Ecuador has an active and diverse civil society, which includes corporations, foundations, private and public sector unions, professional and business organizations, and numerous traditional organizations, such as church groups, sports clubs, and youth groups.[i] All civil society organizations (CSOs) must legally register with the government of Ecuador.
Two key decrees severely limit the freedom and autonomy of CSOs in Ecuador. The first, the Executive Decree No. 16 of 2013, created the National Secretary of Politics Management, which is responsible for regulating social and civic organizations. The Secretary and other government agencies routinely hack CSOs’ email accounts without court order; block online content published by activists; impose excessively burdensome fines on CSOs; close CSO offices and bank accounts without due process; and, seize and sell CSOs’ assets. The second, Executive Decree 739 of 2015, requires all CSOs to report the funding they receive and activities they conduct to the executive branch of the government. Many donors in Ecuador wish to give anonymously, so these requirements deter potential philanthropists from giving to critical causes.
In addition to these decrees, the government creates an environment that constrains CSOs in general. The government alleges that funding from international donors has benefited only a small group of CSOs that seek to destabilize the country. It insists that international donors fund only humanitarian programs and refrain from funding democracy, human rights, or civic participation programs. The government has renegotiated bilateral agreements with donor agencies such as the United States Agency of International Development (USAID) and Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GiZ) to prevent them from funding democracy and human right programs. The government also places burdensome reporting requirements on banks that would host CSO accounts, which deters banks from providing services to legitimate organizations.
The government also stigmatizes some legitimate CSOs by labeling them “ghost organizations,” which implies that they exist only to launder money and provide no service to communities. These allegations are used to delegitimize civil society and justify financial restrictions and other regulatory requirements that hinder CSOs’ ability to operate. Although most CSOs comply with these requirements, the government falsely accuses civil society of lacking transparency.
Recent examples of CSO harassment by the government include the following:
- Fundamedios, a CSO focusing on freedom of expression, was accused of “deviating from the goals and objectives for which it was constituted,” and threatened with dissolution for allegedly being a “political actor.” Since 2015, the Secretary of the Communications Regulator (SECOM) has attempted to shutdown Fundamedios’s web site for alleged copyright violation, despite international pressure against the move.[ii]
- In 2016, the Ministry of Education dissolved and seized and sold the assets of the National Education Union (UNE), which was one of the oldest and largest trade unions in Ecuador having operated for over 70 years. UNE has appealed for direct intervention by the Director General of the International Labour Organization (ILO) to be reinstated as a legal entity in Ecuador.
- Another organization reported encountering government harassment after applying for a small grant of $50,000 from an international donor to conduct freedom of expression activities. The government hacked the organization’s emails and provided excerpts of the emails to pro-government media outlets, which published false stories accusing the organization of working with foreign intelligence agencies to overthrow the governments of four Latin American countries.
Civil society activists created the Ecuadorian Confederation of CSOs to coordinate advocacy efforts to protect their rights, including their ability to access resources. All CSOs may join the Confederation irrespective of mission, which helps its members avoid allegations of partisanship. By working together through the Confederation, Ecuadorian CSOs amplify their advocacy for freedoms of peaceful association, assembly, and expression. The Confederation facilitates messaging and outreach, and helps CSOs petition courts when freedoms and constitutional rights are infringed upon. In doing so, CSOs have cited the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Art. 22, Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, Art. 13, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well the American Convention on Human Rights. Unfortunately, these efforts have achieved limited success because Ecuadorian courts lack independence.
Ecuadorian Civil society has found greater success through public outreach campaigns, which have allowed CSOs to connect with and generate popular support among Ecuadorian communities despite the restrictive environment. Outreach seeks to educate the public on issues Ecuadorian citizens face and programs civil society offers to address their needs. CSOs struggling to get their messages out through traditional media have created their own news outlets and use social media for this purpose. One CSO recently opened a website in Iceland through which it issues news updates about its programs and issues of focus, which would not be covered by Ecuador’s pro-government media. The website also features stories on freedom of the press, which have been picked up by other news outlets around the world.
Where possible, CSOs have formed partnerships with international organizations such as CIVICUS and Amnesty International and multilateral bodies. These organizations have sent letters to government agencies urging them to respect human rights norms including freedom of association. Ecuadorian civil society has participated in thematic hearings at the United Nations and the Inter-American Human Rights System to encourage leaders of other countries to pressure the Ecuadorian government to address violations of international and regional human rights norms. Through networking, Ecuadorian CSOs have developed relationships with UN Special Procedures and Rapporteurs who have called attention to human rights violations in public fora.
UPDATE: The Ecuadorian government rescinded Executive Decrees 16 and 739 with the passage of Decree 193 on October 27, 2017. While Decree 193 revoked the two problematic “NGO Decrees,” it grants the government the authority to close NGOs that are not conducting activities for which they were created or for participating in politics. It does not define a process for doing so. However, the government has taken small steps to provide greater space for civil society to operate. On November 17, 2017, the Ministry of the Environment reinstated Fundación Pachamama, which was shut down four years prior by the Ministry. In addition, the current government has pardoned environmental and indigenous activists who were charged during the Correa administration for participation in peaceful demonstrations.
International treaties to which Ecuador is a party: