Civil society under threat following September 11

Kumi Naidoo

To what extent are anti-terrorist measures by governments weakening civil society, whether inadvertently or intentionally? And how are civil society organizations (CSOs) acting to counter threats to civil liberties – either threats to their own activities or to civil liberties more widely? Can the civil society community across the world meet the challenge of ensuring that its progress is not set back by terrorism and the response to it?

When talk of war predominates, the voices of citizens and their organizations are often sidelined or silenced. This is a pity, because in many parts of the world CSOs are able to offer alternative and more thoughtful analysis of current events. The current stance of some governments, along the lines of ‘you are either with us or you are with the terrorists’, has reduced the space for meaningful dissent and informed public debate.[1]

CSOs in the United States

In the US, the effects on CSOs doing advocacy work have been particularly harsh. Some long-time peace activists have said that they have feared for their lives if they spoke out against the war in Afghanistan. In this climate, dubious suggestions by political commentators[2] that those CSOs working for a more equitable and just international financial architecture share more than a ‘coincidental synergy’ with the terrorists has had an impact on many CSOs.

CSOs working with marginalized citizens have been further marginalized. This includes those working with refugees or with immigrant communities, particularly Arabs and Muslims. Not only has their funding base been significantly affected, but there have also been issues around the safety of their staff and their relations with the non-target community.

Faith-based organizations have also had to deal with their places of worship being desecrated. This has included Sikh temples as well as mosques. While, on the one hand, there is no direct link between special anti-terrorist measures and these acts, what is clear is that there has not been as strict a policing of these activities as could have been desired. The racial and religious profiling that has seen many Arab-Americans and Muslims detained without trial, has unwittingly legitimized specific attacks on these communities. While there is a greater need than ever for CSOs to support these communities, there is hardly an enabling environment for them to work in right now.

International civic mobility restricted

At an international level, transnational CSOs have been finding that there is a growing restriction on what Alan Fowler, Vice-President of the International Society for Third Sector Research, has called ‘international civic mobility’. Various international civil society conferences are finding that it is becoming increasingly difficult for civil society activists to get visas to travel to certain countries if they themselves come from a developing country, particularly countries in the Middle East, Africa and Asia and those with a significant Muslim population.

I have just come from a board meeting of the Association of Women’s Rights in Development, which holds its biennial global forum in Mexico in October. A substantial part of the discussion was about how to ensure that activists from these countries will be able to secure visas to participate in this important convening event for the women’s movement.

Associational life under attack

Most importantly, some governments, under the guise of the ‘war on terrorism’, are consolidating or initiating severe attacks on the very foundations of associational life. For example, the still secret ‘detainees’ in the US and the troubling ‘interviews’ being conducted by the FBI of Arab and Arab American men has chilled associational life in those communities.

In attempting to assess the current context we must not only look at the overt interventions by governments but also at the more covert actions that on the whole curtail citizen action and interaction. Several governments are being opportunistic and using the current moment to advance policies that do nothing to curb terrorism but do a lot to curb a vibrant participatory democracy. A recent article entitled ‘The 15 top liberty killing states’ cites a wide range of examples.[3]

Comments by certain political leaders about NGOs being investigated for being fronts for terrorist activity, without any details or qualifications being given, are also likely to have an impact on efforts to build public trust. This could have the effect of making people hesitant to donate money and other resources to legitimate organizations that are sometimes critical of mainstream policy positions. David Bonbright of the Aga Khan Foundation notes that some civil society activists in Pakistan are concerned that there might be ‘a negative spill over to the “rest” of civil society from the implication that a few bogus Pakistan NGOs are terrorist channels’. This reinforces the urgent need for citizen organizations to address the issue of their own societal accountability through mechanisms such as ethical codes of conduct and other means of public accountability and transparency.

Countering the threat

So what of the role of CSOs in a world in which military action and terrorism dominate? A week after the horrific attack on the World Trade Center, a broad spectrum of international CSOs came together to agree a joint statement, which stressed among other things respect for human rights and international law.[4] More recently, the civil society response has come more visibly from the human rights CSOs as concerns grow about the treatment of those captured in Afghanistan. Even though many CSOs have issued press statements expressing the need for human rights to be respected, overall there has been very limited coverage of these views in the mainstream media.

Nevertheless, as Christopher Harris of the Ford Foundation notes: ‘Since September 11 foundations and other civil society organizations have an even more important role to play.’ I envisage at least three dimensions to this enhanced role. First, it is vital that CSOs continue to express such alternative views in the public space. Second, CSOs need to reach out across narrowly defined interests and competencies, and engage in cross-cutting dialogues as a way of proving the inter-relatedness of issues. Finally, at a time when governments and media are focusing on the immediate ‘security’ concerns, the challenge for civil society practitioners is to draw attention to a long-term vision of global human security and development.

1 See Aruna Rao, ‘Manufacturing spaces for dissent’, CIVICUS World, July-September 2001.
2 Reginald Dale, writing in the International Herald Tribune.
3 The 15 countries are the US, the UK, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, European Union, Spain, Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Jordan, Indonesia and Zimbabwe (see See also a report co-authored by Mary Robinson, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Rights At Risk,  (
4 See for the international civil society statement.

Kumi Naidoo is Secretary General and CEO of CIVICUS. He can be contacted at

Comments (0)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Next Special feature to read

Charitable giving in Asia more than expected

Jaime Faustino