Central Asia: Draft amendments to the legislation regulating the activities of NGOs should guarantee freedom of association

On International Human Rights Day, ARTICLE 19 and our Central Asian partners — International Foundation for Protection of Freedom of Speech (Adil Soz), National Association of Independent Mass Media of Tajikistan (NANSMIT) and Media Policy Institute (MPI) — remind the governments of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan of their obligation to protect the right to freedom of association. This is enshrined in Article 22 of the ICCPR, to which all three states are party. We therefore call on these governments to abandon amendments to their legislation, whether already proposed or currently being drafted, which attempt to restrict how non-governmental organisations (NGOs) operate.

 “NGOs are part of the foundation of civil society. These amendments pose a threat to the very existence of civil society in the region” said David Diaz-Jogeix, Director of Programmes at ARTICLE 19.

Draft law in Kazakhstan

The draft law ‘On amendments and additions to some legal acts related to the activities of non-governmental organisations in the Republic of Kazakhstan’ proposes the creation of a new institution, the ‘Operator’. This will make it impossible for NGOs in Kazakhstan to operate independently.

According to the draft, the Operator, set up by the government, will be responsible for distributing funds to NGOs. Grants from sources other than the Kazakh government will be passed to NGOs in line with a procedure and conditions determined by the Operator.

Giving the government the responsibility of setting up the Operator creates the risk of the institution being closely affiliated with the government. Considering the various means which are currently used to restrict and counter the activities of human rights groups in Kazakhstan, such an institution could be used by the government to control the non-profit sector through its finances. It could enable the government to make it impossible for NGOs that are critical of it to operate in the country.

The draft law also introduces a definition for non-state grants. According to the draft, “non-state grants for non-governmental organisations are funds provided by the Operator as part of its awarding of grants to non-governmental organisations, used to support civil initiatives and increase the capacity of civil society institutions for [their] work in the field of social development in line with the procedure and conditions determined by the Operator for awarding grants from its own funds received from non-state sources.”

This confirms that all funds for the work of NGOs that is provided by sources other than the government of Kazakhstan will be controlled and distributed by the Operator. It also states that funding for NGOs will be limited to the “field of social development”. This will mean that NGOs working on civil and political rights are not eligible to receive grants.

Draft amendments to law in Tajikistan

Draft amendments to the law ‘On public associations’ in Tajikistan also appears to aim to impose a harsher control on how NGOs operate. Under the pretext of combatting terrorism, the draft law imposes the mandatory registration of all grants provided by foreign governments or international organisations. To comply with this requirement, all NGOs will be obliged to register their foreign grants in a ‘Special Journal of Humanitarian Aid’.  

Draft law in Kyrgyzstan

The draft law “On introducing amendments and changes to certain legal acts of the Kyrgyz Republic” proposed by members of Zhogorku Kenesh (the Kyrgyz Parliament) on 26 May 2014 has been widely criticised as discriminatory, targeting foreign-funded non-commercial organisations.

If adopted, this law would stigmatise NGOs that engage in ‘political activities’ and receive funding from international and foreign sources. It would require them to identify themselves and register as ‘foreign agents’. The law would give the government more extensive control over the activities of NGOs, allowing it to suspend them for up to six months.

Our call

We remind the governments of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan that any restrictions on the right to freedom of association should not be overly broad. They should be in line with Article 22 of the ICCPR: that is, they should be:

  • necessary in a democratic society
  • in the interests of national security or public safety, public order, the protection of public health or morals, or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

 The draft laws and amendments in all three countries fail to meet the test for necessity in a democratic society. They also fail to comply with any of the interests (listed above) which justify restrictions.

It is highly probable that the laws and amendments will, if passed, be used to stifle all criticism and alternative views about the human rights situations in these countries. Therefore, we call on these three governments to ensure that any amendments proposed to regulate the activities of nongovernmental organizations are in line with Article 22 of the ICCPR.