NGOs – Rescue missions: the outrageous charge [Part 2]


NGOs have become a political target. This weakens civil society’s multinational organisations that have been working with institutions for years

This is the second part of the report about non-governmental organizations. You will find the first part here.

In France, Cedric Herrou is now something of a hero. In February this man of thirty seven born in the Roya Valley was sentenced to eight years in jail and a three thousand euro fine for having helped out a group of people who had crossed the French-Italian border illegally. Herrou did not give up. He fought his legal battle to the bitter end, and won. Last summer, the French Constitutional Court ruled that the unselfish support of illegal immigrants cannot be legally sanctioned, on humanitarian grounds. The revolutionary spirit had triumphed, at least on paper. Where migrants or the environment are concerned, the threats levelled at anyone standing up for human rights never change.

The British organisation Global Witness has reported that 197 environmental activists were murdered in 2017. That’s four a week. They were killed for protecting water, animals or nature in general. In Italy, as the government came down hard on non-governmental organisations involved in search and rescue missions in the Central Mediterranean and evacuated the Asylum Seeker Reception Centres (CARA) as required by the Salvini decree, residents of Castelnuovo di Porto have been offering to house the refugee families through a diffuse migrant rooming model, and in Catania and Rome the local communities have taken to the streets behind the motto “We are not fish”.  They were demanding that ports be reopened and that asylum seekers, segregated on board rescue ships for days, be allowed to land. In recent years the attacks vented against humanitarian organisations have become the rule. Anyone saving lives at sea is supposedly in league with the traffickers. Anyone helping the homeless is committing a crime. Anyone snatching the blankets off someone living on the street is a champion of public decorum.

“We operate in fifty countries around the world and we’ve noticed that authoritarian tendencies are rife pretty much everywhere. They are all searching for scapegoats and easy answers to major problems, especially what is probably the most thorny issue of our time: how to put an end to inequality”, says Marco De Ponte, general secretary of Action Aid Italia. Since 2018 and up to the present day, attempts by governments and sections of the media and public opinion to criminalise acts of international solidarity have become standard fare in many parts of the world, as a dossier published by the European association Civicus. “Democracy for All”, readily documents. Over and above the immigration crisis. “We are seeing what at one time were non-negotiable principles being called into question, like humanitarianism and helping those in need. These are Red Cross values, established in the 19th century. “Victims first” was a moral imperative and governments would delegate operations beyond their scope to non-governmental organisations. I’m referring to the democratisation processes set  in motion in post-conflict areas, or peace operations in war zones”, remarks Francesco Petrelli, the spokesperson for Concord Italia, that is part of the European Non-Governmental Organisation network for development, solidarity and international cooperation.

However, democracy and human rights walk hand in hand, one can’t exist without the other, and the fact that the defenders of human rights are now facing attacks and pressure by governments, even in countries with a more developed legal culture, is a warning sign. “The souring of relations between governments and non-governmental organisations is actually the first sign of a collapse of the rule of law and the difficulties encountered by many governments in complying with human rights. The very essence of our democracy is at stake here. Fingers are being pointed at the NGOs suggesting that their activities are illicit – even though all attempts to bring them to trial have come to nothing – though they operate in compliance with international conventions and constitutional principles”, Riccardo Magi, a +Europa parliamentarian, explains. The political framework in which this gradual hampering of civil activism is taking place along with a curtailing of the work performed by intermediate bodies such as NGO’s is the same European context that 12 years ago had to face up to the worst economic crisis since 1929 and so far, faced with this challenge, it has not managed to bolster its communitarian policies, and sovereignist forces have had time and space grow and prosper.

“We have to put ourselves in other people’s shoes and understand why, when faced with major problems, certain paths are taken rather than others. The European construct has guaranteed peace and well-being for sixty years”, Petrelli adds, “but the crisis dashed many of these certainties. Today’s thirty-year-olds are well aware that they will be worse off than their parents, who in turn are having to come to terms with often precarious employment and the uncertainty surrounding their children’s future. In these cases the most obvious response, even if it’s the most boorish, is to close oneself off into small fenced off enclaves to find solutions to everyday problems”. However, “Le nationalisme, c’est la guerre”, to quote François Mitterrand speaking to the European parliament on 17 January 1995 in the midst of the xenophobic Balkan war, and hence, according to Petrelli, even peace and freedom can never be taken for granted. The Civicus report spells it out: the reduced room for civic activism is even affecting long-standing democracies, meaning those countries where issues linked to fundamental rights and freedoms seemed to have been put to rest along while ago. “Today the crisis affects our development and democratic representative models” says Francesco Martone, the spokesperson for the In Difesa Di network, an organisation that protects human rights defenders. “If we look at the data, we realise that the political arena on a world level is shrinking due to the advance of reactionary and far right forces that challenge anyone fighting for rights head on, whatever the context: whether it’s migration, minorities, economic or social battles, or environmental activism.

In the past, this kind of process aimed at criminalising and banishing non-governmental organisations took place in countries like Russia, where a few foreign NGO’s involved in human rights were banned by law and accused of interfering with the countries internal affairs. Another clamp-down on these organisations took place in Africa when Robert Mugabe ousted them from Zimbabwe. Today Europe too is witnessing this kind of action, at first in Eastern Central Europe, by Hungary and Poland, and now in the more mature democracies. Attempts by states to monitor and channel the work of NGO’s is standard practice, according to De Ponte: “Certain governments consider them low cost replacements for a welfare state they can no longer guarantee. For others we are simply a nuisance”. The recent, albeit foiled attempt by the Italian government to raise taxes for solidarity organisations is a case in point. In Italy more than elsewhere the breakdown of relations between the government and the NGOs is strictly connected to the migration crisis. “Who’s paying for these sea taxis?” wrote Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio, of the Five Star Movement, in a Facebook post of 21 April 2017, referring to the non-governmental organisations engaged in search and rescue operations in the Central Mediterranean. Even Frontex claimed that these SAR operations provided by NGO’s acted as a pull factor and in other words were instrumental in convincing migrants to set off, seeing as their existence meant they could rely on someone being there to save them. “This accusation is still being repeated today, but no one has managed to prove it” Petrelli specifies. “Instead we prefer to discuss the push factor, because migrations, even of an economic nature, have such deep-rooted causes that they cannot be addressed using the kind of trivial and vulgar reasoning that is currently on display in the public debate in Italy”.

The non-governmental organisations have represented independent international civil society ever since the First World War, which is when the first associations were set up to help prisoners of war, whichever side they were on. Yet, if one goes back a little further in time, to the battlefields of Solferino and San Martino where the Italian wars of independence were waged, there we find the women of Lombardy who busied themselves helping the wounded in battle. These women then formed the core of what later became the International Red Cross, an independent civil society movement given over to providing help and humanitarian assistance in general. NGO’s, always out of favour with Communist regimes, which leant more towards state intervention, and beloved of liberals as representative of an independent and organised civil society, currently rub governments the wrong way because their actions have taken on political significance, often in contrast with the government’s provisions. “Matteo Salvini’s League would do away with these organisations because they are against solidarity, so for them it’s an ideological issue. The Five Star Movement wants to be rid of them because they eschew intermediate bodies, and their attitude is therefore more statist. But the whole process was set in motion even before the advent of Salvini and Di Maio by Marco Minniti. He was the first to criminalise the NGO’s engaged in search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean. I was there and I’ve always admitted so publically”, says Mario Giro, Deputy Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Minister during the Gentiloni government. The fact is that NGO’s applying political pressure is a condition that’s not going to change. “Engaging in advocacy on governments is their most important task”, explains Marta Bordignon, a lecturer in International Law at Rome’s Temple University and president of the Human Rights International Corner Association. And she adds: “The NGO’s are essential if human rights are to be monitored in every different context, because they can exert pressure and guarantee that the victims of abuses have access to justice. That’s why their social function is so important: they act as spokespersons for citizens, whose voice would otherwise not be heard.

When Amnesty International accuses a government of violating human rights, that government may be incensed, but that won’t stop Amnesty International’s investigation and reports. When Greenpeace engages in a battle against whaling in Japan it becomes a world issue, and even if the Japanese react Greenpeace keeps going. Even France, the cradle of democracy and rule of law, reacted pretty nervously when Greenpeace waged war against its nuclear experiments. Today the new frontier of checks and restrictions is played out in the fight against international terrorism. “The political debates have focused so heavily on the idea of security that in some countries criminal proceedings are used to pursue subjects who have nothing to do with terrorist activities”, Martone adds. “The most emblematic case is in France, where in the wake of the Bataclan attacks in November 2015, a state of emergency was introduced that meant that security as an issue gained the upper hand. The same thing is happening in Britain, where activists are on trial for having attempted to hinder fracking activities”. The room for civil activism is being curtailed and more tools are now available for repressive actions. The Civicus report highlights how the rhetoric behind the need for greater security has instilled a shared understanding that it is preferable to give up certain rights in order that one’s safety can be guaranteed. Yet the facts tell a completely different story. In recent years more people have died as a result of anaphylactic shocks due to bee stings than through terrorist attacks. In the United States, terrorists do less damage than branches snapped by high winds. It’s the rhetoric and the slogan-based communication that set the agenda. “There’s hardly any point trying to dismantle this kind of narrative; as a form of communication it always wins out. Luckily many organisations are known for the jobs they do, both within their own communities and abroad”, De Ponte explains.

In Europe the NGOs have been discredited by specially targeted campaigns entirely designed to foster doubts about the transparency of their operations and undermine the trust of their supporters. The Italian situation is once again paradigmatic. The procedures set in motion by Catania prosecutor Carmelo Zuccaro against the NGO ships in the Mediterranean have drawn a blank, but the damage to their image can’t be reversed. “It’s wasn’t even a matter of presumption of innocence, the case was dismissed outright”, Martone stresses. But at this point a slice of public opinion speaks of smugglers and NGOs as if they were one and the same. For many, the NGOs are thieves, for others they are receiving slush funds from global finance billionaires who aim to impose an ethnic solution for Europe. The result is that the organisations lose their funders and have to curtail their activities. Without taking into account the legal expenses they incur in order to defend themselves against the various accusations. Essentially however, as Magi adds, our operations have been closed. “If we think of the Mediterranean for example, at this point there’s no one doing any search and rescue operations any more. The paradox is that the NGOs that are now facing charges were collaborating with Italian institutions such as the Coast Guard in the Mare Nostrum operation just the other day”.

All the criticism vented against the organisations have seriously damaged the entire charity organisation environment, even though they are very much needed to prop up the run-down welfare system. The negative effects are being felt by Caritas, the Parish Charities, even by cancer research associations.  But worst of all if the debate keeps being polarised in this way it will remove the intermediate space between the institutions and the citizens, that grey area that up to now has guaranteed a social protection system”, De Ponte explains. “Our mistake was not to get everyone to understand from the outset that NGOs are primarily organisations rooted in civil society and as such we are present abroad, but also in Italy with projects providing diffuse reception for migrants and combating social exclusion. The Italian citizen has always benefitted from the activities of these organisations, but it has done so passively, taking it for granted that a range of support was being provided which would always be available. What’s works is that today in Italy all NGOs are associated with migrations and public opinion is infested with a mistaken image of migrants: they take other people’s jobs, they carry diseases, they organise attacks. This hatred is being ridden roughshod by our current leaders and this has caused a rift between the organisations and public opinion”, remarks Silvia stilli, spokesperson for the Italian Association of non-governmental organisations (AOI). We should really be describing what these organisations actually do, ranging from the small parish association that operates and addresses local needs to the major NGOs which work everywhere in the world”, says Mario Giro. And then people should be able to witness what actually takes place on the high seas. It can hardly come as a surprise, Magi adds, if the seaside towns such as Catania and Siracusa are not only the ones showing the greatest solidarity, they are also the ones that balk at the lack of humanity of a minister who is prepared to keep people at sea for days on end. “Anyone living in a seaside town is well aware of the risks one faces when at sea”.

This article is also published in the March/April issue of eastwest.

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