The Consequences of a Repressive NGO Law
Egypt’s draft NGO law has undergone several iterations, the latest of which President Mohamed Morsi submitted to the Shura Council. The law has provoked a significant local and international uproar. Human Rights Watch (HRW), Amnesty International, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights (together with almost 40 other local organizations), and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay are among the many who have spoken out against the law. The US State Department also issued a statement expressing its concern over the law, saying, “The draft law still imposes significant government controls and restrictions on the activities and funding of civic groups, which appear contrary to the right of freedom of association enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Egypt is a party.”
Two significant forms of restriction in the draft law can be seen over stipulations on foreign funding and the reporting of activities to the government. Similar laws have been enacted throughout the world. Is Egypt now following in the footsteps of Ethiopia, Uzbekistan, Russia and Ecuador, all of which have seen significant NGO shutdowns as a result of overly-restrictive laws?
HRW describes the current NGO law draft as “extraordinarily restrictive” when it comes to foreign funding. A ‘coordination committee’ (composed of state security and government ministry officials as well as “civil society representatives”) would be tasked with granting permission to receive foreign funding. The committee has 30 days to respond to a request, and the NGO can appeal a rejection, but by HRW’s estimation, the it is unlikely a court would overturn the decision. Failure to comply with this provision could result in a fine or a court-ordered shutdown. Egypt’s NGO law limits the ability to receive any sort of foreign funding, and 95 percent of all funding for human rights organizations in Egypt comes from abroad, according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
Ethiopia: In 2009, Ethiopia passed a similarly restrictive NGO law, the Proclamation to Provide for the Registration and Regulation of Charities and Societies (CSP), which had a dire effect on civil society organizations (CSO) in the country. While CSO activity in Ethiopia was already somewhat limited in comparison to Egypt, the consequent crackdown could be an indication of what Egypt can expect.
NGOs working in human rights and advocacy in Ethiopia cannot receive more than 10% of their funding from abroad according to the CSP. In late 2012 in Ethiopia, due to provisions in the CSP, Ethiopia’s Charities and Societies Agency was able to shut down ten NGOs, warning over 400 other organizations that they were in violation of the law.
Uzbekistan: The NGO law in Uzbekistan places significant restrictions on foreign funding. Any funding from abroad must be approved by the cabinet. Uzbekistan takes things one step further, requiring that the money is funneled through one of two state-owned banks, who can then decide whether or not to release the funds. NGOs are also required to provide financial reports to the Ministry of Justice.
As a result, Uzbekistan has seen a steady decline in the number of NGOs operating in the country. According to Freedom House, more than 300 local NGOs have been shut down by the government, while the remaining organizations have had to join a government-controlled umbrella group. Through 2006 and 2007 dozens of foreign NGOs saw their offices shut down, their contracts terminated or their members failing to receive accreditation from the government.
Russia: In 2012, Russia passed a law requiring NGOs involved in political activities and that receive foreign funding to register as foreign entities (or ‘foreign agents’) with the Ministry of Justice. More than 500 NGOs working in various fields, including human rights, are currently being investigated for receiving foreign funding. Nikolai Petrov, a political science professor at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow tells the Christian Science Monitor, “No major NGO has agreed to accept the "foreign agent" label, which may well mean that a wave of shutdowns is in the offing.”
Egypt’s draft law stipulates that all NGOs must submit annual reports to the authorities. These reports must include information on finances, internal decisions and activities.
Ecuador: In August 2011, Ecuador shut down 16 NGOs, after they failed to provide the government with reports detailing their activities, budgets and objectives. A law passed a month earlier stipulated that NGOs must provide the government with information on their funding, and how it is spent.
LIMITED POLITICAL ACTIVITY
Egypt’s draft NGO law states that foreign organizations are not allowed to participate in “activities conducted by political parties or those that violate national sovereignty.” As HRW points out the vague terminology leaves the law open to interpretation. As a result, it could be used to crackdown on democracy building activities by NGOs.
Kazakhstan: A similar stipulation is seen in Kazakhstan’s Election Law. In 2005, changes to the law banned “foreigners and foreign NGOs from affecting electoral results or assisting in the promotion or election of candidates.” That same year, Freedom House points out that 30 NGOs faced investigations on charges of funneling “aid money from foreign donors to opposition parties.”
If Egypt’s NGO law is passed, it will push the nation’s civil society organizations into a corner, with human rights organizations likely to feel the first pinch. The examples witnessed in Ethiopia, Uzbekistan, Russia, and Ecuador could materialize given the analogous legal framework. In fact, Egypt is awaiting the verdict in the infamous NGO trial in which 43 non-profit employees face charges of receiving illegal foreign funding. With the defendants facing charges under a less repressive NGO law than the draft currently under consideration, it is more evident than ever how the new law could threaten human rights and democracy organizations. If a guilty verdict is delivered in the NGO trial, it will serve as a warning to other organizations and a foreboding prelude the experiences of NGOs in countries with similar laws.
Photo: Egypt Presidency