Tyranny is not what it used to be. In another, more predictable world, dictatorships from the South America to Eastern Europe persecuted opposition movements and human rights organizations. A quarter of a century after the wave of democratization in the 1990s, the paradox is that the tyrannical measures against critics proliferate in autocracies and democracies alike. Both imposed and elected governments promote laws and policies of persecution that are so similar they seem to follow a manual on how to unleash a “global war against NGOs,” as the Washington Post called it.
If it existed, the manual would have three exact instructions for the modern tyrant: first, start a smear campaign against NGOs. Unfurl a smoke curtain over his human rights violations, calling those who document them “enemies of development” (as India’s President Narendra Modi did) or “puppets of the empire” (as Bolivarian Revolution governments in Venezuela have done). The perfect case study for the manual would be Viktor Orban, the Hungarian Prime Minister, who must be given credit for his sincerity when he said the persecution of his critics formed part of his attempt to create an “illiberal democracy” in his country.
Second: pass laws or measures that make it impossible to create or maintain a civil society organization. Follow the bad example of Mr. Putin in Russia, who, last year, promoted a “law of undesirable organizations” to flatten them and expel their funders. Review the work of Harper’s government in Canada, which cut off funds to NGOs and research centers that objected to his environmental policies. Copy some of the laws that give governments the power to close these organizations for vague motives of “national security” (like in Ecuador), or for working “against the dignity of the people,” as the government of Uganda has accused NGOs opposing the persecution of LGBTI people.
Third: don’t forget the tried-and-true method of physical coercion. Look at what President Erdogan of Turkey has done: call for the criminal investigation of 1,128 academics who signed a letter criticizing his war against the Kurds, and who could wind up in prison. Review the Chinese government’s strategy against human rights lawyers, 200 of whom it detained and interrogated last year as part of the harshest wave of harassment against the profession in recent memory.
In other times, there was also a strategy to counteract the persecution of civil society: naming and shaming the tyrants, and trusting in the pressure democratic governments exercised against them. But today many of the repressors are elected, and shaming doesn’t work like it did before. We will have to invent another manual against the modern tyrant.
*César Rodríguez Garavito is Director and researcher at the Center for the Study of Law, Justice, and Society (Dejusticia).