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April 26, 2016

Revisions to Global Standards on Assessing NGO Vulnerability to Terrorist Exploitation

Civil society organizations around the world face serious pressure from repressive governments to curtail their work, especially if it’s human rights-related or otherwise challenges the status quo. Increasingly, instead of blatantly cracking down on them, governments employ subtler means; for example, they accuse NGOs of being foreign agents, establish burdensome bureaucratic requirements, or refuse to allow organizations to register as NGOs.

As part of these moves, governments seek a veneer of legality, turning to domestic and international law for cover. They claim, for instance, that civil society groups are supporting or funding terrorism or being unwittingly used for terrorist money laundering.

Of late, governments have been using the global standards developed by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) as a pretext for crackdowns on legitimate civil society organizations. FATF is designed to be an independent intergovernmental body that develops and promotes policies to protect the global financial system against money laundering, terrorist financing, and the financing of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The FATF Recommendations provide guidelines for governments on how to address these issues, and Recommendation 8 specifically address the risk of terrorist abuse of nonprofit organizations. This standard says that NGOs are "particularly vulnerable" to terrorist abuse, a problematic characterization which has contributed to excessively restrictive regulation of NGOs. 

Human Rights First joined 122 organizations from 23 countries in submitting a written request to FATF in January calling for modifications to Recommendation 8. Now, in a welcome move, the revisions process is underway, both for Recommendation 8 itself and for the FATF "Interpretive Note" that provides additional commentary and guidance for governments on how to implement Recommendation 8. 

FATF held a consultation with NGOs from around the world in Vienna on April 18. U.S.-based NGOs met with Treasury Department officials beforehand and urged the U.S. delegation to address recommended revisions to problematic language in the draft text. FATF also recently solicited input from the public on the revision of Recommendation 8; comments can still be submitted online through April 29. Based on the public consultation and its dialogue with NGOs, FATF aims to finalize revisions to Recommendation 8 and the Interpretive Note in June.

These revisions should remove harmful provisions that hinder legitimate activities by NGOs. The focus should be on a risk-based, proportionate, and targeted approach.