activists in ukraine Kirill Kudryavtsev/Getty Images

The Return of Repression

Governments around the world are increasingly taking steps to suppress civil-society organizations, citing the need to ensure political stability, prevent terrorism, or defend national sovereignty from Western interference. Whatever the reason, freedom of opinion, association, and assembly – the essence of democracy – are at stake.

BERLIN – Governments around the world are taking draconian steps to suppress civil-society organizations, with measures ranging from restrictive laws and bureaucratic burdens to smear campaigns, censorship, and outright repression by intelligence agencies or police. Whatever the means, governments are striving to interfere with the work of political, social, and environmental activists to an extent not seen since before communism collapsed in Europe a quarter-century ago.

Of course, governments cite all sorts of reasons, security concerns such as those relating to terrorism now being at the top of the list, to justify the repression of NGOs and other civil society groups. But the reality is that security risks – which may well be genuine – are no excuse for the kind of blanket suspicion that governments are using as a pretext for silencing or prohibiting independent organizations.

This troubling trend does not seem to be a fleeting phenomenon, but a sign of fundamental changes in international geopolitics. Among the most important of these is the growing emphasis on “sovereignty” among emerging economies, from Egypt to Thailand.

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