The 2017 Robert L. Bernstein Institute for Human Rights symposium, “Defending Dissent: Civil Society and Human Rights in the Global Crackdown,” brought together scholars and activists at NYU Law to discuss the growing crackdown on dissent around the globe and how to defend fundamental rights.

Margaret SatterthwaiteCalling the conference to order, Margaret Satterthwaite '99, professor of clinical law and faculty director of the Bernstein Institute, observed that human rights advocates are facing stark challenges. “We live in a time of contracting democracy and liberalism and expanding authoritarianism and nationalism,” she said. “Governments in different regions use arguments about the foreign nature of human rights, the need to protect national security, and the desire to advance development for support of restrictions and punishment meted out to human rights defenders.”

In the opening panel of the two-day symposium, presenters discussed the attacks on dissent, with particular focus on Egypt, Russia, China, and the countries of sub-Saharan Africa. Sharon K. Hom '80, executive director of Human Rights in China and director of the Bernstein Institute’s China and International Human Rights Law Research Program, served as moderator as experts spotlighted trends that threaten dissent and other critical human rights values.

Ed Rekosh, visiting professor of law and director of the Human Rights Initiative at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, said that a major vulnerability for civil society—non-government organizations (NGO) in this context—is that organizations are overly dependent on foreign sources of financial support. Thus, he continued, those who oppose NGOs call attention to foreign funding as a way of delegitimizing the organizations.

Cracking down on NGOs has become part of Russia’s foreign policy, said Melissa Hooper, director of human rights and civil society at Human Rights First. “Russia has been a leader in developing a coordinated campaign that attacks civil societies and has shown other countries how to do so, with very few repercussions on the international stage,” she said. Hooper pointed to Russia’s “foreign agents” law, which requires NGOs that engage in political activity and receive foreign funding to label themselves as foreign agents, or, spies, on all materials and to submit to extensive audits. Since the law was enacted in 2012, she said, NGOs in Russia have shrunk in numbers by one-third.

Sida Liu, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Toronto, noted that, in the past decade, human rights lawyers in China began to mobilize through social media, which enabled groups of lawyers to collaborate on cases. As radical activists began to take on politically sensitive cases, however, the government grew nervous, and 2015 saw major attacks on lawyers and others advocating for human rights, women’s rights, and workers’ rights.

The situation in sub-Saharan Africa is also grim, according to Emerson Sykes ’11, legal advisor for Africa at the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law. Countries in the region have enacted 22 new laws limiting the freedom of expression since 2013, and there are also efforts to limit how NGOs register, raise funds, and submit to government oversight.

Biraj Patnaik, South Asia director at Amnesty International and convener of the CSO Support Cell, said that, in India, the narrative of anti-nationalism—in which anything from eating beef to wearing a short skirt can be an offense—has resulted in an unprecedented suppression of civic space. “We need to look at the politics of demonization differently,” he said. “We looked at it as the outcome of the right-wing regime, but we are increasingly seeing this as a process of engaging people to create a narrative about NGOs that cuts across different political parties.”

Despite the obstacles facing human rights advocates, the panel also discussed a variety of ways to counter the attacks, from rationales in favor of civil society to tactics such as structuring the organization as a corporation and changing the human rights business model. “Every year there are 20,000 or 30,000 new lawyers joining the bar [in China],” said Liu. “Even if just one percent turns into activists, that’s still more than the number of human rights lawyers in China 10 years ago.”

Posted April 25, 2017