"Without impunity there cannot be peace," says Carlos Hernández, Director in Honduras of the Asociación para una Sociedad Mas Justa (the Honduran national chapter of Transparency International).
Carlos calmly talks about the endless waves of murders in his country, the rising numbers of contract killers and the intense efforts that he and his colleagues are making to find constructive ways to work with the police, the judiciary and, more broadly, with the general public to curb corruption and find a path to justice and stability. Honduras has often been seen as the 'murder capital of the world.'
But Carlos and so many other courageous leaders of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) across the world are facing mounting harassment and intimidation by their national authorities. Their success is prompting a backlash of governmental curbs on freedom of assembly, freedom of the press and explicit threats. This is why President Obama recently declared, "Protecting civil society groups around the world is now a mission across the U.S. government."
The President has the opportunity to take leadership on this front in the coming days. He should call for a new international compact to protect civil society organizations when he attends the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in Beijing, China, on November 11 and 12, and then at the Group of 20 summit in Brisbane, Australia on November 15 and 16.
Speaking at former President Clinton's philanthropy conference in New York in late September, Obama noted that from "Russia to China to Venezuela, you are seeing relentless crackdowns, vilifying legitimate dissent as subversive. In places like Azerbaijan, laws make it incredibly difficult for NGOs even to operate. From Hungary to Egypt, endless regulations and overt intimidation increasingly target civil society. And, around the world, brave men and women who dare raise their voices are harassed, attacked and even killed."
Threats of violence are no stranger to J.C. Weliamuna, chairman of the Sri Lankan Transparency International chapter, who is on the same mission as Carlosin Honduras. Almost every day, the Asian Human Rights Commission posts new stories of police and other governmental violence in Sri Lanka -- a situation that J.C. has to operate within.
J.C. and Carlos have a great deal in common apart from the appalling violence that surrounds them. Both have a sense of humor and a sense of great calm when they discuss their work. Both, as well as many like them in a growing number of countries, need 24-hour security protection to survive. They, and many people like them, are taking enormous personal risks to try and improve living conditions in their countries.
The more they succeed, the more they are at risk. The forces of corruption in many countries -- be they organized crime, violent gangs or government officials -- feel increasingly threatened as the anti-corruption warriors build powerful public support and find mid-level officials -- and sometimes even senior ones -- willing to stand up and join the cause.
On July 17, 2013, Gustave Makonene, who worked for Transparency International in Rwanda, was murdered. A slow official investigation has indicated that local police were involved, but the case remains open. The death underscores how dangerous it can be to challenge authority in cases of alleged corruption.
It's not just developing countries where intimidation of civil society organizations is on the rise. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has announced that he is determined to create "an illiberal state," and a key target in that is civil society. He is following the example of Russia's President Vladimir Putin by explicitly monitoring non-governmental organizations that receive foreign funds. He has called these NGOs "foreign agents" and stated, "We're not dealing with civil society members but paid political activists who are trying to help foreign interests here." The upcoming summit meetings provide opportunities for world leaders to try and reverse the current tide of civil society intimidation. There is a great deal at stake.
As President Obama noted in his September talk:
When communities, including minorities, are free to live and pray and love as they choose; when nations uphold the rights of all their people -- including, perhaps especially, women and girls -- then those countries are more likely to thrive. If you want strong, successful countries, you need strong, vibrant civil societies. When citizens are free to organize and work together across borders to make our communities healthier, our environment cleaner and our world safer, that's when real change comes. It is precisely because citizens and civil society can be so powerful -- their ability to harness technology and connect and mobilize at this moment so unprecedented -- that more and more governments are doing everything in their power to silence them.