There is something inherently flawed in how European governments engage with civil society.
On paper, governments have vetting procedures that should prevent abuse of taxpayers’ funds. Yet time and again, evidence emerges showing that they support and cooperate with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) linked to terror groups.
Lately, there’s been a change.
In July, the Dutch government made a dramatic announcement. It was freezing funding to the Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC), a Palestinian NGO, over its close links to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP)—a European Union-designated terror group. An internal government review had confirmed that taxpayer funds were used to pay the salaries of two senior UAWC employees who were arrested for the murder of 17-year-old Israeli, Rina Shnerb, in August 2019.
The Dutch decision came weeks after a similar announcement from the E.U. The E.U., prodded by a vocal public campaign in Europe and Israel, will run an internal review to check for terror ties among its NGO beneficiaries.
The truth is these developments should have been less striking. Both were informed of UAWC’s terror connections years ago. When alerted, the European Union and the Netherlands insisted they had stringent vetting processes that rendered such allegations impossible.
Still, NGO Monitor research shows that in 2011-2019, the E.U. authorized 30 grants totaling €37.65 million (approximately $45 million) to 10 projects with partners tied to the PFLP. More than €20 million (approximately $24 million) of this involved four NGOs, whose senior officials were among those arrested for Shnerb’s murder.
For its part, UAWC has received at least €17 million (approximately $20 million) since 2013 through Dutch development programs.
How is this possible, one may ask? Even the smallest hint of terror elements in proximity to humanitarian and development aid should have been a major red flag. Yet governments seem unable to engage in a critical discussion and examine the ample evidence at hand.
Imagine a parallel situation. Turkish media report that senior officials from a Syrian humanitarian NGO, funded by Europeans, were arrested over an ISIS terror plot. Would this be met by silence and platitudes about stringent vetting procedures, or would there be global outrage?
The issue gets even more confusing because the E.U. seems to have already confronted this problem. In 2017, notorious PFLP hijacker Leila Khaled spoke at an event in the European Parliament (E.P.) co-hosted by a Spanish NGO. Khaled received standing ovations for her incitement and statements such as: “[T]here cannot be peace while there is even one Zionist on our territory.”
In response, the E.P. president declared, “Every effort should be made to ensure that no listed person for representatives and entities mentioned in the Council are invited or admitted to Parliament nor promoted through event or audiovisual means.”
Then, in 2019, the E.U. introduced a new requirement in its contracts with NGOs globally, stipulating that beneficiaries may not transfer E.U. aid directly or through sub-programs to terrorist entities. In response, six Palestinian NGOs refused to sign contracts with the E.U., and several have actively sought ways to bypass the clause.
Last month, Palestinian government officials held a summit with prominent NGO leaders to discuss ways to evade these new regulations by removing designated terrorist organizations from E.U. lists. All attendants firmly rejected the conditioning of European funding on the non-participation of terrorist entities.
Tellingly, the PFLP itself issued a statement in solidarity with these NGOs, calling “upon the institutions to adopt a unified position rejecting the European Union’s financing conditions.”
Why are these clear terror connections not taken seriously? What other signal is needed that there is a problem?
Part of the answer lies in the close relationships that cause governments to rely on NGOs to determine policy and set priorities, even in conflict-ridden, high-tension areas.
For example, the Belgian government approved a strategic document prepared by a number of Belgian NGOs that it funds. One of the goals is strengthening local NGO “advocacy efforts towards the European institutions and member states … and mitigating the influence of pro-Israel voices.”
When confronted by a local journalist, government officials replied, “What they write on this document is part of their autonomy as representatives of civil society. We do not exercise this type of control over NGOs; this is one of the main principles of democracy.”
Again, responsible citizens may wonder: Do governments blindly adopt all forms of political advocacy as democratic as long as they come from NGOs? Are demanding accountability and integrity, and rejecting discrimination and violence, not core principles of democracy?
The E.U. and the Dutch reviews are important steps towards accountability and democracy. However, there will be no serious change until governments realize that they must seriously reevaluate how they engage with NGOs.
This will depend on whether they are able to distinguish between politics and facts, as well as break the taboo that NGOs can do no wrong. Many policies are already in place. Governments just need to implement them and treat NGOs just like everyone else.
Olga Deutsch is the vice president of NGO Monitor.