumstances in Pakistan make their work very dangerous.”

Human rights activists who speak out about human rights violations are subjected to harassment and targeted attacks, with little protection from the Government or security forces—specifically the police, whose task that is. There is much evidence from across Pakistan to back that up. Lawyers and judges are particularly vulnerable when defending the rights of people accused of blasphemy. Lawyers who take on blasphemy cases are subjected to extreme pressure before, during and after court hearings. CSW reports that activists,

“lawyers and district level judiciary have been threatened and killed throughout Pakistan”.

Rights defenders continue to be harassed and attacked with impunity, creating an air of silence and fear in society.

The murder in 2016 of several activists epitomises what is happening to civil society space across the world. These are specific stories of people who were targeted. Zafar Lund was shot in the head by unidentified assailants and died outside his home in Kot Addu in Punjab province on 14 July. He was a member of a civil society forum that aims to protect water rights. He promoted local Saraiki folklore and storytelling, and supported education and children’s rights. On 7 May, Khurram Zaki, a prominent human rights campaigner and editor, was shot dead by four unknown assailants while he was having dinner at a restaurant in north Karachi. More recently, there have been concerns about the enforced disappearance of four human rights activists who have campaigned for human rights, including the right to freedom of religion and belief, and had a blasphemy case brought against them. They have used their blog to report on human rights violations by security forces and religious extremists in Pakistan.

Those cases feed into the wider trend of silencing civil society that has sparked protests across Pakistan against the abduction of activists. However, the Ahmadiyya community has been subjected to the worst actions against civil society, as the right hon. Gentleman said. On 5 December 2016, 28 armed police from the counter-terrorism department of the Punjab police forcefully entered the headquarters of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community in Rabwah. The raid was carried out without a warrant, and four Ahmadiyyas were unlawfully arrested under anti-Ahmadiyya and anti-terror laws. Using the law of the land to target people is a crime, and it should not be allowed to happen. Those people are being held in custody and have been tortured, despite having committed no crime whatever.

That raid followed the arrest and conviction in January last year of an 80-year-old shopkeeper, who was imprisoned for eight years under anti-terror laws for possessing copies of the Koran. There are serious concerns that the recent arrests will similarly result in unlawful sentences, without any justification. The raid marks a turning point in the history of Pakistan, as it was carried out by the Government rather than extremists. There is something seriously wrong when the Government, who we should all have faith in, use their strength and power to target minorities and ethnic groups. It is almost unbelievable. The fact that police are able to enter Ahmadiyya premises without a warrant and against a high court order, make arbitrary and unlawful arrests, subject Ahmadiyyas in custody to torture, and convict them without any evidence sets a dangerous precedent. That concerns me and others who are here today. What discussions have the Government had with the Pakistani Government to end their misuse of anti-terror laws and ensure that civil society is safe and able to thrive for the positive development of Pakistan?

While I am focusing on south Asia, I will also raise the case of Shahidui Alam, a world renowned photographer and journalist from Bangladesh who has very close ties with us in the UK. Just this morning, he and others were arrested in Dhaka while protesting against the Bangladeshi Government’s plans to build a coal-fired power station near the Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest and a UNESCO world heritage site. Police allegedly used excessive force and violence, and a bus, to ram down the crowds. Previously, they have used water cannon to dispel peaceful protests.

Security forces in Bangladesh have a well-documented history of using excessive force to prevent protests, which I and others have raised in the House before. There has also been a sharp rise in the targeting of activists and protestors by Government forces, and an increase in restrictions on civil society in general across Bangladesh. Protests against the power station’s construction are ongoing. Those issues are for another debate, but we must look at them. They illustrate the continuing disproportionate response of the Bangladeshi Government, who, in direct contravention of international human rights obligations, shut down peaceful civil society protests and reduced the space for protesters to be heard and engaged with. Again, can the Minister reassure the House and those involved in this debate that, given our close ties with Bangladesh through our diaspora communities and the Commonwealth, the Government will press this issue with their counterparts there?

The issues in Bangladesh go well beyond those I have listed; I will speak on others as well. Organisations have expressed many concerns about Bangladesh and the closure of its civil society. Restrictions on freedom of expression, under section 57 of the Information & Communication Technology Act, 2006, have caused particular concern. It states that any person deliberately publishing any electronic material that causes law and order to deteriorate, prejudices the image of the state or person or causes hurt to religious belief will be punished with a maximum of 14 years and minimum seven years imprisonment.

The Bangladeshi Government have used that section to arrest and charge journalists for publishing what they allege to be fake, obscene or defamatory information in electronic form. The ICT Act has previously been used, and continues to be used, to oppress freedom of expression in Bangladesh, and amendments to the Act in 2013 further increase police powers and penalties for violations. The growing application of section 57 threatens the space for civil dissent in Bangladesh.

Law enforcement agencies and the Bangladeshi Government were slow to respond to the murders of several bloggers. In fact, the Government’s response was negative; they urged the bloggers to curb their writing and impose self-censorship, which, again, is a curtailment of the freedom of the press. One conservative Islamic group called on the Government to punish atheist bloggers who criticise Islam, and several bloggers were arrested under the law that prohibits publishing such works. Asif Mohiuddin went into exile following accusations of blasphemy in 2015; news editor Probir Sikdar was arrested after publishing information about a war criminal in August 2015; and Mohon Kumar Mondal, the director of the Bangladeshi non-governmental organisation LEDARS, was charged for damaging the religious sentiment of Muslims in September 2015. It is evident from interviews that self-censorship is occurring as a result of attacks, fear and misuse of the law. There is also a feeling that the current Bangladeshi Government are in denial. Those are some examples of what is happening in Bangladesh.

There are other examples across the world of the silencing of voices that appear to challenge Governments. The words of the former UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, offer an apt reminder that:

“If leaders do not listen to their people, they will hear from them—in the streets, the squares, or, as we see far too often, on the battlefield. There is a better way. More participation. More democracy. More engagement and openness. That means maximum space for civil society.”

India’s Intelligence Bureau—a sub-agency of the Ministry of Home Affairs—published a report in June 2014 that alleged:

“A significant number of Indian NGOs…have been noticed to be using people centric issues to create an environment which lends itself to stalling development projects.”

Again, that is an attack on expressing oneself on important issues—environmental issues or whatever—in civil society. The report mentioned several campaigns targeting the Government on economic and development issues. Subsequent sweeping measures to clamp down on NGOs receiving foreign funding have undermined the work of civil society. Following the Intelligence Bureau’s report, the Ministry of Home Affairs barred several NGOs and human rights activists with international links from receiving foreign funds by suspending their licences for six months and freezing their bank accounts.

There are significant concerns that human rights defenders and NGOs, and foreign organisations that fund them, are becoming targets for state repression. That is exacerbated by nationalist groups calling on the Government to curb the work of foreign NGOs in the country, claiming that foreign involvement is not conducive to India’s development. The Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, 2010—the FCRA—restricts the work of human rights defenders, as do some income tax regulations.

The US Government—whom it seems we will be in partnership with, based on what the President has said—have expressed concerns over the crackdown on the activities of both local and international NGOs in India. The US Government have seen it, and we must back them up on that. Three UN human rights experts—the special rapporteur on human rights defenders, Michael Forst; the special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Maina Kiai; and the special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye—have also recently called on India to repeal the FCRA, as it is increasingly being used to obstruct civil society.

All NGOs receiving external funds are required by law to register with the Ministry of Home Affairs. Again, the Indian Government are using tax regulations to restrict and control what happens. In April 2016, Maina Kiai showed that the FCRA does not conform to international laws and standards. Those are clear issues. The Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office have recognised that, agreeing with the Charity Commission in 2012 that there was scope for the UK to contribute more actively to the Working Group on Enabling and Protecting Civil Society. However, that is not reflected in that group’s current membership.

DFID’s current civil society partnership review, which was announced by the Secretary of State for International Development, sets out a simplified new central funding system for civil society organisations that supposedly incentivises good performance and pushes for more efficiency, transparency and accountability. While value for money and stemming profiteering is welcome, I ask the Secretary of State through the Minister who is here, what she is doing to ensure that the current stringent reassessment of DFID’s partnership with grassroots organisations will not, in practice, endanger UK support of vital civil society action—especially that which helps to achieve DFID’s strategic priority to

“promote the golden thread of democracy, the rule of law, property rights…and open, accountable institutions.”

In December 2016, UNESCO expressed “deep disagreement” with the methodology used in DFID’s multilateral development review, and concern that

“values of peace and dialogue”

are not anchored in DFID’s new practices. Oxfam chief executive officer, Mark Goldring, echoed concerns that DFID fails to demonstrate convincingly that it is

“wholeheartedly committed to building the partnerships with civil society that organisations need.”

When allocating funding, DFID is often fearful of mixing religion with development by supporting faith-based organisations. We must take that on board.

Despite the right to freedom of association, assembly and expression, and freedom of religion or belief, those groups of individuals are frequently shut down and marginalised under anti-terror laws because they are perceived as providing an alternative narrative to the state’s. What is wrong with providing such a narrative? Freedom of expression and religion are vital to society as a whole. After all, some strands of religion have an overtly political agenda, while others promote or condone discrimination against women and violence, including terrorism.

Most major aid agencies have recognised the limitations of not strategically engaging with religious-based groups. By ignoring the underlying religious beliefs that shape attitudes in most parts of the world, secular development has not had the impact on human behaviour it had hoped for. Treating religion as irrelevant has also not prevented the emergence of extremism. Engaging with religious-based civil society needs to be done with care, with bottom-line criteria set out in partnership. It must also be done in a sensible way, with openness and understanding, moving to engagement through open, constructive discussion on differences in values and objectives. Seeking to engage them as equal partners, instead of estranging them, will also be useful.

Faith-based organisations already provide trusted community focal points and have a strong track record of delivering services and eliciting motivated voluntary service religious leaders. Furthermore, those institutions are often the most trusted in developing countries. Such organisations and groups have been at the forefront of advocacy, including in the civil rights movement in the US, the Jubilee 2000 debt campaign and the frequent religion-led resistance to dictatorships in Asia, Latin America and Africa. It is crucial to understand that diverse religious communities often co-exist peacefully, and that the shortcomings of egalitarian Government provision tend to stoke violence that erupts, which, though it may take on a religious garb, may not be about religion itself—as seen with Boko Haram in Nigeria, for example.

I am sure that the all-party parliamentary group on international freedom of religion or belief, which I Chair, and other hon. Members would be delighted to help DFID to think through how it works with the religious-based section of civil society. Though often tricky, it is crucial for achieving strategic objectives. I also hope that that understanding can be mainstreamed across all Government Departments and programmes, including countering violent extremism programmes, so that civil society groups from a particular faith background, both around the world and in the UK, are not, in practice, targeted and in turn disempowered.

The insistence by some that extremism—which, as yet, has no clear definition—is driven above all by religious ideology must not limit individuals’ right to voice critical concerns about Government action. The protection of individuals’ freedom of expression, and the ability to associate and assemble, are greatly needed, not only for holding the UK Government but for holding all Governments to account. We must watch closely to ensure that counter-terrorism policy does not cross the line it has crossed in Pakistan, Russia and Egypt.

I will conclude, because time is passing very quickly. Where civil society groups are not currently able to raise their voice in countries around the world—we have heard in interventions and, I am sure, will hear from other hon. Members that that is the case—I encourage the UK Government and the Minister in particular, either directly or through organisations such as the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative and the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief, to support and capacity-build parliamentarians to raise human rights issues in their own countries, providing a voice for civil society.

In this time of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, a move that I fully support, how will the UK work both in its own programming and in conjunction with the EU, the Council of Europe, the Commonwealth and international parliamentarian networks to ensure that civil society is protected, supported and heard? We need to ensure that we in this House, who are all now a part of civil society in some way, shape or form, continue to protect our space and those who use that space in order to help one another to be safe and have better lives. For the avoidance of doubt, that is what human rights is all about.

Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner, and to follow the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who is such a doughty campaigner in this place for freedom and human rights. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting the debate. I also thank CAFOD—the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development—and its representative Ruth Stanley, who a year ago brought to my attention an issue that deserves greater prominence than it is currently receiving: the deeply concerning trend towards the shrinking of the space for civil society to operate, in countries all around the world. As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has said:

“Civil society is the oxygen of democracy…Civil society acts as a catalyst for social progress and economic growth. It plays a critical role in keeping Government accountable, and helps represent the diverse interests of the population, including its most vulnerable groups…Yet, for civil society, freedom to operate is diminishing—or even disappearing.”

In the past five years, concerning developments are increasingly limiting the ability of civil society to function. Indeed, as DFID says in its recent “Civil Society Partnership Review”,

“Around the world, civil society is facing unprecedented pressure, from violent attacks to attempts to close down the space for democratic dialogue and debate. The UK Government, as part of its commitment to freedom of thought, association and expression, will stand alongside civil society against these encroachments.”

I strongly welcome those words. I also welcome the presence at the debate of not only a Foreign Office Minister, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe and the Americas, but a DFID Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart). Their presence signifies the importance that those Departments attach to this issue, and we thank them for it.

It is important that we examine why civil society across the globe faces the pressure that it does today. I will talk later about four themes on which we could reflect. I have become increasingly concerned about this issue over the past year as chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, which has been looking into it.

What do we mean by civil society? I suggest that we mean the complex weave of individuals, organisations and institutions that endeavour to manifest the will of a people living in a community or country. That is non-governmental. They endeavour not only to manifest the will of the people—to give them a voice—but to maintain and support their human rights and freedoms.


Civil society helps by speaking out against the bad, such as corruption, impunity, service delivery failure and electoral fraud, and by promoting the good—identifying and articulating citizens’ development needs and priorities. I saw that when I was in remote Nepal with the Select Committee on International Development. There, UK aid workers were helping community groups, including women’s groups, to come together to prioritise the basic needs of their area—for example, the need for improved roads and bridges—so that those priorities could be conveyed to regional and then national Government for potential allocation of resources.

Civil society includes community groups such as I have mentioned, but also a hugely diverse range of other structures. Some are loose associations of people mobilised behind a common goal. Some are well-funded and well-organised charitable hierarchies or NGOs. Some campaign for change. Some want just to provide frontline help. In short, civil society is an extremely broad church—if I may use that metaphor. That makes it difficult to generalise about the trends affecting civil society.

The complexity and depth of analysis required really to get a handle on what is happening today does not make for easy headlines or neat, focused campaigns. That is one reason why we do not hear enough about it, and that is why I commend CAFOD and other organisations concerned about the issue, whose workers live and work in challenging environments where they see at first hand how civil society freedoms are being eroded, and then enable us to bring their concerns into this place.

Often, when civil society freedoms are being eroded, it is by creeping incrementalism. The subtle undermining of civil society freedoms is rarely accompanied by great fanfare. A new law may at first seem innocuous, but it might prove to have a devastating effect on civil society—an effect felt only later. We rarely notice these types of changes, so when they happen a sense of urgency is often not present.

I will reflect, in Holocaust Memorial Week, on one of the worst examples of incrementalism in the last century: the actions of the Nazis. At first, relatively small steps were taken, such as discouraging the reading of certain books or the keeping of them in one’s home. Then, employing a Jewish housemaid was banned. But where did that marginalisation and exclusion ultimately lead? To the gas chambers.

That is why we need to worry more than we do about what is happening to civil society across the world today. We should not be accused of being sensationalist, when we hear, for example, of an NGO being expelled from Egypt, Ethiopia or Cambodia. We should not assume that those are localised cases even though it is not immediately obvious that they may be part of a wider pattern. The sad reality is that events such as those do reflect a current global trend.

In 2016, the Mo Ibrahim index of African governance included for the first time a specific indicator for measuring civil society space. It captured the extent to which civil society actors are allowed to participate in the political process, as well as the freedom of NGOs to operate without fear of persecution or harassment. The concerning findings are that nearly half the African population live in a country in which civil society participation has deteriorated. Two thirds of the countries on that continent, representing 67% of the African population, have shown a deterioration in freedom of expression in the past 10 years.

The main thrust of my message today is not so much to point a finger at Government or Ministers to do more—I am sure that the Minister will be relieved to hear that, although I will not miss that opportunity—as to say that all of us, from individual citizens to elected representatives such as Members of Parliament to influential global institutions such as the World Bank, need to be vigilant, speak out and do more to protect the civil society space in which our brothers and sisters around the world are working to improve the lives of those around them. I referred to the World Bank because I had the privilege of attending the World Bank gathering in Washington last autumn, when a group of parliamentarians from across the world raised this issue. They said that the increasingly shrinking civil society space, including in many of their countries, really needs to be attended to and highlighted more.

Why do we hear reports of the shrinking space for civil society to function, not only in Africa but around the globe? I will suggest four trends that might help to provide a partial explanation and paint part of the picture for this complex and concerning global issue. First, and perhaps most alarmingly, there is the trend in certain countries for more frequent extrajudicial killings, detentions, torture and disappearances. From Thailand to Bangladesh, to Kenya, to Congo, to Saudi Arabia, violence is a daily reality for many civil society workers and volunteers. In eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, kidnap by and violence from armed groups remains a daily risk.

According to the “Aid Worker Security Report 2014”—the most recent one that I am aware is available—120 aid workers were killed, 88 were wounded and 121 were kidnapped in the course of their work. Those are the highest figures ever recorded, and yet even they exclude many local people whose situations have gone unrecorded. Human rights violations and allegations include illegal rendition, such as that of Andy Tsege, whom several of us spoke about in this Chamber a short time ago. There is torture and the enforced disappearance of grassroots activists.

To highlight another example, I understand that the Irish citizen, Ibrahim Halawa, is now serving his fourth year in prison for taking part in peaceful democratic protest in Egypt. We are told that in this period, he has endured beatings with whips and chains, blindfolding, solitary confinement, electrocution and psychological torture. We are also told that when he was in solitary confinement, he was kept in a cell measuring half a metre by half a metre. It was impossible to lie down and he had to go to the toilet on his cell floor. We heard from the Egyptian authorities that he is to be released, but that has not happened yet. I hope that they will hear this debate and that his release will indeed happen.

It goes without saying that colleagues are united in condemning such abuses, but the connection to civil society freedoms is made too infrequently and inadequately. Such violations are each rooted in a willingness on the part of authorities to dispense with core human rights: the freedoms of association, expression, thought, and religion or belief. We hear so often of those freedoms being eroded—of people not being able to get a job and of planning permission not being granted to, for example, church organisations for buildings. All those freedoms are essential for a thriving civil society to exist. As I mentioned earlier in reference to the Nazi persecutions, the erosion of those freedoms is often where things start, but they end up with the kind of dreadful crimes against humanity, torture, imprisonment and deprivation that I referred to.

The second trend I shall highlight is the proliferation of restrictive legislation: the tendency for certain Governments to impose excessively onerous registration requirements, particularly on non-governmental organisations. That often targets legitimate action and impinges on civil society’s rights of freedom of expression, assembly and association. Some laws restrict the foreign funding of NGOs.

Another example of a restrictive requirement is that in Ethiopia, only 30% of an organisation’s costs can be spent on what is classed as administration. That has a very narrow definition, which severely limits civil society. Legislation in Cambodia has restricted civil society organisations from working on politics, limiting their ability to monitor elections or criticise corruption. Since January 2012, at least 120 laws have been enacted in more than 60 countries to restrict the ability of civil society organisations to register, raise funds or operate.

Organisations are straining to meet the increasingly onerous administrative demands of Governments. In many countries the registration of NGOs has become a lengthy, multi-stage process with uncertain timeframes for decisions. That all requires significant resources, which few organisations can afford. I have heard that in China, if a new NGO with international links wants to set up, they must partner with a domestic organisation, therefore increasing the Government’s ability to subject such groups to checks.

In some instances, organisations have been asked to comply with new regulations by a certain date. Failure to do so means that they are forcibly deregistered. We have heard that organisations are united in the belief that that is the way to silence dissenting voices. Some Government leaders justify the discrepancy by appealing to populism—for example, by seeking to portray international NGOs as a malign foreign influence. This is not the time to open up that debate, but suffice it to say that the end result of those restrictions is that often well-intending NGOs seeking to protect or extend civil liberties or human rights, or even to provide humanitarian aid, have ended up closing.

The third trend I will speak about is the use—perhaps I should say the misuse—of so-called anti-terror laws to close down, intimidate or restrict the activities of legitimate organisations. In Kenya, for example, there has been a clampdown on NGO operations in the past two years, targeting pro-democracy organisations. Bank accounts have been frozen and the leaders of organisations face criminal investigations, as allegations are made of their organisations being used as a source of terrorism finance.

Most people understand that the rising spectre of global terrorism has resulted in Governments reflecting on whether their anti-terrorism laws are sufficient for the unprecedented threats that we face today, particularly from ISIS. Most people also recognise the need for special measures to enable Governments to pre-empt and rapidly respond to threats of terrorism. However, we hear that powers afforded by such legislation, such as detention without trial, are being applied in cases in which there is no evidence of any terrorist link whatever. Political opponents, human rights defenders and even NGO employees have been subject to arbitrary detention, justified by anti-terrorism legislation.

The pattern can extend far beyond detention without trial. In Malaysia, for example, a council has been created with the power to declare “security areas”, within which the council can invoke special measures to arrest and detain without warrant. The misuse or overuse of anti-terror legislation also has indirect effects.

Jim Shannon

In business questions in the House today, I had the chance to highlight the persecution of Christians under Malaysian civil law specifically and to ask the Leader of the House to agree to a debate on that issue. Although Malaysia looks outwardly like a peaceful country with few restrictions, it is actually a country with significant and substantial restrictions.

Fiona Bruce

What often happens in such cases is that a climate is created in which individuals and organisations self-censor for fear of reprisals—the so-called “chilling effect”.

Lest we think that it is only in other countries that counter-extremism measures threaten the space for civil society to operate, let us reflect on the proposal made by our Government last year, in connection with their proposed counter-extremism measures: that all youth organisations outside schools teaching young people for more than a certain number of hours a week should be required to register with central Government and potentially be subject to Ofsted inspections, to ensure that they are in line with a list of values drawn up by the Government. At one point, it was suggested that just six hours a week of teaching outside school was sufficient to require central registration. The proposals could have covered traditional and clearly non-threatening church groups, such as Sunday schools or youth groups.

Fortunately, we have heard little about the proposal since the justifiable outcry against it by several Members of Parliament during a debate in this Chamber. I hope that the Government have quietly dropped it, but it goes to show how vigilant we must be to protect civil society even in our own country. Whenever we have the capacity, we should also do our best to challenge restrictions in other countries where they can be much more severe. We must do so on behalf of those in more vulnerable societies who do not have the opportunity to speak out for themselves as we do here.

The fourth and final trend is the harassment of civil society organisations. One issue arising from legislation relating to the registration or operations of NGOs is that laws are drafted so broadly that the scope for interpretation is wide open, enabling authorities to pursue agendas tantamount to harassment under the guise of implementing legislation. Excessive monitoring, threatening phone calls and unannounced inspections are commonplace. The Catholic Agency for Overseas Development reports that its partner workers in Sri Lanka and Latin America face surveillance, threatening phone calls, searches and disruption of community events. Fraud, tax, blasphemy and slander legislation is applied arbitrarily to criminalise the activities of human rights defenders or outspoken advocates, resulting, in extreme cases, in abduction and extrajudicial killing.

Those four trends only scratch the surface. There is overwhelming evidence that freedom of conscience, thought, religion and belief—in many ways, the bellwether of a healthy civil society—is progressively being undermined. Freedom of expression is under threat; in many parts of the world, journalists live in fear. Around 250 are serving prison sentences as I speak. I mentioned the issue not long ago in a House debate on Bangladesh. In Hong Kong, too, following the arrest of booksellers, we hear that journalists there feel intimidated, and even young representatives elected to their legislature are being threatened and denied the right to take up their seats.

Taken together, those trends paint a distressing picture of the state of civil society around the world. If civil society is the oxygen of democracy, as former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon described it, it is in many places struggling for breath. It is therefore critical that we here, in what has been described as the mother of Parliaments, speak out and provide that much-needed breath. To colleagues who, like me, believe that foreign aid is an essential moral duty of the modern state—I know that there are many in the room—it is a matter of deep concern that such issues are occurring in many countries where UK aid is expended. I welcome the Government’s commitments in DFID’s recent civil society partnership review to tackle them.


I welcome the Government’s words in the first paragraph of the partnership review:

“A healthy, vibrant and effective civil society sector is a crucial part of Britain’s soft power and leadership around the world. The Government will give them our strongest support.”

The UK can use its considerable soft power to influence global behaviour. Although I would always like to see more done, I commend our Foreign Office Ministers and officials for raising concerns privately and publicly. For example, FCO officials supported land rights activists in Colombia by visiting them, improving protection of their livelihoods by helping them raise the visibility of their case. Just yesterday, when I met the Minister for Asia and the Pacific, he confirmed that he had raised human rights concerns with the Chinese authorities over the alleged forced harvesting of the organs of prisoners of conscience in that country.

The UK Government have given excellent international leadership by example in respect of listening to civil society advocates by tackling female genital mutilation, taking up what was wrongly seen as a niche issue. Our Government are doing a lot. Of course I think that DFID could do more; I have said many times in this Chamber that I believe it could do more to support freedom, particularly of religion and belief. When I went to Nigeria, I was concerned that I had to fight to get a representative of a major Christian organisation there to come to a roundtable discussion involving other NGOs.

I welcome the new review. It refers to commitments by DFID, including that we will

“increase opportunities for in-country CSO engagement with DFID country offices, including working with…faith groups”.

That is exactly what I am talking about talking about with regard to my Nigeria experience, so I am pleased to see that commitment in the review.

I am also pleased to see the commitment that DFID will

“help shape the environment in which CSO operate. We will address declines in the operating space for civil society that reduce civil society’s ability to improve the lives of poor people and hold those in power to account. Alongside other UK Government departments, DFID will support organisations that protect those under threat and increase understanding of the extent, causes and consequences of closing civic and civil society space.”

I appreciate that the Department for International Development Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border, has had to leave this debate, but I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe and the Americas, who has remained to respond. I was going to ask the DFID Minister to tell us in a little more detail how DFID will action the commitment; perhaps he will ask his colleagues in DFID to respond to that question in particular.

As I said, there is much more that we can do—all of us; not just Ministers. I have therefore suggested that the Select Committee on International Development should consider sustainable development goal 16:

“Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.”

That is a new goal and a new commitment. I hope that the Committee will examine how it is being implemented internationally, as well as through UK aid. It would go a long way towards tackling some of the grave challenges that I have outlined.

I end by reiterating the complexity of the issue and the incremental way in which freedoms can be eroded. I hope that we will all be stirred into recognising the urgency of the issue and into speaking out to protect civil society far more. In the current atmosphere of rising nationalism and economic protectionism, and with Islamic State so threatening, legislation putatively designed to address those issues could become more common, as could Government acts to deter them. If the pattern of the last decade is an indicator, abuses will therefore also become more common, unless we all resolve today to redouble our efforts to ensure that the oxygen of democracy continues to flow, so that civil society can play its vital part around the world.


Patrick Grady (Glasgow North) (SNP)

I thank, as other hon. Members have, the large number of non-governmental, civil society organisations that provided briefings for today’s debate, including Bond, CAFOD, Amnesty International, the Charities Aid Foundation, and ABColombia. The fact that so many briefings were submitted is a cause for both celebration and perhaps a little concern: celebration because this country has a vibrant NGO sector that feels empowered to speak out; but concern at the content of the briefings and the many instances of the closing of civil society space around the world. Indeed, Amnesty’s report says that the situation is unprecedented.

I want to reflect on three themes: the intrinsic value of civil society and its contribution; areas of specific concern—countries that we have heard about and specific individual cases; and some domestic considerations and the role of the UK Government. I no longer need to declare a formal interest, but I should say that my professional background was in the NGO sector as a civil society lobbyist and campaigner on international development issues. I sometimes feel a little like poacher turned gamekeeper, but it has been an interesting 18 months or so since the 2015 election.

A strong civil society is a key indicator of healthy, stable democratic societies. As other hon. Members have said, it is such an important indicator that it has been integrated into the sustainable development goals framework—the plan for the planet over the next 30 years. Goal 16 commits countries around the world to promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all, and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels. So it is fundamental to the global vision of peaceful and sustainable societies.

Civil society provides a platform for debate, to influence policy process and to mobilise opinion outside party political structures. The hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) referred to the Charities Aid Foundation. Its research shows that when asked who is best placed to speak up to Government on behalf of disadvantaged people, and to influence their policies, 84% of respondents in this country said it was charities that specialised in those areas.

The role of the Church and faith-based organisations has also been a strong theme in the debate. Often there is pressure on them from two fronts—from Governments in the countries where they operate, and sometimes from extremists and fundamentalists of other faiths. Yet often those faith-based organisations are among the best placed to speak out on behalf of the poorest and most vulnerable communities. In countries where there is very little infrastructure, such as in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example, it is the Church that has a presence in the communities most remote from society and central governmental structures.

Conversely, the absence of a strong civil society is generally a sign of instability. Syria has been mentioned by several Members. The roots of the conflict are incredibly complex, but Syria is an example of how, when people cannot protest peacefully against the Government, or protests are shut down, people turn to extreme measures. It allows violence to creep in, and Governments respond in kind. We fall into a downward spiral. That point was powerfully made by the hon. Member for Congleton when she reflected on other lessons from history, especially given the fact that we are preparing to mark Holocaust Memorial Day tomorrow; I know that a number of right hon. and hon. Members are attending a service today. The role of faith-based organisations in this country, such as the Jubilee 2000 movement, the trade justice movement and the Make Poverty History campaign, has also been recognised.

Several specific countries of concern have been discussed, and my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (Natalie McGarry) gave a powerful testimony in her speech. It struck me that the countries mentioned are middle-income countries. Colombia, Ethiopia, Malaysia—mentioned by the hon. Member for Congleton—and Turkey are all classified by the World Bank as lower or upper middle-income countries. I said in yesterday’s Westminster Hall debate on West Africa that middle-income country status is perhaps the most precarious, because those countries are in transition from having had little in the way of infrastructure or the kind of development that we enjoy. Hopefully, they are on a journey to the kind of stable democracies that by and large we experience in the west. However, there is a huge risk of regression and backsliding, and it is one of the most precarious periods in a country’s history. An important point that has been made a couple of times is the statistic from the International Centre for Not-for-Profit Law about the 120 or so legal initiatives that have been introduced, in more than 60 countries, since 2012. Many of those are in transitioning middle-income countries. Amnesty has issued more than 40 reports on repression and fundamental freedoms.

The Minister for Europe and the Americas (Sir Alan Duncan)

I thank the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), and my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), for securing this important debate.

Poverty, violence, extremism and large-scale migration are some of the most important challenges of our times. Evidence shows that those problems are most acute in countries where civil society is not allowed to function. Democracies do not start wars with each other—[Interruption.] I challenge my hon. Friend to name two democracies that have ever gone to war. By and large, democracies do not suffer famine, nor do they trigger the uncontrolled exodus of their people in a way that leaves them vulnerable to all manner of abuses, such as modern slavery. Democracies are countries in which civil society is allowed the space to thrive, to challenge authority without fear and to work for the good of society as a whole.

The space in which civil society operates is under ever-increasing pressure throughout the world. Her Majesty’s Government are fully aware of this disturbing trend, and we are working hard to counter it. The Government believe that a free and vibrant civil society not only helps safeguard individual human rights but contributes to a country’s security and prosperity. I should like to highlight some of the ways in which this Government work for the promotion and protection of civil society space overseas.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s annual human rights report shows that the issue of civil society space has been increasingly prominent in our human rights work in recent years. Last December, we placed civil society organisations at the centre of our activities to mark UN human rights day in London and across the entire FCO network. In her speech on that occasion, my noble Friend the right hon. Baroness Anelay stressed how she sought to champion civil society organisations on her official overseas visits. The message was echoed by our diplomatic missions around the world, which celebrated human rights day by reflecting back to their host Governments our admiration for the dynamism of local civil society, or our disapproval, and frankly our bafflement, when they tried to clip its wings.

We also support civil society around the world through our human rights programme work, funded by our Magna Carta fund. In 2016-17, we invested £1.6 million to support 14 projects designed to protect civil society space by promoting freedom of expression, including online, which is important in the modern age. The projects took place in countries as diverse as Bangladesh, Burma, Syria, Pakistan, Rwanda, and Uganda.

The Government are equally proud of the effective work of the Department for International Development in this field, which I recall from when, as has been said, I was Minister there for four years from 2010. Since 2014, DFID has been an active supporter of the Open Government Partnership, which drives up global transparency standards and promotes civic space in developing countries. Recently, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria have joined the partnership, bringing membership to 75 countries.

In November last year, DFID published its civil society partnership review, which assessed the results and effectiveness of DFID’s work with civil society. In that document, the Secretary of State for International Development stated:

“A healthy, vibrant and effective civil society sector is a crucial part of Britain’s soft power and leadership around the world.”

She also pledged to

“robustly defend the rights of civil society in a dangerous and uncertain world.”

One could not hope for a clearer statement of the Government’s position.

The Treasury has also played its part, working with the Charity Commission to prevent the misuse of Financial Action Task Force standards, which are designed to prevent the financing of terrorism, to restrict civil society. Many hon. Members will be aware that the Government sponsors the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. Through its programmes to support democratic practices and institutions around the world, the foundation shares the experience of our democracy, in which the relationship between civil society, Parliaments and political parties is of fundamental importance. We welcome that approach and want WFD to continue to promote that healthy respect for civil society that we enjoy, and that we know is critical for the quality of democracy everywhere.

Another vehicle for our support for civil society space is the Community of Democracies, a democracy-building alliance of Governments and civil society, the governing council of which we joined in December last year. Its working group on the protection of civil society space issues a call to action whenever it sees a threat to civil society space emerging through new legislation or regulation, or whatever it might be, anywhere in the world. Last year, for instance, it successfully helped to influence decisions in Kyrgyzstan, deterring the adoption of an anti-civil society law along the lines of Russia’s deeply cynical and very damaging foreign agents law. I reassure hon. Members that the UK’s diplomatic service works tirelessly to support civil society and to defend its right to function freely.

Our ambassadors and high commissioners frequently stand shoulder to shoulder with those who seek to defend the values in which we believe, including the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, and the right to live without discrimination of any kind.

At the multilateral level we play a leading role in defending the rights of civil society. We support the accreditation of legitimate and serious NGOs to take part in the workings of the United Nations, including the Economic and Social Council. Knowing the keen interest of the hon. Member for Strangford in the freedom of religion and belief, I am sure that he will appreciate our continued strong support for the efforts of Christian Solidarity Worldwide to be so accredited. The UK plays a leading role at the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe in the struggle to keep open civil society space. This year, we are proud to chair the Human Dimension Committee of the OSCE and are developing a work plan that reflects the importance of civil society to human rights, security and prosperity.

Let me turn to some of the very important points that have been made in the debate, in order to give a proper and thorough answer. The hon. Member for Strangford emphasised the importance of freedom of religion and belief, as I mentioned. Freedom of religion promotes prosperity and security and is also an important part of countering violent extremism, so we always urge our international partners to allow freedom of religion and belief, and to end all forms of discrimination on religious grounds.

The hon. Gentleman raised the question of freedom of religion in Pakistan. The Government have urged Pakistan to uphold religious freedom and the rule of law. During the Foreign Secretary’s visit to Pakistan in November last year, he raised the issue of religious tolerance and the importance of safeguarding the rights of all Pakistan’s citizens. The hon. Gentleman also raised the case of Shahidul Alam in Bangladesh. We are aware of the apparent detention of Shahidul Alam in Dhaka this morning. The British high commission is monitoring the situation very closely and will diligently follow that up.

I can also confirm to the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington that we have raised the issue of discrimination against the Baha’i with the Government of Iran, and the arrest of Nabeel Rajab with the Government of Bahrain.

Any Government confident of their own legitimacy and their commitment to democracy should allow civil society to operate freely. We will continue to state that position, often privately but often very loudly in public too. We will continue to make the case for civil society to flourish everywhere and to defend it wherever and whenever it is under attack.

This is an edited version of the debate sourced from the uncorrected (rolling) version of Hansard and is subject to correction.