The strength of civil society has increased globally in recent years, giving “ordinary citizens more power and responsibility” and threatening “governments that wish to monopolize power and evade responsibility.”

Yet, in 2015 a “global crackdown by authoritarian states on civil society deepened, silencing independent voices, impoverishing political discourse and closing avenues for peaceful change,” according to the U.S. State Department’s 2015 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices.

The report said civil society – which includes charitable groups, cultural and professional organizations, labor unions and other organizations – was “our strongest bulwark against the spread of violent extremism.”

Terrorist organizations, like Da’esh (ISIS), have flourished where civil society is restricted, harassed or unsupported by local governments.

“It is no surprise that one of the first things the terrorist organization Da’esh did when it took over the Syrian city of Raqqa was to kill or drive away civil society activists working to defend human rights and provide community services there,” the report stated.

“In fact, failed governance combined with repression of local civic activism helped Da’esh to take territory in Syria and Iraq and continued to provide an enabling environment for Da’esh and its affiliates, notably in the Sinai, Libya and Yemen.”

By contrast, where civil society is supported and heeded by governing authorities, progress against extremism is possible.

The Nigerian government’s efforts to regain civilian trust through military reforms following “heavy-handed tactics and abuses of civilians” in its efforts to combat Boko Haram was cited as one example.

Three strategies used by governments to repress civil society were highlighted:

1. Direct and overt means to limit political, social and religious diversity.
2. Overly broad counterterrorism or national security laws used to justify restrictions on freedom of expression.
3. Burdensome administrative and bureaucratic procedures often aimed at restricting the work of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

Secretary of State John Kerry explained that “the norms referred to in this report … [are] not some arbitrary standard of the United States, which we seek to impose on people. These are universal standards of human rights that have been adopted and accepted and are agreed to by most nations in the world.”

He emphasized that “in the arena of human rights, every government – every government – has the ability to improve, including the United States” and stressed that “in country after country where human rights are respected, people are happier, people are freer to pursue their own designs, happier and freer to be artistic and creative, to be entrepreneurial, to make a difference in the building of the community.”

The full 2015 report, offering a nation-by-nation analysis, is available here.

An news brief on the 2014 report is available here.

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