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News | USAID pledge legal, says court

A Federal Appeals Court ruled in February 2007 that the Bush administration can deny funding to non-profit AIDS groups that do not publicly disavow prostitution and sex trafficking. Overturning a lower court's decision taken May last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia said that the AIDS groups' free speech rights would not be violated if the money was linked to a pledge to uphold government policy.

In 2005, two north American NGOs (DKT and OSI) sued the US Agency for International Development (USAID), contending their free speech rights were violated by a 2003 law requiring groups to explicitly oppose prostitution and sex trafficking in order to qualify for part of a $15 billion AIDS program. The same anti-prostitution pledge is required from anti-trafficking NGOs in order to get USAID funding. The U.S. District Court agreed with the point of view of the NGOs and argued that the funding conditions insist that groups "parrot" the U.S. government's position on prostitution.

But the U.S. Circuit Judge was of the opinion that Congress has authorised the Bush administration to assist NGOs on such terms and conditions as the president may determine. "The act does not compel DKT to advocate the government's position on prostitution and sex trafficking; it requires only that if DKT wishes to receive funds it must communicate the message the government chooses to fund", Randolph wrote in a ten-page decision reversing the lower court's ruling. "This does not violate the First Amendment."

La Strada International is concerned about this development, whereby donor agencies and more specifically the U.S. government are forcing NGOs to follow government policy and ideology. The current USAID pledge also prevents NGOs from using non-U.S. government funding in any manner that the U.S. government could interpret as promoting or supporting the right of people in the sex sector to advocate for their labour rights. LSI condemns this imposition as the weakening of labour rights within the sex industry might actually harm victims of trafficking. Further, LSI believes that enforcing political approaches to social and economic problems through funding criteria seriously infringes NGO's freedom of speech and hampers the development of a critical civil society.

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