Kazakhstan: Civil society organisations face pressure over receiving foreign funding


The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (FIDH-OMCT) and FIDH’s member organisations, the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, ILI Foundation, and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, are concerned over Kazakhstani authorities’ recent publication of a register of 240 civil society organisations and individuals receiving foreign support. The register, released on September 20, appears to be aimed at discrediting foreign support and civil society that receive it, echoing troubling parallels with the so-called foreign agent legislation in Russia. The human rights groups urge the Kazakhstani authorities to cease efforts to stigmatise and harass civil society, and to guarantee freedom of association in Kazakhstan.

Paris-Geneva, September 29, 2023 - On September 20, 2023, the Ministry of Finance of Kazakhstan released a register listing 240 individuals and legal entities receiving support from foreign countries and international and foreign organisations. Among the listed entities are human rights organisations, environmental funds, legal foundations, media outlets, and individual journalists. Among others, the list features two FIDH member organisations, namely the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights, and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee. Concerningly, the list also included personal information on individual journalists, including their personal identification numbers.

Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Finance explained the publication by the need to "increase the level of trust of citizens – both in the state and in non-governmental organisations". The signatory organisations fear, however, that such justifications are merely rhetorical, and that the real intention of the authorities is to discredit and stigmatise the legitimate work of the civil society organisations listed in the register. The publication appears to imply that all foreign funds are automatically suspect.

Following the register’s publication on September 25, 2023, the public association "Echo" had its bank account temporarily frozen. Nurbank, the organisation’s account manager, identified withdrawals of funds from the United States and requested documentation to confirm their designated use.

The register appears amid Kazakhstan’s persistent attempts to harass NGOs over the reception of foreign funding. In December 2015 and July 2016, tax authorities imposed demanding reporting requirements on non-profit organisations receiving foreign funds. In 2020-2021, a dozen local human rights groups were targeted with fines and possible suspension over alleged financial reporting violations. FIDH member organisations, the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and the International Legal Initiative Foundation, faced temporary suspension over minor financial reporting inaccuracies.

Alarmingly, these efforts to curtail the ability of civil society organisations to access foreign funding, and the publication of the list, echo the Russian Federation’s so-called foreign agent legislation and practice. For over a decade, Russian authorities have used the foreign agent legislation to stigmatise, silence, shut down civil society groups, human rights initiatives, independent media and others. The Russian legislation has been criticized by various international entities for infringing upon the freedom of association. Back in 2009, Margaret Sekaggya, former Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, emphasized that the right to freedom of association inherently includes the ability of human rights organisations to seek, receive, and utilise funding. She further highlighted that civil society should have access to foreign funding as a component of international cooperation, on a par with governments.

The Observatory, and FIDH’s member organisations, the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights, ILI Foundation, and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, urge Kazakhstan’s authorities to halt their endeavors to restrict civil society actors from receiving foreign grants and to cease their attempts to discredit organisations that receive such funding. Instead, the signatory organisations call on the authorities to regard civil society initiatives as a resource and to facilitate a strong and vibrant civil society throughout the country.

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