The International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) and CIVICUS are calling on the Kyrgyz authorities to withdraw the highly restrictive NGO bill, which was recently introduced, and to ensure that any legislation affecting freedom of association adopted complies with the legislation of the country. international human obligations.

The draft law on NGOs, drawn up by the presidential administration, was submitted for public debate on November 2, 2022 after having been prepared in a seemingly rushed manner, without adequate consultation with experts and representatives of civil society. The bill dramatically increases state control over NGOs, places excessive restrictions on the operations of these organizations and raises concerns that it could be used to target groups working on issues that are sensitive to the authorities.

“This bill mirrors NGO legislation seen in more repressive countries in the post-Soviet region. Going forward with this initiative would seriously jeopardize the freedom of operation of NGOs in Kyrgyzstan and undermine hard-won gains in terms of civil society participation in the country,” said Brigitte Dufour, Director of IPHR . “The Kyrgyz authorities should abandon this thoughtless bill and instead focus on creating an environment in which human rights and other NGOs can carry out their crucial work without hindrance or intimidation.

The introduction of the bill is particularly worrying as it comes against the backdrop of a deteriorating environment for free speech and civic space in Kyrgyzstan. In recent months, the authorities have expanded their campaign against critical voices, including mass arrests and criminal charges against activists, journalists and human rights defenders who have spoken out against the government. Activists and bloggers have also been intimidated and warned over social media posts critical of the government – most recently a senior human rights activist came under pressure.

The draft law requires all NGOs, including branches and representations of foreign NGOs, to register with the authorities in order to operate legally in the country, contrary to the existing legislation which does not require compulsory registration. by the state of these organizations. Already registered NGOs will have to re-register within seven months of the law coming into force; otherwise, they would be liquidated. At the same time, some of the grounds on which NGOs may be refused registration are vaguely worded. For example, applications for registration could be rejected if the NGO’s name is deemed to “offensive” “morality” or “the national and religious feelings of citizens” or – in the case of affiliates of ‘Foreign NGOs’ – if they are considered to ”pose a threat” to ”national unity and identity” or to ”cultural heritage and national interests”. As these terms are not defined by law, authorities would have wide discretion to apply them and potentially use them to deny registration to groups working on minority rights or other sensitive issues.

In addition, the draft law grants broad powers to authorities to monitor NGOs’ compliance not only with national law but also with their statutes, thereby giving state bodies the role of monitoring and evaluating whether NGOs carry out their own mandates “properly”. As part of their oversight functions, state bodies could request access to a range of NGO documents, including banking information; to send representatives to attend all events organized by NGOs; and conduct annual inspections of NGO activities. In this way, they could interfere in the internal affairs of NGOs and possibly put pressure on groups they do not like, in particular by issuing written warnings or threatening them with closure.

Under the bill, authorities could ask the courts to shut down NGOs for even minor violations of national laws; activities considered contrary to their statutes; or “systematic” failures to provide required information. Authorities would not be expected to exhaust other less severe measures before taking this action. These provisions are inconsistent with international human rights standards, according to which forced dissolution of NGOs should only be used as a last resort when necessary and proportionate in response to serious misconduct. Implementing these provisions could lead to arbitrary decisions to close NGOs that challenge public policies and seek accountability for human rights abuses and other misconduct by public officials.

In addition, the bill creates confusion by regulating the activities of “non-commercial non-governmental organizations”, although this term is not used in pre-existing legislation, which only distinguishes between commercial and non-commercial organizations. . Several other provisions of the bill create uncertainty for affected organizations due to their unclear and ambiguous wording. For example, the draft law states that “restrictions” on the types of activities allowed for NGOs, as well as on their income “could be established” by national legislation without providing further information on what these restrictions could be.

The bill contains several discriminatory provisions, in particular provisions that prohibit foreign citizens and stateless persons from acting as founders of NGOs and that impose requirements and obligations on NGOs that do not apply to other types non-commercial or commercial organizations. While the initiators of the bill claim that one of its objectives is to ensure transparency for NGOs, this objective is already achieved by existing legislation, which establishes extensive reporting obligations for non-commercial organisations, in particular by through a controversial new financial reporting system introduced in 2021.

“If passed, the NGO Bill would be a serious blow to Kyrgyzstan’s vibrant civil society. It is worded so broadly that it can easily be used to arbitrarily obstruct the work of organizations that are “thorns in the side” of those in power because they criticize government policies, expose human rights abuses rights or stand up against injustice,” Aarti said. Narse, Civic Space Research Officer at CIVICUS.

As a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the Kyrgyz authorities have an obligation to protect the right to freedom of association in a non-discriminatory manner and to ensure that any restrictions on this law meets strict requirements of necessity. , legality and proportionality. The UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association has stressed that associations should not be required to register in order to carry out their work legally and that registration procedures should be seen as an exercise of notification rather than of request for authorization. from the authorities. Previously registered groups should not be required to re-register under newly passed laws to protect them from arbitrary rejection and any rejection of an application for registration should be clearly reasoned.

States are also required to avoid measures that disproportionately target or burden civil society organizations and to ensure that these groups can carry out their activities without undue state interference. In its recently adopted concluding observations on Kyrgyzstan’s implementation of the ICCPR, the UN Human Rights Committee specifically called on the authorities to ensure that any legislation governing NGOs “does not lead in practice to undue control or interference in the activities of NGOs”. . Authorities should ensure that the involuntary dissolution of NGOs is only used when there is a clear and imminent danger resulting in a flagrant violation of national law and other less drastic measures have proven insufficient.

The bill runs counter to commitments made by the Kyrgyz government ahead of its recent election as a member of the UN Human Rights Council for the 2023-2025 term. As part of its application for membership, the government has specifically committed to building the capacity of civil society in the country. The bill also jeopardizes Kyrgyzstan’s GSP+ status, under which it enjoys generous trade preferences with the EU. In order to maintain this status, Kyrgyzstan is required to effectively implement its obligations under international human rights conventions, including the ICCPR.

The ongoing public consultation on the draft NGO law will last at least one month, in accordance with national legislation. It will then be submitted to parliament for consideration and is expected to come into force on May 1, 2023. The bill has already been harshly criticized by NGO representatives, human rights defenders and lawyers.

The NGO bill was introduced shortly after another problematic media bill, also drafted by the presidential administration. According to media reports, the presidential administration has now agreed to revise the draft media law based on feedback from the media community, as well as submit it to the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission for expertise.

We urge the Kyrgyz authorities to suspend consideration of the draft NGO law in its current form and to ensure that any draft NGO law is drafted in close and effective consultation with representatives of civil society and national experts. The authorities should also call on the Venice Commission, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association to formulate comments from international experts on these bills and to welcome them.