Proposed New Law on Associations is a Step Back for Political Pluralism
May 31, 2002
A proposed new law on associations, which passed the Upper House of the Egyptian parliament on May 25, 2002, would, if enacted, deal yet another blow to Egypt’s already beleaguered independent non-governmental organizations. Human Rights First calls on the Egyptian parliament to amend the draft law to strike a better balance between the government’s legitimate interest in ensuring that NGOs operate transparently and the need for NGOs to be free from state control.
A defining quality of non-governmental organizations is precisely that they are not controlled by the government. The proposed new law blurs the important distinction between regulation of organizations — a legitimate state interest — and domination of non-governmental groups that would destroy their independent character. The proposed law is a particular threat to advocacy groups, like human rights organizations, which perform the vital function of exposing official violations of human rights and holding the government accountable to domestic and international law. While this function may not be popular with some government officials, accountability is essential to sound governance and an important element of democracy.
As their name suggests, a basic function of non-governmental organizations is that they should be independent of state authorities. They embody diverse elements within pluralistic societies, meeting the needs and representing the different perspectives of various groups and communities. Some, like human rights monitoring groups, play an important role as watchdogs of government policy and operationalize such abstract concepts as transparency and accountability, thereby contributing to better government.
The proposed new law would perpetuate the Egyptian government’s practice of using the guise of “regulation” to impose restrictive laws governing the functioning of associations, making it virtually impossible for an NGO in Egypt to be both legally registered and independent.
The text of this proposed law is strikingly similar to Law 153 of 1999, a previous attempt by the government to restrict private associations that was struck down by the High Constitutional Court in June 2000. The High Court ruled that the government had violated required procedure by failing to get the text of the law approved by the Consultative Assembly (Magles al-Shura) before its final passage by the People’s Assembly (Magles al-Sha’ab). Although the High Court declined to rule on the substance of the law, it noted that several provisions were unconstitutional. While the government has attempted to cure some of these defects in its new draft of the law, for example, by ensuring that disputes between the authorities and an NGO over a question of registration will be referred to existing administrative courts, the proposal falls far short of international standards regarding the right to freedom of association. If passed as currently drafted, the new law would make it legally impossible for NGOs to operate free from overbearing state interference.
The major problems with the new draft law lie in three main areas: further entrenching a policy of state domination over the non-governmental sector; use of overly broad language; and severe criminal penalties for NGO activists.
State Domination of Non-Governmental Organizations
The most egregious element in the new draft law is the power vested in the Ministry of Social Affairs, an administrative authority, to dissolve an association and seize its assets by administrative order, without first having to obtain a court ruling to permit such drastic action. In this important respect, the proposed new law is even worse than Law 153 of 1999. Although an association would have the right to appeal such an order to an administrative court, such proceedings could be protracted, leaving an association vulnerable to indefinite closure by administrative fiat.
The proposed law retains the state’s power to block nominees for the board of directors of an association by requiring that all candidates for such positions be approved weeks in advance by the Ministry of Social Affairs. Moreover, prior approval from the Ministry is required by NGOs wishing to receive financial support from foreign institutions, or wishing to affiliate with international organizations or coalitions.
Overly Broad Language
The proposed new law retains the prohibition on NGOs “practicing any political or syndicalist activities that are restricted to political parties and trade unions or professional syndicates.” This broad prohibition could be interpreted to bar NGOs from a wide range of legitimate activities that may also be carried out by some trade unions or professional organizations. Such language in the draft law could be exploited to provide a pretext for government officials to obstruct NGOs from carrying out their proper functions. For example, the ability to publicly criticize government policy or a particular government official is an important function of NGO’s in civil society. But such activity could be construed as “political” and therefore illegal under the proposed draft language.
Heavy Criminal Penalties
The proposed new law also exposes NGO activists and leaders to the threat of criminal punishment for exercising their right to freedom of association, as provided for in international human rights treaties to which Egypt is a State Party. Leaders, members and employees of NGOs not registered under the law of association, which includes most of Egypt’s independent human rights groups, would be vulnerable to prosecution simply for carrying out their activities as human rights advocates. Penalties include a fine of 2,000 to 10,000 Egyptian Pounds (approximately $400 to $2,000), and imprisonment for between six months and one year.
The UN Human Rights Defenders Declaration states in Article 5 that to promote and protect human rights “.everyone has the right, individually and in association with others, at the national and international levels: a) To meet and assemble peacefully; b) To form, join and participate in non-governmental organizations, associations or groups; c) To communicate with non-governmental or intergovernmental organizations.” Egypt’s proposed new law on associations places undue obstacles in the path of those wishing to exercise this right, to the detriment of human rights conditions in Egypt, and against the best interests of the Egyptian people who have much to gain from a strong, independent non-governmental sector.
Human Rights First calls on the Egyptian parliament to reject the proposed new law in its current form. Human Rights First calls on lawmakers to exercise their power to review this proposed legislation, and to make changes that address the concerns outlined above. In particular, the parliament should facilitate the participation of NGO representatives in Egypt in the re-drafting of this law that directly affects their status. A consultative process involving a broad cross section of independent NGOs would be conducive to passing a law of associations that complies with international human rights standards. Moreover, such a process would be positive in itself, demonstrating the government’s commitment to the genuine involvement of NGOs in society. An attempt to rush this legislation through the parliament, on the other hand, would show that the government’s intentions tend towards stifling independent non-governmental organizations.
*Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms