Naftali Balanson

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Should non-governmental organizations (NGOs) criticize governments when the latter fail to uphold democracy and good governance? Should governments be accountable to the private citizens who are affected by their policies?

In democratic frameworks, the answer to these questions should be “yes.” Criticism of governments, whether by media or civil society, is a fundamental human right and an essential element of democracy, and prevents abuse of power. Likewise, democracies are expected to be transparent in their decision-making and operations, with rare exceptions relating to national security and protecting lives. In the age of Wikileaks, some argue that there should be absolutely no barriers to the “public’s right to know” about internal government proceedings.

Yet, it appears that when it comes to funding political advocacy NGOs in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the EU considers itself unconstrained by these basic tenets of democracy.

For years, NGO Monitor, a Jerusalem-based research institute, has requested key documents relating to EU funding of a small group of political NGOs that claim to promote human rights, and which has been exploited for anti-Israel initiatives. For instance, the Gaza-based “Palestinian Center for Human Rights” received a 3-year €300,000 grant and Israeli NGO “Yesh Din” is receiving €150,000 over 2 years for projects that seek to portray Israel and its security forces as guilty of “war crimes” and unaccountable to the rule of law. A different grant to the fringe Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, worth €170,000, was used to press a similar demonization agenda in biased United Nations frameworks.

And for years, EU officials have refused to provide details about how NGOs are chosen and about the result of project evaluations, under the guise of unspecified “security” concerns. In one instance, in response to a freedom of information request, the EU sent a disk containing a number of documents, but they were heavily redacted and all meaningful details were erased.

A recent European Court of Justice decision, denying a petition by NGO Monitor concerning this lack of transparency, confirmed that the EU did not provide the requested documents in a timely fashion. But, the court upheld the non-transparent behavior, permitting the EU to continue to shield its decision making from public scrutiny.

And, indeed, the evidence suggests that the EU has something to hide.

As mentioned above, EU officials either denied our requests for information, or obfuscated and dissembled. In fact, the EU’s impulse to conceal was so great, NGO Monitor later found that some of the redacted information was already available in the public domain.

Further evidence is a leaked protocol of an EU meeting on NGO funding from 1999, one of the only uncensored documents dealing with this topic to emerge from EU offices. The protocol shows an explicit and concerted plan to support NGOs in an effort to manipulate Israeli voting patterns. When the founder of NGO Monitor, Prof. Gerald Steinberg, referred to the protocol at a public event, a European diplomat attempted to silence him, claiming that the document was top secret and should not be the subject of public debate.

Finally, an independent evaluation of a global EU program on the “Abolition of the Death Penalty” noted the inadequacy of available materials on a funded project carried out by a Palestinian NGO. The evaluators concluded that “there are few substantive documents held (in Brussels) on file…It is impossible to make any useful comment on this project without more information.” In other words, EU secrecy prevented contracted evaluators from effectively reviewing EU funding, and may have kept essential information out of the hands of EU officials in Brussels.

The lack of transparency and public accountability that plagues the EU on matters of NGO funding is ironic. Democracy, good governance and strengthening civil society, the very values that the EU has discarded in denying NGO Monitor’s requests, are precisely the rationale and justification given for the EU’s financial support of Israeli and Palestinian NGOs. The groups receive massive EU funding to challenge government policy, increase accountability for alleged violations of democracy standards, and to petition courts on matters of public concern.

But, when it comes to the EU’s own activities, institutional secrecy replaces these lofty principles.

Needless to say, this is in direct violation of the EU’s guidelines on transparency, which recognize citizens’ right to demand transparency. They also mandate that “interaction” with NGOs “take place in compliance with the law as well as in due respect of ethical principles, avoiding undue pressure, illegitimate or privileged access to information or to decision makers.”

Instead, it appears that the EU is operating outside of accepted diplomatic norms. As opposed to promoting human rights and democracy, the EU is manipulating Israeli political processes by funding advocacy groups to lobby and engage in other forms of political intervention. In lieu of traditional diplomacy with the Israeli government, the EU uses NGOs to advance its policy agendas.

Until the EU corrects its transparency deficit, however, Europeans and Israelis who have a clear right to know how and why these funding EU decisions are made, will remain in the dark.