Blog Home



The Woodrow Wilson Center recently held an event on “Understanding and Responding to Attacks on Civil Society.”  The panelists for this discussion were Carl Gershman, president of the National Endowment for Democracy; Nilda Bullain, operational vice president for the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law; and Maina Kiai, United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of assembly and association.  A notable panel of scholars.


In this otherwise typical Washington policy event, there were two particular moments of note—and frustration.


The first came from Mr. Kiai.  In typical UN fashion – perhaps in an attempt to appear balanced – Mr. Kiai called out the United States and Switzerland for concerns over freedom of assembly but praised the so-called general consensus on the success of the Chinese model of development.  He went further to single out what he considered “extremism” within the United States, a veiled reference to the civil society Tea Party movement.  Mr. Kiai’s presentation epitomized the frustrations that many freedom advocates have with the United Nations.  While I appreciate the attempt at balance, a panelist’s time is zero sum.  For every minute Mr. Kiai discussed Switzerland or the U.S., he took away from time that could have been spent highlighting the extreme conditions for civil society in North Korea or Cuba.  And in his laudatory remarks about China, Mr. Kiai stepped beyond his role on the panel as a defender of freedom of association – a right that the Chinese government does not respect.


The second exchange of note occurred when two representatives of the Russian embassy challenged NED president Carl Gershman on his views of Russia’s new draconian NGO law, which among other thing forces onerous registration processes and includes harsh penalties for breaking the law, even up to hard labor.   They stated that, while in the United States we have robust legislation on lobbying; in Russia there was no such thing which necessitated this law.  With his singular clarity, Gershman responded.  The problem with the Russian government, he said, is that it views civil society as “a bunch of lobbyists” representing foreign interests – not as legitimate interlocutors of the Russian people.  TKO.


Despite sometimes being dull, events like these are important and remind us just how far there is to go in defending freedom around the world.


This post was written by Joel D. Hirst, a Human Freedom Fellow at the George W. Bush Institute.  Find him on Twitter: @joelhirst