Pakistan closes 27 NGOs, activists see widening crackdown

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan has ordered 27 international aid groups to shut down for working in unauthorised areas, spurring human rights campaigners to denounce swelling constraints on free speech and humanitarian work.
The Ministry of Interior gave the 27 NGOs 90 days to conclude operations, according to a list seen by this agency. Among those being expelled are Action Aid, World Vision, Plan International, Trocaire, Pathfinder International, Danish Refugee Council, George Soros’ Open Society Foundations, Oxfam Novib and Marie Stopes.
Talal Chaudhry, Pakistan’s Minister of State for Interior Affairs, said the reason for shutting down the NGOs was because they were doing work in Pakistan “which is beyond their mandate and for which they have no legal justification”.
He declined to give specific examples, but said the targeted NGOs spend “all their money” on administration, are not doing the work they said they were doing, and are working in areas where they were not authorised.
The Pakistan Humanitarian Forum (PHF), which represents 63 international aid groups, said the ministry had issued 11 of its members “letters of rejection”. All of them said they will appeal. No reason for the rejections have been provided, the forum said.
Plan International, which has worked in Pakistan since 1997, said it is supporting over 1.6 million children across Pakistan. Plan said it was given no reason for the ministry’s decision and would appeal it.
“The organisation is hopeful that the appeals process will make it possible for its work with vulnerable and marginalised children, especially girls, to continue in Pakistan,” it said in a statement.
All the other NGOs on the list who responded to queries from Reuters also said they had been given no reason for being forced to shut down.
“They must be having reasons for every (NGO) and those reasons should have been shared with the organisations,” said a representative from one NGO who declined to be identified.
Chaudhry said the number of NGOs in the country ballooned after the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States. Many organisations arrived to provide humanitarian assistance after Islamabad allied itself with the United States in what was then known as the global war on terror.
“But there were also a number of NGOs that are used, knowingly or unknowingly for activities that conflict with Pakistan’s national interests,” Chaudhry said, adding that registration procedures are commonplace in other countries.
Pakistan has hardened its stance towards domestic and international NGOs in recent years, requiring them to undertake a painstaking registration process and clear multiple bureaucratic hurdles to continue working in the country.
The Save the Children aid group fell afoul of the government in 2011, when it was linked to a Pakistani doctor recruited by the CIA to help in the hunt that led to the killing of Al Qaeda militant leader Osama bin Laden in the town of Abbottabad.
In January, the interior ministry ordered a dozen domestic groups working on women’s issues and human rights to halt operations, a move later overturned in courts.
The clampdown on NGOs has come after a number of activists disappeared this year, some of whom have not been heard from. Reuters estimates at least 14 people have been picked up and interrogated from major urban centres including journalists, political workers, and social media activists.
 — Reuters