Shrinking space: The impact of counter-terrorism measures on the Women, Peace and Security agenda

In an important year for the Women, Peace and Security agenda, women’s civil society organising is increasingly being impacted by global and national counter-terrorism regimes.

2015 is a key year for women peace activists around the world. United Nations Security Council members will convene a high-level review in October 2015 to assess progress at the global, regional and national levels in implementing Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325, renew commitments, and address obstacles and constraints.

Women, Peace and Security conference

North Darfur Committee on Women session on the UNSCR 1325 in Dar El Salaam, Darfur, 2011 Source: Flickr | UNAMID

Fifteen years since UNSCR 1325 was passed, there are still a lot of challenges to overcome. However, women peacemakers and activists are as resilient as ever. They continue to push the Women, Peace and Security agenda’s important message forward, in environments that can be risky, unsupportive, or outright hostile.

However, this resilience is closely tied to the existence of a vibrant civil society space. It is therefore important to assess new challenges to the building of peace and women’s rights posed by counter-terrorism measures.  This assessment must overcome the hesitancy that many peacemakers feel about discussing their experiences openly, fearing damage to their reputation as well as other repercussions.

To this end, in early 2015 the Women Peacemakers Program (WPP), together with Human Security Collective (HSC) contacted a selection of partners in ten countries to gain insight into the multiple ways the counter-terrorism agenda is affecting their work for peace and women’s rights.  This article is based on the perspectives of the respondents from a range of countries worldwide, who were guaranteed anonymity.

Global framework

Post 9/11 counter-terrorism measures have impacted on civil society’s operational and political space in several ways. Legislation, although enacted at the national level, is enacted within, and responsive to, a global framework of measures. Terrorist listing regimes and partner vetting systems may hinder peace work in a variety of complex ways.

One of the most significant areas for peace organizations is the framework that governs the prevention of terrorism financing through the non-profit sector. The Financial Action Task Force (FATF), a highly influential global consortium established in 1989 by the G7, has developed specific recommendations for non-profit organizations (Recommendation 8 – Best Practices: Combating the Abuse of Non-Profit Organisations) in its Anti Money Laundering/Countering Financing of Terrorism standard. This standard assumes that non-profits are vulnerable to abuse for terrorism financing. To date, over 180 countries have endorsed the standard and as such are subject to a peer evaluation by the FATF every 6 to 7 years. Receiving a low FATF rating immediately influences a country’s international financial standing.

In recent years, a number of countries have started to use the FATF standard, and specifically Recommendation 8, as a pretext to clamp down on civil society space. Although countries often deny that it is the case, evidence is growing that upcoming FATF evaluations can have a preemptive chilling effect on civil society space. This is a direct result of governments’ desire to show the FATF that they are capable of preventing terrorist financing abuse through their non-profit sectors. In addition, some states are starting to pass more restrictive non-profit laws after an FATF evaluation – as if the evaluation itself serves to legitimize the drafting of such laws.

Shrinking space

The WPP research indicates that as a result of these mechanisms, a growing number of women activists around the world are experiencing growing pressures on their capacity to undertake peace and human rights activism, including restrictive NGO legislation, suffocating financial regulations, intimidating surveillance practices and exhaustive reporting requirements.

Many women peace activists engage in civil society work that is critical and political. They often operate in high-risk settings, where they face repercussions because of the very nature of their activist work, which challenges established notions and bastions of patriarchal power. Several respondents reported that their governments are trying to control, limit, or stop critical civil society work through the development and passing of new NGO legislation. This new legislation is impacting on their space to operate, for example by putting restrictions on receiving funding support. As one activist from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region shared:

The Rights and Liberties Committee at the Constitution Drafting Assembly has released their suggestion for the Constitution… namely that local civil society should be banned from receiving any foreign government funds.

A women’s organisation based in South Asia observed a difference between the difficulties experienced by various organisations:

There is enough funding for service delivery organizations and those who follow right wing politicians. However, there is no funding for the rights-based organizations, or for those that work towards alternatives.

Some respondents described nationwide campaigns of invasive NGO inspections undertaken by national governments, using harassment tactics such as personal intimidation and threatening activists with the closing down of their organizations. One respondent reported:

When I received a grant from one (domestic) Foundation, I was getting calls from the intelligence bureau and had to supply them with three-years of audited statements, a list of Governing Board Members and staff members. […] They visited my home three times, to ask me questions.

Some women’s groups also faced demanding reporting requirements because of government regulations:

In some locations, all civil society organizations have to submit a copy of their annual report to the police, armed forces, and intelligence offices of the state.

Better safe than sorry?

Aside from the general worsening atmosphere for political or rights-based peace work in many contexts, the FATF standard has also had a great impact on the financial service industry, particularly on banks. Banks can be sanctioned when not abiding by the FATF standard, which may include the withdrawal of their banking license, freezing of assets, or hefty fines.

There is a growing body of evidence that shows that banks’ risk averse behavior has resulted in the withdrawal of bank services to civil society active in conflict areas. As a result of this “better safe than sorry” attitude of the banks, a growing number of civil society organizations are experiencing great difficulties in making or receiving money transfers. Over the years, many donors have become cautious  with grants. Some donors are avoiding partners in high risk, terrorist prone areas, and a number of others are tightening their own due diligence.

Women’s peace organizations more easily fall prey to these restrictions. This is partly because women’s organizations usually operate on small budgets, which means they often do not have the leverage to negotiate a solution with their banks, which big donor organizations and charities are often still able to do. Several respondents mentioned facing challenges with their banks, ranging from delays in receiving their funds to banks requesting additional project information before releasing the funds. Some activists reported that certain banks would no longer release foreign funds to their organizations or had refused to provide their organization with a bank account. One activist reported that another organization in her network had had its account closed by the bank. A respondent from the MENA region shared:

Sometimes we are facing difficulties during the money transfer process, it takes a long time for us to receive the funds, and some correspondent banks reject the amount. Recently a new system has been introduced: there is a limit on the amount we can withdraw on a weekly basis from the bank. This means we cannot pay all our organizational expenses on time, such as staff salary, rent, activity expenses… Everyone is calling us for their money, and we have to promise them that we will pay them next week… Sometimes we are taking loans from other people just to cover our expenses.

In addition, several reported that direct access to funding is getting more difficult. This is partly due to donors increasingly prefering to channel funds via large organizations capable of producing grant proposals according to their demanding guidelines, as well as able to absorb rigorous reporting and auditing requirements. An organization based in Europe reported significantly increased pressures on human resources regarding donor reporting. Staff found themselves working overtime to meet the requirements of this related additional bureacracy, and on some occasions had to seek external advice.

Cumulative effect

Increasingly, these complex and time-consuming requirements are clashing with the reality on the ground: that many women’s organizations are operating on very modest budgets with a combination of limited paid staff capacity and/or volunteer efforts, in a demanding environment that is at best challenging and at worst highly insecure and hostile.

As such, counter-terrorism measures – whether subtly or bluntly – are having an impact on a number of levels that, in combination, restrict civil society space. As one respondent, whose organization had been severely impacted, summarized:

We face an increase in expenditure (because we want to avoid targeting, we now travel in groups, which is more costly); increased surveillance of our movement and programs (officials are asking for reports and bank advices, including that of our personal bank accounts); postponing or cancelling of some of our programs or keeping low profile for some time; mental unrest of our members; impact on the reputation of our organization as our work was projected as “anti-national”, which has affected the outreach of our member organizations. Also, a few partner organizations have left the network fearing repercussions by the government.

The cumulative effect of the range of pressures is that the enabling space for women’s civil society work is shrinking and therefore progressive and pioneering work for inclusive development, peace and women’s rights becomes frustrated. The implications for broader security concerns are worrying. When alternative civil society voices and constructive seeds of change are not provided with the soil to take root, threats to the daily security of people and communities are given free reign. As such, opportunities for actors looking to exploit these vulnerabilities increase.

It is important for civil society to come together to exchange experiences as well as document and monitor the impact counter-terrorism measures are having on their peace and human rights work, in order to engage in collective advocacy. It is equally important for the Women, Peace and Security community to engage with the different counter-terrorism measures and stakeholders. Conversely, it is crucial to raise awareness about the importance of safeguarding critical civil society space worldwide so that women’s voices and actions for peace and human rights can continue to change the world for the better.

Isabelle Geuskens serves as Executive Director of the Women’s Peacemakers Program (WPP), a Dutch NGO that works for the nonviolent resolution of conflict, and the inclusion of women’s voice and leadership in nonviolent conflict resolution processes. In early 2015 the WPP, together with Human Security Collective (HSC), contacted a selection of partners in the field, to gain insight into the multiple ways the counter-terrorism agenda is affecting their work for peace and women’s rights. The findings are summarised in WPP’s Policy Brief: Counterterrorism Measures and their Effects on the Implementation of the Women, Peace and Security Agenda.

Featured Image: Women’s group in Badakhshan, Afghanistan. Source: Flickr | Canada in Afghanistan

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