Arab and International

Human Rights Watch Letter to Jordanian Prime Minister Dahabi on the Draft NGO and Public Assembly La

 

Eng. Nader Dahabi 

Prime Minister 

Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan 

Dear Prime Minister, 

We write to urge you to withdraw the current draft laws on charitable societies (NGO Law) and public gatherings (Assembly Law) from consideration of the House of Deputies and the House of Senators respectively because they are in clear violation of international human rights standards.

The NGO Law treats NGOs as an extension of government, subjecting their establishment, financing and activities to detailed government control. It would make it almost impossible for any NGO that attempts to effect and critically monitor government policies to maintain its independence. The Assembly Law contains minor improvements over the current law, but continues to require prior approval of any assembly by the local governor. 

In December 2007, Human Rights Watch published a report, Shutting Out the Critics, detailing the real harm the existing NGO and Assembly Laws have done to the enjoyment of Jordanians’ rights to peaceful assembly and free association. 

In January 2008, you withdrew an earlier, equally disturbing draft of the NGO Law, and you also urged reconsideration of the existing Assembly Law. However, the redrafting of both laws is disappointing both from a procedural and substantive point of view. 

The Ministry of Social Development held several meetings with representatives of Jordanian and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) on the NGO law, but the draft does not appear to reflect any relevant input from these meetings. In particular, the provisions of the current draft remain far removed from the provisions in an alternative draft produced by a coalition of NGOs in 2006 following wide-ranging consultation amongst themselves. On the Assembly Law, there was no consultation, leading NGOs to voice their criticisms to members of parliament. 

Furthermore, Jordan‘s Bureau of Legislation and Opinion has a dedicated website, supported by U.S. aid for publishing draft laws submitted to parliament and forms for eliciting comment. However neither of the two laws have been published on that website. Despite promises to supply Human Rights Watch with future draft laws, the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Social Development did not provide us with drafts when we asked earlier this month. 

The NGO Law 

The NGO Law currently under consideration by the House of Deputies puts unacceptable curbs on the ability to freely associate with others. Article 3 prohibits an NGO from pursuing "any political objectives that are part of the domain of political parties." Such a vague phrase can only serve to suppress legitimate NGO activity and would allow the government to bar NGOs from pursuing, for example, human rights investigations, environmental campaigns, or assistance to the poor on the pretext that a political party is already concerned with such matters. Articles 4 to 8 make clear that the government intends to maintain full control over which NGOs it allows to be established. Although the draft law now speaks of "registering" NGOs, the government in fact has increased its powers over the way NGOs are to be set up: The NGO registrar is directly appointed by the Cabinet (Article 4), which "may agree … to having a Jordanian legal person among the founding members of the society who is not from an NGO" (Article 8). The founder of an NGO must be "of good conduct and behavior and not [have been] sentenced" for a dishonorable crime (Article 7.d.). This appears to require a certificate of good conduct from the General Intelligence Department as issued for certain job or visa applications, and, in any event, this onerous requirement for a founder of an NGO has not been justified. The law allows the NGO registrar and the ministry to postpone registration proceedings for an unspecified time for any "deficiency" in the application (Articles 10.b. and 11.b.). 

NGOs would find it difficult to operate under this law if the government disapproved of their activities. The NGO must inform the minister and the NGO registrar of the date, place, and agenda of its General Assembly meeting two weeks in advance, and abide by all regulations issued by the ministry, none of which have been published and can be changed at any time without parliamentary approval (Article 14.a.). Without such notice, any decision by the NGO’s General Assembly (to which the minister may appoint a representative), is not considered lawful. Even so, the minister must approve any decision of the General Assembly before it can be carried out (Article 14.b.), and the NGO must receive the minister’s approval to open a branch (Article 13.a.). 

The extent to which the ministry can mould the NGO’s activities according to its own policies becomes clear in Article 16 which requires the NGO to present an annual plan for the coming year in addition to an annual report, financial accounting (including the names of all Jordanian donors), and all board decisions. 

These provisions are not merely unnecessary bureaucratic obstacles, but seem designed solely to give the government absolute control to shut out its critics. The government can influence NGO activities because it will be aware of their annual plans and because it directs a new, governmental NGO fund (Article 22), while imposing conditions on non-governmental funding. The government can also shut down NGOs, by imposing its own temporary board and management, if an NGO fails to rectify within one month a ministerial finding that it is not in compliance with the law or that it has violated its own bylaws (Article 19). The law not only allows government take-overs of NGOs, but Article 20 also allows the minister to shut an NGO down if it fails for the second time to rectify its non-compliance after being admonished, or if the NGO takes a non-Jordanian donation without ministerial approval. 

The previous government’s action against the Islamic Center Society in 2006 and 2007 unduly interfered in the Society’s independence by encouraging many new members to join and vote in a new management after it had ousted the old management and replaced it with a temporary board of government officials. (Our report, Shutting Out the Critics, provides details.) 

The right to freedom of association with others includes the right not to have to associate with others. A group of persons that disagrees with the practices of any given NGO is always free to form a separate NGO. 

Under the NGO law, an NGO’s bylaws, to be submitted at registration, must specify the "conditions for acquiring membership" (Article 6.4.) and the NGO must "open the door of membership to anyone" who qualifies (Article 14.2.) or face dissolution leaving little discretion to the founders to choose their fellow activists. 

In the summer of 2006, and again in the summer of 2007, the government also installed its own officials as the temporary management of the General Union of Voluntary Societies (GUVS), and the NGO union’s Amman branch, alleging financial irregularities, in particular donations GUVS made to Palestinian and Lebanese beneficiaries, and proceeds from a raffle. The new NGO law now attempts to subject all NGO income to government approval, although the government has nowhere shown the necessity of doing so. 

Under the new NGO law, a Jordanian NGO would need ministerial approval for funding from non-Jordanians (Article 17.1.), and foreign NGOs in Jordan would require ministerial approval for Jordanian funding (Article 9.c.) If an NGO in Jordan took Jordanian funding "without disclosing it and entering it into the registers," the responsible persons could be fined up to JOD1,000. However, a harsher punishment of at least three months in prison awaits those from NGOs who "kept or used [funding] from non-Jordanian persons without disclosing it or entering it into the registers" (Article 26). 

It is unclear whether the government views Jordanian or non-Jordanian donors as more suspect, but it is obvious that these measures target U.S. – and E.U.-financed domestic human rights NGOs, as well as foreign branches of international human rights and humanitarian NGOs and think tanks. Both groups are amongst the most critical of Jordanian government policies. 

The Assembly Law 

The new Assembly Law makes some improvements over the existing law, but does not restore the freedom of assembly guaranteed before the existing law introduced drastic changes in 2001. Prior to 2001, demonstrations and public gatherings only required notifying the authorities, whereas now, organizers of such events have to obtain advance, written approval from the authorities. 

The draft Assembly Law continues to require prior written approval by the governor in order to hold a public meeting. It has reduced the governor’s response time from three to two days, and considers a lack of response to be an approval. The governor is still not obliged to justify the refusal to grant permission for any gathering, although the law exempts from the requirement to seek permission meetings of NGOs, professional associations, and political parties, among other official bodies, "on condition that these meetings and gatherings are linked to the realization of their objectives and in accordance to the legislations regulating their work and activities" (Article 3.1.). 

The changes to the Assembly Law are unlikely to change the practice of Jordanian governors who regularly deny permission to hold legitimate public demonstrations and retain the power to deny NGOs permission to hold meetings and workshops if they determine them to be outside of the scope of work of the NGO. 

Your Excellency, Jordan should continue to fulfill its promises of reform to better protect the rights of Jordanians to peaceful assembly and free association. The NGO and Assembly laws, as they stand, do not achieve that promise. The NGO law unacceptably restricts the right to free association in violation of Article 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which became law in Jordan on June 15, 2006. Jordanian practice has shown that the new provisions of the Assembly Law will be insufficient to comply with the right to peaceful assembly under Article 21 of the ICCPR. 

Jordan could avoid backsliding in the protection of human rights by keeping its promises of engaging civil society in the process of drafting laws. These laws should protect the independence of NGOs from government while increasing their transparency and allow the free expression of opinions through public assembly while ensuring the safety and security of others. 

We urge you to immediately withdraw these two draft laws and restart an inclusive process of drafting new laws in full compliance with Jordan‘s international human rights obligations. 

Sincerely, 

Sarah Leah Whitson 

Middle East and North Africa Director 

Human Rights Watch 

Cc: 

H.E. Dr. Basim ‘Awwadallh, Head of the Royal Court of His Majesty King Abdullah II 

H.E. Abd al-Hadi al-Majali, President of the Council of Deputies 

H.E. Zaid al-Rifa’i, President of the Council of Senators 

H.E. Hala Latuf, Minister of Social Development 

H.E. Eid al-Fayez, Minister of Interior 

Group of Members of the U.S. Congress, "Friends of Jordan" 

Group of Members of the European Parliament visiting Jordan in April 2008

New York, June 30, 2008

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