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The Politics of Repressing Environmentalists as Agents of Foreign Influence

05 Mar 2018
By Miriam Matejova, Stefan Parker and Peter Dauvergne
International NGOs may be more reluctant to grab hold of

Non-government organisations with international linkages can be depicted as disloyal, subversive and even as spies working for foreign powers. This creates a risk for NGOs that participate in transnational advocacy networks with far-reaching consequences for the future of environmental activism.

A number of states have accused non-government organisations (NGOs) of either being or acting on behalf of malevolent foreign interests. In many cases, states have framed these accusations within the domestic history of foreign interference, questioning the loyalty and patriotism of activists and NGOs. In the name of transparency and national security, since the mid 2000s a wide range of states, including Bolivia, China, Egypt, Malaysia, India, Russia, Canada and Australia, have been revising and passing new laws to enhance controls over domestic NGOs, especially ones receiving foreign funding and participating in transnational advocacy networks.

Backlash against NGOs as foreign agents has been particularly strong in relation to natural-resource extraction, as governments seek to defend economies of extraction against an increasingly connected network of global environmental opposition. In Bolivia, for example, the government has framed environmental NGOs opposing natural-gas extraction as agents of colonialism, while China and Russia have passed laws to limit the capacity of foreign-affiliated NGOs to campaign on political issues, such as mining and nuclear energy.

Why have governments labelled civil society organisations as foreign agents? Why are states enacting laws to sever the foreign ties and funding of local NGOs? There are, of course, many factors, varying across jurisdictions and time. The legacy of past transnational advocacy campaigns is a significant—and often underestimated—reason.

The boomerang strategy and transnational activism

Throwing a boomerang is a strategy that NGOs use to seek out international partners to lobby and pressure domestic leaders on their behalf. NGOs in the global South, especially ones with little funding and few staff, are most likely to deploy this strategy. International partnerships and transnational NGO coalitions can provide these NGOs with money, expertise and technology.

Generally, the process begins after a state suppresses a domestic NGO or campaign; in response, NGOs within this state turn to international allies to help pressure their state either directly or through the media or other states. Target states commonly push back and a long period of both domestic and international pressure can ensue.

The willingness of states to reform policies or adopt new norms in response to international pressure varies widely, but at least in some instances the boomerang strategy has pushed inaccessible or deaf states to retract decisions or alter tactics. The transnational mobilisation against the construction of a water superhighway in the La Plata River basin in South America is a prominent example of a successful boomerang campaign.

Transnational linkages, however, are not always beneficial to activists in repressive states. The consequences of transnational activism vary widely as activists interact with diverse and dynamic local campaigns, while NGO boomerangs often entail immediate short-term risks. Boomerangs affect local social and political dynamics, altering the relationship between domestic NGOs and the state, sometimes shifting the domestic balance of power. Transnational pressure may also contribute to rhetorical policy shifts that appease international critics but do little to promote institutional change. Transnational activism in repressive states may further undermine opportunities for state-society collaboration.

In general, states use framing as an attempt at political manipulation, creating or inserting themselves into policy debates that shape the way in which the public understands specific issues. The prevailing state-framing literature tends to focus on short-term framing effects. This article, on the other hand, explores the long-term political goals and consequences of state framing. Labelling foreign-funded NGOs as the enemies of the state is unlikely to deflect international criticism. Such portrayals, however, can help states undermine the legitimacy and public support for domestic NGOs, as well as justify new laws to restrict foreign ties and foreign funding.

Regulatory offensive: controlling and suppressing NGOs worldwide

Nearly half of all states have strengthened laws to control domestic NGOs, with the vast majority being passed since the mid 1990s. Restrictive laws targeting NGOs can be broadly grouped into the following five categories based on the ways in which organisations are targeted by a given state: administration, finance, communication, movement/activity and harassment.

Administration refers to laws that discourage or prevent groups from creating NGOs and/or carrying out their activities. The finance category includes regulations that restrict the ability of NGOs to secure necessary financial resources. Communication refers to laws that prevent NGOs from engaging in free expression and advocacy, including information exchange and participation in networks. The movement/activity category includes laws that directly target NGOs’ staff and specific activities (for example, anti-protest laws). The last category captures government harassment of NGOs—for example, through raids, unannounced inspections or sudden requests for information. While many of them target human rights NGOs, environmental groups, especially those campaigning against natural-resource extraction, have become an increasingly frequent target of state backlash.

Those NGOs that register as foreign agents or are publicly labelled as working in the interest of foreigners are likely to experience operational constraints and social stigma. Strict laws concerning NGO registration rules give the state significant control over NGO funding and activities. Particularly concerning is the ability of the state to refuse to register any group that is deemed undesirable. Strict reporting rules effectively bar anonymous donations and make public fundraising exceedingly difficult. Increased bureaucratisation also forces NGOs to spend even more time on paperwork, and thus less time organising and campaigning. If combined with small budgets and small memberships, the administrative burden is likely to weaken many NGOs permanently.

Many analysts are concerned that organisations refusing to register as a foreign agent are empowering the state to shutter independent and fault-finding NGOs. In Russia, President Putin seems to be using the NGO laws to co-opt civil society, delegitimising critics and legitimising apologists. Similar manoeuvres have been made in countries such as Bolivia and India. Religious groups, corporations and business associations are also less likely to fall prey to foreign agents laws, as seen in the relative freedom of expression granted to transnational extractive resource companies in many states.

The trend we document suggests a future of depoliticisation of the global environmental movement. Although the passing of harsh NGO laws has sparked an international outcry, in the future, international NGOs may be more reluctant to grab hold of boomerangs thrown by activists in repressive states, worrying that these states will lash out even harder at NGOs with foreign ties. This conclusion does not bode well for the future influence and safety of local transnational advocacy network members seeking environmental justice.

Miriam Matejova is a PhD candidate in Political Science, a Vanier Scholar, a Killam Laureate and a Liu Scholar at the University of British Columbia. 

Stefan Parker is a community relations specialist in Vancouver and a Master of Arts candidate at the University of British Columbia. 

Peter Dauvergne is Professor of International Relations at the University of British Columbia specialising in global environmental politics. 

This is an abridged version of an article published in the Australian Journal of International Affairs on 4 February 2018. AIIA members have free access to the AJIA.